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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hidden Treasures of Letter 56

"I have just finished a Handkf. for Mrs. James Austen, which I expect her Husband to give me an opportunity of sending to her ere long. Some fine day in October will certainly bring him to us in the Garden, between three & four o'clock.-SHE hears that Miss Bigg is to be married in a fortnight. I wish it may be so."

It may seem inevitable in a group read of 154 letters over a period of close to three years, that focus be directed at the major themes and events described in JA's letters. However, I find more and more the
opposite to be the case--it is the seemingly trivial nothings of these letters which, upon minute and leisurely inspection, repeatedly yield subtle, hidden treasures of insight--and since my research has
repeatedly shown me that only the major themes ever make it into one of the biographies, when the trivialities are inspected, you can be pretty confident that the insights gleaned will be news in Austenworld.

So, in the above short passage in Letter 56, there are questions to be raised, and obscurities to be illuminated.

First, I did not realize that women knitted handkerchiefs for other women as gifts--would the one JA made for Mary Lloyd Austen have been elegantly embroidered in some way, does anyone knowledgeable about these things have a guess about this?

Second, there is an edge about Mary and James that runs as a sour undercurrent throughout those three sentences. First, JA calls Mary "Mrs. James Austen"--hardly a warm way of referring to her! Second, JA
calls James "her Husband", also hardly a warm way of referring to _him_!

Third, those latter two sentences seem to me to be a thinly veiled dig at James's failure to visit his mother in Southampton, masked behind the faux complaint about JA needing James as a courier to deliver a gift to Mary. That dig is extended with "Some fine day in October"---as if to say "whenever he gets to Southampton, in his own sweet time"! And the mockery of the complete uncertainty of the timing of James's selfish caprice in deciding when to come to Southampton (I am thinking of Frank
Churchill deciding on a whim to ride to London for a haircut) is accentuated by the absurdist over-specificity of "in the Garden, between three & four o'clock". These lines could almost have appeared in one of JA's epistolary juvenilia.

And then fourth and last, the accentuation of the word "SHE", which must be referring to Mary Lloyd Austen--my guess is that JA is mocking Mary's self-important tone in announcing to JA the likelihood of Catherine Bigg marrying the 26-years-older Revd. Hill (which did in fact occur three weeks after the writing of Letter 56). Which makes me realize that JA must have just received a letter from Mary, and that Mary has made some sort of lame excuse for James's failure to visit, which has prompted JA's small outburst of bile, safely vented to CEA.

And that is all we hear of James and Mary in Letter 56. But as I read through the rest of it, I find two other passages of interest.

First, what in the world does JA mean in the following passage?

"You must have had a great deal more rain than has fallen here; Cold enough it has been but not wet, except for a few hours on Wednesday evening, & I could have found nothing more plastic than dust to stick in; --now indeed we are likely to have a wet day--& tho' Sunday, my Mother begins it without any ailment."

"..nothing more plastic than dust to stick in" --is JA referring to cracks or holes in the walls of the apartment in Southampton, which need to be sealed in some way to insulate the rooms better, but she has no materiel to do this--and so she mocks this lack of a necessity--which the Austen women can't afford, apparently---by suggesting that she might gather up enough "dust" (which carries with it the whiff of mortality, as well as squalor!) to plug the hole and avoid chills?

And then the inevitable dig at JA's other perennial target of mockery--her mother's hypochondria--"tho' Sunday, my Mother begins it without any ailment"---the idea of a capricious fake-sufferer who times
her ailments by the calendar--and Sunday is the day to pray in church, of course.

And finally, this passage caught my eye:

"You have used me ill, you have been writing to Martha without telling me of it, & a letter which I sent her on wednesday to give her information of you, must have been good for nothing. I do not know how
to think that something will not still happen to prevent her returning by ye 10th-And if it does, I shall not much regard it on my own account, for I am now got into such a way of being alone that I do not wish even for her."

Whoa! Where was Martha anyway at that moment in time? I am not sure if Le Faye tells us, but perhaps Martha is at Kintbury visiting the third Lloyd sister, who was married to Fulwar Craven-Fowle, and who had the last of her children in 1807--and so Martha is like Jane and Cassandra, often visiting married sisters to help with the care of small children?

In any event, what is most striking is JA's joking (but in a way that is not indicative of a LOL moment) about not wishing for Martha's return, to alleviate JA's being alone in Southampton with Mrs. Austen. Is this a reflection of JA's genuinely missing Martha as more than just a friend, or is it that JA, with both Martha and Cassandra away at the same time, has been left to bear the entire brunt of Mrs. Austen's peccadillos? Impossible to say, but important to note for future reference!

And so there are three passages which never receive attention, but which, I hope I have argued persuasively, deserve careful attention.

Cheers, ARNIE

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