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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 87: The Perks of Being Sensitive to Austenian Irony

There are the _three_ short passages in Letter 87 which refer to Warren Hastings, who was, of course, the former Governor General of India. His impeachment trial was one of the major political events of Jane Austen's teenage years, and his personal connections to the Austen family over a period of decades are extremely well known:

"And Mr. Hastings! I am quite delighted with what SUCH A MAN writes about it. Henry sent him the books after his return from Daylesford, but you will hear the letter too….I long to have you hear Mr. H.'s opinion of P. and P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me...I heard Edward last night pressing Henry to come to G[odmersha]m, and I think Henry engaged to go there after his November collection. Nothing has been done as to S&S. The books came to hand too late for him to have time for it before he went. Mr. Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree...."

So as not to reinvent the wheel, here is the link to the blog post I wrote early last year in which I spelled out the many ways--in particular the veiled negative connotations, in _all_ of JA's novels, of the expression "such a man"---in which the three short above-quoted passages in Letter 87 are, in a thinly veiled way, pointing to Warren Hastings as the biological father of Jane Austen's cousin, Eliza (Hancock de Feuillide) Austen, and also to Hastings as an important allusive source for the character of
Colonel Brandon in S&S:

As you will see if you read the above post, the textual evidence supporting my ironic, sarcastic interpretation really is overwhelming in this case, and the "punch line" of my post was as follows:

"But I think JA is most curious to know if Hastings will take the hint of the two references to Brandon's illegitimate daughter, combined with other items connecting him to Hastings, such as the duel, and all the
stuff connecting to Tysoe and Phila Austen. Whereas in P&P JA writes "His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me."—this seems sincere, as Eliza Bennet is in part a tribute to Eliza Hancock Austen, and her Beatrice-like sparkling with and vivacity, and JA believes that Hastings did have a soft spot for his "daughter". But it's also why JA writes "Mr. Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree" in the immediately preceding sentence. I suggest that this is not Eliza Bennet (who is referred to sentences later as "Elizabeth"), but Eliza _Williams_ from S&S--and the way JA encodes this is two sentences later when she refers to various members of the Williams family. If they are actual people in the first place, and I think they are, I suggest that even so they are mentioned in _that_ sentence in the letter, sandwiched between sentences about Hastings, purposely to flag for CEA's sensitized eyes a veiled reference to Eliza _Williams_!"

I.e., it is only when Letter 87 is read in the context of the open secret of Hastings as Eliza's biological father, and Hastings having been given copies of both S&S and P&P, that JA's otherwise cryptic statement "Mr. Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree" becomes utterly clear in its meaning --it's Eliza Williams, who bears an illegitimate daughter named Eliza to a man who owns a great estate named _Delaford_ (sounds almost exactly like _Daylesford_).

This is the essence of the Jane Austen Code--what the reader can understand depends entirely on what assumptions the reader is operating under.

And, since I wrote the above linked post, I have realized that Warren Hastings is also represented in _another_ of JA's novels---Mansfield Park-in the character of the ponderous Sir Thomas Bertram--and of course Mary Crawford is yet another representation of Hastings's illegitimate daughter Eliza. And so it comes as no surprise that the novel of which JA was deep in the writing as she wrote Letter 87, was that very same Mansfield Park!

Therefore, the above probably qualifies  as perhaps the _quintessential_ example of the dangers of not being sensitive to irony while reading Jane Austen. If one is tone deaf to her irony, one is at grave risk of reading one of her passage utterly opposite to Jane Austen's true meaning.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: After posting the above, today, it occurs to me that I ought to finish with a brief speculative leap into the darkest shadows of Jane Austen’s novels, and to look more closely at Elizabeth Bennet as a representation of Eliza (Hancock de Feuillide) Austen, in connection with JA’s writing “Mr. Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree". In my above linked blog post from last year, I  concluded that Eliza _Bennet_ was not the hint from Warren Hastings that JA was watching out for, but instead, it  was Eliza _Williams_.
But what  if the hint from Hastings that JA was watching out for was not just regarding the (undisguised) illegitimacy of Eliza _Williams_, but was  _also_regarding the (deeply disguised)  illegitimacy of Eliza _Bennet_?
Sounds completely crazy?
Well, I have for over 7 years taken special note of the extraordinary coincidence  of so many suitors  (Darcy, Wickham, and Collins) all showing up at Lizzy’s door within such a short time period. I have long been of the opinion that this is not a coincidence at all, but instead Jane Austen’s broadest possible hint that things are going on offstage of which Lizzy, and therefore also the passive  reader, is utterly unaware..
And one theory I have long kept in the back of my mind, as being a key element of solving the winking hint of that giant coincidence, was that perhaps there was something about the circumstances of Lizzy’s birth---completely _unknown_ to Lizzy herself—which perhaps made her an especially inviting  target for those three men---i.e., might she not be the biological child of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, but instead of some rich powerful man—like, say, the elder Mr. Darcy—and some  young woman living  21 years earlier in the vicinity of Pemberley---like, say, the  younger, unmarried Mrs. Gardiner?
It would explain an awful lot if it were so, especially if Lizzy had been Mr. Darcy’s _only_ true biological offspring.
And there I leave off with my brief speculative  leap……

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