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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 30, 2012

" half a year's residence in her family afforded": The Six-Month Massacre of Steventon

In Austen L & Janeites, Anielka Briggs wrote: "All film versions of Sense and Sensibility lead one to believe that Fanny Dashwood and her irritating demeanour ejected the first Mrs. Dashwood from Norland very swiftly. And yet the text is very clear that the second Mrs. Dashwood lived in her son-in-law's home for at least six months..... "Mrs. Dashwood began shortly to give over every hope of the kind, and to be convinced, from the general drift of his discourse, that his assistance extended no farther than their maintenance for six months at Norland. " It seems almost reasonable that after six months Fanny Dashwood should begin to grow anxious to dispense of the other Mrs. Dashwood....... "

I responded as follows:

Let's see......Le Faye's Chronology entry on p. 249 reads as follows:

"late November-early December [1800]: Steventon: Revd and Mrs GA suddenly decide to leave the rectory and retire to Bath; when JA and Martha arrive from Ibthorpe Mrs. GA greets them with the decision; JA is said to have been much upset by it...."

This dating by Le Faye seems pretty solid, because Letter 28 posted December 1, 1800 contains not a hint of any proposed move from Steventon, and yet, by Letter 29, dated January 5, 1801, it is clear that the move to Bath has been in the works for a pretty long while. then we have Letters 29 through 36 (spanning the time period from January 5, 1801 through May 13, 1801) which all provide ample evidence of what I have previously referred to as "the Massacre of Steventon", during which James and Mary Austen do their very best imitations of John and Fanny Dashwood:

And we know from Letter 35 that Jane Austen left Steventon for Bath during the first week of May, 1801, which means that the time span from the moment JA first learns of the move to Bath, until she finds herself living in Bath, is between just over _five_ months.

Hmm......Yes, Anielka, surely by May, 1801, after an eternity lasting nearly six months (it would be very much the exaggerating mindset of a grasping, greedy usurper to refer to a time period of five months and four days as "nearly six months") that would try anyone's patience, Mary Austen was indeed quite anxious to have her tiresome in-laws gone from Steventon already. After all, who knew what sort of horrid, malicious rumors these overstaying-their-welcome ingrate in-laws might spread about Mary's attempts to feather her new nest properly, if they continued to be so inconveniently impolite as to remain physically present in Steventon to bear accurate witness to the details of the Massacre, such as the following passage in Letter 36 dated May 13, 1801:

"....James I dare say has been over to Ibthrop by this time to enquire particularly after Mrs. Lloyd's health, & forestall whatever intelligence of the sale I might attempt to give.-Sixty-one guineas & a half for the three cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables. Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well."

So you say, "almost reasonable"? I think JA's Letters 29-36, as well as Chapter 2 of S&S, tell us pretty clearly what JA thought and felt about the Massacre of Steventon---a massacre based firmly on the following principle enunciated by JA in Letter 37 dated May 22, 1801:

"The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.”

And it is quite interesting to read the characterization of all of the above that was written 70 years later by the real-life model for Fanny Dashwood's "poor little Harry":

"The loss of their first home is generally a great grief to young persons of strong feeling and lively imagination; and Jane was exceedingly unhappy when she was told that her father, now seventy years of age, had determined to resign his duties to his eldest son, who was to be his successor in the Rectory of Steventon, and to remove with his wife and daughters to Bath. Jane had been absent from home when this resolution was taken; and, as her father was always rapid both in forming his resolutions and in acting on them, she had little time to reconcile herself to the change."

Tell me, was Jane Austen prescient or not, when she put the following words in Fanny and John Dashwood's mouths in Chapter 2 of S&S:

"....why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?....Consider...that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy—"

"Why, to be sure," said her husband, very gravely, "that would make great difference. THE TIME MAY COME when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition."

That time _did_ come for the elderly James Edward Austen Leigh when he wrote the above passage in the Memoir, and tried to whitewash over JA's obvious bitter resentment against James & Mary (i.e., against his own parents!) by reframing JA's unhappiness as a response to her father's overhasty decision making predilections, and utterly omitting any reference to James or Mary in that regard!

