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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jane Austen on a Satirical Roll in Letter 14 (including Revd. Austen's Reading Cowper Aloud)

Apropos my claim that “My father reads Cowper to us in the morning, to which I listen when I can” is satirical, I just checked back to its full context in Letter 14, and it is consistent with my claim, as being one in a series of _seven_ satirical comments. Here they are, in order as they appear:

FIRST: “Charles Powlett has been very ill, but is getting well again. His wife is discovered to be everything that the neighbourhood could wish her, silly and cross as well as extravagant.”

Obviously satirical, and as witty as one of Mr. Bennet’s wicked bon mots.
“Earle Harwood and his friend Mr. Bailey came to Deane yesterday, but are not to stay above a day or two. Earle has got the appointment to a prison ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having, and he and his wife are to live on board for the future.”

That is actually the only one that appears straightforward, although at first I suspected a joke in the idea of Earl and Mrs. Harwood choosing to live on board a prison ship, but apparently this was a sincere report. But from here on in, it’s satire all the way down!

SECOND: “We dine now at half-past three, and have done dinner, I suppose, before you begin. We drink tea at half-past six. I am afraid you will despise us.”

Obviously JA is not sincere in fearing CEA will despise the Austens—but what I also detect behind this witticism, beyond its being playfully absurd, is perhaps the first in JA’s long epistolary history of potshots at the snobbery of the rich folks at Godmersham. If I am not mistaken, Edward and Elizabeth had only recently taken up residence there, and perhaps therefore CEA was there on her _first_ visit_ …as an unpaid nanny. So JA is already mocking the pretensions of that societally elevated neighborhood, and also specifically those of Edward’s wife Elizabeth, and suggesting that CEA, under the “refining” influence of Godmersham (exactly like what happens with Fanny Price when she returns to Portsmouth and is appalled at its squalor), has already come to despise the coarse rustic habits of the Hampshire Austens.
And that’s the precise instant when JA drops in her comment about her father’s reading Cowper aloud, which I claim is a potshot at him, which _also_ connects, via Cowper’s Tirocinium, to Fanny Price yearning for home!

THIRD: “My father reads Cowper to us in the morning, to which I listen when I can.”

And then the satirical comedy continues without a breath being taken:

FOURTH: “How do you spend your evenings? I guess that Elizabeth works, that you read to her, and that Edward goes to sleep.”

At a minimum, I get a distinct whiff of Elizabeth Bennet chatting with the Bingley sisters, with Mr. Hurst (who of course is the husband of one of them) snoring in the corner. But this spare, satirical portrait of night life at Godmersham also suggests to me a harbinger of premature Mr. Woodhouse-ism in Edward, which also fits perfectly with Edward’s lifelong hypochondria (recall that he lives to the very ripe old age of 85, more than doubling JA’s own tragically short life span.

And speaking of _another_ lifelong Austen hypochondriac who ends up living to a very ripe old age (88), is that not the perfect segue to JA’s old reliable satirical target, Mrs. Austen (who resembles Mrs. Bennet at this moment)?:

FIFTH: “My mother continues hearty; her appetite and nights are very good, but she complains of an asthma, a dropsy, water in her chest, and a liver disorder.”

And here, I found this morning, the footprint of Diana as well, with the following comment made in March, 2011 (right before Diana’s insightful comments about Revd. Austen and Cowper, which I quoted in my previous post):

[Diana]: …in this terrific description, I read tongue-in-cheek satire. I don't think I've ever been quite sure before if JA is mocking her mother's hypochondria, or if she even thinks it *is* hypochondria. She always seems to write about her mother's ailments solemnly, but with just that edge to the solemnity that might be ever so slightly satiric. What I get from this particular passage is that whatever Mrs. Austen's ailments are, JA feels she talks and complains about them too much….Here, JA first clearly establishes that their mother is unusually well, hearty with good appetite and sleep. So the inference is certainly that all those drastic and dramatic ailments that her mother puts voice to, are - imaginary! And it's pretty well implied that JA thinks her mother's pronouncement about her Bowels is a tad unnecessary.”

To which I only add “Amen!” and then move on to…

SIXTH: “The third Miss Irish Lefroy is going to be married to a Mr. Courteney, but whether James or Charles I do not know.”

Per Le Faye, it was actually a Captain _Thomas_ Courtenay who married Sarah Lefroy, but it’s clear that JA is making a sly joke about the Stuart dynasty, by attributing to a young Irishman the Christian name of the first _four_ Stuart kings (which also happen to be the Christian names of two of JA’s brothers)?

And finally, the last in this series…

SEVENTH: “Miss Lyford is gone into Suffolk with her brother & Miss Lodge. Everybody is now busy in making up an income for the two latter. Miss Lodge has only 8ooL of her own, and it is not supposed that her father can give her much; therefore the good offices of the neighbourhood will be highly acceptable. John Lyford means to take pupils.”

I am not 100% sure, but I think it pretty likely that there is irony in the suggestion that “the neighbourhood” will chip in somehow in order to make up sufficient income to allow Miss Lyford’s brother to marry Miss Lodge. What JA could not possibly have anticipated, however, was that tragedy lurked around the corner for this couple—they did marry in April 1799, but then the new husband died less than two months later! And JA also could not have anticipated that a cousin of that unfortunate John Lyford would be the physician attending JA in her final illness in Winchester.

So, you see, the bit about Revd. Austen was embedded squarely in the middle of six other consecutive satirical tidbits, with only one serious factoid tossed in early on. JA was, in that section of Letter 14, on a satirical roll, and that, I claim, supports the interpretation of the “Cowper” reference as also being satirical and not straightforward.

Cheers, ARNIE

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