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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The True Art of Letter Writing, Jane Austen-style, is Burlesque: A Noble "Profession"!

Ellen Moody wrote the following about a passage in Jane Austen's Letter 29 dated January 3-5, 1801:

"I'll maintain Austen's letters are not superficial but are unsatisfying. They are wholly aimed at their recipient and speaking (as she said) out of the heart as the words came to her pen:
"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter..."
Her heart was unsentimental."

I replied to Ellen as follows:

Ellen, you've once again read JA literally and unironically, and you've thereby entirely missed her wonderful absurdist wit in the above quoted passage in Letter 29.

First of all, JA is mocking the books of her era which counseled ladies as to the proper way to write letters---these were a form of conduct book, with a special focus on the conduct of writing letters suitable for a young proper lady to write. Here is a sample of the advice given in one such book, _The polite lady: or, A course of female education, in a series of letters_ By Polite Lady (1761):

" is as great a shame for a young lady not to be able to tell a story with ease and fluency, or to write an elegant and genteel letter, as not /to /know how to dance a minuet. Indeed, this elegance of taste and propriety of language will be best learned, by reading a collection of familiar epistles. But of this kind, I am sorry to say it, we have none in English, that are proper for the perusal of a young lady. The letters of Pope and Fitz-Osbourne, and Pliny's epistles translated by Melmoth, are, no doubt, excellent in their kind; but then, they are rather too learned and laboured for one of your sex and age. You may read them, however, with great safety, profit, and pleasure: they will, at least, improve your taste and language in general; though, perhaps, they will not teach you that easy, free, and familiar stile, which is peculiarly adapted for female epistolary writing."

If you think JA took such advice as anything other than a rich mine of nonsense suitable for extensive mockery, then I have a bridge I want to sell you for $10......These were not books written in order to encourage artistic, creative expression in words, to encourage written " performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. " No, these were precisely the kind of books with which Mr. Collins would have lined his library shelves, the kind that were designed to channel women's expression into safe, acceptable, unthreatening trivialities, the epistolary equivalent of the kind of empty "accomplishments" that Caroline Bingley touts.

So, then, is it not clear from this that JA is in full blown mockery mode as she writes the above quoted passage, mimicking the sententious, earnest tone of the Polite Lady giving this truly horrid advice?

And so it is no surprise that in the second part of that long sentence, properly construed from a topsy-turvy perspective to the typical reading, we see that JA has actually landed one of her patented satirical zingers. The encouragement to ladies to "express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth" is uncannily in synch with the Polite Lady's regret that young ladies were not smart enough to understand letters of _male_ genius such as Pope's or Pliny's. I.e., those young ladies ought to stick to subjects that just pop into your head--in the shallow, superficial, spontaneous way that Bingley boasts of writing his letters--and at all costs _don't_ get too learned or laboured. God forbid! Instead, aspire to "that easy, free, and familiar style, adapted for female epistolary writing."

Does anyone imagine that JA would have given such advice even a millisecond of serious consideration? Of course not!

And so she burlesques the Polite Lady, in exactly the same way JA burlesqued a hundred pious or trite (and, properly understood, suppressive) conventions or truisms in her Juvenilia, by making the Polite Lady's advice absurdly concrete, the way Lewis Carroll or Eugene Ionesco might. If the goal was to write as if one were speaking aloud, well, then, one must write very very very _fast_, taking the advice in an absurd way, so as not to be late for a very important date! ;)

Which, by the way, is _exactly_ the same sort of absurdist burlesque that I just wrote about within the past week, which JA deployed in her advice in Letter 63, for the stone deaf gentleman to read _Corinna_ --if Mr. Fitzhugh could not hear a cannon in the real world, at least he would be able to "hear" a cannon blast described in a novel! What delight Lewis Carroll would have derived from reading both of these passages in Letters 29 & 63!

So, this is yet another example of how it is that JA's letters could be so utterly misunderstood by so many for so long--so few Janeites seem to realize that JA was "on" pretty much all the time, ready at the drop of hat to insert a burlesque, an irony, a satire, and almost always _without_ explicitly saying that was what she was doing. Even though, she repeatedly hints at doing exactly this in all her writings, especially in the following two very famous passages:

"...I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."


"Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat." Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession."

To understand Jane Austen's sense of humor, you have to realize that Edmund's apparently grave response to Mary was intended by JA to be understood by readers in synch with her wicked sense of humor as a pun on the double meaning of the word "profession".

That is the true art of "letter-writing" (in the broader sense of "letters" as literature, as in "a man of letters"), Jane-Austen style, and her satirical stance was, in both senses of the word, a "noble profession"!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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