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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jane Austen......Notorious!

Today was a fertile day for me, thanks to Christy Somer, who also wrote the following in response to my post in Janeites and Austen L pointing out the curious fact that James Austen, in his Last Will drawn up at the same time Jane Austen wrote her own Last Will, in May, 1817, left bequests to every one of his family members except Jane Austen and her mother--of course this omission proved moot as to Jane Austen, who predeceased James by two years. But here's where things got interesting in a totally unexpected way:

Christy: "I just simply choose to believe JA when she writes to Anne Sharp on the 22nd of May 1817 -the day before James’ Will is recorded. “-How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!-Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!-and as for my Sister!-Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me….” "

Christy, I don't know if you are aware, as you only joined these groups in 2010, but Kishor Kale has many times mentioned an article he wrote some years ago, about certain sentences in Pride & Prejudice. He described them thusly:

"In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, there are a number of statements each of which is ironic because of a secondary meaning evidently unintended by the fictional character making it."

And here are the sentences:

Mrs. Bennet: ""My dear Mr. Bennet, you must not expect such girls to have the sense of their father and mother"

Mr. Bennet to Lizzy re her marrying Darcy:"If this be the case, he deserves you.I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to any one less worthy"

Mr. Collins re Lady Catherine: "She is the sort of woman whom one cannot regard with too much deference"

And I myself, earlier this year, claimed exactly the same sort of ambiguity for the following sentence in JEAL's Memoir:

"...[Jane Austen] said, when speaking of two of her great favourites, Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightley: 'They are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.' "

Although I have a very different, even opposite, take on the significance of the ambiguity of those sentences than Kishor does, nonetheless he did extremely well to identify them in the first place, and most of all to realize they were important in our understanding of JA's riddling style of writing, and so to bring them front and center for our consideration.

I mention these P&P and Memoir sentences now because the above quoted excerpt from JA's 1817 letter to Anne Sharp reminds me _strongly_ of all four of those ambiguous sentences very much! Especially the final part, which, to my eyes, is identical in structure to the sentences identified as ambiguous.

While the usual way of filling in the semantic blank as to what JA could not put into words would seem to be that JA's Sister's nursing has been so _good_ that JA cannot find enough superlatives to describe it, that sentence can, from a very cynical perspective, be plausibly read instead to mean exactly the _opposite_-i.e., JA's Sister's nursing has been _unspeakable_, as in unspeakably _bad_! And my thoughts turn, among other things, to JA having to sleep on three chairs, so that her mother could have the sofa!

But of course, JA, in her precarious dying state, must depend on family to do everything for her, including mail letters for her, even a letter to a friend of whom perhaps some in the family did not approve of as a friend for a gentlewoman--and so if JA were to wish to register a complaint to the one person in the world other than Martha Lloyd who was totally on her side, without any complication or conflict of familial interest---Jane would have to do what she had done a thousand times in her novels--express what she really meant in a completely coded way, hiding it in plain sight!

Now...why this struck me particularly powerfully at this instant was all the recent furor about Ashford's novel presenting a scenario under which JA was intentionally poisoned, but also _another_ passage in another letter in Le Faye's edition of the letters which I took note of several years ago, and wrote about earlier this year:

Here is the particular sentence I mentioned in the above linked Jan. 2011 blog post that jarred me when I first read it years ago, and now jars me even more:

"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed…..I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand that struck the blow."

Of course, this is Cassandra's postmortem letter to Fanny Knight, reporting the death of Jane Austen. In essence, my post asks why Cassandra, in describing her own feelings in the immediate aftermath of the death of her beloved sister, would choose to use the words _Othello_ speaks in the immediate aftermath of his having just _brutally_ _murdered_ his innocent wife, Desdemona, and he says it just before he kills himself?!!?

When I connect the dots from what CEA wrote, above, to the ambiguous sentence JA wrote to Anne Sharp on May 22, 1817 (i.e., about 2 months before her death), above, to the arsenic found in JA's hair in 1850, I find _MY_ thoughts turning to the following bit of dialog from a rather famous film, as to which I gave you all a sly hint in my Subject Line:

Dev: Alicia, what's wrong with you?

Alicia: I'm so glad you came.

Dev: I had to. I couldn't stand any more...waiting and worrying about you. That wasn't a hangover you had that day. You were sick then. What is it?

Alicia: Yes, I was sick.

Dev: What's wrong with you, Alicia?

Alicia: Oh, Dev.

Dev: What is it, dear? What's wrong with you?

Alicia:They're poisoning me. I couldn't get away from them. I tried, but I was too weak.

Dev: How long?

Alicia: Since the party. Alex and his mother found out.

Dev: Come on. Try and sit up. Sit up. I'm going to get you out of here.

Cheers, ARNIE

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