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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lady Denham, Aunt Leigh-Perrot & Arsenic Poisoning

During the past two days I have reread JA's Sanditon fragment, and I didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see yet another example of how big a liar Henry Austen was when he wrote that JA did not allude to real people in her fiction. What I am about to describe to you might be the Mount Everest of Austenian negative portrayals of real people in her novels.

Edward Copeland has been the Austen scholar who has taken the lead in making the argument that the character of Lady Denham is a very UNflattering, thinly veiled portrait of Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, to say the least. And I see even more aspects to that negative portrayal than Copeland has written, including in particular Lady Denham's sneering comments about "West Injines" spending too much money in Sanditon, causing prices to rise (not exactly Adam Smith-level economic theorizing!)--what makes that detail so darkly satirical is that Aunt Leigh Perrot was herself a "West Injine", born and raised in Barbados before coming to England!

And...the most significant aspect of Lady Denham's situation in
Sanditon, which the narrator devotes the lion's share of one chapter to explain, is that Lady Denham is the Queen Bee around whom three different "camps" of potential heirs are buzzing---the family of her rich deceased first husband, the family of her not-so-rich deceased second husband, and a niece and nephew from her own family of origin. It is clear that the development of the plot was going to revolve significantly around that inheritance feeding frenzy. And so is it just a coincidence that JA's own health took a horrific downturn in 1816 as a
result of the Austen women being left out in the _inheritance_ "cold" when Uncle Leigh-Perrot died (the following are the links to my series of posts nearly two years ago on that subject):

Connecting the dots back to my initial paragraph, above, I think it's clear that if members of JA's family--in particular James Austen, the heir-apparent of Aunt Leigh-Perrot--and James's wife Mary---were aware that Sanditon had at the dramatic center of its story-line an extremely negative and thinly veiled portrayal of the anticipated benefactress of
James Austen's family--sorta like Lady Catherine de Bourgh vis a vis Mr. Collins and his family---dontcha think that would have been very disturbing to James and Mary? Especially given their pattern of rapaciously greedy behavior during the move of the Austen women and Revd. Austen to Bath in 1800-1801?

So is it just a coincidence that, almost immediately after the narration brings Lady Denham front and center in the action of the story, in a _very_ unpleasant light, the writing of Sanditon is abruptly _and permanently_ cut off in March 1817 by JA's experiencing a _sudden_ health crisis that lays her very low for nearly two months?

And is it just a coincidence that we have the following parallelism between one of JA's letters describing that health crisis, and the text of Sanditon itself?:

Letter from Diana Parker to her brother Tom Parker:“My dear Tom, We were all much greived by at your accident, & if you had not described yourself as fallen into such very good hands, I shd. should have been with you at all hazards the day after the recpt. receipt of your Letter, though it found me hardly able to crawl from the my Bed to the Sofa suffering under a more severe attack than usual of my old greivance, Spasmodic Bile.”

Letter 159, 5/22/17, from JA to Anne Sharp: Your kind Letter my dearest Anne found me in bed, for in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards-the most severe I ever had-& coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since the 13. of April, with only removals to a Sopha.
Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho' slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me.- light of _all_ the above--including the speculations about Jane Austen having died of arsenic poisoning---isn't it curious that we also read the following extraordinary "poisonous" passage in Sanditon:

"What!" said [Arthur Parker]. "Do you venture upon two dishes of strong green tea in one evening? What nerves you must have! How I envy you. Now, if I were to swallow only one such dish, what do you think its effect would be upon me?" "Keep you awake perhaps all night," replied Charlotte, meaning to overthrow his attempts at surprise by the grandeur of her own conceptions. "Oh, if that were all!" he exclaimed. "No. It acts on me like POISON and would entirely take away the use of my right side before I had swallowed it five minutes. It sounds almost
incredible, but it has happened to me so often that I cannot doubt it. The use of my right side is entirely taken away for several hours! " "It sounds rather odd to be sure," answered Charlotte coolly,"but l dare say it would be proved to be the simplest thing in the world by those who have studied right sides and green tea scientifically and thoroughly understand all the possibilities of their action on each other."

And, isn't it also curious that in Anna Austen’s continuation of Sanditon, we also have the following "poisonous" passage?:

"Mr. Parker was engaged to dine with his Brother [Sidney] at the Hotel, & Arthur, also an invited guest, wd very gladly have done the same, if his Sisters had not vehemently protested against his running such a risk. According to their belief, POISON must have been as inevitable at a Hotel, as the bill; & lurked in every dish, from the first, placed on the table according to ancient custom by Mr. Woodcock’s own august
hands, to the concluding Ale & Stilton Cheese….”

Where have you gone, Agatha Christie, a nation of Janeites turns its lonely eyes to you!

Cheers, ARNIE

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