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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Our crowd....and a fortunate woman indeed!

Overnight, Diana Birchall wrote a short message in Janeites and Austen L which bore on the Amanda Vickery BBC special that just aired in England, also responded to my comments about Jane Austen's Letters 58 &59, vis a vis the death of her sister in law, Elizabeth Austen Knight in October 1808:

Diana: "Oh, you were in the video, Arnie!"

Yes, as an non-speaking "extra"! ;) Seeing the video reminded me how unhappy I was two minutes later when I did _not_ get to ask my question before the assembled throng---my unhappiness, however, was mostly done away with when I got to ask Andrew Davies a few questions one-on-one during the cocktail hour later on Saturday afternoon (which ended with that "Happy Trails" cowboy serenade that ends the BBC program). He was extremely patient, amiable, and available to everyone who wished to talk to him, I am sure every attendee agreed that it was worth every penny they paid him to be there!

Diana: "It went by too fast for me to be sure, but I do know the lady who is asking the question."

And I, too, recognized a few of the other "extras" who had their two seconds of fame like me, in addition, of course, to the "speaking parts" granted to Cheryl, and also to your old pal Janet.

Diana: "Yes, one of the nicest things for long-time Janeites, was spotting so many familiar friends in the crowd. It really is "our crowd." "

That's absolutely so, but isn't it fascinating that there is _another_ "our crowd", too, which you and I know in a different way--of course I refer to the many Janeites who have participated in these groups over the past decade. What is fascinating--but the BBC program of course did _not_ address this point---is how there is so little overlap between those two "crowds"--I can count on one hand the number of Janeites I know from _both_ the JASNA world and also from the online Janeite/Austen L world.

Diana: "And I couldn't agree with you more about Dr. Cheryl Kinney. She was a breath of fresh air in that video, wasn't she!"

She really could do professional comedy, she is so good! In fact, she really ought to think about developing a stand-up comedy routine about Jane Austen, with a focus on Cheryl's medical specialty, which is so uniquely focused on the same concerns that were central to JA--women's health, particularly sex, pregnancy, and childbirth. As you will verify, she had us all in stitches (ha ha) with her drolly Austenian ironic humor as she whipped through the various medical horrors that women of JA's era endured. I think the Beeb should give Cheryl a chance to strut her stuff, she sure has a great deal more of interest to say about Jane Austen than Amanda Vickery!

But on to your other, equally interesting topic:

Me, before, re Letters 58-59: "There's much more going there just under the surface that you are not taking into account, Diana. I believe JA had extremely mixed feelings about her sister in law Elizabeth Austen Knight."

Diana: "Yes, that's true. Her talking about her great worth has the sound of a person who's said a few uncharitable or spiteful things about the person when they were alive. "

Did you say a few _hundred_? ;) Remember, JA and CEA knew Elizabeth Austen Knight for nearly two decades--these women all progressed through the first 20 years of adult life in tandem---so there must have been countless occasions when Elizabeth in some way asserted her higher rank vis a vis one or more of the Austen women, or asserted her dominion over her husband's behavior vis a vis the Austen women. And CEA was the one, like Elinor, who had to shoosh JA, the Marianne of the story, to keep Marianne from reacting overtly to Elizabeth's slights.

I so often write about Mary Lloyd Austen as the real life source for Fanny Dashwood--- but I believe Elizabeth Austen Knight was almost as much of a source for Fanny as James's wife.

PLUS....I think Elizabeth was the primary real life source for Mrs. Churchill, as I explained about the dramatic consequences of Elizabeth's sudden death a few months ago:

The upwelling of a massive tsunami of pent-up feelings in Letters 58 & 59 is totally understandable when we realize that Elizabeth's sudden death was _the_ turning point of JA's writing career---it was only because of Elizabeth's death that the Austen women got to move to Chawton, and we all know what effect that move had on JA's writing career, don't we? And what probably doubled the emotional turmoil was the roller-coaster aspect of Elizabeth's final month of life--we see from only a few letters earlier that there was fear for Elizabeth's life a few weeks earlier, fear which evaporated when she seemed to suddenly and totally recover, and delivered a healthy baby. This series of reversals of medical fortune must have raised a lot of very complicated feelings in JA over the entire month of October, 1808, which I think accounts for the wild rhetorical and imaginative content of these late 1808 letters--including the Big Bad Wolf and the 3 Pigs fantasy.

Want to get shivers? Really think about what you've just read in Letters 58-59, as you read the following passage in _Emma_ :

"The following day brought news from Richmond to throw every thing else into the background. An express arrived at Randalls to announce the death of Mrs. Churchill! Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more. It was felt as such things must be felt. Every body had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried. Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame. Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints."

What, we wonder, did Edward Austen Knight think about the above passage when he read it in _Emma_ 7 years after his wife's death? I wonder if his famous complaint about the apples blooming out of season was actually a coded reference to the way JA portrayed his wife's final pregnancy in _Emma_?

It was an Austenian irony of tsunamic proportions that Elizabeth's death in the aftermath of her dozenth (that is a word, I just checked!) confinement was the necessary precondition to JA's eventual delivery of her _own_ half dozen "children"! I can readily imagine Edward reading that passage in _Emma_ and then paraphrasing Mr. Knightley thusly:

"Jane Austen is, indeed, the favourite of fortune. Every thing turns out for her good.—She is born into a literary family, with connections to a great family with a great estate in Kent, cannot even weary her indulgent brothers by negligent and even malicious treatment in her spoken and written words—and had she and all her family sought round the world for a perfect place to live for him, they could not have found one superior to Chawton Cottage.—Her sister in law is in the way.—Her sister in law dies.—She has only to speak.—Her brothers are eager to promote her happiness.—She had used every body ill—and they are all delighted to forgive her.—She is a fortunate woman indeed!"

Of course, that is what Edward might have said in early 1816, when JA was on top of the world, with a long illustrious literary career stretching out before her---but JA turned out to be the bastard of fortune--she was tempted with the prospect of glory, but, like Moses, she never did get to cross over into the Promised Land of national fame while she was alive---but, just as Moses's eternal fame was established a millenium after _his_ death, so, too, has JA's eternal fame been established after "only" two centuries! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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