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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Letter 39: No Ice In Weymouth……or Highbury (and Uncle Toby's Annuity)

Letter 39, dated Sept. 14, 1804, marks the first surviving JA letter after the longest gap between surviving letters that exists between 1796 and 1817—over 3 years! And we find JA in Sept. 1804 apparently on holiday in Lyme, in what appears to me to be an upbeat mood, full of playful invention.

It seems to me that JA often sought to begin her letters with some witty conceit, and Letter 39 is a particularly fine example. JA has been in Lyme with her mother (and also her father, or is he with CEA?) for at least a week (perhaps a trip during which she took notes for what would 12 years later emerge as a chunk of _Persuasion_?), while CEA is in Andover after having recently spent some time in Weymouth. So both of them have apparently been taking advantage of separate travel opportunities, and JA does not waste any time having some major fun with her favorite pasttime— finding “great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not _her_ own”:

“Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which STRIKES me so forcibly as there being NO ICE in the town. For every other VEXATION I was in some measure prepared, and particularly for your DISAPPOINTMENT in not seeing the Royal Family go on board on Tuesday, having already heard from Mr. Crawford that he had seen you in the very act of being too late, but for there being NO ICE what could prepare me? Weymouth is altogether a SHOCKING place, I perceive, without RECOMMENDATION of any kind, & worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester. I am really very glad that we did not go there, & that Henry & Eliza saw nothing in it to make them feel differently.”

Here we have the assumed voice, and opinions, of a stupid, selfish snob, & of course my first association was therefore to Mrs. Elton. And that turned out to be a _very_ fertile association, because word searches quickly confirmed that the above-quoted mock philippic in Letter 39 contains the “seeds” of not one but _four_ of Mrs. Elton’s memorable declamations, using _all_ of those same _seven_ capitalized words in exactly the same phony way. Note also that all of Mrs E’s speeches are, like JA’s comments about Weymouth (which of course is a crucial location in _Emma_ as well), about _places_--Maple Grove, Bath, and Highbury--as to which Mrs. Elton is not shy in opining as to their relative merits. I now offer you those four speeches in a row for your cumulative reading pleasure:

Ch. 30 The very first subject after being seated was Maple Grove, "My brother Mr. Suckling's seat;"—a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove. The grounds of Hartfield were small, but neat and pretty; and the house was modern and well-built. Mrs. Elton seemed most favourably impressed by the size of the room, the entrance, and all that she could see or imagine. "Very like Maple Grove indeed!—She was quite STRUCK by the likeness!—That room was the very shape and size of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sister's favourite room."—Mr. Elton was appealed to.—"Was not it astonishingly like?—She could really almost fancy herself at Maple Grove."

32: "Ah! that's a great pity; for I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, where the waters do agree, it is quite wonderful the relief they give. In my Bath life, I have seen such instances of it! And it is so cheerful a place, that it could not fail of being of use to Mr. Woodhouse's spirits, which, I understand, are sometimes much depressed. And as to its RECOMMENDATIONS to you, I fancy I need not take much pains to dwell on them. The advantages of Bath to the young are pretty generally understood. It would be a charming introduction for you, who have lived so secluded a life; and I could immediately secure you some of the best society in the place. A line from me would bring you a little host of acquaintance; and my particular friend, Mrs. Partridge, the lady I have always resided with when in Bath, would be most happy to shew you any attentions, and would be the very person for you to go into public with."

34 No invitation came amiss to her. Her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners. She was a little SHOCKED at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at rout-cakes, and there being NO ICE in the Highbury card parties.

42 "Is not this most VEXATIOUS, Knightley?" she cried.—"And such weather for exploring!—These delays and DISAPPOINTMENTS are quite odious. What are we to do?—The year will wear away at this rate, and nothing done. Before this time last year I assure you we had had a delightful exploring party from Maple Grove to Kings Weston."

And…what ties the bond even closer between Mrs. Elton and Letter 39 is the following passage a bit later in Letter 39, which connects to Mrs. Elton’s very specific complaint about the lack of ice at “card parties”:

“My mother had her pool of commerce each night & divided the first with Le Chevalier, who was lucky enough to divide the other with somebody else. I hope he will always win enough to empower him to treat himself with so great an indulgence as cards must be to him.”

So this tells us that JA germinated the “seeds” of some of her most memorable satirical characterizations over more than a decade before bringing them to full flower in published print in her novels. How amazing it is to find Mrs. Elton boasting her head off in Letter 39 written in 1804, when JA (supposedly) was not writing fiction—I claim that she was _always_ working on her fiction, even (no, especially) when writing her letters!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. I leave you with two related factoids, which I just gleaned from the archives of Janeites:

First, in December, 2000, a piece entitled “No Ice in Weymouth” aired on BBC radio, which was “A portrait of the family, social and professional world of Jane Austen, as seen through her letters and novels, devised by Vanessa Rosenthal”.

And second, Del Claude, a long time member of Janeites and creator of a very valuable subject index for JA’s letters, wrote the following in 2003: “in 'A Jane Austen Household Book' by Peggy Hickman (p.17) it is reported-:The very rich, if they owned large houses and estates, constructed ice houses...; brick structures covered with soil; the ice was from winter ponds and lakes.
Possibly a business offered ice for sale to other businesses in Weymouth for drinks and frozen desserts.”

P.P.S: Here is the link to my 2 posts a few months ago explaining JA’s reference to “an Uncle Toby’s annuity” later in Letter 39:

1 comment:

bingo said...

This is great, thanks for the information! Have you read all of JA's letters? Sounds like a fun exercise. Wonder if it's a captivating enough exercise for the average reader.

Keep up the great work!