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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jane Austen’s Epitaphs

In Austen L and Janeites, Diane Reynolds wrote: “I do think it is notable that JA's tomb says the following: The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the EXTRAORDINARY endowments of her mind. The attribute that earns the adjective extraordinary is her mind. Not her benevolence of heart or sweetness of temper, which were apparently ordinary, but her mind. It would cost extra money to have extraordinary added--someone wanted that emphasis. I don't think JA was running around being uncharitable to people, but she was obviously extremely intelligent and fools must have grated on her, especially highly privileged fools.”

Excellent point, Diane!  

Diane also wrote: "While I would not use an inscription on a tombstone as evidence of the character of a person--how many monsters have been buried as "loving husbands and fathers"....."

So true, Diane, and that's an observation that Jane Austen, so acutely attuned to hypocrisy, especially in the realm of religion and morality, would certainly have made herself!

Your above quoted comments made me wonder about references, direct or indirect, to tombstones and epitaphs in JA’s own writings, and here’s what I found or recalled (have I left any out?):

A. Her quoting from Gray's famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”  in both Northanger Abbey and Emma;

B. The following passage in Chapter 24 of Northanger Abbey...

"The day was unmarked therefore by anything to interest her imagination beyond the sight of a very elegant monument to the memory of Mrs. Tilney, which immediately fronted the family pew. By that her eye was instantly caught and long retained; and the perusal of the highly strained EPITAPH, in which every virtue was ascribed to her by the inconsolable husband, who must have been in some way or other her destroyer, affected her even to tears."

...which I discovered, nearly 5 years ago, to be a thinly veiled allusion to the real life epitaphs erected on a wall in Westminster Abbey more than 3 1/2 centuries ago by the fifty-something Samuel "Bluebeard" MORLAND, mourning (in a highly strained and highly hypocritical fashion) the deaths in childbirth of his TWO child brides.....


C. In Letter 95 to CEA dated 11/3/13, the following droll discussion of a great change in the life of Henry Austen's (soon to be former) manservant, William:

"I am glad William's going is voluntary, & on no worse grounds. An inclination for the Country is a venial fault.--He has more of Cowper than of Johnson in him, fonder of Tame Hares & Blank verse than of the full tide of human Existence at Charing Cross."

As to that last sentence, packed as it is with two literary allusions, relative to the apparent preference of the country over the city by William, I was surprised to find that this allusion has not previously been discussed in the Persuasions journals, Janeites or Austen-L, beyond Diana’s brief comment in passing a few months ago.

The only other discussions of same I could find in print were (i) a brief mention by Jane Stabler in her essay in Jane Austen in Context in which Stabler completely misses JA’s point, thinking that JA was referring to Johnson’s supposed disinclination for blank verse, rather than for the country; and (ii) a longer but still brief mention by Isobel Grundy, in which Isobel gets it right on JA’s essential point about Cowper as country mouse and Johnson as city mouse. However, I disagree with Isobel’s inference that JA sides with Johnson because JA referred to love of the rural as “a venial fault”.  I hear an ironic put-on in JA’s tone, and therefore my belief remains that JA really preferred an alternation between the two, each of which held great pleasures for her.

In any event, I will now attempt to give this passage its (long over) due, by a proper unpacking of its two allusions.

Le Faye cites the reference to Cowper as being to his Epitaph on a Hare, and I believe she is spot-on,  because even though Cowper published a lengthy (prose) letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1784 about his three pet hares, the only “blank verse” he wrote about his “tame hares” was indeed the following (which I reproduce in full):

One of my Hares is dead - behold his Epitaph:
Here lies, whom hound did ne'er pursue,
Nor swifter Greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne'er tainted morning dew,
Nor Ear heard Huntsman's hollow,
Tiney, the surliest of his kind,
Who, nurs'd with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confin'd,
Was still a wild Jack Hare.
Though duely from my hand he took
His pittance ev'ry night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And when he could, would bite.
[about twenty lines omitted]
But now beneath this Wallnut shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
'Till gentler Puss, shall come
She still more ancient, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And partner once of Tiney's box,
Must soon partake his grave;

