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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Letter 22: The Wetness of the Wafers, the Littleness of the Clues, and Suspicion of the Truth

A Janeite friend who read my post yesterday....

[speculating about the mystery of what Jane Austen meant when she wrote about "the wetness of the wafers" (i.e., dried glue) which closed the letters from Cassandra to Edward's small children taken along on the trip to Bath]

....came up with a very ingenious explanation for the meaning behind JA's reference to "the wetness of the wafers" which never occurred to me, and which I will share with you now:

"I am wondering if Cassandra did not send individual letters to the children but to save money posted all of them in one package, Jane may have separated them out and put on wafers which were then still moist when Fanny received her letter. If the wafers had been put on by Cassandra they could not still be moist or there would be a danger that the letters would come open. "

Spurred by my friend's very clever suggestion, I immediately took it one logical step further, as I responded to her as follows:

"I would only suggest one further possibility, that fits really well with the JA I know---i.e., that the letters to the children were really written by JA in the first place! Why? Because we know that postage costs were almost always an issue for CEA and JA, and I think it was based on weight, as it is today, so that it would have been cost prohibitive for CEA to include additional letters to the children [especially if the letters were adult-length, which of course would have been especially pleasing to the children]. And little kids would never have been able to notice that JA was simulating CEA's handwriting, and no adult present would have blown JA's cover (it would have been like telling kids today that there's no Santa)."

In other words, it would have been easy to pull off, and a completely harmless deception of the children, because done for the sole purpose of giving them joy they would never know was manufactured out of thin air by a loving aunt. Plus, the children would have been spared several days of waiting for the actual post to arrive!

To which my friend replied:

"Actually your suggestion - that JA wrote the letters herself also occurred to me. And so she was actually warning CA know that she should expect the kids to write and thank her for the letters."

"Yes!" is my reply, indeed it would rather spoil the whole thing if Aunt Cassandra drew a blank upon the return of the children to Godmersham bubbling over with thanks for their special letters from Aunt Cassandra!

And, for now, that is the explanation that works best for me, in particular because I think JA applied that same principle of stage-managing her readers's reality in writing her novels, too! I.e., I have found that many readers of JA's novels express some surprise, from time to time, at small details they spot in the novels which don't quite fit their conception of what is supposed to be happening at a given moment in the story, but...I have also noticed that this almost always does _not_ "lead to any suspicion of the truth."

One other relevant point. In my first reply to my friend, I had also written, "I now imagine how crazy some other Janeites must think I am, to even ask this question in the first place!"

To which my friend wrote this lovely and very apt reply:

"I dont think that anything is too little to examine for clues. "

And I could not agree more with that statement, indeed, I have often found that solving clues which have seemed most trivial and tiny have sometimes been the portal to major transformative insights. And I think this little tale of "The Wetness of the Wafers" is a perfect example of that, and also of the synergistic power of group discussions like those we have in these groups.

As I freely acknowledged to the JASNA Chapter in Atlanta when I addressed the group 9 days ago, I seriously doubt that I would ever have come up with my shadow story interpretations of JA's novels (and now also Shakespeare's plays, and some other authors's novels as well) if not for my participation in the Janeites group from 2000 onward. It took 2 1/2 years of give and take for the first spark to ignite in my mind in July 2002, and it's been a wild ride ever since. So I will be eternally grateful to Nancy for her wise stewardship of Janeites.

Cheers, ARNIE

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