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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Letter 63: "I recommend him to read Corinna"" (Margaret Kirkham was there first in 1982)

In further followup to my two previous posts of the past day about Jane Austen's cryptic comment in Letter 63: "I recommended him to read _Corinna_", Google Books has now revealed to me that precedence on outside-the-box interpretations of that cryptic comment belongs to the brilliant pioneer of feminist analysis of Jane Austen's life and writings, Margaret Kirkham, way back in 1982, in her seminal _JA, Feminism and Fiction_, which I have often cited favorably in the past on a variety of points. I can do no better than to quote (with editing for length) the key points that Kirkham made in this regard on ppg. 166-69:

"We may, I think, be sure that, whatever this means, it does not mean that JA actually recommended the poor gentleman to read _Corinne_, for, even if her knowledge of finger-language were equal to such a recommendation, it is inconceivable that she should have teased the old man in such a way. The allusion was clearly designed to convey some sort of joke to her sister, and it is not too difficult to see what it was. In Book the fifteenth, chapter VII, Corinne, in Venice with her lover Lord Oswald Nevil, receives a premonition of her parting from him, and perhaps from this world altogether, when she hears a cannon fire thrice across the lagoon. A gondolier explains to her that the firing of the cannon signifies [those two events]. JA, we need not doubt, conveyed to Mr. Fitzhugh only such things as kindness and compassion, limited by the difficulty of communicating with him at all, made proper. To CEA, however, she allows herself to make a joke about _Corinne_, evidently knowing that her sister will connect Mr. Fitzhugh's inability to hear 'a cannon fired close to him' with a passage in Madame de Stael which it seems likely had provoked irreverent laughter in both sisters.

On this evidence alone, and there is no other, it is clear that the idea that JA admired Madame de Stael is baseless, and it is hard not to convict Henry Austen of a little sleight-of-hand in using his sister's refusal to meet her as confirmation of her retiring, feminine character... The unfounded belief that JA admired Madame de Stael (MdS), yet refused to meet her, has proved misleading in more ways than one. It helped to lend substance to the idea of Austen as exceptionally retiring; it obscured her active interest in an important literary conflict of her own time; and it made it more difficult to understand the estrangement of the mid century women novelists, particularly Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, from her work. To a generation which admired MdS and saw her as the predecessor of George Sand, JA's pointed avoidance of "genius", both in her presentation of herself as narrator and in her heroines, could not be sympathetic ...Henry Austen's 1833 treatment of his sister's declining to meet MdS, together with his unplaced, and therefore misleading, quotation of the "little bit of ivory" letter, can only have added to the alienation of the later English women novelists from the predecessor to whom, despite their coolness about her, they owed much...." END QUOTE

As I read Kirkham's analysis, I find myself agreeing with most of it, I have previously written....

(one post of mine among many about Charlotte Bronte's covert admiration of JA)

......I don't believe Charlotte Bronte was misled by Henry Austen, I assert that CB only pretended to buy into Henry's Bowdlerizing whitewash of his sister Jane and her writing. But that is only a peripheral quibble in relation to Kirkham's otherwise excellent analysis. In 1982, she was, along with Allison Sulloway, pretty much the only Austen scholar reading JA's letters and fictions from that perspective and with deep insight into JA's infinite allusiveness.

I also wonder what Kirkham would think about my claim that JA was in some ironic yet sincere way drawing a parallel between herself as a great English female artist in some sort of exile, and Corinna, with a special emphasis on JA's enormous ambition for the immortality of her writing, an ambition that, thankfully, has finally reached its full fruition in our modern era of Austenmania. I'd like to think Kirkham would be sympathetic to it.

So, if JA was, as I suggest, playing with the conceit of herself as a Corinna who yearned for artistic immortality, maybe it's time for the British Royals to fire three cannon shots in honor of JA's writing sometime soon--say, perhaps, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of P&P early next year--wouldn't that be a perfect occasion for it? And, to add a nice tip of the hat to JA's little joke in Letter 63, there ought to be an empty chair at the ceremony, with the name "Mr. Fitzhugh" written on it in prominent and bright neon colors, so that the kindly old gentleman's ghost will have a front row seat top watch (and listen to) the festivities!

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: