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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 31, 2011

Jane Austen & Joseph: Creative Dreamers Betrayed by their Families Who Nonetheless Achieved National Immortality

I’ve been reflecting on various aspects of the allusion in Persuasion to the Joseph of Genesis, which I described in my previous post this morning....

....and what stands out to me as most significant is how much of an extremely personal _self_ portrait this allusion really is. Like the Biblical Joseph [who, by the way, is represented in her fiction in female form not merely by Anne Elliot, but also, in many ways, by Fanny Price as well), each of the following statements is either a fact or a plausible inference about Jane Austen:

She was the next to youngest child in a large family.

She was, among all the Austen siblings, the one true creative artist---the chronicler, in fiction, of the "dreams" of her world--and no one ever interpreted such dreams with any greater mastery than Jane Austen.

She probably was, at least from 1809 onward, more than any other of the Austen siblings, the psychological/emotional lightning rod of the Austen clan, the one to whom almost all the other members of the family (especially the many nieces and nephews) turned for advice.

She was extraordinarily precocious, probably not very shy about it (judging from the brash outrageously subversive tone of her Juvenilia), and very likely an early favorite of her father, all of which, I imagine, triggered some major resentment among some of her elder brothers, in particular James Austen, the one whom she outshone so strongly on his own turf of literary creativity.

Judging from her numerous letters from late 1800 & early 1801, Jane Austen experienced the uprooting from Steventon, and the abrupt move to Bath, as the moral equivalent of being sold into bondage by her elder sibling James (with the tacit consent of brothers Edward and Henry). And yet JA, ever resilient, made lemonade out of lemons—and that lemonade was her writing! She never relented in her quest for literary success, both artistically and financially, and I imagine her in 1802, resisting strong family pressure to marry Harris Bigg-Wither, and drawing inspiration from the Biblical Joseph, who never gave up, even when he was imprisoned for a lengthy period of time in Egypt, but still retained his confidence that he would eventually be able to work to get himself not only freed, but also to attain a position of such power and authority that he would one day save his own family from ruin. And I hear that same stubborn will to survive and prosper in Anne Elliot's confident assertions:

"All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!"

And last but not least, finally JA also had her “seven year” moment in Letter43, dated April 11, 1805, three months after the sudden death of her father has thrown the family into an extremely unstable, seemingly untenable living circumstance:

"This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlaine look hot on horseback. Seven years and four months ago we went to the same riding-house 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 and every feeling of one's mind."

When Jane Austen, in 1805, wrote about the lapse of seven years changing everything, she was thinking not only about how different (and better) life had been in early 1798, but she was surely also recalling the Biblical Joseph, with his wisdom about lean and plenty in seven years cycles, and talking herself into hanging on to hope that years of plenty would surely follow the lean years, if she does not give up. And when Jane Austen, in 1816, put into the mind of Anne Elliot the thought about the lapse of seven years changing everything...

"More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but she had been too dependent on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society."

that was the older Jane Austen speaking through the heroine who most closely resembled herself, and saying, in so many words, that, Yes! There _had_, by July 1816, when she finished writing _Persuasion_, been the lapse of almost exactly seven years and four months since the fateful move to Chawton Cottage--years of "plenty" in terms of Jane Austen's literary fertility!

And that leads directly to the ultimate meaning of this allusion, that this is a perfect example of JA creating, via her novels, a _female_ centered Torah, as she turned one of the great heroes of the Torah into a heroine, a story with distinctly female concerns, the kind of concerns which received such little attention in the Torah.

Did Jane Austen ever imagine that one day, two centuries later, she would achieve a kind of national immortality which rivalled that of her Biblical model?

Cheers, ARNIE

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