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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jane Austen’s Letter 90 dated 09/25/13: Young Edward Knight “thinking more of Growse & Partridges than Lakes & Mountains”--- But, replies Elizabeth Bennet/Jane Austen: “What are young men to rocks and mountains?”

Letter 90 is from JA (visiting Godmersham, as she states explicitly, for the first time in about 4 years, i.e., for the first time since late 1808 or early 1809, when sister in law Elizabeth died) to brother Frank (still  on duty somewhere in the Baltic region of northern Europe).

I am always on the lookout in JA’s letters for veiled allusions to JA’ _fiction_, and what immediately caught my eye in that regard in Letter 90 was the following excerpt, in which JA describes her activities during the few days she spent in London with brother Henry after arriving from Chawton, but prior to making the second leg of her journey to Godmersham in Kent:

“Of our three evengs in Town one was spent at the Lyceum & another at Covent Garden;-the Clandestine Marriage was the most respectable of the performances, the rest were singsong & trumpery, but did very well for Lizzy & Marianne, who were indeed delighted;-but I wanted better acting.-There was no Actor worthy naming.-I beleive the Theatres are thought at a low ebb at present.-Henry has probably sent you his own account of his visit in Scotland. I wish he had had more time & could have gone farther north, & deviated to the Lakes in his way back, but what he was able to do seems to have afforded him great enjoyment & he met with scenes of higher Beauty in Roxburghshire than I had supposed the South of Scotland possessed.  Our nephew's gratification was less keen than our Brother's.-Edward is no Enthusiast in the beauties of Nature. His Enthusiasm is for the sports of the field only.-He is a very promising & pleasing young Man however upon the whole, behaves with great propriety to his Father & great kindness to his Brothers & Sisters-& we must forgive his thinking more of Growse & Partridges than Lakes & Mountains. He & George are out every morng either shooting or with the Harriers. They are both good shots.”

The above passage reminds me, on multiple levels, of the following passage in  Chapter 27 of P&P (which of course was published only eight months _prior_  to JA’s writing Letter 90), in which we hear about Elizabeth Bennet’s few days in London, after arriving from Longbourn, prior to _her_ making the second leg of her journey to Hunsford—like Godmersham, also in Kent:

“The day passed most pleasantly away; the morning in bustle and shopping, and the evening at one of the theatres. Elizabeth then contrived to sit by her aunt…..“
During intermission, Lizzy and Aunt Gardiner famously discuss the thin line between the prudent and mercenary in marriage, ending with her Aunt’s calling Lizzy on her sour grapes about Wickham:
“….‘Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment.’
Before they were separated by the conclusion of the play, she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.  "We have not determined how far it shall carry us," said Mrs. Gardiner, "but, perhaps, to the Lakes."  No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "Oh, my dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."

There is nothing remarkable in parallels between these two passages—one factual, the other fictional-- in describing trips to the theatre (a special treat of which of course Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen would always wish to avail themselves while in London).

But… reading these two passages one after the other _also_ makes it obvious that JA was taking some pleasure (and, if Frank has by this time also read P&P, giving him pleasure as well) in setting up a drolly ironic contrast between nephew Edward’s valuing the hunting of birds over the appreciation for picturesque scenery, on the one hand, and Elizabeth Bennet’s temporary sour grapes in putting the appreciation of picturesque scenery over the “hunting” of handsome young men, on the other!  And I am immediately reminded of the image of Lydia Bennet as a determined no holds barred “hunter” of husbands---an approach to that pastime of which Elizabeth, we all know, famously disapproves!).

But thinking about Lydia’s courtship behavior “in the wild” has just made me realize that there are even more P&P thematic echoes in the above passage from Letter 90, once we delve a little more deeply.

First, the hunting of birds is itself a metaphor for the courtship of single women by single men, a parallel which the odd couple of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet makes clear in the following two widely separated and at first seemingly disconnected statements:

Ch. 1: "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."

Ch. 53: “When you have killed all your own birds, Mr. Bingley," said her mother, "I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr. Bennet's manor. I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you, and will save all the best of the covies for you."

JA, by making both of these statements memorably funny, makes it possible for a reader (such as myself, in this case) to connect the dots between them and realize, once you stop laughing, that JA may also be suggesting that courtship might be just as fatal for many young women as hunting is for the birds hunted!

And second, the picturesque scenery of Pemberley is inextricably bound up in Elizabeth’s falling head over heels for Darcy during  the final volume of the novel-as a hundred commentators have pointed out, Mr. Darcy and the Pemberley estate become one in Elizabeth’s mind and heart.  

Put another way, later in life, the young Edward Knight’s youthful passion for hunting non-human birds gave way to his siring (the relatively modest total of) seven children upon his wife, whom he raised (where else?) in the picturesque environs of Godmersham!

And concluding with a little more biography, I believe we may also safely infer, that:

JA shared with Henry Austen a love of the actual picturesque countryside; and

JA had long, long since found the “grapes” of marriage very sour indeed—unlike her creature Elizabeth, who, despite her fervent belief in her own self-styled epiphanies about her own character, shows herself to be extremely receptive to the renewal of Mr. Darcy’s “hunting” for a wife! Put another way, JA had by 1813 long since realized that she was no more likely to find satisfaction of her personal needs from hunting for husbands than she was from hunting partridges or growse!  

And I wonder if Mary Russell Mitford had grasped _any_ of the above metaphorical nuances, when she quoted her mother ‘s  famously malicious bon mot about the young JA: “Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers..."

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

I just did some quick checking, and I see that Peter Knox-Shaw, at ppg. 70-71 of his excellent book Jane Austen & The Enlightenment, wrote about these two passages (in P&P and in Letter 90, respectively) on consecutive pages, although he did not ascribe to JA any conscious intent to link the two passages thematically, as I have argued, above.

All the same, K-S shows his usual sharp instinct for meaningful connections within the Austenian matrix.