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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Greasy Chawton and The Lady Bertram of Letter 78

In Janeites and Austen-L yesterday, Diana Birchall wrote the following regarding Jane Austen's Letter 78 written in January, 1813: "Some arch comment on the weather, employing the English flexibility of adjectives ("sloppy", "greasy")..."

I responded as follows:

Here is that arch comment in Letter 78: "It was just greasy here on friday, in consequence of the little snow that had fallen in the night..."

Diana, my sense is that this unusual usage of "greasy" here is JA's own _original_ twisting of English to meet her witty metaphorical demands---she has taken "greasy" out of the kitchen (with MP's Rebecca's "greasy" bread and butter--perhaps she was even writing that passage in MP as she wrote Letter 78?--- and Mr. Woodhouse's grease-free roast pork), and has inserted it into the wintry Hampshire countryside. There it seems clearly  to mean "slippery", referring, I would guess, to the late-January ground having a slick half-ice, half-snow surface that was perilous to walk on.  I checked in Google Books, and I could not find a single usage of "greasy" in any other book from 1700 through 1820 that referred to any sort of landscape.

For all that JA's writing is supposed to lack physical descriptiveness, I find the opposite to be so. Yes, she is _very_ spartan in her use of physically descriptive adjectives, but I think that's a good thing. Upon examination, they often turn out to be quite evocative--which makes JA's writing poetic in its compression and economy.

Diana  also wrote: "...then some dutiful messages from her mother, and a nasty comment about a Mrs. Bramstone, "the sort of Woman I detest." Deirdre points out this opinion was shared by diarist Hon John Byng, who wrote of this lady as "an artful wordly woman, of a notable self-sufficient capacity."  "

Here's the full quote: "Mrs. Bramstone is the sort of Woman I detest---Mr. Cottrell is worth ten of her. It is better to be given the Lie direct, than to excite no interest..."

There were actually TWO Mrs. Bramstons in Jane Austen's life--one was born Mary Chute and married Wither Bramston, the other was Wither Bramston's elder "dowager" sister. The comment by the diarist Byng quoted by Diana was about the latter, and it might seem that this would be a very straightforward comment about the dowager Mrs. Bramston, who disliked Jane Austen's writing.

However, I believe JA meant that sentence to be ambiguous, and to also work as a joke between her and her actual friend, the married Mrs. Bramston.  That arch, hyperbolic tone should put us on red alert that JA was horsing around, exaggerating for comic effect, and was not at all serious in her purported abhorrence for that "sort of Woman". For starters, had there been a genuine upsetting event as to which a "Lie" had been "given", I don't think JA would have written about it in this playful way.  And there is wit reminiscent of JA's Juvenilia when we read that what is detestable is "to excite no interest". This is pure raillery, teasing fun between friends.

And there is real-life evidence to support my claim that JA did not detest the married Mrs. Bramston (as usual, JA's spelling of proper names is very "greasy"!). First, Mrs. B was apparently an old friend who is mentioned a half dozen times (in pretty benign ways) in letters from the Steventon era.  Check 'em out, you won't find any sign of dislike between JA and Mrs. Bramston--in fact, in Letter 37, we read another passage about Mrs. Bramston, right after JA jokes--surely in a dark way--about the "fire sale" prices being offered for her precious books:

"Ten shillings for Dodsley's Poems, however, please me to the quick, and I do not care how often I sell them for as much. When Mrs. Bramston has read them through I will sell them again."

Whether Mrs. Bramston actually read Dodsley's poems through, who knows, but my point is that Mrs. Bramston is surely not detested by JA.

But second, and more significantly, we actually have the following opinion of MP expressed by the married Mrs. Bramston and recorded by JA, which illuminates our admittedly speculative opinion of _her_ mind and character much further:

"much pleased with it; particularly with the character of Fanny, as being so very natural. THOUGHT LADY BERTRAM LIKE HERSELF. Preferred it to either of the others--but imagined THAT might be her want of Taste--as she does not understand Wit."

Hmm....we know that Fanny Price has a soft spot for Lady Bertram, and vice versa. So it's very interesting to me that Mrs. Bramston is much pleased with Fanny's character in particular, and it's ten times more interesting still that Mrs. Bramston also thinks Lady Bertram is "like herself"! And for all that Mrs Bramston then deprecates her own Taste and understanding of Wit, I have a feeling that Mrs. Bramston herself is teasing about both of these points, that she enjoys good natured raillery every bit as much as JA, and further Mrs. B(RAMston) is showing JA that her taste and wit are actually sophisticated, able to appreciate the subtle ironies of MP, able even to see herself caricatured in the character of Lady B(ertRAM).

