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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When Kathleen Mourned Her Mother & Nora Mourned Jane (Two Centuries After Cassandra Got Lots of Mail From, and then Mourned, Jane)

During the past week, I’ve had occasion to write two posts….

…about the surprisingly erudite allusive qualities of Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail, following up on my first post on that topic a year ago when she died.

Well, this afternoon, just when I believed I had exhausted that rich vein of ore, I came upon yet another heretofore invisible cache, which might just be the mother lode of this particular “mine”. Tell me what you think.

Just after entering my “Shop Around The Corner” post in my blog over an hour ago, I started rereading Terry Castle's famous 1995 review of Le Faye's third edition of the JA Letters, in connection with an unrelated thread of research (as to which I’ll be posting later today or tomorrow).

Castle’s review, you might recall, became (in)famous because of (what I consider to be) Castle's careful comments and informed speculations about homoeroticism in JA's writing and life, which brought a firestorm of mad [in both senses of the word]  criticism down on Castle's head.

Lo and behold, as I read Castle’s comments and speculations, I was amazed to find not one but two echoes of You've Got Mail in them, echoes which (because Castle's essay preceded Ephron's film by three years) made it immediately obvious that it must have been Ephron who had read Castle's review very closely indeed.

And that got me wondering, why might Ephron have taken special note of Castle’s review? And in asking this question, the answer popped out at me instantly. Because, at least in part, Ephron must have been reading Le Faye’s third edition of JA’s letters, published earlier in 1995, an edition which was a major expansion of the second edition published a number of years earlier.

And I inferred that Ephron had been reading JA’s letters, because it occurred to me that the germ of inspiration for You’ve Got Mail was a double plan:

ONE: transplanting to 1990’s America the merry war of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (and its main allusive sources, Much Ado About Nothing and Shop Around The Corner); and

TWO: transplanting to 1990’s America, when AOL’s email network took America by storm, the sensibility of the romantic pre-WWII pen pals of Shop Around The Corner, and Jane Austen’s letters from two centuries earlier.  

Even if this sequence of inspiration isn’t what actually happened inside Nora Ephron’s head, it fits the final form of You’ve Got Mail to a tee, as I will now demonstrate, by sharing those two echoes with you:

First, Terry Castle wrote:

"One can imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing [to CEA by JA in JA's letters] engendered. For the reader, like Cassandra, is seduced by the constant foolery:

[four other examples of JA's epistolary wit and then...]
“Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?” [Letter dated 6/15/1808]

Surely you who know You’ve  Got Mail hear the echo as well. It seems to me very likely that Ephron was consciously thinking of the above passage in JA's letter, as well as of all the “nothings” in Much Ado About Nothing, when she has Kathleen Kelly write the following poignant and eloquent lines in an email to NY 1952 (i.e., Joe Fox):

“The odd thing about this form of communication is you're more likely to talk about NOTHING than SOMETHING. But I just want to say that all this NOTHING has meant more to me than so many... SOMETHINGS. So, thanks.”

Both Jane Austen herself, and Nora Ephron (via her alter ego Kathleen Kelly), are wise enough to recognize the value and meaning of the small talk of intimate letters between correspondents who care about each other, a mysterious alchemy of the heart which makes somethings out of nothings.

But there’s more to it even than that. I particularly hear Nora Ephron, by this veiled allusion to Jane Austen’s letter, in effect telling Jane Austen: “The odd thing about YOUR NOVELS is your characters and narrators are more likely to talk about NOTHING than SOMETHING. But I just want to say that all this NOTHING has meant more to me than so many... SOMETHINGS. So, thanks.”

In my opinion, this parallelism and resonance can’t be coincidental, but if you believe it might be, then read the following and realize that literary lighting never strikes twice in the same place. And then be even more impressed with, and moved by, Nora Ephron’s sly subtle homages to Jane Austen.

Terry Castle, in her review, makes it an overarching theme to examine Cassandra’s motivations in destroying and cutting pieces out of her dead sister’s letters to her, and Castle concludes that a prime motivation is jealousy. And that line of analysis leads Castle to the following conclusory insights into Cassandra Austen’s psyche:

“Can we forgive Cassandra her jealousy? Reading the last, wrenching letters in the new Oxford collection – those written by Cassandra herself to their nieces after Austen’s agonising death from Bright’s disease in 1817 – there is nothing for it but to do so. Cassandra sat by her sister’s bedside all of the long final evening and night, at one point supporting Austen’s dying head, which was ‘almost off the bed’, in her lap for six hours. ‘Fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs J. A. for two hours & a half when I took it again & in about one hour more she breathed her last.’ ‘I have lost a treasure,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight a few days later, ‘such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & ÏT IS AS IF I HAD LOST A PART OF MYSELF.’ She had a ring made up with a lock of Austen’s hair set in it – she wore it for the rest of her life – and dreamed of meeting her again: ‘I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on Earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting Heaven & never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.’ If such prayers are ever answered, one can only hope that she did.”

As I read that line of Cassandras about losing a part of herself, I was amazed, because I was instantly reminded of the following lines that Kathleen Kelly writes to (still secreted) Joe Fox about the emotional trauma Kathleen experienced when closing her mother’s bookstore:

“Soon we'll just be a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person
 will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing
 on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know, 
because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is, I'm
 heartbroken. I feel as if part of me has died, and my mother has died
 all over again, and no one can ever make it right.”

Ephron has Kathleen practically repeat the ALL CAPS words in Cassandra’s letter, about the loss of a most beloved female relative who is so irreplaceable that her death feels like the loss of a part of oneself. Way way beyond coincidence, especially when coupled with the “nothings” parallelism.

And, again, upon examination, great thematic significance emerges from this allusion. In an obviously much less intense way, isn’t this feeling of loss the way that many passionate Janeites feel about Jane Austen? From reading her novels, and reading about her life, I claim that we feel at least two kinds of loss.

First we think about Jane Austen’s premature death, and we mourn all the “unborn” novels she might have written after 1817 which might have enriched our lives still further, had not died so young (as Kathleen Kelly’s mother apparently did).

But second, and perhaps more poignantly, we feel that through reading her uncannily lifelike novels, somehow we know her personally, and, what’s more, we feel that she is a part of our inner lives, such that we have the impossible wish that we could have known her in person.

And what a big surprise, Kathleen also speaks to this very purpose about her mother’s extraordinary gifts early in the film:

“I used to watch her, and it wasn't that she was selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever they were going to turn out to be. When you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does.”

Isn’t that the way many of us Janeites feel about Jane Austen’s novels? She has helped us become whoever we were going to turn out to be. And it’s not just about reading Jane Austen as a child-that same statement holds  true for me, who never read a word written by Jane Austen till I was 44!  

But I am guessing that Nora Ephron read Jane Austen during childhood, and that You’ve Got Mail is her own heartfelt combination “love letter” and “thank you note” addressed to her long-gone literary mother & sister, Jane Austen.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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