Just as Letter 20 began with the little vignette about Mary Austen's letter and the Pigeon Basket which we discussed last week.....
"I am obliged to you for two letters, one from Yourself & the other from Mary, for of the latter I knew nothing till on the receipt of yours yesterday, when the Pigeon Basket was examined & I received my due.-As I have written to her since the time which ought to have brought me her's, I suppose she will consider herself as I chuse to consider her, still in my debt.-I will lay out all the little Judgement I have in endeavouring to get such stockings for Anna as she will approve..."
....so, too, Letter 21 begins with _another_ reference to James Austen's family:
"Your letter yesterday made me very happy. I am heartily glad that you have escaped any share in the impurities of Deane...."
What could this mean? And why would Jame's wife be the "headline" of two consecutive letters?
At first I was utterly mystified by the phrase "Impurities of Deane"--was it referring to an infectious fever? No, that was unthinkable, that JA would so blithely celebrate CEA avoiding dangerous illness, without a care for a potentially dangerous illness already afflicting James's young family. But what else could it mean?
So first I turned to Google for help, but a quick search revealed absolutely _no_ online-accessible commentary on this passage by any scholar or biographer.
And then, in my usual obsessive way, I next checked to see if JA had ever used any variant of the word "impurity" in any of her fiction, or elsewhere in her letters. That yielded only one "hit", but it was the jackpot! It is the following well known exchange between Lizzy and Aunt Gardiner, which most careful readers of P&P will instantly recognize:
"My dear aunt, how could you think of it? Mr. Darcy may perhaps have _heard_//of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from _its impurities_, were he once to enter it ; and depend upon it, Mr. Bingley never stirs without him."
I immediately recalled, with happy excitement, all the unmistakable echoes of Pride & Prejudice (and NA) in the Rowling series of letters we discussed during previous months of this group read, and realized this must be yet another one--so this strongly suggests to me that JA still has P&P very much on her mind (and surely in her quill pen) in June 1799!
And, just as I have previously claimed that the echoes between P&P and NA, on the one hand, and the 1798-9 letters written while composing the earliest versions of those novels, are thematic, so too is this one. That comic turn in P&P turns out to be the key to unlocking the mystery of the "impurities" described in the first sentence of Letter 21. In that passage from P&P, we have Lizzy's mockingly hyperbolic send-up of Darcy's snobbery toward the _social_ impurities of those beneath him on the social scale. Of course, JA is _not_ making a similarly snobbish commentary on the Deane parsonage.
But Darcy's social snobbery is not what is driving this echo. The key parallel inheres in the notion of a place where, _for whatever reason_, justified or snobbish, a given person would never be caught dead, given a choice! Here is the _entire_ first paragraph of Letter 21, the context of which makes it clear that JA is saying, in so many words, that the Dean Parsonage is the _last_ place in the world where CEA would want to pay a visit, and JA therefore rejoices in CEA having somehow ducked the duty to go there:
""Your letter yesterday made me very happy. I am heartily glad that you have escaped any share in the impurities of Deane, and not sorry, as it turns out, that our stay here has been lengthened. I feel tolerably secure of our getting away next week, though it is certainly possible that we may remain till Thursday the 27th. I wonder what we shall do with all our intended visits this summer! I should like to make a compromise with Adlestrop, Harden, and Bookham, that Martha's spending the summer at Steventon should be considered as our respective visits to them all. "
JA is not only glad for CEA to have avoided a visit to Deane, she is also glad for herself to be held over in Bath long enough to also be unavailable to visit Deane. And then, unable to repress her absurdist bent, her imagination leaps from CEA avoiding a single visit with Mary Lloyd, to CEA _and_ JA both avoiding _all_ dreaded duties of visitation for an entire summer---Adlestrop (the home of members of JA's mother's family), Harden (later, Harpsden--the awful Edward Cooper's then curacy), and Bookham (the Cookes).
And now i see why no previous commentator has written about this passage---I suspect I am not the first to understand this passage, but that some biographers/scholars---Le Faye above all---have understood JA's rather hostile innuendo about various and sundry family and friends of the Austen, and would rather _not_ bring this sort of thing to the attention of Janeites, so as not to tarnish the (truly absurd, yet oddly persistent) notion that JA was always--or even often-- dutiful, reticent, and obliging to everybody.
And there's more...As I reread that opening salvo in Letter 21, I also understood what I had failed to understand last week about the opening of Letter 20, i.e., that JA concocted that little (faux) conceit about Mary's letter lying unnoticed for a day or two in the Pigeon Basket (archaic term for a mail box) until JA receives CEA's letter, so as to be able to declare Mary in _debt_ to JA for failure to send JA a quid pro quo for JA's letter to Mary, and then to "cash in" that "debt" for money that JA will promptly sign back to Mary _if_ Mary will lay out the money necessary to buy Anna some stockings.
What I _now_ see in that passage is very thinly veiled anger toward Mary Lloyd Austen, reflecting, I am guessing, JA's fear/awareness that 6-year old Anna is getting left out in the cold, in terms of expense of money for creature comforts, in favor of Mary's own biological child, the 6 month old James Edward Austen (not yet Leigh). And I also think that the idea I tossed out last week, about pigeon poop getting on letters, was _not_ offbase after all, but is a reflection of what JA actually thinks Mary's letters are good for, i.e., to sit unread for a few days while serving a useful fuction as lining for a birdcage, to accumulate bird poop on it!
What a wicked wicked wicked sense of humor JA had!
P.S.: Before I sent this message, I checked the archives of Janeites and Austen L, to see if any of the above had ever been discussed there, and I saw something I myself had written 2 1/2 years ago about that passage in P&P which I had forgotten:
"In reference to that specific phrase "a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities", I merely point you back to one of the tidbits I included in my message to Janeites, about the medieval Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, that was discovered in 2002 in the Jewish area near Cheapside in London. I was not aware that it was part of Anglican religious practice to engage in monthly ablutions to cleanse away moral impurities, and so I think you'll agree that this is a rather curious metaphor for Lizzy to conjure at that moment? ;)"
But, much as I would enjoy it if were so, even I do _not_ mean to suggest that there is some hidden reference to Jewish ritual baths at the Deane parsonage in Letter 21!
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Monday, April 18, 2011
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