(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Letter 60: "Poor Catherine".....or "Poor Miss Taylor"?

Lately I seem to be finding examples of what Le Faye _doesn't_ say--but _should_ say, as the editor of JA's letters, everywhere I turn. Today it's in Letter 60, in the following passage in Letter 60, dated Oct. 24, 1808, and it's a real lulu:

"To-morrow I hope to hear from you, and to-morrow we must think of poor Catherine."

Le Faye's footnote to that sentence consists of two words:

"Catherine: Bigg"

Now, from that terse footnote, a reader would reasonably infer that Le Faye, having identified Catherine _Bigg_ as the object of JA's apparent pity, had at least made some effort to find out what JA meant by "poor Catherine", but could not find anything.

Because I long ago learned to operate on the assumption that Le Faye deliberately conceals what she considers to be unpleasant and unseemly implications of JA's writings, I did not hesitate to check to find out what JA might have meant. And it took me exactly one minute to figure out what it was, in two steps.

First step, in Le Faye's Biographical Index entry for the Bigg family:

"...Catherine married 1808 Revd. Herbert Hill..."

And you can guess the second step, in Le Faye's Biographical Index entry for Revd. Herbert Hill:

"....married 25 October 1808 Catherine Bigg..."

So let's put this all together.....Letter 60 written October 24, 1808....Catherine Bigg marries Revd. Hill October 25, 1808....."_tomorrow_ we must think of poor Catherine".

If you did not already realize it, now you understand why I included an allusion in my Subject Line to the following _nine_ passages in Emma:

"Poor Miss Taylor!—I wish she were here again. What a pity it is that Mr. Weston ever thought of her!.....I am sure she will be an excellent servant; and it will be a great comfort to poor Miss Taylor to have somebody about her that she is used to see.....Ah! poor Miss Taylor! 'Tis a sad business .......But, Mr. Knightley, she is really very sorry to lose poor Miss Taylor, and I am sure she will miss her more than she thinks for.....Ah, poor Miss Taylor! She would be very glad to stay.....Ah, my dear...poor Miss Taylor—It is a grievous business....I do not like strange voices; and nobody speaks like you and poor Miss Taylor...It ought to be a first object, as I am sure poor Miss Taylor's always was with me. You know, my dear, she is going to be to this new lady what Miss Taylor was to us..... She was reminded, more than once, of having always said she would never marry, and assured that it would be a great deal better for her to remain single; and told of poor Isabella, and poor Miss Taylor."

I included all of these nine quotations of Mr. Woodhouse's pity for Miss Taylor to underscore for you all that this is perhaps the most memorable and often repeated dialogue motif in all of JA's novels. Every Janeite is familiar with it! And yet, Le Faye, who does not hesitate to present herself not only as the editor of JA's letters, and her biographer, but _also_ as an interpreter of JA's _fiction_, chooses _not_ to say anything about the obvious and intentional parallelism by JA between Letter 60 and _Emma_.

And, even worse, Le Faye only gives the full date of Catherine Bigg's marriage in _his_ entry, not in Catherine's.

That is what I find most objectionable, which is that Le Faye has very craftily worded these various entries so as to give the appearance of completeness, and so as to lull the unsuspicious reader to sleep, thinking that all relevant information has been highlighted.

Christy wrote yesterday, responding to my critical comments about Le Faye's article about the 1801 poem to young Anna:

"And Arnie, considering the amount of years and effort DLF has given to this
gargantuan endeavor, she is bound to make mistakes, or make remarks that are off center, limiting, and perhaps, not very politically correct."

No, Christy, I don't buy it, not a chance, and I can't believe you buy it, either. What Le Faye did with "Poor Catherine" is totally bogus and indefensible. Her own Indices show that she knew all the relevant facts, and it is impossible not to infer that Le Faye deliberately chose to smudge things so that nobody would notice the echo.

And the worst of it is that it is so significant a point, thematically! This is not some trivial detail of JA's biography, or some bit of unnoticed background in her novels. I.e., the black humor of JA's expression of pity for Catherine Bigg is that it reveals that JA really was pitying her _33_ year old friend who was marrying a _59_ year old man! Exactly the kind of feminist satirical commentary on Regency Era sexism that Le Faye _relentlessly_ suppresses in JA's writing every chance Le Faye gets!

And...there is a mirror-reflection back from this sentence in Letter 60 into those 9 exclamations by Mr. Woodhouse about poor Miss Taylor, which is also anathema to Le Faye's sanitized dogma about Jane Austen. Why? Because beneath the surface caricature of Mr. Woodhouse as paranoid about marriage, the reflection back from Letter 60 allows us to hear the voice of Jane Austen herself speaking through Mr. Woodhouse, pitying women who marry for reasons other than true love. And in the case of "poor Catherine" Bigg, women in their thirties who marry men twice their age so as not to sink into dreadful spinsterhood.

And perhaps worst of all, from Le Faye's perspective, in this Pandora's Box of feminist subtext, is the irony that Catherine Bigg just happened to be the sister of Harris Bigg-Wither, the very man as to whom JA resisted what must have been fierce family and friend pressure to marry 6 years prior to her writing Letter 60. I have seen it suggested that the Bigg sisters were among those who pressured JA in 1802, and perhaps she was. Either way, her marrying a man twice her age six years later is an irony that did not escape JA's notice.

No wonder Le Faye tried to put the kibosh on all of this, and no wonder why I feel such a sense of outrage at her trying to do this, and such a sense of satisfaction at proclaiming the truth now!

Cheers, ARNIE


Arnie Perlstein said...

In Janeites & Austen L, Diane Reynolds wrote: "Excellent sleuthing! Another clue that marriage, in all it's unpleasant complexities, was on JA's mind in this letter."

But aren't you also appalled at Le Faye's coverup? Is there any doubt in your mind, after reading my argument, that Le Faye was fully aware of the biographical and fictional implications of what JA wrote?

Diane again: "In the quotes from Emma, are you suggesting that Mr. Woodhouse was right in pitying poor MIss Taylor her marriage to Mr. Weston?"

Short answer: Yes! ;)

Longer answer: I definitely am saying that Miss Taylor has not married Mr. Weston because Cupid, after four years of firing love darts at the two of them, finally connected with one of them. No, no, no.....Emma may believe that her persistent attempts at amatory Mesmerism (after she took note that Mr. Weston provided some gentlemanly assistance to Miss Taylor during a drizzling rain 4 years earlier) has assisted the Love God in inducing Miss Weston to abruptly decide to "throw herself away" on Mr. Weston, to use Mr. Knightley's words. But Mr. Woodhouse is very much aware that there is more going on---MUCH more----than has met Emma's _clueless_ eye!

Broader answer: Much more importantly and globally, JA speaks ventriloquistically through Mr. Woodhouse (just as she also often speaks through Miss Bates, Mary Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and other female characters who on the surface seem like comic fools she is mocking), making some of her most radically feminist pronouncements through the mouths of these "fools", as one massive, global irony. And that irony is that JA is having some merciless fun sporting with the sexist stereotype that she, as a female authoress--and a spinster yet, with no formal education, raised in the confined society of a small country village!---was too "ignorant", "partial", and "partial" to create artistic masterpieces which also functioned, on a totally veiled level, as devastating radical feminist critiques of her society.

Which all boils down to my suggestion that the reader who accepts the surface satire of her letters and novels as being all there is, is truly the "April Fool" of JA's cosmic authorial joke!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Re the above post, see also see the following: