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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Subtle Spect-Ocular Subtext of Jane Austen’s Letter 123 (to Her 10-Year Niece Caroline Austen)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything significant going on in the first sentence of the very short Letter 123 from Jane Austen to her 10-year old niece, Caroline (of course, the much younger of brother James’s two daughters): 

"I have not yet felt quite equal to taking up your Manuscript, but think I shall soon, & I hope my detaining it so long will be no inconvenience.-

But upon closer examination of the context, subtle subtexts emerge from between the lines. And these subtexts have significant implications which, amazingly enough, relate to a very significant theme in Persuasion, which I’ve hinted at in my Subject Line, and which I’ve written about previously.  Let me explain.

Diana Birchall wrote the following in Janeites & Austen L: “Jane Austen writes from Henry's house at Hans Place, to James's younger daughter Caroline, age ten….Henry is still severely ill, though just beginning to be considered out of the gravest danger.”

Reading the first part of Letter 123, my first thought was to wonder, in the midst of all the family angst over Henry’s life-threatening illness, about the toll Henry’s suddenly dangerous illness has taken, to little fanfare, on Jane Austen herself, over the preceding few weeks! In particular, I find the following discreetly worded lines…

 “I have not YET FELT QUITE EQUAL to taking up your Manuscript…”

…highly suggestive. JA seems to be reporting, albeit in code graspable only by adult eyes at Chawton like sister Cassandra's, that JA is feeling more than a little overwhelmed emotionally and logistically by the stressful demands of caretaking for Henry. And wouldn’t that be just typical of the way the Austen family operated? When it was a brother who was ill or in trouble, Mrs. Austen and everyone else was on full alert, the family troops were mobilized, and frequent concerned bulletins were sent in every direction until the crisis eased.

But it’s been a persistent theme of JA’s letters, to say nothing of her novels, that female illness, worries, and concerns—especially those of unmarried younger females like JA--- rarely receive anything remotely resembling that sort of mobilized and proactive response---the quintessential example of this being JA, during her final illness, having to sit on three chairs placed together to simulate a sofa, so that her mother could have the actual sofa.

So I read this line as JA’s faint cry for help, or at least recognition, of what she was going through at that time. Here she is awaiting publication of Emma, her crowning literary achievement, and yet, as we will shortly read in Letter 124, that publication is on hold while JA tends to Henry.

But that’s all only the half of it. Upon further consideration of the full context, it occurred to me that, under that emotional stress, JA may well have even taken physically ill herself. The word “yet” is very pregnant, it suggests that in the previous letter to Chawton re Henry’s dangerous illness, as to the subject matter of which Caroline would have been informed to some appropriate extent, JA had also reported some symptoms of physical illness from which JA needed to recover, somehow, while tending to Henry’s recovery.  

And if I’m correctly reading JA between the lines, and JA is recovering from physical illness in some way as she writes Letter 123, my further inference would be that the malady was very likely a “weakness” in her eyes.

Why? You’ll recall that JA did write about that eye weakness explicitly in a few of her letters, and, I argued in a recent series of seven posts in late August and early September of this year, beginning here…..

…and ending here…..

….that JA also wrote about her vision impairment indirectly but pervasively in Persuasion, the very same novel which JA had already begun writing as she wrote Letter 123, by covertly depicting Anne Elliot as having a serious “weakness” in her eyes!

But back to Letter 123 and JA’s eye weakness. Isn’t it a truism that each of us has particular areas of medical vulnerability, the “weak links” in our bodies which tend to betray us when our immune system is lowered? And I think JA’s weak link was her vision, and this would also fit perfectly with the duty which JA was delicately apologizing for to Caroline for failure to perform—reading Caroline’s manuscript!

And this also dovetails perfectly with one other biographical detail. It now seems likely to me that JA’s communications (by letter, and also no doubt in person) to 10-year old niece Caroline about JA’s persistent eye “weakness” left quite a profound and lasting deposit in Caroline’s memory banks. Why? Because it was Caroline Austen herself, who wrote the following words more than a half century later in her memoir about JA, My Aunt Jane Austen:

She found a resource sometimes in that simple game [cup and ball] when she suffered from weak eyes and could not work or read for long together"

This is pretty much the only detail that Caroline reports about her aunt’s health in that brief Memoir, so it speaks to the strong impression that was made on Caroline about JA’s eyes, an impression which first became particularly strong during those few weeks in October, 1815.

So, in conclusion, upon such examination, informed by a grasp of JA’s subtextual code, we can see that what might have appeared at first to be a little white lie, told by a considerate aunt to a sensitive 10 year old niece to excuse a negligent failure to inspect that niece’s first literary efforts, was actually a deep glimpse into, and further validation of, the subtextual code which permeated all of JA’s writings, both imaginary & novelistic and realistic & epistolary.

We need no longer be blind to the Jane Austen Code.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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