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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 91: "Something of fancy perhaps, & something of imagination"---"It must be borne"

Today in Austen L and Janeites,  Diana Birchall wrote:

"...Jane Austen's next sentence in our letter ties right in, though she is referring to her conjectures about the sugar: "Something of fancy perhaps, & something of imagination." Interesting that she makes a distinction between the two, by the way - I generally think of fancy and imagination as more or less the same thing, don't you?... "

Yes they are pretty much exactly the same thing, Diana, and it is no surprise that you, with your sharp ear for tone, spotted that strangeness. It does seem at first glance to be an oddly failed attempt at contrast by JA. We know how careful and creative JA is in the choice of words, so perhaps we should suspect that JA is well aware of the unbecoming conjunction of this failed contrasting of synonyms, and has created one deliberately. Why? This reminds me of similar passages in earlier letters, and they all seem to be a variant on the same theme--i.e., JA is flagging for Cassandra that the passage which precedes that strange sentence was meant to be interpreted by CEA as a fanciful and imaginative coding of some dicey topic, so CEA should deploy all the fancy and imagination she's got, in order to decode the "receipt" (i.e., recipe) that JA has presented to her. And it turns out to be accurate!

Here is the passage in full:

" Edward has had all the particulars of the building, &c., read to him TWICE OVER, and seems very well satisfied. A NARROW door to the pantry is the only subject of solicitude; it is certainly just the door which should not be NARROW, on account of THE TRAYS; but, if a case of necessity, IT MUST BE BORNE.-- I knew there was SUGAR IN THE TIN, but had no idea of there being enough to last through your Company. All the better.-You ought not to think THIS NEW LOAF better than the other, because that was THE FIRST OF 5 WHICH ALL CAME TOGETHER. Something of fancy perhaps, & something of Imagination."

I am reminded strongly of the following two speeches spoken by the indefatigably imaginative and fanciful Miss Bates in _Emma_:

"Pray take care, Mrs. Weston, there is a step at the turning. Pray take care, Miss Woodhouse, ours is rather A DARK STAIRCASE—rather DARKER and NARROWER than one could wish. Miss Smith, pray take care. Miss Woodhouse, I am quite concerned, I am sure you hit your foot. Miss Smith, THE STEP AT THE TURNING."


"She will be extremely sorry to miss seeing you, Miss Woodhouse, but your kindness will excuse her. You were kept waiting AT THE DOOR—I was quite ashamed—but somehow there was a little bustle—for it so happened that we had not heard the knock, and till you were ON THE STAIRS, we did not know ANY BODY WAS COMING. 'It is only Mrs. Cole,' said I, 'depend upon it. Nobody else would COME SO EARLY.' 'Well,' said she, 'IT MUST BE BORNE SOME TIME OR OTHER, and it MAY AS WELL BE NOW.' But then Patty came in, and said it was you. 'Oh!' said I, 'it is Miss Woodhouse: I am sure you will like to see her.'—'I can see nobody,' said she; and up she got, and would go away; and that was what made us keep you waiting—and extremely sorry and ashamed we were. 'If you must go, my dear,' said I, 'you must, and I will say you are LAID DOWN UPON THE BED.'"

In my Jane Fairfax presentation, I have repeatedly pointed to that very passage as Miss Bates's metaphorical description of niece Jane during the final stages of childbirth----when, despite her having a "dark staircase" which is "rather darker and narrower than one could wish", nonetheless, when it's time to climb "the stairs", even if it's "so early" then there's no choice--"it"--being the baby-- "must be born some time or other, and it may as well be now." And so Anna Weston comes into the world.

And....seeing all these premonitions of Emma in this fanciful and imaginative passage in Letter 91 leads me to interpret JA's ostensible description of brother Edward's improvements as a thinly veiled description of a woman in childbirth--and perhaps "Sugar in the Tin" is a variant on "Bun in the Oven"--which fits with the colorful imagery of a "new loaf" which actually is a "quintuplet"!

And...that's not all. There is one other premonition of Emma in Edward's demand that the particulars of the building be read to him "twice over", in two different passages in the novel, which fits with this Emma subtext in Letter 91:

"Yes, papa; we have something to read you, something quite fresh. A piece of paper was found on the table this morning—(dropt, we suppose, by a fairy)—containing a very pretty charade, and we have just copied it in." She read it to him, just as he liked to have any thing read, slowly and distinctly, and TWO OR THREE TIMES OVER, with explanations of every part as she proceeded—and he was very much pleased, and, as she had foreseen, especially struck with the complimentary conclusion. "

"You are extremely kind," replied Miss Bates, highly gratified; "you who are such a judge, and write so beautifully yourself. I am sure there is nobody's praise that could give us so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouse's. My mother does not hear; she is a little deaf you know. Ma'am," addressing her, "do you hear what Miss Woodhouse is so obliging to say about Jane's handwriting?" And Emma had the advantage of hearing her own silly compliment repeated TWICE OVER before the good old lady could comprehend it. She was pondering, in the meanwhile, upon the possibility, without seeming very rude, of making her escape from Jane Fairfax's letter, and had almost resolved on hurrying away directly under some slight excuse, when Miss Bates turned to her again and seized her attention.

Given that JA had, by the time she was writing Letter 91, already begun to dream about Emma, and would shortly begin the formal writing of same, we should not be surprised to see JA trying out, in Letter 91, some of the fanciful and imaginative conceits she would eventually deploy in the text of Emma itself. And just as the charade needs to be read two or three times over in order to be understood in all its hidden meanings, so too must that passage in Letter 91 be read repeatedly by CEA, in order for CEA to understand JA's hidden meanings.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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