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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

More re the Pride & Prejudice-tinged Absurdist Humor of Letter 81

I am still chuckling as I reread the following passage in Letter 81 about the Catholic Church's Oath of excommunication:

" I have been applied to for information as to the oath taken in former times of Bell, Book, & Candle but have none to give. Perhaps you may be able to learn something of its origin & meaning at Manydown. Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the Breakfast parlour there, must be acquainted with everything in the world."

Upon further research and reflection, I am not sure which is funniest among the following three aspects of the above:

1. the pitch-perfect mock seriousness of JA's request for information from CEA, including in particular the absurd equation of the sheer bulk and size of volumes in the Manydown parlor with the notion of those volumes containing information about "everything in the world". I would imagine that JA had enormous difficulty "keeping her countenance" as she wrote the above-quoted passage. And I just realized, it is in _exactly_ the same vein as the passage in P&P I pointed out recently, where Mr. Bingley exhibits his own unexpected adept facility with absurdist humor, delivered with a totally straight face in the parlour at Netherfield, by explaining his own extreme deference to Darcy's edicts as a logical consequence of Mr. Darcy's _tallness_!:

"By all means," cried Bingley; "let us hear all the particulars, not forgetting their comparative height and size; for that will have more weight in the argument, Miss Bennet, than you may be aware of. I assure you, that if Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference. I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do."


2. the way that the two reputable Austen scholars who have taken notice in print of the above passage have written about it---absolutely oblivious to the joking tone of the passage, but instead taking it completely seriously:
_Laura Mooneyham White: JA’s Anglicanism:
p. 119: “Writing in 1813 to Cassandra, who was visiting the Bigg-Withers at Manydown, she gives the news that she has been "applied to for information as to the Oath taken in former times of /Bell Book/& /Candle/— but have none to give. “ Her reluctance seems mostly to follow from a dislike of long scholarly reading (note the four adjectives in a row she deploys against quartos—“enormous great stupid thick”) and less from lack of interest in the Church…The phrase "bb&c" refers to the most extreme act of excommunication performed in the Catholic Church, the rite of anathema, a rite not much practiced since the Middle Ages.”

Ian Littlewood, Critical Assessments:
p.180: “Austen knew nothing, when applied to, of a medieval curse and had little interest in pursuing the matter herself….She would rather encounter play of mind than store information for its own sake. Undeniably, too, her interest in the past was severely limited…”


3. the fact that Le Faye has _no_ footnote whatsoever for the above quoted passage in Letter 81! Is there any clearer indication of her editorial bias? Isn't it clear that "Bell, Book & Candle" was crying out for an annotation? But Le Faye is no fool---she realized that JA was horsing around bigtime in a way that, if described for what it was, would strike some modern readers as sacrilegious---Jane Austen joking about excommunication? Horrors! ---so she took the path of least resistance, and just ignored it entirely (and I just double checked---it was ignored in the new 4th edition, too!).

In the light of the above, is it any wonder that profound misconceptions about Jane Austen's religiosity continue to widely prevail? It required the stubborn persistence of a outlier/skeptic such as myself to notice, and then bring to the attention of other Janeites, the significance of a passage which is utterly irreconcilable with the notion of JA as a pious, modest, serious High Anglican.

And finally, it occurred to me as I was writing this message that I have one additional bit of evidence to support my claim that JA was joking around about excommunication, and it is in the following passage earlier in Letter 81:

"While I think of it, give my love to Alethea (Alethea first mind, she is Mistress) & Mrs Heathcote & kind remembrances to Miss Charlotte Williams. Only think of your having at last the honour of seeing that wonder of wonders, her elder sister! We are very sorry for what you tell us of Deane. If Mrs Heathcote does not marry & comfort him now I shall think she is a Maria & has no heart. Really, either she or Alethea must marry him, or where he is to look for happiness?"

JA is of course referring to two of the Bigg sisters, the unmarried Alethea and the widowed Elizabeth, and to John Harwood VII, the poor guy whose life was ruined in 1813 by the death of his father leaving crushing debts to be paid off by his eldest son, that we heard about in earlier letters! John Harwood VII had been a suitor for the hand of the widowed Elizabeth Bigg, until his financial debacle in 1813 rendered (so we are all told) that marriage impossible.

But....does any one of you _really_ believe that JA was being serious when she writes that if Elizabeth does not marry John Harwood VII, then _Alethea_ should marry him instead? Are we supposed to think that JA seriously thought about marriage in this way? Of course not! This is more horsing around on JA's part, and, again, are we not reminded of an absurdist passage in Pride & Prejudice, this time out of the mouth of that master of the put-on, Mr. Bennet:

"You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy."

Remember---JA is writing Letter 81 still flushed with the euphoria of the publication of P&P---so it is no surprise at all that she would giddily and covertly allude to not one but _two_ absurdist passages in P&P in Letter 81--and the crowning glory of the in-joke with CEA is the linkage between the real life _Elizabeth_ Bigg and the fictional _Elizabeth_ Bennet---aka "my little Lizzy"----and I long ago wondered whether the fictional name "Bingley" was connected to the real name "Bigg"! Which also makes me wonder whether there is not some sharp satire of the ill-fated proposal to JA by the unattractive Harris Bigg-Wither in the ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet by the unattractive Mr. Collins! So it is no surprise at all that the Bigg family are the "stars" of Letter 81!

And that's what takes us _right_ back to "bell, book, and candle"---Alethea and Elizabeth Bigg are those very same Manydown ladies with their "enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes" who supposedly would have been experts on the Catholic excommunication curse!

In closing, then, one point that has come through clearly to me during the course of our long group read of JA's letters, is that certain letters seem to have caught JA in a particularly joking mood, and therefore are packed with one joking, mock serious passage after another. And it is clear that Letter 81 is one of those letters!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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