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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 18, 2011

Letter 21: A Dismal Ride of it....which one can't wonder at SOMEHOW.....

Letter 21 is turning out to be a veritable La Brea Tar Pits of hidden meaning, and I am still only in the second paragraph:

"Edward has been pretty well for this last week, and as the waters have never disagreed with him in any respect, we are inclined to hope that he will derive advantage from them in the end. Everybody encourages us in this expectation, for they all say that the effect of the waters cannot be negative, and many are the instances in which their benefit is felt afterwards more than on the spot. He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be, and so is Elizabeth, though they will both, I believe, be very glad to get away-the latter especially, which one can't wonder at somehow. So much for Mrs. Piozzi. I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her style, but I believe I shall not."

So we return to the topic from Letter 20 of Edward Austen (not yet Knight) taking the Bath waters. Aside from factual reportage of the uncertain effects of this treatment, this at first seems straightforward and unironic. However, there a distinctive edge in ""He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be"---which sounds exactly like the way JA, in Letter 20, wrote about her mother's suddenly and mysteriously having the strength to climb stairs. Is it any wonder that JA could so vividly capture neurotic hypochondria so well in Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mary Elliot?

I am even more intrigued by "the latter especially, which one can't wonder at somehow". It seems clear to me that this is a continuation of the following passage in Letter 19, written nearly four weeks earlier, describing the trip _to_ Bath:

"Poor Elizabeth has had a dismal ride of it from Devizes, for it has rained almost all the way, and our first view of Bath has been just as gloomy as it was last November twelvemonth."

And so I continue to take this as veiled references to Elizabeth being in the early stages of yet _another_ pregnancy, while coping with a full nursery already. Edward's hypochondria turns from irritating quirk to tremendously selfish cluelesssness, when we consider that when he thinks he feels bad (remember he is a 33 year old man who wound up living till a very ripe old age!), he uproots his wife and drags her to Bath for a month in search of relief from his symptoms, even as she suffers _real_ physical distress caused entirely by Edward making her pregnant, virtually continuously, for over 6 years! She has pretty much never known what it feels like to be married and _not_ pregnant! And that renders even the seemingly unironic description of Edward's condition ironic as well--by giving the hypochondria several lines, before touching on Elizabeth's condition almost in passing, JA is pointing out that this is the way the conversation goes in the rented premises at Bath--it's all about Edward, no room to consider Elizabeth!

What I hear here is the same moral computations that we see in JA's famous letter to Martha Lloyd about Princess Caroline--which is that JA is not a particularly big fan of the Princess and her blundering indiscretions, but her guilt is mitigated by the fact that she is married to the biggest jerk in the entire kingdom who has treated her abominably. (any echoes of Emma are entirely intentional!). Similarly, I think that JA and Elizabeth Austen were hardly a mutual admiration society, and yet, JA could have compassion for her unlikable snobbish not very well educated sister in law, because of what she had to put up with as wife of the "Prince" of the Austen family--Edward!

That's what that very "pregnant" "somehow" means, I claim.

And what's most tantalizing is that "So much for Mrs. Piozzi"---before writing this message, I knew quite little about Mrs. Piozzi's (aka Thrale's) letters or other writings, but I just had a very strong feeling of dissatisfaction with McMasters/Copeland's suggestion that it was the gossipy tone of those first few paragraphs that JA was suggesting to be an emulation of Mrs. Piozzi . Knowing JA as the trickster she was, and knowing how much meaning JA could pack into a single underlined word--in this case "somehow"----I was certain that there was a good deal more to it than that.

And, given that JA had just made a veiled reference to Elizabeth Austen's succession of Groundhog Days of morning sickness, my guess was that JA must have had in mind comments by Piozzi in a similar vein.

So I Googled "Piozzi childbirth" and look what I found:

"[Mrs. Thrale's journals manuscript] was begun 17 September 1766 and continued until the close of 1778. It is very much a record of the domestic life of the Thrales, containing an emotional and often painful account of Thrale's frequent [thirteen] pregnancies, the illnesses of her children, and the deaths of eight of her children before even attaining youth."

Like I said......

I can't even imagine what other wonders await in the _rest_ of Letter 21--JA is in rare form!

Cheers, ARNIE

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