As I read the above, I speculate that JA, who must have already been familiar with both Cowper’s famous public letter, and also the above-quoted poetic epitaph, chose the latter to allude to because I think she identified with Cowper’s “surly” hare  “Tiney”! Per Cowper’s eulogy, Tiney lived out of nature, safe from external predators, and yet, Tiney always remained wild to some extent, even under Cowper’s benevolent rule. So perhaps that’s why Tiney came to her mind when searching for literary sources to inform her commentary on William.

And I suspect it is no coincidence that JA recalled another, very different poem about a hare when she wrote Emma, not long after she wrote Letter  95. Of course I refer to the line from Gay’s Fable “The Hare and Many Friends” which Mrs. Elton cryptically but ominously quotes in reference to Jane Fairfax, who was a city mouse who spent six months (or two trimesters) in the country and who I believe returned to the city after her stay in Highbury and never did return to the country to live:

'For when a lady's in the case,
You know all other things give place.'

Gay’s poem is about the grave danger faced by a hare when her friends desert her when she is most in peril from a threat—in this case, the bull. So I suggest it is no coincidence that we have Cowper’s hare Tiney, and Gay’s hare, one sheltered from harm, the other exposed to it, both sharing a corner in Jane Austen’s vast imagination.  

Now, on to the relevant passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, reporting on the events of April 2, 1775 [i.e., 15 days prior to the battle of Lexington]:

“…I talked of the cheerfulness of Fleet-street, owing to the constant quick succession of people which we perceive passing through it. JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, Fleet-street has a very animated appearance; but I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing-cross.'  He made the common remark on the unhappiness which men who have led a busy life experience, when they retire in expectation of enjoying themselves at ease, and that they generally languish for want of their habitual occupation, and wish to return to it. He mentioned as strong an instance of this as can well be imagined. 'An eminent tallow-chandler in London, who had acquired a considerable fortune, gave up the trade in favour of his foreman, and went to live at a country-house near town. He soon grew weary, and paid frequent visits to his old shop, where he desired they might let him know their melting-days, and he would come and assist them; which he accordingly did. Here, Sir, was a man, to whom the most disgusting circumstance in the business to which he had been used was a relief from idleness.' …”

So here we have Johnson utterly convinced that retirement to the country after an active life in the city would never work. Somehow I don’t think this is about William the servant one day yearning to return to London—would Henry Austen’s manservant have had the kind of life that would have allowed him to enjoy the excitement of the big city?  

No, I think, again, that this is about Jane Austen herself, who wished to have both a city life and a country life, in alternation.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Apropos Diane’s comment about the sometimes cosmic unreliability of tombstones as evidence of the true character of a person, I was reminded of the following anecdote told by Laurie Anderson on her amazing CD, The Ugly One With The Jewels, in which she tells the story of how she came to visit the grave of Hermann Hesse:

"...the only sadder cemetery I saw was last summer in Switzerland. I was dragged there by a Hermann Hesse fanatic, who had never recovered from reading Siddhartha, and one hot August morning when the sky was quiet, we made a pilgrimage to the cemetery; we brought a lot of flowers and we finally found his grave. It was marked with a huge fir tree and a mammoth stone that said “Hesse” in huge Helvetica bold letters. It looked more like a marquee than a tombstone. And around the corner was this tiny stone for his wife, Nina, and on it was one word: “Auslander” — foreigner. And this made me so sad....and so mad.... that I was sorry I’d brought the flowers. Anyway, I decided to leave the flowers, along with a mean note, and it read: "Even though you’re not my favorite a LONG shot...I leave these flowers on your resting spot."

Somehow that seemed particularly apt to a discussion of Jane Austen’s epitaphs.

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