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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, BUT....": Jane Austen's Just Deserts?

In response to one passage in my immediately preceding post......

...Diana Birchall wrote:

"Arnie, when Cassandra Austen wrote: "I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand that struck the blow" and you were wondering: "Now why in the world would CEA write something so jarring as those final words, as if JA's death were somehow a just punishment imposed by God for sins committed by JA during life, sins which CEA somehow aided and abetted?" I don't think it's jarring, I think you're misreading Cassandra. As a Christian, she felt the justice of the hand that struck the blow on HER, in light of the fact that her love for her sister made her neglect others; she deserved this punishment. Again as a Christian, however, she would never presume to pass judgement on the Almighty's treatment of another, not even her own dearest sister. That's how it works. "

Diana, thank you very much for your cogent response, but I think you have focused way too much on the surface, and not at all on the clear context and implication, which actually leads to some very dark places! Let me take you there, but follow at your own peril.... ;)

Yes, CEA does superficially present JA's death in light of its adverse effect on CEA. But, think about it, where is the real punishment here? It obviously falls hardest, by far, on Jane Austen, who has died before the age of 42! CEA is going to grieve for a while, but she will also go on to live another TWENTY EIGHT years--so history tells us that she did not exactly pine away in Jane's absence!

It would be a very perverse and malicious God indeed, who would choose to punish CEA for paying too much attention to JA (hardly a mortal sin, I think you'll agree),  by killing JA off, yet allowing CEA to survive her younger sister by nearly three decades, unless...JA herself really deserved (in a negative sense) that premature death! Otherwise, that would not be the work of a Christian God of love, mercy, and grace, that would be the act of a Satanic God of malice, caprice, and perversity! 

Now, if CEA had truly considered JA's death in a Christian (i.e., selfless) light, she'd have instead written something very different, something like:

"I am conscious that my affection for your Aunt Jane made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, BUT.....if I have sinned thusly, then it would have been just for God to take me before my time rather than take my sister, who, as I just wrote, did deserve to be loved well, and herself did no harm warranting her dying long before her time; and what's more, her dying long before she could bring to the world another dozen novels of even higher quality than the six already completed. Whereas the world will only remember me as her sister. This is a terrible tragedy, one we all ought to be long in recovering from." 

Isn't that what CEA ought to have written, if she really sincerely did love JA "too well, not better than she deserved", and if she really did recognize her sister's great genius and its benefits to the wider world?  But instead, CEA has blamed the victim in a remarkably hypocritical and narcissistic way!  I want to say to Cassandra, "Sorry, this is not really about YOU!"

And that's just it---the only way CEA's bizarre literary allusion makes any sense at all, is if she's strongly implying, beneath a thin veneer of false piety, that JA is not a victim here at all, she is actually the real villain of the piece! The fair implication of the allusion to Othello, if we take it at face value, without any stretching,  is that JA has somehow been so selfish and so sly that she has succeeded in manipulating and beguiling CEA (just as Iago manipulates and beguiles Othello) into neglecting and mistreating "others" in the family. And so it is only just, in that situation, for God to give JA exactly the retribution "she deserved" (recall that JA played with the ambiguity of that verb in her novels, such that it was sometimes not clear whether she meant reward & praise, or criticism and punishment---the ambiguity of the latter of the following two examples having been noted years ago by Kishor Kale):

"I DESERVE neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

"Well, my dear," said he, when she ceased speaking, "I have no more to say. If this be the case, he DESERVES you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone LESS WORTHY."

And here's where the word "deserve" comes into play in Othello:

OTHELLO         Are you wise?
DESDEMONA What, is he angry?
LODOVICO      May be the letter moved him;
                        For, as I think, they do command him home,
                        Deputing Cassio in his government.
DESDEMONA Trust me, I am glad on't.
OTHELLO        Indeed!
OTHELLO        I am glad to see you mad.
DESDEMONA Why, sweet Othello,--
OTHELLO       [Striking her] Devil!
LODOVICO     My lord, this would not be believed in Venice,
                       Though I should swear I saw't: 'tis very much:
                       Make her amends; she weeps.
OTHELLO       O devil, devil!
                       If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,
                       Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
                       Out of my sight!
DESDEMONA I will not stay to offend you.     Going

So, the fair implication of what CEA has written to Fanny Knight is that if God removes Jane Austen, the troublemaker who has disrupted the proper moral order of things in the Austen family, and then all will proceed justly from here on in. CEA is actually saying something extraordinarily ugly and vicious to Fanny Knight.  This is more like "Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead!"

And what's even worse--if that's possible---is that I believe it likely that this ugly allusion did not pop randomly into CEA's head unprompted. It sounds to me like Fanny Knight had very likely recently expressed that very sentiment to CEA in the recent past. Fanny prolly wrote to CEA that Cassandra was being way way too attentive and nice to JA. And remember, this was while JA was actually resting and sleeping on a series of chairs,  without benefit of having been hypnotized first so as to keep her body straight, because Mrs. Austen had to have priority on the much more comfortable sofa!

And Cassandra's over-attentiveness to Jane was to the detriment of "others" in the family, which meant, "poor" Mrs. Austen (who managed to outlive her younger daughter  by a full decade, and reach an age more than double that which JA attained!), and perhaps also meant "poor"  Fanny herself--after all, during those last four months of JA's life, Fanny was probably not getting sucked up to quite as much by her two aunts now that one of those aunts was dying a slow, miserable death, while being cared for by the other aunt. No time or energy anymore for JA to write those long, totally insincere, and flattering letters to Fanny like Letters 151, 153, and 155 during the first three months of 1817, or, we might imagine, for CEA to write such letters to Fanny, either.  So Fanny, after four months of "neglect", had built up a pretty full well of resentment, which Aunt Cassandra felt compelled to pander to. Not a pretty picture.

Sound like I am being unfair to Fanny Knight? Then remember what Fanny wrote to her younger sister about Aunts Jane and Cassandra when Fanny was herself of a ripe old age---
"Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes–but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) improved them both & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of ‘common-ness’ (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined at least in intercourse with people in general. Both the aunts (Cassandra and Jane) were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion etc.) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent, & the kindness of Mrs. Knight, who used often to have one or other of the sisters staying with her, they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways. If you hate all this I beg yr’ pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end & it chose to come along & speak the truth."

I think it generally true that the years usually soften one's memory of a long-dead relative  ("the way we were..."), so just imagine how much more nasty were the thoughts Fanny was really thinking about vulgar, unrefined, common, below-par, but clever (in a deceitful sense)  Aunt Jane a half century earlier!

So, in recap, for CEA to channel Othello, in the immediate aftermath of having just brutally smothered his innocent wife Desdemona, because of incitement by a vicious sociopath, Iago, is a million--no, a trillion- light years away from a chaste, benign interpretation of Christian scripture!

And that's not all.......In the few days since I posted about Henry Austen's Biographical Notice...

...and, in part, pointed out that Cassandra's veiled allusion to Shakespeare's jealous husband smothering his wife was a strange bookend to Henry's veiled allusion, five months later, to Mackenzie's jealous husband poisoning HIS wife.....

....I have now noticed a third veiled allusion in exactly that same vein, and guess where it is? Also in Henry's Biographical Notice!:

"[Jane] expired shortly after, on Friday the 18th of July, 1817, in the arms of her sister, who, as well as the relator of these events, feels too surely that they shall never look upon her like again."

Do you recognize the literary source? Of course, it is what Hamlet says to Horatio in Act 1, Scene 2, about his dead father, the late King Hamlet:

He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

And what's most noteworthy, to me, in this allusion, is that, as the world knows, King Hamlet did not die of natural causes, he was.......POISONED!

So now we have not one, not two, but three veiled literary allusions-two by Henry Austen, one by Cassandra Austen--in which Jane Austen's death has been subliminally linked to famous literary...murders, and two of them specifically by poisoning!

Don't you wonder why murder was (to use Fanny Knight's turn of phrase) felt by both Henry and Cassandra "at their pen's end" when they each, separately, wrote about Jane after her death? Did those thoughts "choose to come along" and did they both decide to "speak the truth"?

Turns out my reference in my previous post to this all being food for Hamletian worms was far more apt than I dreamt of---the worms have turned, as it were, another full revolution! 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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