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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“I am in a humour to play the fool with my pen…” : Jane Austen’s Spicy Falstaffian, Lovelacian Riffing On Mr. Haden, Mansfield Park, Clarissa, and Shakespeare in Letters 127-129

I doubt that Jane Austen was romantically (or sexually) interested in Mr. Haden, not because he was beneath her socially, or because her much younger niece Fanny’s physical charms were also alluring to him, but simply because the intense pleasure JA took in Haden’s company was neither romantic or sexual. Rather, he was providing something to JA that was the most exotic spice in the world for her--the meanest high she could savor---which was a deep literary, verbal and intellectual camaraderie with a truly kindred spirit, who could really see her genius, and reflect it back to her. It seems to me, i.e., that Mr. Haden was, during their very brief acquaintance, a special muse to Jane Austen’s literary genius, and she seized the moment, and drank deeply from his cup during that all too brief interlude—like Bottom in fairyland being tended to by Titania and her helpers, she could just enjoy a short midwinter night’s dream while it lasted.

Let me briefly set the scene, and you’ll see what I mean. Letters 127-129, the three letters which contain snippets about Mr. Haden, are all written within a period of only eight days in late 1815, as JA is off the charts giddy with the prospect of the imminent publication of her crowning achievement--Emma. Not even brother Henry’s serious illness, or his impending bankruptcy, can dampen her spirits. JA enjoys the serendipity of Henry’s apothecary being a true connoisseur of literature and a man with a razor sharp wit to match his erudition.

As Anne Elliot put it, "My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." The best evidence I can give for my assertion that Letters 127-9 reflect JA’s joy at having found the best company for her in Mr. Haden, is to just give you the relevant excerpts from those letters, a short speech by Henry Crawford (of course from Mansfield Park, which, as she informs CEA, Mr. Haden is reading), and excerpts from Richardson’s Clarissa.

With the prompt of the ALL CAPS verbiage, it should be apparent to you, as it is to me, that a great deal of the conversation between JA and Mr. Haden riffed off mutually beloved (and allusively linked) texts like Mansfield Park and Clarissa, with generous doses of Shakespeare sprinkled all the way through—and Mr. Haden not only gets the connections without being prompted, he is an active and equal participant with JA in repartee celebrating those connections!

To take what JA writes literally, as if she and Mr. Haden had actually been debating seriously as to whether a person who did not love music could do wrong, and as if JA really wished she could have argued the other side more ably, would actually be the most dreadful sort of silliness—like reading Shakespeare as if one were reading solemn history.

It is clear that JA and Haden have spent a fair amount of their time together playing a sophisticated game of Dueling Veiled Allusions, sharing with each other a deep love and understanding of literature. This was a game in which niece Fanny would not only have not been a participant, but one which poor Fanny would not even have realized was being played at all, because it all went straight over her head-she was in that sense exactly like the literary character whom JA had modeled, in part, on Fanny—Emma. A girl with some education, with some native intelligence, but without real passion for knowledge or art (just think about the letter Fanny wrote to her sister near the end of her life about JA and CEA, and ask yourself whether the person who rendered those judgments on JA could ever have had any idea of who her by then long-dead aunt really was).

But now, let the texts speak for themselves:

Letter 127: I have been listening to dreadful INSANITY. It is Mr. Haden's firm belief that a person not musical is fit for every sort of WICKEDNESS. I ventured to assert a little on the other side, but wished the cause in abler hands.

Letter 128: So much for the morning. Then came the dinner and Mr. Haden, who brought good manners and clever conversation. From 7 to 8 the harp; at 8 Mrs. L. and Miss E. arrived, and for the rest of the evening the drawing-room was thus arranged: on the sofa side the two ladies, Henry, and myself, making the best of it; on the opposite side Fanny and Mr. Haden, in two chairs (I believe, at least, they had two chairs), talking together uninterruptedly. FANCY THE SCENE! And what is to be FANCIED next? Why, that Mr. H. dines here again to-morrow. Today we are to have Mr. Barlow. Mr. H. is reading "Mansfield Park" for the first time, and prefers it to P. and P.

Letter 129: But you seem to be under a mistake as to Mr. H. You call him an APOTHECARY. He is no APOTHECARY; he has never been an APOTHECARY; there is not an APOTHECARY in this neighbourhood -- the only inconvenience of the situation perhaps -- but so it is; we have not a medical man within reach. He is a Haden, nothing but a Haden, a sort of wonderful nondescript creature on two legs, something BETWEEN A MAN AND AN ANGEL, but without THE LEAST SPICE OF AN APOTHECARY. He is, perhaps, the only person not an APOTHECARY hereabouts. He has NEVER SUNG to us. He will not sing without a pianoforte accompaniment.
… The mistake of the DOGS rather vexed him for a moment, but he has not thought of it since.

Henry Crawford, Chapter 13, Mansfield Park:

"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?...”

