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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Letter #90. To Frank: "I wish I could believe that in the change of rank I had left every vice behind"

In Austen-L and Janeites, Diana Birchall wrote the following, in relevant part, regarding Jane Austen's Letter 90 written to her sailor brother Frank:

"...[Jane Austen] writes with fulsome compliments for the length and wonderfulness of [Frank's] letter, so much better than what she has done. She even channels Miss Bingley - "you write so even" - is that a deliberate reference? It must be intentional, for in writing, she hardly ever does anything without deliberation and consideration. And referring to Miss Bingley of course would be an inside joke.....She criticizes young James Edward (age 15) for not appreciating the same scenes, for he "is no Enthusiast in the beauties of Nature. His Enthusiasm is for the Sports of the field only." But she speaks well of him, and amusingly writes, "we must forgive his thinking more of Growse & Partridges than Lakes & Mountains." Again this echoes P & P, "what are men to rocks and mountains," for the second time in this letter. "

Diana, in my post two days ago in Janeites, Austen-L and my blog....

...I made the case for the _second_ of the veiled allusions to P&P you saw in Letter 90 (i.e., "Lakes & Mountains" & "rocks and mountains"] being entirely intentional, and for its having interesting thematic significance, when fully analyzed. So I was very glad to see you independently identify yourself---unless we were in psychic communication, it is quite meaningful that we both see P&P in that passage in Letter 90.

However, I had completely overlooked the first one, "you write so even", which you spotted--so first of all, kudos to you, you may very well be the first Austen to spot the parallel! And second, of course it was also intentional, as you suggest, as I have always found it to be the case, that JA never wrote a single word in either her fiction or her letters by accident or slovenliness, and often what she wrote had multiple meanings.

Now, assuming JA was not actually complimenting Frank's even handwriting in his previous letter, what else might that first allusion to P&P mean? Well, if you look at the line "you write so even" in its full context in Chapter 10 of P&P, I suggest to you that the meaning becomes (surprisingly _and_ hilariously) obvious, and turns out to be a window into an amazing matrix of allusion that pertains not only to P&P, but also to MP. Read on.....

"...Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister....Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.
"How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!"
He made no answer.
"You write uncommonly fast."
"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."
"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!"
"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours."
"Pray tell your sister that I long to see her."
"I have already told her so once, by your desire."
"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."
"Thank you—but I always mend my own."
"How can you contrive to write so even?"
He was silent. "

My 100% confident claim is that Jane Austen, by quoting Miss Bingley in Letter 90, is giving her brother Frank the pleasure of reminding him of the above sexually charged passage in Chapter 10 of P&P---a passage which I am most definitely _not_ the first person to point out that Darcy's insistence on mending his own "pen", and not agreeing for Caroline to "mend" it for him, is only the beginning of an elaborate sexual joke that extends halfway through the entire chapter!

But what makes me 100% confident this is not just a wild coincidence is that I only realized as I was writing the beginning of this post that three _weeks_ ago I posted about JA, writing Letter 87 to CEA only nine _days_ prior to her writing Letter 90 to Frank, making a thinly veiled allusion to that _very_ _same_ elaborate sexual joke in Chapter 10 of P&P!:

So, the possibility of all this tightly bound allusion to the same passage in P&P arising totally by chance in letters to both CEA and Frank Austen written days apart, becomes vanishingly small!

And I add that Caroline's witty riposte in questioning how Darcy "writes" so even with his "pen" shows that Caroline is no fool, and is totally in on the joke--she and Darcy are enjoying a little sexual repartee with the added spice for the jealous, possessive Caroline that it is only the naive Elizabeth--rather like a very earnest 10 year old who doesn't yet understand the birds and the bees, or, even more aptly, rather like Emma Woodhouse--- who believes that Darcy and Caroline are really only talking about pens, ink and paper. To a mind not yet opened to adult sexuality, their conversation can only rise to the level of being "curious", because she doesn't have a clue as to their true meaning.

Now, back to Austen family dynamics---why would this passage give pleasure to brother Frank? Wasn't Frank the pious religionist, a guy who would not approve of sexual humor, especially if it was coming his way from his younger sister? Well, I believe that Frank, for all his straight laced piety in many aspects of his life, was also first and foremost a _sailor_ and a man of the wider world, and, therefore, a guy who could enjoy a witty dirty joke as well as the next sailor! And he also being an intelligent and loving brother who respected Jane's frankness (ha ha) and creativity the way I imagine Captain Wentworth respected his outspoken, independent sister Mrs. Croft---I believe Frank knew his sister Jane to have a big mouth, when in the right company, and a love of sophisticated sexual humor, and so I am convinced that he enjoyed such exchanges with Jane. And also remember, after JA's death, Frank wound up marrying Martha Lloyd, with whom JA enjoyed a very frank and sometimes sexually humorous epistolary relationship over many years. When he let his hair down, Frank was no prude.

And part of the reason I am so confident that _he_ was in on JA's sexual humor in general, and was not a naive gull like Elizabeth Bennet, was what I recalled from the letter Frank wrote, at age 79, to Susan Quincy Waterston:

"I may as well mention two small mistakes you made in the direction of your letter—the first is that my second name is William, tho' I can well believe my signature is as likely to be read M. as W.—the other is that I am not a /Vice/ Admiral, having for the last 3 years attained the higher rank of Admiral. I WISH I COULD BELIEVE THAT IN THE CHANGE OF RANK I HAD LEFT EVERY VICE BEHIND."

Can anyone who reads that passage have any doubt whatsoever that the man who wrote it, in responding to inquiries directed to him by a passionate American Janeite seeking to learn all she could about the Austen family, was _fully_ aware of the sexual meaning of Mary Crawford's infamous pun?:

"Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of /Rears/ and /Vices/ I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat." *//*

It's not only the pun on the word "vice" that demonstrates Frank's sophisticated sense of sexual humor, it's also the wink toward Mary C.'s pun on "rears", that Frank provides with _his_ pun on "behind"! He's thinking back to MP, one of the two JA novels in which the navy takes center stage, with admirable (Ha ha) sailor brothers in each, and he's sending a message beyond the grave to sister Jane, by then dead 35 years, to celebrate her sexual humor spoken by the brash Mary Crawford.

So, in conclusion, Diana, I must ask you if you realized that the passage about Fanny Price's enjoyment of catching up with brother _William_ _also_ contains a sexual pun in its reference to "unchecked, equal, fearless _intercourse_"?????

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: