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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Jane Austen's Letter # 112 to Niece Anna Austen: No "Base, Fictitious Remembrance"

In Austen-L and Janeites this morning, we welcomed Diana Birchall back after a hiatus while she traveled here and there, and we had the following exchange about Jane Austen's Letter #112 to her newly married, 21 year old niece Anna Austen:
Diana:  "Jane would like to come see the newlyweds at Hendon, only eight miles from London, "but I have not a day disengaged," she writes. Her London stay is short; on Monday Henry takes her back to Chawton, and in the meantime he is keeping her occupied."

Me: We ought to read between these lines to note that Jane Austen's time is not her own, nor does she have any ability to travel even the short distance from London to Hendon. A 38 year old woman, a published author of two novels, sister of a man of real resources, and essentially still in the same helpless position as a 13-year from a modern American family living in suburbia---just imagine how different her life would have been had she had the resources to decide where and how she would spend ALL of her time!

Diana: "Henry has a penchant for wanting Jane to see the young women he may be interested in marrying, and the  Hanwell one is Miss Harriet Moore."

Me: Also read between the lines--Henry's wife, a woman of the world with a vast store of culture, learning, friends and conversation, died a year earlier at age 50, and now he's shopping around for, I gather, a much younger wife, at a time when, I would guess, there were many unmarried women Henry's age (mid forties) who probably would have been much more of a peer to him in every way.
"Plus ca change....", as the Ghost of Eliza might have drolly commented
observing all of this from above.  

Diana: "Can Charlotte Dewar be Anna's first cousin? Well, yes she is. It's hard (again) to wade through the interrelations, but you may have picked up on Penelope-Susan  Mathew. She is sister to the late Anne Mathew (died 1795) who married James Austen and was Anna's mother. So it is natural Jane Austen would be glad Anna is keeping in touch with her mother's family."

Me: Jane Austen wrote similarly back in 1808 if I correctly recall, about Anna
and Jane meeting members of another branch of the Mathew family, the Maitlands.
Jane was ALWAYS looking out for Anna, regardless of the mistaken belief held by many that she had "issues" with Anna---I see their relationship as being lovingly memorialized in the relationship of Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. E.g., the dependency of the Bateses on the generosity of others in order to travel here and there, even locally.

Diana: "Charles isn't there yet nor the Miss Moores; but she has been talking of Anna for "a mile and a half," and been sending a good report of her to Miss Beckford "with a description of your Dress for Susan & Maria." (Middleton is their name, Deirdre tells us; and these were apparently sometime tenants of Chawton Great House.)"

Me: My recollection from prior research is that "Miss Beckford" is actually a relation of the famous, controversial writer/zillionaire Beckford. And it is also my belief that Sir John Middleton owes his surname, in part, to  these worthy tenants of Chawton Great House.

Diana: "...Jane Austen did not much care for it, saying pungently: 
"I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me." Don't we know the feeling!"

Me: JA writes this having recently completed the novel which devotes its most significant extended episode to the theatre, so we can guess how stimulating it must have been to her creative imagination while writing Mansfield Park to have spent so much time in London, and finally having the chance to go to the theatre regularly, I presume.
As my recent post about the Macbeth allusion in Love & Freindship illustrates....

....she had been reading Shakespeare since she was 8 years of age or even younger, and so imagine what it meant to her, 30 years later, to actually have the chance to experience Shakespeare as performed by the greatest actors of her lifetime. And, just as she read the greatest literature but also writing of much less grand reputation, similarly, she did not limit her playgoing to Shakespeare.
No wonder Henry Crawford rhapsodizes about the stage as he does, the London stage must have created a riot of gratifications in Jane Austen's heart and mind as well:
"and Henry Crawford, to whom, in all the riot of his gratifications it was yet an untasted pleasure, was quite alive at the idea. "I really believe," said he, "I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language. Let us be doing something. Be it only half a play, an act, a scene; what should prevent us?

Diana: "This is a rare admission that Jane Austen personally, and very humanly, enjoyed watching a man-woman moment that has to be called a bit sexy!  And we are reminded that she has written about similar scenes in Mansfield Park. See Mary Crawford's speech..."

Me: You made exactly the same associations to MP, Diana!  

Diana: "She makes a nice closing, saying that Henry would send love if he were at home, "but I will not impose any base, fictitious remembrance on You."

Me: Again, Jane Austen showing, subtly, how her mind has been so engrossed in the writing of MP about the shadowy boundary between "facts" and "fiction", between "acting" and "sincerity".
Contrast this Letter 112, written in a lively but mature, level-headed prose, to the contemporaneous letters to Fanny Knight. Unlike the letters to Fanny, which contain nothing but artifice, and which have the tone of Harriet Smith's (phony) flattering effusions to Emma, this letter to Anna contains no hyperbole, no excessive flattery, just one older cultured woman writing to one younger cultured woman about their lives.
Indeed, we might say that the entire letter does not impose any base, fictitious ANYTHING on Anna, and when we reach the next letter to Fanny, the contrast will be overpoweringly obvious.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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