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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Walker's 2004 Persuasions Online article "Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at 7?" and Austen's PTSD at being Uprooted from Steventon

The other day in Janeites and Austen L, I posted the following link to one of my favorite Austen related articles, Linda Robinson Walker’s "Why Was JA Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question" :

Christy Somer responded with the argument that Walker had a subtle agenda to manipulate the reality behind the universally acknowledged fact that Jane Austen was sent away from home at age 7, and that prompted the following strong response from me:

I recommend a full reading of the article, linked above, to demonstrate how meticulous and empirical Linda actually was in documenting her argument. I assert that her only agenda was to find elusive truth buried under two centuries of biographical distortions caused by romanticizing and normalizing gauze.

Here is the full text of Linda's conclusion, as to which I previously only quoted the last sentence:

"By logic alone, we know that Jane Austen had an unhappy childhood. If her home life was happy, then she was exiled from it for three years; if her home life wasn’t happy, then it’s doubtful her childhood was either. By her own writing we know she often turned to thoughts of the unhappiness of a daughter exiled from home.It was also one of her earliest themes.Upon returning home just before her eleventh birthday, she took up her pen to write the witty confections that make up “Volume the First.”"Henry and Eliza” is one of her earliest pieces.Dedicated to Jane Cooper, whose mother died of the fever the three girls caught at Mrs. Cawley’s school in Southampton in 1783, it was written between 1787 and 1790 (Austen 1), possibly 1788 (Le Faye 64).Jane Cooper, the oldest of the three suffering cousins at the school, was the one with the courage or guile to call for their rescue. “Henry and Eliza” tells the story of a baby girl whose mother hid her in a Haycock because she dreaded her husband’s “just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished” (Austen 39).Kicked out from her home for stealing from her father, the now young woman enjoys many improbable adventures typical of Austen’s juvenilia. Eventually, alone with two young charges, Eliza is imprisoned by an evil widow.With mock heroics, she leads herself and the two helpless children to freedom.After their escape, she “raised an Army, with which she entirely demolished the Dutchess’s Newgate, snug as it was, and by that act, gained the Blessings of thousands & the Applause of her own Heart” (39).But not before she had been reunited with her parents and “returned to that home from which she had been absent nearly four years” (39). Because her books have given us great joy, we long to find joy in Jane Austen’s life.It is thin on the ground.We do her greater honor by looking unflinchingly at the facts of her life and trying to recreate it as it unfolded, rather than writing it as we wish it had been." END QUOTE

To which I add two words which speak additional volumes in exactly the same vein: FANNY PRICE.

I.e.,if for some reason a Janeite wished to discount the darkness in "Henry and Eliza" as excesses of childish imagination nurtured by reading too many Gothic novels, it would still be necessary to explain why JA, twenty five years later, writing as a mature and published novelist, chooses to portray, in her first novel _started after_ the death of her father, we have as the heroine a girl who suffers enormous emotional trauma over a period of years after being transplanted from her birth home. And add to this that the primary (and domineering) paternal figure in that fictional girl's life just happens to have a plantation in Antigua, just as the real life Revd. Austen acted as a trustee of land in Antigua (of all places) during JA's early childhood. And of course, also, the many parallels between the Mansfield Park and Steventon amateur theatricals.

The connections of JA's fiction to her childhood experience could not, in my opinion, be clearer. An agenda to manipulate would involve a distortion of facts away from their plain meaning. That is not the case in Walker's article, quite the contrary.

Then, Nancy Mayer responded to my response with a variety of short rebuttals all pertaining to Mansfield Park, which I answered as follows:

[Nancy] "These stories and incidents don't prove that Jane Austen's childhood was unhappy. She, no doubt, had unhappy patches as a child. Most of us do. All that can be speculated by the coincidence of life and writing is that Jane Austen used elements and emotions in her life in her fiction."

"Unhappy patches" does not accurately describe a girl almost dying, suddenly, while "in exile" at age 7, and then being rescued home from an inadequate stranger-caregiver--a fairer description would be "very traumatic and frightening event".

And you are, I would suggest, begging the most important question, which is why JA chose to depict _those particular_ elements and emotions (exile, emotional trauma) in fictions written by her over a span of an entire quarter century, and making emotional trauma the central theme of one of her long novels.

And I would be the first to point out that there were lots of _positive_ aspects of her real life that she also (obviously) depicted in her fiction, most of all the deep love, mutual respect and commitment between two sisters. Neither Linda Walker nor I nor anyone else is suggesting that any Austen scholar taking note of all those positives had some "agenda" to paint an overly rosy picture of sisterly relationships. And that is all the more reason to pay close attention, and to give full acknowledgment, to the _negative_ echoes, because JA demonstrates a _balance_ in the way she depicted her family in her fiction. Distortion only arises when one side of that equation is suppressed. I claim that Walker's article is part of the worthy project to bring to the light of day the negatives that have been actively suppressed and avoided for two centuries.

[Nancy] "Other authors who had never left the comfort of home wrote of abandoned and orphaned children."

First, I suspect that few of those authors had idyllic childhoods. But second and more important, each author would need to be looked at to seek the truth with respect to that author, as to what might have motivated them to write such characters and situations. Perhaps some wrote purely out of empathic imagination for the plight of others that they themselves did not experience.

But when you have a writer, like JA, who we know for a fact _did_ suffer parallel traumas in her real life childhood, it would be a kind of wilful blindness not to take adequate notice of them.

[Nancy] "We don't actually have any of fanny's thoughts on her circumstances, except that she missed William and cried. No discussion or awareness in the novel that Fanny felt bereft of her parents. The only one she is ever said to miss is William. "

Young Fanny's emotional traumas had a complex pattern, and many of them centered around the way she was treated at Mansfield Park, more than her exile from Portsmouth. And....note finally that Sir Thomas is only too willing to give the 18 year old Fanny the opportunity to experience a bit of PTSD when he exiles her _back_ to Portsmouth. He's all heart, isn't he?

And that is a bit chilling, when we think about Sir Thomas as being, at least in part, a representation of Reverend Austen. And that suddenly makes me connect the dots to something which I (joined by a few others) have been saying the past two months about the drumbeat in these letters written from the time JA first learned that she was being uprooted from Steventon, until she finds herself settled in Bath. The common theme is exile against one's will, and now I see clearly that there is a very good additional reason why JA seems so angry and upset about the move to Bath--it's because this is, for her, deja vu all over again, she is reliving the same feelings that may have overwhelmed her at age 7.

And that would be a very good explanation for why her alter ego Fanny Price undergoes two exiles, too--one at age 8, the other at age 18.

[Nancy] "But Mansfield Park wasn't her first novel . Susan ( to become NA), Lady Susan, Marianne and Elinor ( Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions ( Pride and Prejudice) all came before it. This looks like cherry picking incidents to make her child hood unhappy. There is no more reason to think MP was autobiographical than P & P. "

But, as I said in my previous message, MP _was_ her first novel begun _after_ her father's death. So it would, logically, be the one that would focus on her complaints against her _father_, as opposed to, say, S&S, which, as I and others have argued, seems to focus on her complaints against her _brothers_ James and Edward.

JA's grasp of psychology was far ahead of her time, and it was based, I believe, on both her own intuitive genius, but also on extensive reading of the nonfiction writings of great thinkers like Hume, Locke, and Smith, but also of great fictions like Shakespeare's (which themselves are informed by _his_ astounding psychological penetration and insight into the unconscious)

Cheers, ARNIE

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