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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 20: I have never seen an old woman at the pump-room

"I am obliged to you for two letters, one from yourself and the other from Mary, for of the latter I knew nothing till on the receipt of yours yesterday, when the pigeon-basket was examined, and I received my due."

It is possible that JA is just making this little incident up in order to begin her letter with a little bit of humor, but if it is factual, then I see two tiny mysteries: (i) why does the house the Austens/Knights have rented for their Bath stay include a pigeon basket? and (ii) why would a letter be left (by the mailman?) in a pigeon basket? Something is fishy here, ladies and gentlemen....

"I will lay out all the little judgment I have in endeavouring to get such stockings for Anna as she will approve..."

Not surprising to me that JA makes sure to buy dear little Anna (age 6) some stockings---is "the little judgment" a reference to money?

"What must I tell you of Edward? Truth or falsehood. I will try the former, and you may choose for yourself another time. "

Always, always, a distinct note of irony about Edward.

"He was better yesterday than he had been for two or three days before -- about as well as while he was at Steventon. He drinks at the Hetling Pump, is to bathe to-morrow, and try electricity on Tuesday. He proposed the latter himself to Dr. Fellowes, who made no objection to it, but I fancy we are all unanimous in expecting no advantage from it. At present I have no great notion of our staying here beyond the month."

So it is Edward's hypochondria (remember, this guy is all of 31 as Letter 20 is being written) that is the butt of JA's sarcasm--he is his mother's son, that's for sure, and I have also sensed that Edward is one of the real life models for Mr. Woodhouse, a man old beyond his years. And I also gather that the primary, if not exclusive, purpose of the trip in the first place was for Edward to sample this cornucopia of cures at Bath.

"My cloak is come home. I like it very much, and can now exclaim with delight, like J. Bond at hay-harvest, "This is what I have been looking for these three years." "

And I like it very much that JA is thinking affectionately of John Bond, who sounds like salt of the earth.

"There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers', but I have never seen any of them in hats."

JA never wastes an opportunity to ridicule absurdity, in this case the fashion for fruity hats!

"I have never seen an old woman at the pump-room."

And amidst this light banter about fruity hats, suddenly this thunderbolt abruptly flashes across the page!---as if the ghost of Miss Bates, who surely was never at the pump-room, makes a cameo appearance. It shows me that the plight of women, especially single old women, was never far from JA's mind!

" Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself! But I must write no more of this. . ."

A joke that is not a joke--we know that JA has been working hard during the previous year on both Northanger Abbey and First Impressions (and perhaps also on Elinor and Marianne), and it is my central claim about JA that she was working hard at developing the skill of _not_ giving clear explanations for what she writes, precisely because she wants to leave plenty of room for alternative interpretations as the need arises. And she really must write no more of this, because it is a secret.

"I spent Friday evening with the Mapletons, and was obliged to submit to being pleased in spite of my inclination. We took a very charming walk from six to eight up Beacon Hill, and across some fields...Marianne is sensible and intelligent....."

And here we have our first acquaintance with Marianne Mapleton, who I believe was a model for Eleanor Tilney, and who meets a tragic end in Letters 36 & 37...

"We had a Miss North and a Mr. Gould of our party; the latter walked home with me after tea. He is a very young man, just entered Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that "Evelina" was written by Dr. Johnson."

Why do I have the feeling that JA did not choose to enlighten Mr. Gould as to his error? And why am I certain that Mr. Gould was a model for John Thorpe, who also attends Oxford and says some equally stupid things about Fanny Burney.

"I do not know that I shall execute Martha's commission at all, for I am not fond of ordering shoes; and, at any rate, they shall all have flat heels.....I am afraid I cannot undertake to carry Martha's shoes home, for, though we have plenty of room in our trunks when we came, we shall have many more things to take back, and I must allow besides for /my/ packing."

But...I am equally certain that this silliness about Martha's shoes is all teasing, a reflection of the close and loving friendship between Martha and Jane.

"...even the concert will have more than its usual charm for me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound. "

Oh, that's cold!

"I am quite pleased with Martha and Mrs. Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our caps, but I am not so well pleased with your giving it to them. Some wish, some prevailing wish, is necessary to the animation of everybody's mind, and in gratifying this you leave them to form some other which will not probably be half so innocent."

And of course JA will end Letter 20 as she began it, with clever raillery, spiced with a pinch of sexual innuendo, for good measure.

"My uncle is quite surprised at my hearing from you so often; but as long as we can keep the frequency of our correspondence from Martha's uncle we will not fear our own."

But then JA is in such a high satirical mood that she cannot resist adding a final zinger about the comments of a foolish (and also perhaps jealous) old man, who feels threatened by any evidence of women actually having close friendships in which they write about male foibles and other subversive subjects!

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...


Nancy Mayer: "Never seen an old woman at Bath? When that was the place the old women went to live? She can't mean this literally/ Perhaps the old women there all refuse to admit to being old women ?Perhaps drinking the waters makes them look young? "

Nancy, I tip my hat to you, you are 100% correct, and I was wrong, JA's irony flew right by me there, despite my always being on the lookout for it.

"the old women there all refuse to admit to being old women" must be exactly what JA meant!

Mrs. Allen is very much like this, very vain, and very much enjoying the attentions of young men like Henry Tilney.

And some things never change, and are not gender-specific. Sir Walter of course is as vain about looking young as any person on the planet, and in real life, my own father(whose name serendipitously, happens to be Walter, too!) is 92, and he is just like his Austenian namesake and Mrs. Allen, he hates to think of himself as being as old as he actually is, and loves to be told that he looks much younger! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE