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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Letter 43: Undercurrents of Scandal and Nostalgia, and Subtle Allusions

Letter 43 is written over a period of 4 days from April 8-11, 1805, and overall, life in the Austen family seems to me to have normalized a great deal during the 3 months after the death of Revd. Austen.

"Here is a day for you! Did Bath or Ibthrop ever see a finer 8th of April?-It is March & April together, the _glare_ of one & the warmth of the other."

So JA wrote here of the glare of Bath 11 years before she immortalized that perception in Persuasion: "...Anne, though dreading the possible heats of September in all the white _glare_ of Bath..."

And that passing allusion to Letter 43 in Persuasion seems to be expanded significantly a little bit later in Letter 43:

"This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback.-Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy's performance!-What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one's skin, & every feeling of one's mind."

See the following link to my friend Linda Robinson Walker's (Persuasions Online) article about Jane Austen & Tom Lefroy, and some echoes of their relationship in Persuasion (the novel), which includes my small contribution (see fn 4) about this very passage in Letter 43 and its connection to Persuasion:

And here is a reminder of at least one major real life source for Mrs. Bennet:

"We were out again last night; Miss Irvine invited us, when I met her in the Crescent, to drink tea with them, but I rather declined it, having no idea that my Mother would be disposed for another Evening visit there so soon; but when I gave her the message I found her very well inclined to go"

LIke Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Austen had her unpredictable moods and irritabilities, which were apparently hard even for Jane to read reliably. And surely Mrs. Austen's already pronounced tendencies in this regard were exacerbated tenfold in the aftermath of her husband's death. So when Mrs. Bennet delivers the following bitter philippic....

"...But I tell you, Miss Lizzy—if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all—and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead. I shall not be able to keep you—and so I warn you. I have done with you from this very day. I told you in the library, you know, that I should never speak to you again, and you will find me as good as my word. I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children. Not that I have much pleasure, indeed, in talking to anybody. People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking. Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied."

...JA was perhaps quoting her own mother, who knew exactly what it was like to be left, with two unmarried daughters, in dire risk of homelessness after the death of a spouse.

" we went into the field, & passed close by Stephen Terry and Miss Seymer again.-I have not yet seen her face, but neither her dress nor air have anything of the Dash or Stilishness which the Browns talked of; quite the contrary indeed, her dress is not even smart, & her appearance very quiet. Miss Irvine says she is never speaking a word. Poor Wretch, I am afraid she is en Penitence."

This makes me wonder what Miss Seymer's shadowy misdeed was, "which the Brown talked of", and for which JA jokes she might have been "en Penitence" for. I note that she married Stephen Terry (the elder brother of Michael Terry, to whom Anna Austen was briefly engaged a decade later, before marrying Ben Lefroy) in 1805, so perhaps the Browns were purveying some prudish gossip about Miss Seymer perhaps jumping the gun, romantically speaking, with Stephen Terry?

"Here has been that excellent Mrs. Coulthard calling, while my Mother was out & I was beleived to be so; I always respected her as a good-hearted, friendly woman"

For all her own enormous genius and sophistication, JA's heart was always responsive to the salt of the earth. And I wonder if part of JA's respect for Mrs. Coulthard has anything to do with the following Bio Index factoid in Le Faye's Letters:

" 1802, a Chawton village girl, Sarah Andrews, had her illegitimate child baptized Thomas-Coulthard."

What Le Faye leaves as the obvious implication is that Thomas Coulthard (the husband of Mrs. Coulthard) had already been married to Mrs. Coulthard for many years in 1802 when he was betrayed by an accident, so to speak.

"And the Brownes have been here; I find their affidavits on the Table."

And what legal matter is this? This is 3 months after Revd. Austen's death, my guess is that these affidavits are part of the probate process for the disposition of Revd. Austen's assets. My own experience as a lawyer handling probates suggests to me that the affidavits would have been to the effect that, to the best of the Brownes's knowledge, all debts of Revd. Austen had been fully disclosed and paid. So the Brownes were close enough friends to the Austen family both to share gossip with the Austens, and also to lend some kindly assistance to facilitate Revd. Austen's probate.

"...I expect to hear from Edward tomorrow...How happy they are at Godmersham now!"

I wonder what happy occasion at Godmersham JA is alluding to here? It can't be a birth of another child, as Louisa Knight had been born about 6 months earlier to Elizabeth Knight. Perhaps it was a child born to Mrs. Deedes (sister of Elizabeth Knight)?

"This is nice weather for Mrs** J. Austen's going to Speen, & I hope she will have a pleasant visit there. I expect a prodigious account of the Christening dinner"

At first I thought this was a reference to the birth of Caroline Austen, but then I saw that she was born in June 1805. Then I realized that it must have been a christening of a grandchild of the recently widowed Mrs. Craven whom I wrote about in connection with Letter 38, who went to live at Speen Hill in 1804, and about whom JA worried as to her finances some years afterwards:

"...If there is no revival, suffering must be all over; even the consciousness of Existence I suppose was gone when you wrote. The Nonsense I have been writing in this and in my last letter, seems out of place at such a time; but I will not mind it, it will do you no harm, & nobody else will be attacked by it."

And there we have a pretty clear statement of JA's guiding principle in speaking freely, which she often does, in her letters---I would summarize it as "no harm, no foul".

"The Children are not come, so that poor Mrs Buller is away from all that can constitute enjoyment with her.-I shall be glad to be of any use to her, but she has that sort of quiet composedness of mind which always seems sufficient to itself."

Again, JA's compassionate instinct toward women who bear unavoidable hardship with grace. I believe that her outrage response only arose when that hardship was avoidable and was caused by the unconcern of others (especially men).

Cheers, ARNIE

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