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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 21, 2014

Letter 140: Jane Austen’s Old Friends & Daily Visitors, Mrs. Austen’s Headaches, & Shylock’s Blade

As our group read of Jane Austen's surviving letters reaches its final 10%, Diana Birchall wrote: 

“…to announce the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Leigh, Cassandra's godmother, sister of Rev. Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, at age eighty. Jane utters a few conventionalities - lost a valued old friend, death of someone of such an advanced age, ready to die, not to be regretted. She has left a token twenty pounds ("a little remembrance") to Mrs. Austen, who is "not quite well" and "seldom gets through the 24 hours without some pain in her head."

Diana, I perceive two strong satirical implications just under the surface of these comments, which, while superficially about Elizabeth Leigh, really hit much closer to home, in terms of the health of two other single women much more closely connected to Jane Austen----i.e., her own mother and Jane Austen herself!

By this immediate segue from sensibly pragmatic (and not merely conventional) comments about Elizabeth Leigh’s time to die having come, to Mrs. Austen’s (who at that moment is 76, only 4 years younger than Elizabeth Leigh) daily headaches, the association to Mrs. Bennet [of  course, from Pride & Prejudice] is unavoidable. And this sort of superficially haphazard change of subject  is classic Jane Austen writing strategy—JA makes it look as if the segue was accidental, seizing upon the fact of the “little remembrance” from Elizabeth to JA’s mother. But I see JA drawing a vivid, strongly implied contrast between one elderly woman who realized that reaching 80 in those days was about as good as it got, and another elderly woman who has been making everyone around her (most of all her two daughters) miserable every “24 hours” for God knows how long, forcing these unwelcome visitors, her headaches, on them! I.e. her phantom headaches become major pains in the butt of those who are forced to “entertain” them!

And then, given that JA is writing Letter 140 at age 40 (or half the age, more or less, of both Elizabeth Leigh and Mrs. Austen), and perhaps beginning to feel the symptoms of the mysterious illness that would kill her only 15 months later, perhaps she would be beginning to process the cruel irony that she had a whole lot more wrong inside her body than “some pain in the head”, and that she might end up having been granted only half the life that her mother had already been given. Certainly we who read this letter must register this irony, and honor Jane Austen’s venting of her very justified spleen at all of this.

And then, just look what subject JA “haphazardly” addresses next:

“I have had a letter from Scarlets this morning, with a very tolerable account of health there.”

So there’s a third elderly woman’s health being discussed during the first section of this short letter---Aunt Leigh-Perrot, mistress of the Scarlets estate (which I believe was slyly alluded to by Jane Austen inP&P with the name "Rosings"---because roses are scarlet, as we all know)---who is at that moment “only” 72, but, we know with perfect hindsight, will enjoy a life span of 92 years before she checks into the Kleptomaniac Comfort Inn the Sky, with special guest privileges at the Hypochondriac Hilton next door. In other words, another elderly woman who does not know to be grateful for her great good fortune in health and longevity.

So, again, I believe JA, whose portraits of narcissistic hypochrondria (Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove, who am I forgetting?) are among her greatest satirical achievements, is subtly showing that she is actually deaf to the complaints of those who have no reason to complain. Little Caroline will not get this subtext, but  probably her real intended audience, James Austen, also will not, because, after all, he was Mrs. Austen’s first-born & favorite, and he was intended to be Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s heir. As in the recently discovered Scrap of a sermon I believe JA wrote herself, James talks the moral talk, but does not walk the moral walk. And finally recall that when James died 3 years after Letter 140 was written, it was HIS first-born son, JEAL, who inherited Scarlets from Aunt Leigh-Perrot.  

So, you can bet your bottom pound (do the English say anything like that?) that Jane Austen intended every part of the above satirical subtext to be noticed by the sharp eyes of sharp elves. Her true feelings had to be given expression, even if by implication, and even if these implications were not understood when they were initially read. Writing her truth was a sacred act for JA, and she would not be entirely silenced—and I hope she hoped that these letters would one day be read by those who would really understand her outrage.

And, speaking of the outrageous, here we go again with Mrs. Austen:

“Your Grandmama is not quite well, she seldom gets through the 24 hours without some pain in her head, but we hope it is lessening, and that a continuance of such weather as may allow her to be out of doors & hard at work every day will gradually remove it.”

The irony is inescapable—a woman of almost the same  age has just died, apparently with resignation  as to the inexorable course of nature, and now JA repeats, with more detail, her account of Mrs. Austen’s daily headache complaint, which may be alleviated by her being able to be “hard at work every day” which will “gradually remove it”. 

I mean, really! How sick can Mrs. Austen, age 77, be, if she can do what the 17 year old Fanny Price cannot do without being exhausted, which is work hard in the garden in April!

