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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Letter 21: Jane Austen the Itch Witch

Ellen Moody responded in Austen L to some of my comments as follows:

[Ellen] "The next paragraph again aligns them with John and Fanny Dashwood: it seems that Elizabeth was at first not keen to that Edward accepted Mr Evelyn's invitation (I see from the notes this family included high officers of a county, sheriffs and the like), but when Evelyn called, she liked his manners. IS this not Fanny Dashwood approving of Lady Middleton? So "The Biggs would call her a nice woman" is code for dull and boring and snobbish? But alas, "Mr Evelyn .. indisposed yesterday, is worse today & we are put off." Again we are in the world of Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. The Austens are the eager ones chasing after others."

Yes to all of that, Ellen, nicely put. But it is important to be explicit about the cast of characters in the transposition from real life to fiction. Elizabeth Elliot represents Elizabeth Austen, a phony snob born to money but without intellectual accomplishment, in contrast to Anne Elliot who of course represents JA, who is a bemused observer of the absurd pretensions of the rest of her family, particularly those of Edward and his wife, but also of JA's own mother, who goes along with the program of empty pretense when in the presence of wealth.

If you read ahead to Letter 22, you see that Mr. Evelyn is the prototype of John Thorpe, interested only in horses, pushing Edward Austen to buy a new horse. So JA herself, after 5 minutes in his company, is surely _not_ lusting after this man's company thereafter.

[Ellen] "Edward wants this for breakfast. (The big man.)"

Yup, JA _never_ misses a chance to toss a zinger in Edward's direction.

[Ellen] "Back to Jane's puzzle over why Cassandra wants them to stay in Bath. What could be going on in Hamsphire beyond the "Itch" from which Cassandra wants to keep them....I also found time to read through some of Arnie's postings -- made curious by what was the Biblical allusion. I don't see an allusion to the Bible and suggest that if by "itch" Arnie is suggesting some sexual double entendre which violates sexual taboos, it's not probable since such talk would make Cassandra very angry. On "impurities" though -- yes"

Ellen, you need to take it all as a totality. What makes the Biblical allusion come alive is the _combination_ of "impurities", "altar" and the strong echo of "the itch which" from that Deuteronomy passage, it is beyond the realm of coincidence when you find all of these Biblical terms all focused on one person--Mary Austen. And the deal is sealed by the way the Biblical allusion fits thematically with JA's feelings about Mary Austen, the butt of this sophisticated Biblical raillery. What better way to skewer a moralizing prig--as I imagine Mary Austen to have been--who was negligent of Anna Austen, Mary's young stepdaughter, whom JA and CEA loved dearly. And now Mary has her own biological child, who is getting _all_ the attention and love, at the expense of Anna. And so it makes perfect psychological sense that JA, angered by all of this but powerless to do anything about it, would lash out in the one place it was safe to do so, in her letters to CEA. The spark that ignites the flame of sarcasm comes when JA is given the task of buying a veil for Mary while at Bath--a veil being another object with significant Biblical overtones--both positive and negative. It does not surprise me in the slightest that JA would effortlessly conjure up a darkly satirical spin on the punitive aspects of the Bible, and to paint a veiled portrait of her unbeloved sister in law as an adulteress, and her baby therefore as illegitimate. It is the one privilege of a powerless young spinster like JA that cannot be taken away from her--the privilege to mock those with real power. JA was a benign witch, casting her literary curses at those who had earned them.

I think that CEA was very ambivalent about JA's often wicked and even sacrilegious sense of humor--CEA could not help but laugh, even as she shook her head disapprovingly--and part of what won her over in the end was that JA was mocking those who deserved to be mocked--Mary Austen, Edward & Elizabeth Austen--the hypocrites, the narcissists, the snobs. JA was no Emma, she did not ridicule the Miss Bateses of her world in a cruel way, she reserved her sarcasm for those who were powerful, and who exercised that power in selfish, hypocritical, and/or snobbish ways.

CEA was timid and ultra-careful herself, but my sense is that she agreed with many of JA's moral judgments of the people in their lives, and so derived a strange sort of vicarious release from JA putting into words what they both were thinking, even if she herself would never voice those feelings herself.

Cheers, ARNIE

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