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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 37: Marianne Mapleton was no more

In Janeites and Austen L, Diane Reynolds just wrote a very interesting comment about the following passage in Jane Austen's Letter 37:

"My aunt has a very bad cough -- do not forget to have heard about that when you come -- and I think she is deafer than ever. My mother's cold disordered her for some days, but she seems now very well. Her resolution as to remaining here begins to give way a little; she will not like being left behind, and will be glad to compound matters with her enraged family. You will be sorry to hear that Marianne Mapleton's disorder has ended fatally. She was believed out of danger on Sunday, but a sudden relapse carried her off the next day. So affectionate a family must suffer severely; and many a girl on early death has been praised into an angel, I believe, on slighter pretensions to beauty, sense, and merit than Marianne."

Here is Diane's sharp insight:

"Then a grouping of comments about illnesses--don't forget "my aunt has a very bad cough"--this circumstance, obviously peripheral to JA, is of central importance to the Aunt--it is what everyone is supposed to be keeping at the forefront of their minds! A comment about the aunt's deafness-is this noting that she is literally deaf or less and less liable to hear what she doesn't want to? Then her mother's cold juxtaposed with the death of Marianne Mapleton--is the juxtaposition ironically purposeful--I would say so. Then worry about having to endure a torrent of hypocrisy about Marianne--having a normal human elevated to an "angel" after death--we still see that today when a child dies. I imagine JA is sensitive enough to the death to be disturbed by Mapleton being reduced to a stupid cliche. "

And I now respond, that is indeed the primary point of that consecutive parade of female heath bulletins! I had noticed the sucking up to Aunt Leigh Perrot, but I completely missed the connection to the other two. The selfish hypochondria of JA's aunt and mother, who are 57 and 61, respectively (and both of whom wind up living into their eighties) is indeed the prelude to the report of the final fatal illness of a very young woman. And Diane's insight leads to another, which connects Letter 37 to JA's fiction:

First, I claim that JA remembers writing the following in Letter 37 in 1801....

"You will be sorry to hear that Marianne Mapleton's disorder has ended fatally; she was beleived out of danger on Sunday, but a sudden relapse carried her off the next day.--So affectionate a family must suffer severely; &***many a girl on early death has been praised into an Angel I beleive, on slighter pretensions to Beauty, Sense & Merit* than Marianne."

...when she writes the following in _Emma_ in 1815:

"Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more. "

Letter 37 reports what happened in real life---the two selfish old hypochondriacs complained loudly and then lived long lives, while the young woman (whom JA genuinely esteemed and then quietly mourned) suddenly died, to a chorus of pious hyperbolic mournings.

Note that _Emma_ _reverses_ the cruel and unfair reality---the selfish old hypochondriac (ironically) is the one who suddenly dies, whereas the young sickly woman (Jane Fairfax) suddenly and surprisingly recovers fully. Think about what this says about how JA felt about her aunt _and_ her mother.

And as to the hypocritical cant and stupid cliches of mourning you so aptly point to, Diane, are they not given _full_ vent and expression in the passage in _Emma_ that follows the report of Mrs. Churchill's death?

"Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints. "Poor Mrs. Churchill! no doubt she had been suffering a great deal: more than any body had ever supposed—and continual pain would try the temper. It was a sad event—a great shock—with all her faults, what would Mr. Churchill do without her? Mr. Churchill's loss would be dreadful indeed. Mr. Churchill would never get over it."—Even Mr. Weston shook his head, and looked solemn, and said, "Ah! poor woman, who would have thought it!" and resolved, that his mourning should be as handsome as possible; and his wife sat sighing and moralising over her broad hems with a commiseration and good sense, true and steady. How it would affect Frank was among the earliest thoughts of both. It was also a very early speculation with Emma. The character of Mrs. Churchill, the grief of her husband—her mind glanced over them both with awe and compassion—and then rested with lightened feelings on how Frank might be affected by the event, how benefited, how freed." END QUOTE

So the reversal is complete--now the cliches have been transferred to the death of a selfish old hypochondriac, where they belong, if they belong anywhere.

And Emma's mind is the perfect medium to portray this hypocrisy. Emma devotes about 30 seconds to thinking earnest, mournful thoughts about Mrs. Churchill, joined by the pious nonsense of Mr. Weston (who hated his sister in law for decades)--and even Mrs. Weston's "moralising over her broad hems" is gently mocked---but then, after paying mental lip service to mourning for those 30 seconds, Emma immediately starts scheming and matchmaking again.

It seems to me that JA was the proverbial elephant--she never forgot these incidents that occurred during her passage through real life, and she found a way to transmute them into the pure gold of her fictions, making her unique and irreplaceable perspective on such events permanently memorable for the entire world of Janeites. We reading Letter 37 might in time forget this little vignette about Aunt Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Austen, and Marianne Mapleton, but the world will never forget Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

And I conclude with Exhibit 157 of the total falseness of the claim by HTA, JEAL, and others from the Austen family propaganda machine that JA did not write her fictions about real people.

Cheers, ARNIE

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