Translation: “My mother is Mrs. Bennet, with her headaches being Jane Austen’s “old friends” due to their daily “visits”.  She should just be grateful that at 77 she is healthy as a horse, and able to work hard in a garden, while pretty much all of her peers are either dead or dying!”

Recall this one-liner from Letter 63 about Lady Sondes: “…provided she will now leave off having bad headaches and being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her, to be happy."

I also recall it being suggested in the past in these groups that Lady Bertram’s laudanum addiction was in no small part based on that substance being Mrs. Austen’s drug of choice for her endless headaches. So when we hear that, in 1817, as JA lay dying, she had to lay dying on three chairs side by side, while Mama (who had nearly a decade still to live) had the sopha all to herself, we really can better  understand why Mrs. Austen didn’t like MP so much!

Diana also wrote: Jane says they are "almost ashamed" to ask Caroline's Mama "to be at the trouble of a long ride" because they "must wash." Presumably the house was turned upside down during a grand wash... It's a good point that Ellen makes that Jane is flattering Caroline's mother Mary here with solicitousness hoping to get her to bring Caroline to the children's party.”

I take it precisely the opposite—there is a combination of two veiled satires here:

(1)   JA’s hinting that Edward Austen Knight and Fanny Knight (who else would be part of the Godmersham party? Perhaps the younger daughters, too?) are, like Mrs. Churchill, very picky about the beds they sleep in, and don’t want to catch any diseases from the ill-laundered sheets of their “vulgar” cousins? It also reminds me of the “fleas” joke about little niece Cassy.  
(2)   JA subtly discouraging Mary Lloyd Austen, who was not JA’s favorite sister in law by any stretch, from visiting, and giving Mary a polite “out”, since she probably doesn’t want to visit any more than JA wants her to visit!

And then there’s the rather large elephant in the room that we might overlook in reading Letter 140 according to what it  says—it’s what  it doesn’t  say that puts it all in a special context.

In April 1816, JA must be deeply into the writing of Persuasion (which she’s been working on for a few months now, and will finish only four months later), suggesting  a very fast compositional pace, even for this, one of her two short novels. My guess is that she already feels sick, is already worried that she won’t be able to finish Persuasion properly, and so she is racing through the writing of it.

So, the last thing she needs, under that scenario, is to be entertaining half the Austen family at Chawton, especially if she’s also not feeling well herself, and having to deal with her mother’s incessant whining about her phantom illnesses to boot. There are almost no surviving JA letters from the 3 month period during which she finished Persuasion. My sense is that she was a woman on a maniacal mission to finish that novel, come what may.  

Now, she can’t avoid the major hassle of the visit of Edward and his harem (as she referred to him and his daughters 3 ½ years earlier), because Edward is the man who (in Mr. Bennet’s droll words) “may turn the Austen women all out of this house as soon as he pleases”. Be sure JA, creator of Fanny & John Dashwood, never forgets that possibility for one second.

And she can’t get away from her mother and her damned headaches! But otherwise, JA’s narrow focus is to finish Persuasion, and she does, and the Janeite world must be eternally grateful for JA’s final, relentless pursuit, and achievement, of literary perfection. 

In conclusion, I note that Ellen Moody wrote “Mrs Austen her usual hypochrond[r]iac self but writing to Caroline Jane takes Grandmamma's unwellness seriously in tone. But read the content and it's says she always has a pain in the head - perhaps it is less[en]ing and working outside hard will help her recover. I think were Austen in strong linguistic spirits there would be irony here but I don't feel it.

And I reply to Ellen that she got it spot-on re Mrs. Austen’s usual hypochondria, but, as is so often the case, Ellen simply cannot hear Jane Austen’s irony----even (ironically) in a case such as this, when Ellen correctly identifies all the conditions precedent to JA’s deployment of irony. My entire post, above, is absolutely characteristic evidence of the kind of quiet, subtle web of irony that JA wove a few thousand times in the course of writing her letters and her novels.

Jane Austen’s satire cuts so cleanly without drawing blood, in fact, that she’d have saved Shylock’s butt in that trial, if he’d her in his entourage as his “banking moyl”, if you will, because she’d have taken Antonio’s pound of flesh off (that uniquely masculine part of his anatomy that I’ve always known the Bard was hinting at) without losing a drop of his blood, a goal any self-respecting moyl would aspire to.

In short, Mrs. Austen’s true character has been completely exposed, and yet, if questioned, JA can still smile and say “Who, me?”  ;)

And finally Rita  Lamb wrote: “Hard to believe this world-class novelist is having to divide her energies between organising multiple family visits and doing the wash.”
Amen, sister! That is the pithy version of what I am saying, above.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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