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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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

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

Diana, in light of your brilliant connection of Fanny’s intense homesickness to JA’s,now I will return the favor to _you_, by glossing what you wrote in March re: Letter 14 (12/18/98), which contains the above line. At that earlier time, you responded to Ellen and Christy as follows:

“Ellen writes "My father reads Cowper to us in the evening, to which I listen when I can." I wondered what got in the way? Did someone talk at her and she couldn't shut them up? did she have some kind of "duty" she was supposed to be attending to?And Christy speculated that she was writing. But I read this somewhat differently. Why would her father read Cowper, JA's favorite poet, at exactly the time when Jane was writing or doing other duties and couldn't be there? My guess is that what she means by "to which I listen when I can," is that she didn't like his reading. She cared about Cowper so much that herfather's wrong interpretation or intonation bothered her (remember how she painfully disliked her mother's reading of Pride and Prejudice which was "too fast?").”

You then let Ellen talk you out of your interpretation, but now I claim that you were more correct than not in your view then—more specifically, you were correct in JA’s disapproval of her father’s reading, but not because his father recited Cowper poorly, but instead that he was hypocritical to be reciting Cowper at all! Why? Because the Tirocinium was Cowper’s paean to homeschooling, whereas Revd. Austen had banished his most promising student (i.e., JA) not once but twice before she was 11 years old! And little did JA suspect in Dec. 1798 that her father would make that a trifecta, when he moved her to Bath a year later! No wonder Fanny Price recites that particular verse from Cowper while in exile in Portsmouth!

So what goes around comes around, with synergy and serendipity, in these groups, as follows:

Diane asks about JA almost dying------I cite Linda Walker’s article, and then I extend her claim that JA felt exiled as a child to JA’s feeling exiled to Bath -----You connect JA’s feeling exiled during her life to Fanny Price’s quotation from Cowper’s Tirocinium -----I now provide a fresh interpretation of JA’s “listen[ing] when [she] can.”

When inquisitive minds share questions and insights, and keep all intellectual options open, it often leads to a breakthrough in understanding that no single participant could achieve alone.

What I also find noteworthy in this particular instance is that the allusion to Cowper’s Tirocinium in Fanny Price’s thoughts was not one one that had lain undetected for 200 years. This allusion has been recognized for as long as MP has been read, but it has never been understood, until Diana’s post, as having autobiographical significance for its author! Before I conclude, here is a cook’s tour of the prior scholarship about this Cowper allusion, it is revealing.

Most Austen scholars who have discussed that allusion have simply seen it as an example of Fanny Price’s (and also, by extension, Jane Austen’s) sharing with Cowper a love of nature and/or his abolitionism. This is not an incorrect reading, because surely JA and Fanny did share those two stances with Cowper. But it is so superficial. Most have paid no attention at all to JA’s choosing that particular quotation from among all of Cowper’s output. Fanny does not recall a line about nature or slavery, she thinks about exile.

Now for those few scholars who’ve looked more closely:.

In 1975, John Halperin actually does discern that the Tironicium is “a long harangue in heroic couplets denouncing the practice of sending children off to boarding schools at an age at which homesickness is inevitable”, but then he immediately abandons that insight and moves on to a Cowper quotation in Sanditon, which he sees as JA connecting “her own obscurity and that of Cowper’s virtuous but uncelebrated cottager.”Halperin does not realize, ironically, that the Tironicium allusion in MP is _also_ autobiographical, because he has apparently never read JA’s letters closely enough to recognize the autobiography in the theme of exile.

In 1986, Joseph Litvak cavalierly dismisses Fanny’s mental quotation only as evidence that she is “bookishly formulaic…she is most herself when she is quoting someone else,” and winds up hoisting himself on his own petard, as it is he who has been blind!

In 1999, David Selwyn writes: “There is a touching realism in the image…There are reasons to suppose that JA was acquainted with the sad facts of Cowper’s melancholy existence from two biographies that appeared in 1803; and this gives added poignancy to her heroines’ references.” So, Selwyn sees veiled Cowperian biography, but not veiled autobiography, in Fanny’s quotation. And he even connects Fanny’s quotation to JA’s comment about her father reading Cowper, but… he gets that part as wrong as he possibly can, because he ascribes to Revd. Austen a pleasure in reading aloud Cowper’s condemnation of Revd. Austen’s own educational practices in not one but _two_ ways!Whereas, correctly interpreted, Revd. Austen is _doubly_ at fault according to Cowper, both for taking sons away from being educated at home by their own fathers, _and_ also for sending his own _daughters_ away from home where _he_ should have been teaching them!

The one Austen scholar to come closest before Diana is Emily Auerbach a few years ago when she writes:

“Austen uses another Cowper allusion to describe Fanny’s desire to return to MP: “No longer content just to quote Cowper verbatim, Fanny now has enlarged Cowper’s vision to include women. Cowper’s “Tirocinium; or a Review of Schools’ refers exclusively to a school/boy’s /homesickness….Austen has Fanny substitute ‘she’ and ‘her’ in Cowper’s original line..and she claims the right to yearn as keenly as any schoolboy…in MP the only philosophizing, wondering being is Fanny. The only time Cowper mentions women in “Tirocinium’ is for the sake of a disparaging analogy:

Boys, once on fire with that contentious zeal, Feel all the rage that female rivals feel; The prize of beauty in a woman's eyes Not brighter than in theirs the scholar's prize.

Refuting this suggestion that boys strive for learning while girls value looks, Austen offers…Fanny [Price]” END QUOTE

So Auerbach was spot-on and brilliant in noticing how JA rewrote Cowper to remove his sexism, but… she failed to realize that Fanny Price was not the only female JA had in mind in her quotation, it was also JA herself.

And perhaps someone reading this message will extend the chain of insight another step further?

Cheers, ARNIE

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