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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Wild Idea about the Weakness in the Eyes of One of Jane Austen's Heroines, that Milton might have Given his Eyes to have Thought of it

Jane Austen suffered from what she called "weakness" in her eyes-we know this from three letters she wrote, the first to CEA when Jane was 24, and the second to CEA when Jane was 37, and the third and last to Anna, when Jane was 38.

This is of course an unreliably small sample for drawing any reliable inferences about Jane Austen's eye health during her entire adult life, other than that it appears likely that in her last few years of life, her eye problems, which had begun plaguing her no later than her early twenties,  became more severe, at least in duration.  We may safely infer that, because in Letter 103 to niece Anna, JA reports that "for these last 3 or 4 weeks [I] have had weakness in my eyes" and then she finishes the letter abruptly with "my eyes are tired so I must quit you."

Now, you will no doubt wonder why the question of Jane Austen's eye weakness is on my mind today, and what in the world I mean by my peculiar Subject Line.

The answer is that a few hours ago, while reading a scholarly article written forty years ago which included an eccentric but very interesting discussion of the heroine of one of the six novels, I was caught short when I read that this particular heroine's vision was much much less powerful than her hearing, which was extraordinarily acute.  I.e., this heroine largely experienced her world through her ears much more than through her eyes.

And a light bulb suddenly went on in my head, making me wonder whether that eccentric scholar who wrote that article so long ago, long before the dawn of Austenmania, long before the Internet, might just have been unusually sensitive to something extraordinary and amazing that has been hiding in plain sight in that Austen novel for 200 years, more or less (no clue there as to which novel, based on publication date!).

And I think you have by now guessed what that light bulb illuminated for me--the possibility, which I subsequently verified to my own satisfaction as a strong possibility, from browsing through the Austen novel in question, that Jane Austen had actually taken on the challenge, and had succeeded, of writing this novel from the point of view of a heroine who suffered from a more or less permanent "weakness in her eyes"!

This weakness would have been sufficient, over a period of time, to have altered the balance of her senses, such that her primary experience of the world was through hearing, then through smell and touch, and last with a (statistically) abnormal strong lack of visuality.

And the most extraordinary achievement of Jane Austen was that she never made it explicitly clear to her readers that this was the case--rather, JA reported the experience of her heroine in such a way that this imbalance was depicted implicitly--which is what enabled that eccentric scholar (to whom I reached out an hour ago, whereupon he advised me that he lacked email, so I'd have to communicate in writing with him by snail mail, which I will!)  to detect what had otherwise been invisible to every other reader of that Austen novel, as far as I have so far been able to discern on the Internet,
even though he doesn't appear to have realized the significance of his insight. 
This  is the sort of extraordinary outside the box literary experiment and innovation which might have been expected to have been tried in an early 21st century novel rather than one written in the early 19th century.

But that's Jane Austen for ya, two centuries ahead of her time in yet another important aspect!

So....anyone care to guess which heroine I am talking about, and, even better, to give me the line from that novel which links that heroine's eye weakness to a report in one of JA's letters of Jane Austen's same visual experience?  (that's a big hint)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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