And I finish by repeating for the umpteenth time that just because there were women like Mary Austen who were clever enough to find ways to unofficially twist the knobs of power, does not negate the sexist status quo that put the eldest son of the Austen family, James, in a position of absolute power vis a vis his sisters in the first place. Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Ferrars, Mrs. Churchill, Lucy Steele, Charlotte Lucas, and Mrs. Clay, to name the most obvious examples from JA's fiction, represent one species of distortion in _female_ personality that was triggered by the mostly gender-based institutional inequalities of JA's world, just as, e.g., the Wickhams, WIlloughbys, Crawfords, et al represent another such distortion on the male side.

JA was a master psychologist, and recognized that "the system" was at the root of so much amoral or reckless behavior of all kinds in her society, on the part of both males and females. Had there been true gender equality in the society, JA is suggesting, there would have been much more truly Christian behavior by one part of the world toward the other.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Lit~Lass said...

Arnie, while I don't like to view Jane's relationship with her family as always one of pain, I appreciate this post detailing the pain of the Steventon "massacre" immensely. My family and I are going through a similar experience right now, where the party in power feels themselves wronged and we feel ourselves cast out on the world, yet we have to remain in a place where we're despised and resented. Reading of the pain Jane went through - at the hand's of her own family - gives me comfort and strength like little else. I've long marveled at how Jane prophesied her own experience, writing S&S about five years (I think) before the Steventon massacre. It makes perfect sense that she rewrote it more powerfully after going through an experience which I can testify could smother the spirits of almost anyone. Thank God that Jane survived to become one of the great eternal voices that ring through time... and the soother of my every sorrow.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Hi, Lit-Lass, always glad to hear from you here!

The only thing I disagree with you about is Jane's prescience. Even though we know she wrote the earliest version of S&S around 1798, it was not published until 1811, and so I believe that Chapter 2 of S&S was not written at all until after the move from Steventon to Bath in 1801.

I hope that your own difficulties pass quickly and that you are restored soon to a better situation, and that you don't need to languish for years where you don't want to be.

Cheers, ARNIE

Lit~Lass said...

You're probably right the ejection of the Dashwoods wasn't portrayed in the epistolary draft. Rereading the opening chapters, I'm impressed with all the detail she lavished on setting up the move. It's just sad we don't have the original drafts of S&S, P&P & NA.

Oh, no, we won't be languishing for years - a month or two more, at most. I just wish we had a noisy, vulgar cousin to offer us an unromantic cottage without ivy or green tiles. ;)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Well, one way or another, I hope you are delivered from your current situation sooner rather than later.

Yes, my guess is that when JA sat down to revise S&S for the last time after settling in at Chawton Cottage (finally having the proverbial room of her own), she decided that the karma was right for bringing nearly a decade of festering bitterness to light, and so the entire design of Ch. 1 is there so as to set the stage for the great comic set piece, Fanny Dashwood doing her best Goneril and Ragan in Ch. 2. And then, as you say, this six month limbo is milked for all it's worth.

Lit~Lass said...

I notice you said she probably wrote S&S (as Elinor & Marianne, epistolary) in 1798. I'm wondering what your source for that date is. According to my notes from Tomalin's bio and Joan K. Ray's timeline she wrote it in 1795 and Cassandra remembered it read to the family by '76. Of course she did a great deal of revising later.

It's a pity she didn't keep opinions on S&S like she did for MP and E - it would've been interesting to know if James or Mary made any (unfavorable) comments indicating they might have seen the similarity. Or maybe they did. If there were any such comments, you'd probably sniff them out. ;)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Lit Lass, I was sloppy re the date of first writing of Elinor & Marianne, I am sure your sources are accurate re 1795-6.

However.....our discussion here has led me to an intriguing new hypothesis, i.e., that perhaps Cassandra was being less than honest when she reported those dates of earliest writing of E&M---we have independent third party verification of early drafts of P&P and Northanger Abbey (Susan), but we only have Cassandra's word for the early version of E&M.

And why would Cassandra want the world to think that S&S was first written in the 1790's? Because then nobody would think that the "Massacre of Steventon" in 1800-1801 was being depicted!!!!

How's that for some suspicious sniffing out on my part? ;)