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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Letter 44 Highlights: The Unwelcome Mrs. Stent, James Austen “Man of Letters”, & Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s “offer” Which Jane Austen CAN Refuse

Jane Austen's Letter 44, written in April 1805, is rich in characteristic Austenian irony and sarcasm, all reflecting her anger and dismay at important aspects of her life at that moment in time:

“Poor Mrs Stent! it has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs Stents ourselves, unequal to anything & unwelcome to everybody.”

My comment on this passage consists of two words, to be repeated aloud three times: Miss Bates, Miss Bates, Miss Bates! (at which point, as with Beetlejuice, you are transported to another world of wonder!)

“James may not be a Man of Business, but as a " Man of Letters " he is certainly very useful; he affords you a most convenient communication with the Newbury Post.”

Oh, that is so cold! Brother James, the literary poseur, thought of himself as a “Man of Letters”, and that is why JA puts this phrase in quotes---she cuts him down to size, because her witty reframe of “Man of Letters” demonstrates that James may have thought of himself as a man learned in literature, but JA saw him as having utility only as a man who delivers her mail for her! The sarcasm fairly drips off the page!

And the sarcasm has, in the words of Karen Carpenter, only just begun:

“…on my head I wore my crape & flowers, but I do not think it looked particularly well.-My Aunt is in a great hurry to pay me for my Cap, but cannot find in her heart to give me good money. "If I have any intention of going to the Grand Sydney-Garden Breakfast, if there is any party I wish to join, Perrot will take out a ticket for me." Such an offer I shall of course decline; & all the service she will render me therefore, is to put it out of my power to go at all, whatever may occur to make it desirable.- “

Here is the usual Austenian sarcasm reserved for another of her favorite familial hypocrites, Aunt Leigh Perrot—JA’s mocking quotation of her Aunt’s talking the talk when it comes to generosity, but not walking the walk in any way that really matters—Aunt Leigh Perrot was rather like Aunt Norris, wasn’t she?

What I hear here is that it sticks in JA’s craw to accept _any_ of her (secretly) detested Aunt’s “generous” offers of trivial gifts, even to the point of losing out on an event that JA might well wish to attend. The Aunt must have made a big show of fake generosity about trivial things, even while leaving the Austen women to twist slowly in the wind for nearly 4 years after the death of Revd. Austen. Oh, how JA must have hated that heartless debased piece of work who happened, alas, to be her Aunt!

And JA has yet a bit more of sarcasm to vent before she can relax and turn to more pleasant subjects:

“I have not expressly enumerated myself among the party, but there I was, & my cousin George was very kind & talked sense to me every now & then in the intervals of his more animated fooleries with Miss Bendish, who is very young & rather handsome, & whose gracious manners, ready wit, & solid remarks put me somewhat in mind of my old acquaintance Lucy Lefroy.-There was a monstrous deal of stupid quizzing, & common-place nonsense talked, but scarcely any wit;-all that border'd on it, or on sense came from my Cousin George, whom altogether I like very well. -Mr Bendish seems nothing more than a tall Young man.”

“Thy _ready wit_ the word will soon supply…”—So here we have Miss Bendish a prototype of Harriet Smith (at least, the way Harriet Smith presented herself to Emma), and the satire is accentuated by JA adopting the voice of a barely literate young fool who would, like John Thorpe, refer to “a monstrous deal of stupid quizzing”. And what a putdown of Mr. Bendish--his sole distinguishing personal characteristic is his height, which implies that he has no personality worthy of notice!

And here we have the bookend to the sarcasm about Aunt Leigh Perrot, and seeing themselves in Mrs. Stent—JA and CEA have clearly been talking to Martha Lloyd ever since the advent of her mother’s final illness, as they must find a way of living in more modest circumstances once they cannot live in Bath any longer—and the clock is ticking, so to speak, they must act soon. If neither Aunt Leigh Perrot, nor Edward Austen Knight, nor any other benefactor is going to step forward with an offer of real financial support, they are going to have to scrape together an alternative, and Martha, their dearest old friend, now finds herself in that same sinking boat:

“I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, & whenever there has of late been an enquiry on the subject I have always been sincere; & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to Frank.-None of our nearest connections I think will be unprepared for it; & I do not know how to suppose that Martha's have not foreseen it.”

Why those nearest connections should have any negative reaction to such a Partnership is beyond me, but it is a reflection of the lack of respect and empathy for the Austen women and Martha that this is even a question.

Cheers, ARNIE

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