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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Actual Meaning of the cryptic reference to Benjamin Portal in Jane Austen's Letter 21...and in her Letter 1, too!

This post comes in two parts, the first written by me in a rush, the second my followup after a positive response in Janeites, all as shown below:


When we discussed Jane Austen's Letter 21 over a month ago, the following excerpt....

"Benjamin Portal is here. How charming that is! I do not exactly know why, but the phrase followed so naturally that I could not help putting it down. My mother saw him the other day, but without making herself known to him."

....was discussed briefly by Diane Reynolds in Janeites & Austen L:

"...This also seems to be her way of expressing approval of Portal. Or is it a pun on a "portal" being there--that she likes that idea?..."

I now respond to Diane that, in light of what I've recently figured out in terms of Edward Ferrars as a satirical representation of Benjamin Portal, I think I have an answer to her question which she (and I also hope all of you reading along now) might find persuasive.

The key, as is often the case in interpreting cryptic passages in JA's letters, is to look at the context, i.e., what came right before or right after, the cryptic passage.

Well, look at what came right before, which, to the best of my knowledge, no one has previously connected to the Portal reference, followed by the Portal reference:

"...As for " Fitzalbini," when I get home [Martha] shall have it, as soon as ever she will own that Mr. Elliott is handsomer than Mr. Lance, that fair men are preferable to black; for I mean to take every opportunity of rooting out her prejudices.

"Benjamin Portal is here. How charming that is! I do not exactly know why, but the phrase followed so naturally that I could not help putting it down. My mother saw him the other day, but without making herself known to him."

"The phrase followed so naturally..." but, we must ask, followed what?

Well, when you think about it, it's obvious. What it followed was a passage in which JA had _just_ teasingly written about playing matchmaker for Martha Lloyd, trying to convince Martha that the "fair" Mr. Elliott...--- [per Le Faye, the Revd. William Elliott, two years older than JA, curate of Tangley, Hants since 1796, and friend of Revd. William Lance of [I am NOT making this up!] NETHERTON] ---- ...was handsomer than the "black" Mr. Lance [a married man whom, along with his wife, JA will in 1807 describe as money snobs in Letter 49 [P. 115 of Le Faye].

So, the clear implication--and JA is pretty much saying, "Hint, hint" to make sure CEA gets what JA means without JA having to be explicit about it---is that, just as JA has attempted to get Martha to see how attractive the very eligible Mr. Elliott is, so too JA is now trying to get _Cassandra_ to realize how attractive Revd. Benjamin Portal is!

Why would JA do this? Because, I claim, while Benjamin Portal might not exactly be JA's cup of tea when it came to men, JA was, like Charlotte Lucas, pragmatic and savvy enough to recognize that Portal might be a very good fit indeed with her own sister, who was so different from her. Charlotte tells Lizzy not to be a fool and dismiss the attentions of the ultra-eligible Mr. Darcy, and in a way, JA is, in this letter, suggesting something similar to CEA.

Which, to me, shows that JA was not narcissistic, because she would have, for the sake of her sister, have tolerated having a brother in law whom she herself did not find particularly impressive. Which is exactly how I believe Marianne Dashwood felt about her sister marrying Edward Ferrars.

And, now that I think about it, another puzzle piece falls neatly into place---that's _also_ why JA wrote the following about Benjamin Portal way back in Letter 1, in 1796:

"We had a visit yesterday morning from Mr. Benjamin Portal, whose eyes are as handsome as ever. Everybody is extremely anxious for your return, but as you cannot come home by the Ashe ball, I am glad that I have not fed them with false hopes."

Nobody has ever realized before that "everybody" means.....Mr. Benjamin Portal!!! JA is once more saying, writing between the lines once again, that Portal is the one who is interested in CEA (who happens, by the way, to be exactly the same age as Portal). And _that's_ why JA, in both Letter 1 (at a time when anyone reading the letter can see that JA is focused on only one man--Tom Lefroy) _and_ in Letter 21, 4 years later, praises Benjamin Portal's good looks. Not because JA is attracted to him herself, but because she wants CEA to be attracted to him!!

JA is being part Charlotte Lucas, part Emma, but, apparently, CEA never rose to her sister's challenge, or else Benjamin Portal just wasn't interested in CEA.

All of which puts the kibosh, I suggest, on any notion that JA herself was interested in Benjamin Portal.


Diane Reynolds then responded in Janeites to Part One, above, as follows:

"Yes, Arnie, you make a persuasive case that JA was "matchmaking" or at least encouraging, Cassandra and Mr. Portal."

Thanks, Diane! As soon as I sent that message, I realized I had been in
such a rush that I did not do my normal followup on such a catch, which I
have now done, and I have found a great deal more to support my claim:

First, there is one other scholar who did realize JA was hinting at
something about Revd. Portal, and that was the ever alert David Nokes, who
wrote the following in his Austen bio after quoting that very line:

"That was a pretty broad hint to Cassandra, with whom she had often shared
coy remarks on the Reverend Portal's handsome eyes."

However, Nokes did not realize that these were more than playful jokes
about Portal, they had a very specific purpose, and the focus was not on
JA at all, but on CEA!

Which leads to my second additional point, which is that there is much
additional raillery later in Letter 21, which, I now see, also pertains to
CEA and Revd. Portal!

To wit: last month, I went through a bit of Biblical exegesis to explain
the meaning of another cryptic passage a little later in Letter 21:

" 'On more accounts than one you wished our stay here to be lengthened
beyond last Thursday.' There is some mystery in this. What have you
going on in Hampshire besides the itch_ from which you want to keep us?"

In addition to that Biblical subtext pertaining to Mary Lloyd Austen,
which I still hold to, I also now see that passage, pertaining to the mock
mystery of why CEA chooses to stay in Hampshire, as a playful extension of
JA's earlier teasing about Revd. Portal.

I.e., why is CEA hiding in Hampshire when she might somehow have joined JA
& Co. in Bath where Revd. Portal and his handsome eyes also was,
presumably sighing out Sundays (and other days as well) in longing for

And there's more in Letter 21 that is also explained by my interpretation.

Read the following excerpts from Letter 21 with my claim in mind, and tell
me if you don't see them as a continuation of JA's relentless teasing and
hinting about Revd. Portal:

"I do not know what is the matter with me to-day, but I cannot write
quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other.
Fortunately I have nothing very particular to say."

Translation: CEA, don't be dull and dense, _think_ about why I keep
hinting at something, why I keep making these strange exclamations and
then immediately questioning my own meaning----and figure out what is the
_something_ very particular I am trying to say to you (in Lydia Bennet
fashion) in "lines under the words"? There's a reason why the narrator
tells us that Lydia wrote this way to Kitty....

..and partly that is because it a reflection that JA was Lydia, and CEA
Kitty, in real life. Lydia wrote from a gay excursion to Brighton to poor
Kitty stuck at home, and here we have JA writing to CEA from a gay
excursion to Bath, to poor CEA stuck in dull little Overton.

And here is one more in Letter 21:

"We walked to Weston one evening last week, and liked it very much. Liked
what very much? Weston? No, walking to Weston. I have not expressed myself
properly, but I hope you will understand me."

Again, JA adopts a mock Socratic style, pushing CEA to realize that JA is
saying something important to CEA in code, and JA worries that she has
"not expressed [her coded message] properly, but [JA hopes CEA] will
understand [JA."

So these lines are not about JA as author, but JA as matchmaking sister!

Cheers, ARNIE

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