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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 6, 2012

Letter 74: Its Veiled Allusions to……Sense & Sensibility!

In my previous two posts, I have dug deeper and deeper into the subtext of Letter 74, demonstrating, when I left off, that Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was covertly alluded to by JA in Letter 74 to CEA. And I further speculated that JA was thereby linking herself to the forbidden love of the tragic heroine Thisby in the play within a  play in MND, and also perhaps to the tragic plight of Ariel prior to his release  by Prospero from tree-bound torture in The Tempest.

While running errands after I sent my second post re Letter 74, I dimly recollected seeing a reference to mulberry trees somewhere in one of JA’s novels, and so when I returned home, I quickly searched to see if my memory had served me well---and it turned out that it had, and had, in fact, led me to the center of the onion of Letter 74, as I will now explain.

What I found was that there are _two_ references to a mulberry tree in JA’s fiction, and _both_ are made by the voluble Mrs. Jennings, in fairly rapid succession, as follows, to the same mulberry tree!:

Ch. 30:  Delaford is a nice place, I can tell you; exactly what I call a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country: and SUCH A MULBERRY TREE IN ONE CORNER! Lord! how Charlotte and I did stuff the only time we were there! Then, there is a dovecote, some delightful stewponds, and a very pretty canal; and everything, in short, that one could wish for: and, moreover, it is close to the church, and only a quarter of a mile from the turnpike-road, so 'tis never dull, for if you only go and sit up in an old yew arbour behind the house, you may see all the carriages that pass along. Oh! 'tis a nice place! A butcher hard by in the village, and the parsonage-house within a stone's throw. To my fancy, a thousand times prettier than Barton Park, where they are forced to send three miles for their meat, and have not a neighbour nearer than your mother. Well, I shall spirit up the Colonel as soon as I can. One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down. If we can but put Willoughby out of her head!"

Ch. 32: Colonel Brandon's delicate unobtrusive inquiries were never unwelcome to Miss Dashwood. He had abundantly earned the privilege of intimate discussion of her sister's disappointment, by the friendly zeal with which he had endeavoured to soften it, and they always conversed with confidence. His chief reward for the painful exertion of disclosing past sorrows and present humiliations, was given in the pitying eye with which Marianne sometimes observed him, and the gentleness of her voice whenever (though it did not often happen) she was obliged, or could oblige herself to speak to him. These assured him that his exertion had produced an increase of good-will towards himself, and these gave Elinor hopes of its being farther augmented hereafter; but Mrs. Jennings, who knew nothing of all this -- who knew only that the Colonel continued as grave as ever, and that she could neither prevail on him to make the offer himself, nor commission her to make it for him -- began at the end of two days to think that, instead of Midsummer, they would not be married till Michaelmas, and by the end of a week that it would not be a match at all. The good understanding between the Colonel and Miss Dashwood seemed rather to declare that THE HONOURS OF THE MULBERRY-TREE, the canal, and the yew arbour, would all be made over to her ; and Mrs. Jennings had for some time ceased to think at all of Mr. Ferrars.

I did some quick searching in Janeites and Austen L and found that Anielka, with her usual acute sensitivity to JA’s word usage,  had commented a few months ago in Austen L that JA was “very keen to number and name trees”, and Anielka had specifically mentioned those same two references by Mrs. Jennings. But at the time, Anielka gave no explanation for what this curious repetition by Mrs. Jennings might mean.  Well, now I would like to suggest a very compelling meaning.

In some fashion, I suggest that Mrs. Jennings is pointing the reader back to Midsummer Night’s Dream (and did you notice her reference to “Midsummer” in that Chapter 32 excerpt?), and also to Shakespeare’s ancient source for that mulberry tree, which is none other than the story of Pyramus & Thisby in Ovid’s Metamorphoses!

And while I’m at it, I would also like to bring forward yet another, much more contemporary literary source for Mrs. Jennings’s winking reference to the Delaford mulberry tree, which I just found--a work with which, it is already well established, JA was familiar with---Oliver Goldsmith’s 1771 play, She Stoops to Conquer.

Here is the relevant excerpt from Act 5 of She Stoops, a dialog between Mr. & Mrs. Hardcastle:

Mrs. Hardcastle: Mr. Hardcastle, as I’m alive! My fears blinded me. But who, my dear, could have expected to meet you here, in this frightful place, so far from home? What has brought you to follow us?

Mr. Hardcastle. Sure, Dorothy, you have not lost your wits? So far from home, when you are within forty yards of your own door! [To son Tony] This is one of your old tricks, you graceless rogue, you. [To her.] Don’t you know the gate, and the MULBERRY-TREE; and don’t you remember the horse-pond, my dear?

Mrs. Hardcastle. Yes, I shall remember the horse-pond as long as I live; I have caught my death in it. [To TONY.] And it is to you, you graceless varlet, I owe all this? I’ll teach you to abuse your mother, I will.”

Let me immediately point out that I do not hang my claim of an allusion by JA to this speech merely upon Mr. Hardcastle’s reference to a mulberry tree, there are two other clues which seal the deal. First note also that Hardcastle emphasizes the “horse-pond”, just as Mrs. Jennings refers to “stewponds”; but second, and best of all, there is another key character involved in that climactic scene in She Stoops, and he is named _Hastings_!  And for JA, that name had special significance in the subtext of S&S, which I have previously described in detail here:

In short, I now see that Mrs. Jennings’s obsession with that mulberry tree is a huge additional wink in the direction of _Warren_ Hastings,  master of _Delafield_, who, I suggest, is represented in S&S by Colonel Brandon, master of _Delaford_!

And now we come to the best part of all---because seeing these allusions in Letter 74 pointing to S&S and _its_ allusive sources, made me realize, with the greatest satisfaction, that there was a reason why these allusions would appear in Letter 74—and that reason is revealed in Letter 71, written five weeks earlier, which includes the following famous passage:

“No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S & S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries. I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to W.s first appearance. Mrs K. regrets in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June.-Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the Printer, & says he will see him again today.-It will not stand still during his absence, it will be sent to Eliza.-The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can.”

So, given that JA, as of April 25, has only corrected two sheets, and has only gotten up to Willoughby’s first appearance in the beginning of Chapter 9, it makes perfect sense, chronologically, that JA would have just read the proofs for Chapters 30-32 (which contain the “mulberry tree” references of Mrs. Jennings) while writing Letter 74 dated 05/31/11!  

And so I suggest we must reread all the veiled allusions in Letter 74 to Midsummer Night’s Dream in light of the crucial fact that JA was proofreading from S&S at the same time! At that moment, JA was alluding to a rich vein of allusive subtext that included Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And then, intoxicated with what must have been the nearly unbearable anticipation of the imminent birth of her first “sucking child”, S&S, JA could not resist alluding to it all in Letter 74, to the one audience who would understand all the layers of meaning without the necessity of explicit explanation—CEA.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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