Clarissa, Letter 9, Volume 4, Lovelace to Belford:  I am in a humour to PLAY THE FOOL with my pen…
…Come, come, Belford, let people RUN AWAY WITH NOTIONS as they will, I am comparatively a very innocent man. And if by these, and other like reasonings, I have quieted my own conscience, a great end is answered. What have 1 to do with the world? And now I sit me peaceably down to consider thy letters.
…Martin [Luther] was then but a linseywolsey reformer. He retained some dogmas, which, by natural consequence, made others, that he held, untenable: so that Eckius, in some points, had the better of him. But, from that time, he made clear work, renouncing all that stood in his way: and then his doctrines ran upon all fours. He was never puzzled afterwards; and could boldly declare, that he would defend them IN THE FACE OF ANGELS AND MEN; and to his friends, who would have dissuaded him from venturing to appear before the Emperor Charles the Fifth at Spires, that were there as many devils at Spires, as tiles upon the houses, he would go. An answer that is admired by every Protestant Saxon to this day.
…All my vice is women, and the love of plots and intrigues; and I cannot but wonder how I fell into those shocking freedoms of speech; since, generally speaking, they are far from helping forward my main end…But what must the women be, who can be attracted by such empty souled profligates! Since WICKEDNESS with wit is hardly tolerable! But without it, is equally shocking and contemptible!”
…At such a time every one in a heavy grief thinks the same: but as enthusiasts do by scripture, so dost thou by the poets thou hast read: any thing that carries the most distant allusion from either to the case in hand, is put down by both for gospel, however incongruous to the general scope of either, and to that case. So once, in a pulpit, I heard one of the former very vehemently declare himself to be a DEAD DOG; when every man, woman, and child, were convinced to the contrary by his howling.
…In short, I cannot bear the thought, that a woman whom once I had bound to me in the silken cords of love, should slip through my fingers, and be able, while my heart names out with a violent passion for her; to despise me, and to set both love and me at defiance. Thou canst not imagine how much I envy thee, and her doctor, and her APOTHECARY, and every one who I hear are admitted to her presence and conversation; and wish to be the one or the other in turn.

Letter 10, Volume 4, Lovelace to Belford: “But thou seest, Jack, by her refusal of money from him, or Miss Howe, that the dear extravagant takes a delight in oddness, choosing to part with her clothes, though FOR A SONG. Dost think she is not a little touched at times? I am afraid she is. A LITTLE SPICE OF THAT INSANITY, I doubt, runs through her, that she had in a stronger degree, in the first week of my operations. Her contempt of life; her proclamations; her refusal of matrimony; and now of money from her most intimate friends; are sprinklings of this kind, and no other way, I think, to be accounted for. Her APOTHECARY is a good honest fellow. I like him much. But the silly dear’s harping so continually upon one string, dying, dying, dying, is what I have no patience with. I hope all this melancholy jargon is owing entirely to the way I would have her to be in. And it being as new to her, as the Bible beauties to thee, now wonder she knows not what to make of her self; and so FANCIES she is breeding death, when the event will turn out quite the contrary.”

In short and in conclusion, being in company with Mr. Haden put Jane Austen in a humour to play the fool with her pen in Letters 127-129, and she ran away with that humour for all she was worth!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I almost forgot to comment on the following additional bit of resonant Janefoolery in Letter 129:

“I am sorry my mother has been suffering, and am afraid this exquisite weather is too good to agree with her. I enjoy it all over me, from top to toe, from right to left, longitudinally, perpendicularly, diagonally; and I cannot but selfishly hope we are to have it last till Christmas— nice, unwholesome. unseasonable, relaxing, close, muggy weather.”

JA is in such a good mood, that even her mother’s characteristic, grotesque complaining (when there is nothing to complain about) cannot bring her down. It suddenly becomes clear that part of the inspiration for Mr. Woodhouse’s absurd concerns about the snow endangering the lives of valiant travelers between Hartfield and Randalls must have been taken straight from the real life whining parent Mrs. Austen. Here it is early December when it should be dreadfully cold, windy, snowy, etc., and instead it is unusually warm and mild, so of course Mrs. Austen is complaining about the weather when every other person in England is grateful for the delay in onset of harsh winter weather.

As absurd as Mrs. Austen’s never-ending complaints are, that is how absurd JA’s reversal of those complaints will be, to counterbalance her mother. JA is so giddy, so high on Mr. Haden’s company, so not willing to dignify her mother’s whining, that she launches into an impromptu, almost Falstaffian superabundant paean to how completely JA is enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

And there’s also something of Edgar’s poignant and successful exaggerations to his father Gloucester, convincing the blind old man that he really has fallen a VERY great distance off the white cliffs of Dover, and yet, in spite of that, being not in the slightest bit injured:  

Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fadom down precipitating,
Thou'dst shiver'd like an egg; but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed'st not; speak'st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast PERPENDICULARLY fell.
Thy life is a miracle. Speak yet again.

And these Austenian and Shakespearean absurdities remind me a lot of the following passage from the Firesign Theatre’s over-the-top absurdist “dreadful insanity” on their greatest album, How Can You Be in Two Places At Once, When You’re Not Anywhere At All:

JOE: Yes, Them too! A lot of Them. Mostly Them and not many of Us! And that's why we're here and they're there! So there, Mr. Monday Morning Quarterback, Mr. Wheelchair General! Are you going to turn your back on America's fighting mens when he come knock, knock, knockin' at your front door?
DC: Atta boy! Can't you see it all now? As if it were almost Tomorrow? Thousands of 'em!'
BABE: Shoulder to shoulder!
DC: That's right!
BABE: Heart to heart!
EDDIE: You said it, kid.
BABE: Satchel to Paige!
JOE: You got it!
SOUND: Knock on door.
DC: You get it
SOUND: Door opening.

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