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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Letter 63: Jane Austen as Corinna

In my previous post....

...I posted about a curious passage in Letter 63....

"...our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at
hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read Corinna." to which I suggested that Jane Austen combined a joke about a deaf gentleman of her acquaintance vis a vis cannons firing in Madame De Stael's novel _Corinna_ with a veiled speculation about the future of her own literary career:

Today, in followup, I found two comments on _Corinna_ from contemporary English critical reviews, which bear pointedly on my claim that JA was, in this seemingly offhand, joking reference to cannons firing in _Corinna_, also engaging in veiled speculations about her own artistic future, looking ahead at age 33 in late 1808.

First this excerpt, from an 1820 essay in The British Review, which takes on special meaning when read in the light of Jane Austen's last poem.....

....written in the last days her life 8 1/2 years after she wrote Letter 63:

"In the Capitol, in her letters, on arms, on arts, on nothing, Corinna must harangue. She sports even with death itself, by bidding a poetical farewel to the citizens of Home assembled to behold their sun before it had entirely sunk in the west. And as she is introduced to us with drums beating and colours flying, so she marches off the stage when 'a dreadful wind began to howl through the houses, when the rain beat violently
against the window sashes, and thunder heard in the middle of January aggravated the unpleasant spectacle of bad weather, by a sentiment of horror.' Such is the day on which Corinna, accompanied by Lucilia, entered a crowded hall, TO SPOUT HER OWN VERSES ON HER OWN DEATH; or, what is more voluptuous yet, to hear them chaunted by a young damsel adorned with wreaths of flowers." END QUOTE

And second, this quote, from an 1807 essay in The Critical Review, which summarizes Corinna's deep secret, which is that although she seemed to be Italian, she actually was "an Englishwoman" who "was unable to endure the monotony of an English country life":

"It is after having ascended Mount Vesuvius with Oswald, and taken a near view of the torrents of burning lava, that Corinna puts into the hands of Lord Nelvil, the packet, in which she has written her history. Never was there a more fatal concurrence of circumstances. Corinna is an Englishwoman, and was unable to endure the monotony of an English country life. Corinna was intended from infancy for the wife of Oswald himself;
and the father of the latter, alarmed at the vivacity displayed at an early period in her tastes and ideas, had turned his thoughts to Lucilia, the younger sister of Corinna. Thus Oswald is wounded in his feelings both as an Englishman and as a son. He is hurt in what affects him most profoundly, in what is more deeply rooted in his breast than love itself."

And finally, I was curious to take a look at the verses that Corinna writes as she lies dying, to see if there might be anything in them that reminds me of JA's last poem. What I found as I read it was that even though Corinna's poem is extremely long and consists almost entirely (to my mind) of extremely overblown, melodramatic doggerel, with no trace of
irony or humor, it was striking to read the following stanza just before the end of Corinna's poem:

I dream of immortality!
No more of that which man can give;
Once in the future did I live,
The present seemed too old for me.
All I now ask of Him on high,
Is, that my heart may never die!
Father! the offering and the shrine
A mortal spurns; with grace divine,
Deign to receive, —'tis thine! — 'tis thine!

What was striking to me was the parallelism to the following passage in JA's last poem:

Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!
By vice you're enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer...

So, was JA remembering Corinna (and Mr. Fitzhugh's cannon-proof deafness) as she lay dying? I think so!

Cheers, ARNIE

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