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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jane Austen's Letter 96 (6 November 1813): "They came & they sat...and then Jane Austen wrote"

In Janeites  and Austen-L, during our endless  group read of JA’s letters  (we have been at it for  over 2 years, and now have just about a year to go), Diana Birchall commented about the following passage in Letter 96 dated Nov. 1813:

“Since I wrote last, my 2nd edit. has stared me in the face. Mary tells me that Eliza means to buy it. I wish she may. It can hardly depend upon any more Fyfield Estates. I cannot help hoping that many will feel themselves obliged to buy it. I shall not mind imagining it a disagreeable duty to them, so as they do it. Mary heard before she left home that it was very much admired at Cheltenham, and that it was given to Miss Hamilton. It is pleasant to have such a respectable writer named. I cannot tire you, I am sure, on this subject, or I would apologise.” END QUOTE

Diana: “Jane's talk about the book is rather tart…a little more bitter than most of Jane's usual jocularity; is  she disappointed that her books are not bringing in more money, not making more of a splash?  For this is far from the ecstacy of "I have got my own darling child."  Instead it stares her in the face.  She has seen it  before.”

I responded as follows:

True, she is not rhapsodizing as she was about the “delivery” of P&P 9 months earlier, after a 15 year “pregnancy”, but then, it’s not surprising, when you think about it. The second edition of a novel is not a “delivery” of a “child”—it’s much more like in one of my favorite movies, Multiplicity --it’s a “clone” of the firstborn child—yeah, it’s a kind of birthday, but it’s not a BIRTH day!

And I think that’s relevant, as she anthropomorphizes S&S, giving it the capacity to stare her in the face, as if the book really were a two-year old child. At this point, S&S did not fulfill her “expectations” for it, it did not create the buzz amongst the literati that its younger, much more attractive sister, P&P, achieved in a much shorter time period. And so, JA, with her droll sense of humor, inevitably falls right into satire, assuming the role of the unfeeling mother whose eldest is not her favorite.

And, as her novels are filled with parents who think about their children in monetary terms (as Auden famously wrote), she plays up the conceit of thinking about S&S merely as a source of income to her as well, as if she had sent S&S off to the workhouse at age 2 to earn her keep.  JA writes, i.e., as if she were John & Fanny Dashwood, or Sir Thomas Bertram—clink, clink, show me the money, baby!   ;)

And speaking of the mercenary Sir Thomas….

Diana: “Lady Elizabeth Hatton and Annamaria's visit is evidently the dullest of all dull visits:  "I do not think I can say anything more about them. They came & they sat & they went."

I know it’s not my imagination that that last line distinctly and intentionally echoed Caesar’s famous report from a victorious battlefield in what is now Turkey: “I came, I saw, I conquered”. How do I know?

Because JA, only a half dozen short paragraphs earlier, took note of the momentous news of the victory by the English “Julius Caesar”, Wellington, in another part of the ancient  Roman empire, going by the modern name Spain. That just can’t be a coincidence—and anyway, that’s exactly how her mind worked, her vast knowledge in dozens of fields was all interconnected in her imagination, and allusions poured out of her in a torrent, spontaneously.

But…what’s even more important about JA’s report about Lady Elizabeth Hatton and her daughter is that they are they are the (illegitimate) niece and grand-niece of Lord Mansfield, as recently summarized here (Lady Elizabeth is the white girl on the right in the famous portrait):

I was writing about this very point in 2006. JA was getting Mansfield Park ready to be published as she wrote Letter 96. You can be darned sure that JA used her encounters with this real life “Lady Bertram” and her very quiet daughter (more like Fanny Price than Julia or Maria) to gather material for MP! In the end, JA was the “victor”, as JA came, & sat, and…..wrote (and then laughed a lot!)  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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