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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Letter 155: “I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again”: JA’s Own Literary Constitution

Fanny has been teasing Mr. Wildman asking for his opinion about any one or more of JA’s (by then) four published novels. My best guess is that the young, ignorant prig’s Evangelical sensibility was offended by what he would probably call the “pertness” of Eliza Bennet—since JA refers to a heroine, it probably is not Mary Crawford who has scandalized him, but just imagine what his  reaction would have been had Fanny pointed him to the “rears and vices” passage! That would have been very wicked (in a good way) of Fanny had she done that, but I don’t think she did.

And then of course JA casually mentions what must be Persuasion as being ready for publication.  That makes me wonder why JA is so sure that Fanny won’t like it, it’s interesting to speculate about. My first guess is that this is because Persuasion is the Austen novel containing JA’s sharpest overt satire of the rich, pretentious, useless, vain fools who were the spawn of a pampered aristocratic upbringing.  JA recognized (and intended) that her savage caricatures of Sir Walter Elliot and daughter Elizabeth would strike very close to home to the Godmersham set, especially to Fanny who is in more than a casual way a source for Elizabeth.

And, as I reflect on why that would be, we need only to look at the very next passage in Letter 155 to see the answer. I think that JA’s sense of her own mortality was weighing very heavily on her, the sense that  her time was short for expressing what mattered most to her, and her caution about being too overt (in her attack on the banal evils of the elite, privileged sector of English society) was at a mimimum. 

I.e., JA was, so to speak, on her literary deathbed as she was writing Persuasion, and we all know that  deathbeds are frequently the site not only of long-withheld confessions but also of long withheld accusations. Just as JA’s final poem, Winchester Races, is a thinly veiled, scathing curse on the heads of those who would silence JA’s true message, Persuasion is her strongest attack on the world Fanny Knight, like Emma Woodhouse, has grown up in, and, like the proverbial fish, does not notice the hypocritical “water” she swims in.

That is why, I think, JA suspects Fanny will not like Persuasion very much, especially because the satire of Sir Walter begins in Chapter 1, it is not buried away in a forgettable passage in the middle of the novel. It is the clearly announced, by its position and emphasis, as a primary theme of the novel.

But back to JA’s sense of her own impending doom.  How heartbreakingly poignant it  is to read, in the very next paragraph after JA describes Anne Elliot, who of  course famously blooms again during the course of Persuasion, to read JA herself writing “I must not depend upon being ever very BLOOMING again”.  Of course, that is intimately connected to Anne Elliot, the fantasy of rebirth from a kind of death—a Juliet who wakes up and finds a living Romeo there by her side!

Even in this letter, written as JA begins her final walk through the valley of the shadow of death, JA’s novels are at the tip of her pen in every sentence. And the famous exchange about Shakespeare between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram takes on a layer of tragic irony when we read it through the lens of JA describing her own fiction. I.e., JA’s fiction was most of all part of her own constitution! And I see that passage also as a hopeful prediction on JA’s part, one that actually has now come true more than even she could have dreamt. In 2014, her thoughts and beauties are today indeed so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; and while she herself was the first to be intimate with her own fiction by instinct, we here know very well that millions of people past and present also feel exactly that same way. And no Janeite of any brain can open at a good part of one of her novels without falling into the flow of her meaning (or at least one of her meanings) immediately."

So how fitting  that as we approach the very end of this group read of JA’s letters, we see these important themes explored so delicately and poignantly.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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