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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 63: Miss Murden as Miss Bates

Responding to several of Diane Reynolds's interesting comments:

"The letters have yielded riches about JA's life and perceptions, at least on a superficial levels. As I have mentioned before, I have enjoyed this exercise more than I thought I would. My struggle is having more to say than will even fit in a long post. "

Amen, sister---I am frequently thinking of that jackass EM Forster referring to these letters as the whinnying of harpies--apparently he was far too dull and jealous an elf to grasp/acknowledge what a treasure these letters really are.

" In this letter, we will see a novelistic unfolding of the narrative about Miss Murden. "First impressions" can be wrong!"

Diane, I am so glad you brought Miss Murden forward for consideration, I just tracked her sporadic cameo appearances in JA's letters, from JA's cryptic ironic condolence with Miss M. "losses" in Letter 1 way back in 1796 (what that could mean, we'll never know for sure, but I suggested a year ago that JA's broadly ironic tone reminded me of JA's faux concern for Mrs. Knight's "accident") to Miss Murden's final cameo in Letter 82 in Feb. 1813. She seems very much of a Miss Bates marginalized, dependent, ageing, sad single woman, which is, I am sure why you took special notice of her.

Indeed, you are 100% correct, JA's insight into Miss Murden's character dramatically alters as she gets to know her, moving from this....

" Our evening party on Thursday produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden's coming too, though she had declined it absolutely in the morning, and sitting very ungracious and very silent with us from seven o'clock till half after eleven, for so late was it, owing to the chairmen, before we got rid of them."

to this....

"Miss Murden was quite a different creature this last evening from what she had been before, owing to her having with Martha's help found a situation in the morning, which bids very fair for comfort. When she leaves Steventon, she comes to board and lodge with Mrs. Hookey, the chemist-for there is no Mr. Hookey. I cannot say that I am in any hurry for the conclusion of her present visit, but I was truly glad to see her comfortable in mind and spirits; at her age, perhaps, one may be as friendless oneself, and in similar circumstances quite as captious."

If anyone was in doubt about JA's empathy for the Mrs. Smiths and Miss Bateses of her world (which to some extent included herself and CEA), the empathy JA demonstrates in that latter passage lays that doubt entirely to rest.

By the time we reach Letter 65 written three weeks after Letter 63, Miss Murden has made a couple of gifts to JA (first a basket, then a volume of sermons--little realizing that JA despised the sermons of her cousin Edward Cooper).

And then the following curious passage about Miss Murden later in Letter 65?:

"Miss Murden has been sitting with us this morng-as yet she seems very well pleased with her situation. The worst part of her being in Southampton will be the necessity of our walking with her now and then, for she talks so loud that one is quite ashamed, but our Dining hours are luckily very different, which we shall take all reasonable advantage of."

Apparently Miss Murden, like Miss Bates, talks too loud in public--but who is "one", I wonder? Who is "us"? I get the feeling that this is Mrs. Austen who "is quite ashamed" to be seen (or rather, heard) in public with Miss Murden. I don't believe this is JA feeling shame, as everything else she writes about Miss Murden demonstrates real empathy for the plight of this poor lonely woman. I think it's Mrs. Austen.

And then, in Letter 67 twelve days later still, this disturbing news about Miss Murden, and JA's sober assessment of the rapid sinking of Miss Murden's quality of life that must now ensue:

"Miss Murden is gone--called away by the critical state of Mrs. Pottinger, who has had another severe stroke, & is without Sense or Speech. Miss Murden wishes to return to Southampton if circumstances suit, but it must be very doubtful."

How fragile the brief window of a stable living arrangement (with access to intelligent and caring acquaintances like JA) was for a woman like Miss Murden in her precariously vulnerable circumstances. I don't understand who Mrs. Pottinger was to Miss Murden, such that the burden of caring for this desperately ill older woman fell upon poor Miss Murden.

And finally, in the two 1812 letters to Martha Lloyd which survive, JA writes empathetically but also candidly about Miss Murden, demonstrating that JA never allowed her heart to blind her eye to reality.

And finally, Diane, I also suspect that when you referred to "First Impressions", at least a piece of what was in your mind, Diane, was the parallelism between Miss Murden "sitting very ungracious and very silent" and Mr. Darcy, first at the Meryton Assembly...

"...his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend."

...and then again at Lucas Lodge:

"Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation...."

Thanks again for bringing Miss Murden forward for her well deserved day in the cyber-sun, 200 years later!

Cheers, ARNIE

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