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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Sense & Sensibility subtext of Jane Austen's Letter 154: Mary's "Extremely Acceptable" gift of seacale

In response to my previous post about Letter 154 and its veiled Sense & Sensibility subtext, Diana Birchall wrote the following response in Janeites & Austen-L:

"Arnie points out John Dashwood's praise of his ghastly mother-in-law Mrs. Ferrars: 
"To give you another instance of her liberality: The other day, as soon as we came to town, aware that money could not be very plenty with us just now, she put bank-notes into Fanny's hands to the amount of two hundred pounds. And extremely acceptable it is, for we must live at a great expense while we are here."
How ironic that Jane Austen calls usurper Mary Austen's gift of seacale an arrowroot-like, sardonic "extremely acceptable."  Must be a phrase she liked to use for a kind of barbed thanks!" END QUOTE

I am so glad my point resonated with you, Diana! In the interim, I’ve extended my argument further. To wit, while "extremely acceptable" was ONLY used by JA in these two instances (in Letter 154 and in S&S Ch. 33), there is a subtext of the word "acceptable" throughout S&S in particular, which shows even more clearly that JA was focused in S&S (and in Letter 154) on the nature of true generosity –and so she-- ever alert to the psychology and etymology behind everyday words most people use without ever thinking about---zeroed in on the primal meaning of “accept”, which meant to voluntarily receive something from someone else.

For starters, it’s interesting in this regard that the word “acceptable” appears 22 times in the King James Bible, and most of them, judging by a quick scan, have to do with whether sacrifices or other behaviors of human beings were “acceptable” to God. Knowing JA’s deep familiarity with the Bible, and in particular the way the Bible is written, I think this theme of the “acceptable” was in the back of her mind as she wrote S&S in particular, as she reflected on the nature of charity.

Look at how this theme subtly echoes through S&S, always with a pinging echo of “accept” to alert us:

In Chapter 2, which of course is Ground Zero of Fanny & John Dashwood’s infamous, universally noted selfish lack of generosity, the subtle drumbeat begins:

“He really pressed them, with some earnestness, to consider Norland as their home; and, as no plan appeared so eligible to Mrs. Dashwood as remaining there till she could accommodate herself with a house in the neighbourhood, his invitation was ACCEPTED.”

Of course, this invitation by John is made with a string, which Fanny D. proceeds to pull back over the course of the next few chapters, as she makes her step-inlaws feel so unwelcome that they soon leave Norland for Devon.

But back to the famous, Shakespeare-drenched scene which is Chapter 2 of S&S, in which the precatory bequest by John’s dying father is sliced and diced into practically nothing by Fanny’s casuistry. Note the eerie resonance of the following narration published in 1811, to what JA hints at in Letter 154 written six years later:

“Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season.”

Isn’t this a perfect encapsulation of the way James and Mary (and Edward Austen Knight) consecutively treated their sisters and mother, in the former displacing them from their beloved home in 1801, and then the latter in 1809 and thereafter, damning them with faint generosity? And isn’t it clear that JA means to invoke the above quoted passage in particular vis a vis the gift of seacale? JA shows, by her sarcastic irony in writing Chapter 2, how she feels about token, unhelpful “presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season” (as the seacale was at the time of the gift)?   Is it any wonder that JA thought of S&S when JA first heard  about the seacale?

And then Fanny goes on:   “…Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give YOU something."

I don’t recall before if I ever noticed what an ironic bookend the above passage is to the passage in Chapter 33, when John Dashwood calls his mother in law’s gift of cash to him “extremely acceptable” – in Chapter 2, above, Fanny argues that the Dashwood women living so constricted a life means they don’t need a lot of money—in Chapter 33, John rationalizes that his living such a high life in London is very expensive! And both passages are associated with the word “acceptable”!

And here is John’s accommodating reply to Fanny’s casuistry:

"Upon my word," said Mr. Dashwood, "I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described. When my mother removes into another house my services shall be readily given to accommodate her as far as I can. Some little present of furniture too may be ACCEPTABLE then."

Then we see “acceptable” appear again and again in short order, in regard to: (1) the gratefulness of Mrs. Dashwood accepting Sir John’s invitation to live at Barton Cottage; (2) the impropriety of Marianne accepting Willoughby’s proposed gift of a horse; (3) the mystery of Willoughby’s repeated refusal to accept Mrs. Dashwood’s invitation at Barton Cottage; (4) Marianne and Elinor’s accepting Mrs. Jennings’s invitation to London, etc etc.

And then we have Chapter 33, in which John’s reference to Mrs. Ferrars’s “extremely acceptable” gift is followed by his whining about  specifics of the vast cash needs of the real estate magnate (unquestionably a dig at brother Edward Austen Knight), and then, he returns to the magic word:

“You may guess, after all these expenses, how very far we must be from being rich, and how ACCEPTABLE Mrs. Ferrars's kindness is."
"Certainly," said Elinor; "and assisted by her liberality, I hope you may yet live to be in easy circumstances."

If it were not for the fact that this drumbeat of “acceptables” is implicit, this would be overkill by JA, but that’s just the point—by her never being so heavy handed a moralist as to explicitly direct her readers to take note of this wordplay on “acceptable” and the theme of generosity, as many a lesser writer has done in such cases, JA effectively creates a pervasive, but entirely subliminal, aura ---it’s up to the sharp elves among her readers to realize that the strong chord sounded in Chapter 2 is never abandoned thereafter, it merely goes underground.

 And then at the end of the novel, we have a final “acceptable” counterpoint between two passages, both having to do with proposals of marriage by Edward Ferrars:

First, when Elinor accepts his proposal of marriage:
“…His situation indeed was more than commonly joyful. He had more than the ordinary triumph of ACCEPTED love to swell his heart, and raise his spirits. He was released without any reproach to himself, from an entanglement which had long formed his misery, from a woman whom he had long ceased to love…”

And second, when Lucy sends a final zinger in Edward’s direction, the letter she fittingly signs LUCY FERRARS (aka LUCIFER):

"DEAR SIR, Being very sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another, and have no doubt of being as happy with him as I once used to think I might be with you; but I scorn to ACCEPT a hand while the heart was another's….”

So, I hope that anyone was skeptical of my previous post (in which I made a quick argument in support of my claim that JA meant to invoke S&S by her reference to Mary’s gift of seacale as “extremely acceptable”) will now not only be convinced, but will, moreover, find my argument……
…..“extremely acceptable”!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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