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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Letter 27: Jane Austen's Field Observations in the WI-ld at Hurstborne

"Your desiring to hear from me on Sunday will, perhaps, bring you a more particular account of the ball than you may care for, because one is prone to think much more of such things the morning after they happen, than when time has entirely driven them out of one's recollection."

And JA is not kidding, as she then proceeds, in the very next paragraph of Letter 27, to unleash her full, trenchant powers of observation and characterization on the human beast in the wild---providing uncharitable, clinical description of what she observes. I am reminded of Jim Carrey's _Liar, Liar_, when he, who has magically been rendered incapable of lying for 24 hours, is put on the spot at a company meeting by an enemy who knows of his unfortunate "defect"--he proceeds to turn his weakness into a strength by going completely over the top in his criticisms of his work colleagues, pretending he is just joking. JA is a quintessential "sharp poker" in this paragraph.

"It was a pleasant evening; Charles found it remarkably so, but I cannot tell why, unless the absence of Miss Terry, towards whom his conscience reproaches him with being now perfectly indifferent, was a relief to him."

Little brother Charles is 21 at this point, and still 7 years away from marrying, but I wonder if JA's seemingly flip innuendo that Charles has been unkind in love to Miss Terry has a serious real life subtext--it appears that this Miss Terry is the one who much later admires Emma very much, which suggests she was bright and someone JA really did like, and was therefore disappointed that Charles jilted her.

"There were very few beauties, and such as there were were not very handsome."

As I mentioned last week, this is JA's usual comic absurdism.

"...Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck."

No wonder Oscar Wilde was a Janeite, he never surpassed JA's gift for rapier-like aphoristic wit.

"The two Miss Coxes were there: I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad-featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the other is refined into a nice, composed-looking girl, like Catherine Bigg."

JA shows that she has what seems to be total recall of past field observations, as she is able to effortlessly update her internal "files" on a personality, even after a gap of 8 years, and then crystallize her analysis of changes. She also demonstrates an impartiality in rendering her verdicts, telling it like it is, whether that is good news or bad.

The elder Miss Cox (I bet her name was Anne) must have made quite an impression on JA, even based on these infrequent sightings, because she unmistakably has her own special moment in the sun 15 years later, in Chapter 27 of _Emma_:

[Harriet]: "...The Coxes were wondering last night whether [Jane F.] would get into any great family. How did you think the Coxes looked?" [Emma]: "Just as they always do—very vulgar."

"They told me something," said Harriet rather hesitatingly; "but it is nothing of any consequence." Emma was obliged to ask what they had told her, though fearful of its producing Mr. Elton.

"They told me—that Mr. Martin dined with them last Saturday." "Oh!"

"He came to their father upon some business, and he asked him to stay to dinner." "Oh!"

"They talked a great deal about him, especially Anne Cox. I do not know what she meant, but she asked me if I thought I should go and stay there again next summer." "She meant to be impertinently curious, just as such an Anne Cox should be."

"She said he was very agreeable the day he dined there. He sat by her at dinner. Miss Nash thinks either of the Coxes would be very glad to marry him." "Very likely.—I think they are, without exception, the most vulgar girls in Highbury."

The Miss Coxes must not have been neighbors of the Austens, and JA probably was confident that even if by some chance Anne Cox happened to _start_ reading Emma, she would never make it to Volume 2 to read JA's savage little "memorial" to Anne Cox's vulgarity.

"I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys and thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter, and thought her a queer animal with a white neck."

Per the peerage, "Sir Thomas Champneys, 1st Bt. was born...1745.^..He married, firstly, Caroline Anne Cox...1768.......He and Henrietta Minchin obtained a marriage license on 10 December 1801.^....matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford.... created....//1767...He held the office of Sheriff of Somerset between 1775 and 1776. He lived after 1776 at Jamaica."

First, we see that he is related by marriage to the Miss Coxes (Le Faye missed this connection). Second, I infer that the 55 year old baronet was an eligible bachelor in 11/1800, who had recently disappointed the conjugal ambitions of "Rosalie", apparently a friend of the Miss Austens. Third, I see that Sir Thomas was part of a significant West Indies contingent at this ball, consisting not only of him with his Jamaican connection, but see also below....

"Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think, a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She [words omitted in Brabourne edition: "has got rid of some part of her child, and"] danced away with great activity [words omitted in Brabourne edition: "looking by no means very large"]. Her husband is ugly enough, uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so /very/ old."

Le Faye's Index reveals that Mrs. Warren was nee Jane Maitland, and therefore was a granddaughter of the austere General Mathew, and the maternal first cousin of Anna Austen Lefroy. Le Faye also reveals that Mrs. Warren gave birth in March 1801, meaning that she was about halfway through her pregnancy at the time of this ball. So JA is once again ragging on pregnancy, raising the macabre image of a "partial" miscarriage. What is for sure is that JA did not like these people!

"The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish, very like Anne, with brown skins, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose. The General has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice. "

And here is the rest of the West Indies party, the two unmarried sisters of Mrs. Warren, along with their mother and their grandfather, each receiving their own personal put-down. I also have always read this passage to show that either General Mathew or his wife, or both of them, were of mixed racial descent, as would not be surprising in the case of a Creole family.

"Miss Debary, Susan, and Sally, all in black, but without any stature, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as circumstances [Unexpurgated original: "their bad breath"] would allow me."

And JA saved the best (or the worst) for last.

Cheers, ARNIE

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