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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jean Webster & Jane Austen: And Onoto Watanna & Jane Eyre too!

Diana  Birchall wrote: "The review I wrote about Katherine Reay's novel "Dear Mr. Knightley" is here, on the Austenprose blog:  
The novel is a retelling of Jean Webster's charming bestseller Daddy-Long-Legs (written in 1912), and reading about Webster got Arnie thinking about similarities with Emma."

Diana, it wasn't reading about Webster that got me thinking in that vein, all it took was for you to reveal Reay's title--Dear Mr. KNIGHTLEY----and that immediately made me wonder whether Reay was hinting--in a very explicit yet veiled way--at some sort of allusion to Emma that she had detected in Daddy Long Legs.

That's why I found and read Daddy Long Legs and immediately verified from numerous textual hints that there was indeed a significant matrix of sly allusion by Webster to Emma----and I can now also verify, from the friendly response I received yesterday from Katherine Reay herself, that she did indeed mean, by her title, to hint at exactly that allusion!

So...major kudos to Katherine Reay for being the first to take note of Jean Webster's veiled allusion, in the very famous and popular Daddy Long Legs, to Austen's Emma—I’ve picked up where Reay left off, and sleuthed out more aspects of that allusion to JA by Webster, including taking note of the Pride & Prejudice allusion in Daddy Long Legs. Daddy Long Legs is just as much Mr. Darcy as he is Mr. Knightley, and, as i wrote previously, I believe Nora Ephron knew about his Darcyishness, too! 

Diana also wrote: "Now, I happen to know quite a lot about Jean Webster because she was my grandmother's best friend. She helped my grandmother (pen name Onoto Watanna, real name Winnifred Eaton) get her 1915 sensational anonymous memoir "Me" published, and Jean Webster wrote the introduction. " 

That is just too amazing and wonderful, how that must add to your pleasure and pride in your grandmother's already significant achievements, to also know that she moved in such influential literary circles, and held her own there! Did your grandmother by any chance leave behind any interesting observations about her best friend's fiction or life?

Diana also wrote: "Jean had some problems with her great-uncle Mark Twain since her father failed as his publisher and there was bad feeling, but she clearly remained close to him..."

Yes, my eyes widened yesterday when Wikipedia alerted me to that close familial and professional relationship between Mark Twain and Jean Webster. It is especially significant to me, because, as you will recall from my many prior posts on the subject, I am certain that Twain was a closet Janeite who merely pretended, in his satirical way, to dislike JA's writing.  So, knowing what I now do about Webster's novel being such a deep homage to Emma and Pride & Prejudice, it REALLY makes me wonder what sort of conversations and/or correspondence Jean Webster may have had with her great-uncle (who was also her "great uncle" in another sense!) about Jane Austen. E.g., did she discuss with him her intention to make this veiled allusion to JA's writing in Daddy Long Legs as she was writing it? Or did she discuss it with him after her great success with Daddy Long Legs?  Was there ever a point at which they found out they were both closet Janeites? 

By the way, it will also of interest to some reading here, I think, that in addition to Webster's covert allusions to Jane Austen's fiction in Daddy Long Legs, there was also an overt allusion to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which Webster's heroine discusses as follows:

"I sat up half of last night reading “Jane Eyre”. Are you old enough, Daddy, to remember sixty years ago? And if so, did people talk that way? The haughty Lady Blanche says to the footman, ‘Stop your chattering, knave, and do my bidding.”Mr. Rochester talks about the metal welkin when he means the sky; and as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena and sets fire to bed curtains and tears up wedding veils and bites—it’s a melodrama of the purest, but just the same, you read and read and read. I can’t see how any girl could have written such a book, especially any girl who was brought up in a churchyard. There’s something about those Brontes that fascinates me. Their books, their lives, their spirit. Where did they get it? When I was reading about little Jane’s troubles in the charity school, I got so angry that I had to go out and take a walk..  I understood exactly how she felt… "

I just did some very brief biographical digging and found the following extraordinary, uncanny parallelism between Jane Eyre's fictional life and Jean Webster's real life, as described in the following excerpt from Jane Eyre's American Daughters: From The Wide, Wide World to Anne of Green Gables by John D. Seelye:

“…Jean Webster’s life after 1907 was a post-graduate education in adversity. She fell in love with Glen Ford McKinney, a wealthy sportsman eleven years her senior and the brother of her close friend Ethelyn McKinney, one of the four women with whom she had traveled around the world. The love affair began shortly after Jean’s return but remained a secret for seven years because Glenn was married to Annette (nee Renaud), daughter of a Creole wine merchant in Martinique. Annette was subject to spells of severe depression, which drove the relatively weak willed Glenn to binge drinking…Annette McKinney’s depression bordered on psychosis and she spent much of her married life in and out of sanatoriums…after Annette finally agreed to a divorce, the two lovers were married, on September 7, 1915….
If Jean’s tragic death resembles that of Charlotte Bronte…then her husband’s troubled first marriage to a mentally disturbed woman of Creole birth cannot but remind us of Rochester’s relationship with Bertha.”

This sad parallel between Webster’s real life and Jane Eyre’s fictional life is already remarkable. But what Seelye somehow fails to notice is that Webster chose to reflect that parallelism in Daddy Long Legs (which she wrote in 1912 while in effect waiting for Glenn McKinney to free up to be married to her!), via her heroine’s reflections on Bertha in Jane Eyre, and via the obvious additional parallelism that Webster married her own much older Daddy Long Legs, only to die tragically, in childbirth, a year later!
That really is stranger than fiction!

Diana also wrote: “…my grandmother "Winnie" met [Mark Twain] a number of times, and was at his fabulous 70th birthday party at Delmonico's, attended by literary stars of the day, in 1905. A Harpers Magazine issue was devoted to the party, with photographs of every table, showing Jean and Winnie as well as all the other distinguished guests, who comprise a fascinating New York Who's Who of the day! I wrote two blog posts about it, which tell the whole glittering story (with pictures of the tables at which Jean and Winnie sat). In particular, I had enormous fun researching who some of the party guests were! .html “

Fantastic stuff, Diana, what a trip! In the category of bizarre coincidence, one of the anecdotes you mentioned was the following:

“Turning my attention to the others at her table, I was amazed and charmed to notice that she was sitting right next to Gelett Burgess.  He was the author of Goops and How to Be Them, then still a fairly new book (1900) as well as the immortal verse:
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!”

The bizarre coincidence, for me, is that I attended Williams College in Massachusetts, and, guess what, the school mascot is…..a Purple Cow!

Now I know how Williams came to adopt a Purple Cow as its mascot, a fact which I quickly verified here:

“In 1907, the Purple Cow humor magazine went to press for the first time with a plethora of student authored pieces and clever cow graphics.  The name for the campus publication was the winner among many suggested.   The editorial staff, of course, gave credit for its whimsical title to Frank G. Burgess and his jingle was included on the cover of the first issue.”  

By the way, Burgess attended MIT, not Williams! So I will pass this on to my Williams friends (whom I just re-uned with in Georgia two weeks ago!), who will get a kick out of it!

Diana also wrote: “Arnie is right in saying Jean had "a witty, subtle, erudite, and multi-layered sense of humor." I can't speak to the ideas he has about her referencing Emma, but it is certain that she was extremely highly educated in the literary sense, and would have had all the knowledge and ability to make such allusions - though I'm not offering any opinion on whether she did or not!”

Just you wait, Diana, more evidence to support Katherine Reay and myself re the allusions to JA in Daddy Long Legs will arise in the coming months! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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