And the above is consistent with the following data revealed by Deborah Kaplan in her 1988 Persuasion article about the married Mrs. Bramston:

"Mary Bramston of Oakley Hall, for example, had strikingly broad [reading] preferences, recommending in her letters to a close friend histories, Gothic novels, the works of William Wilberforce, and of Lord Byron.”

No, I don't think JA detested Mrs. Bramston one little bit. And the icing on the cake of that interpretation is that I do believe that Lady Bertram really _was_ JA's _intentional_, but veiled, portrait of her dear old friend, Mrs. Bramston. For starters, as I have already suggested obliquely by my capitalizations---think anagrammatically----the name "Bramstone" (as JA spelled it in Letter 78) includes within its nine letters _six_ of the seven letters of "Bertram" (missing only the second "r")----and _both_ surnames begin with "B" and have the sequence "RAM" in them!

This kind of anagrammatical wordplay is of course JA's forte, and I am certain this was not accidental--indeed, I think that Mrs. Bramston understood the anagram, and _that_ was why she opined about MP as she did!

And....for me the best part of all is that this is not just inconsequential wordplay. I have for several years, for many substantive reasons, been of the firm opinion that Lady Bertram is, along with Harriet Smith, one of the two characters in all of JA's novels who begs to be interpreted topsy turvy from the obvious way of judging her character---i.e., Lady Bertram _seems_ to be little more than a human vegetable, a laudanum-drenched addict who barely moves from her sofa, and barely lifts a finger to protect Fanny.

But...I have known Lady Bertram to be playing possum, and actually to be Fanny's true protector and patroness. So....I say that Mrs. Bramstone is the Lady Bertram of Letter 78, and I defy anyone to accuse me of making a "greasy" interpretation!

ADDED 09/12/12: I thought some more about the relationship between Mrs. _Mary_ Bramston and her unmarried dowager sister in law, Mrs. _Augusta_ Bramston, and I realized that if Mrs. Mary Bramston was represented by Lady Bertram, then it only made perfect sense that her very unpleasant real life unmarried sister in law was represented by Lady Bertram's very unpleasant fictional unmarried sister in law......Mrs. Norris!

And the fact that in real life Mrs. Augusta Bramston was actually the _legal_ mistress of Oakley Hall [by the way, her father's name was _Edmund_!!] makes Mrs. Norris's presumption of the role of unofficial mistress of Mansfield Park--in her bossy domineering way--all the more hilarious as a satirical portrait of the very unpleasant Mrs. Augusta Bramston.

And we might also wonder whether Mrs. Augusta _Elton_ owes any of _her_ bossiness to Mrs. Augusta Bramston as well!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

In Janeites, Judson wrote: "Being a former cross country skier transported from upper Michigan to South Carolina, we were tuned to the snow conditions."

Diane Reynolds replied: "Thanks Judson, I had never heard of greasy snow. It's such an interesting term."

And I then replied further:

Judson, I don't doubt that "greasy snow" was a term of art during the 20th century amongst those, like skiers like yourself, who would invent or use a term for varied snow conditions (similar to the old schoolyard claim--was it true?--that Eskimos had nine different names for various sorts of urination sites....).

However, when I searched Google Books the other day for usages of "greasy" in connection with "snow", the only ones I found were from the 20th century onward---none whatsoever for any prior time period.

So.....from where I see it, Jane Austen was the earliest published user of that term in Letter 78, as I suggested a few days ago here....

.....and then, a century or so later, English speaking skiers reinvented the connection of "greasy" to "snow" (that is, unless Kipling also wrote a short story about a group of cross country skiers fighting in WWI...)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Speaking of modifications by the adjective "greasy" of unlikely nouns...this thread brought back memories for me from 40 years ago, of Grace Slick as songwriter and lead singer on the Jefferson Airplane song Greasy _Heart_: (lyrics) (audio cd)

Thy lyrics in that song are in that rich vein of revolutionary psychedelic for which the Airplane was richly renowned, and so you get the idea, through various outlandish images, that the woman's heart is "greasy" because of various personality defects. Although I listened to that song many times so long ago, it never occurred to me, however, till this morning that the title "Greasy Heart" is _itself_ a riff or transformation (anagrammatically and semantically) of the songwriter's own name----Grace (affectionately called Gracie) Slick----and after all, something which is "greasy" is also very likely "slick" as well.