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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Update on the Sermon Scrap: Jane Austen's Rose Poem a Parody of Brother James's Sermon?

On Feb. 4 & 5 of this year, I posted my initial reactions….

…to the exciting (to wonky Janeites like me, at least) news story about the scrap of a portion of a sermon in Jane Austen’s own handwriting that was discovered/brought forward not long ago, which was found to contain additional portions of the text of that sermon hidden on the reverse side of the scrap glued into a copy of James Edward Austen Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of his famous aunt.

I was wondering how long the process of viewing the hidden textual fragments would take, and the other day I saw two followup news stories revealing that heretofore hidden text.

So….(Drum roll)….here is what is written on the back of The Scrap:

 “…great propriety preserved. – Wherever [MISSING WORD]
wanted to be cleared of the Superstitious [ADDRESS?] 
of Popery – or whenever new ones were to be 
composed in order to fill up & connect the Services,
[SEVERAL MISSING WORDS] with a true spirit…”

And FYI, here are links to the two news articles from yesterday:

Briony Leyland, Reporter, BBC South Today, West Dean

Name of Author not stated

The second of the above linked articles shows an image of the actual yellowing document with the words on it. And both articles quote Oxford’s Kathryn Sutherland speculating as follows as to Jane Austen’s connection to the sermon:  "The scrap raises the possibility that [Mansfield Park] inspired James's sermon and even demonstrates the cross-fertilization between Jane Austen's creative writing and the wider life of her family." END QUOTE

I take a completely different approach to the Scrap, as it now stands (i.e., with all the now visible text).
Three months ago (for those who do not wish to read my 2 above-linked blog posts), the bottom line conclusion I reached in them, was that I am the first (and am still the only) Austen scholar to recognize the striking parallels between the following lines of text in the Scrap….

"Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps WITHOUT THOROUGHLY UNDERSTANDING – CERTAINLY WITHOUT THOROUGHLY FEELING THEIR FULL FORCE & MEANING.” 

….and one line in particular from a poem that JA is believed to have written in 1807 (but for certain wrote no later than 1808, because we know it was written contemporaneously with a poem written by JA’s sister in law Elizabeth Austen, who died in October 1808):

Happy the lab’rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn'd hose,
And hat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
Which, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gaiest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.

While those 2 initial news articles both took on faith James Edward Austen Leigh’s claim that the sermon was authored by his father James Austen, and was (re)written by younger sister Jane in support of his clerical duties, I took the contrarian position that JA was herself the author of the sermon. I also predicted that seeing the full text of the sermon would reveal it to be a sermon parody written in the style of Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park, and would have been in effect a private bit of extratextual humor on JA’s part. Recall how Mary spontaneously and satirically rewrites a stanza from a well known poem by Pope:

"Sir Thomas is to achieve many mighty things when he comes home," said Mary, after a pause. "Do you remember Hawkins Browne's 'Address to Tobacco,' in imitation of Pope?—
     Blest leaf! whose aromatic gales dispense
     To Templars modesty, to Parsons sense.
I will parody them—
     Blest Knight! whose dictatorial looks dispense
     To Children affluence, to Rushworth sense.

So, my thinking was that JA wrote a mock sermon in parody of her brother’s sermons.

Well….now that I’ve seen the additional bits of text (which, it should be pointed out, still leaves significant portions of the sermon unrecovered), and with the perspective of 3 ½ months of this question percolating through my subconscious mind, I now find it most probable that:

ONE James Austen was indeed the author of the sermon after all, but he wrote it some time before 1807, not, as Sutherland suggests, after reading MP in 1814;

TWO: Jane Austen did indeed copy his sermon out, but…..

THREE (and most important) In 1807 or 1808, Jane Austen copied her brother’s sermon out precisely so that she could have it in front of her when she wrote her “Rose Poem” which I reproduced, above, as a PARODIC REACTION to James’s sermon!  

And…last but not least…

FOUR: When JA wrote Mansfield  Park in 1814, she specifically alluded to her Rose Poem, and to James’s sermon, in the various sections in MP which I discussed in my two above-linked February 2014 posts, which pertain to sermonizing, including Mary Crawford’s satirical comments about the effect of sermons on parishioners, which are exactly congruent with the mockery expressed in JA’s earlier Rose  Poem!

I.e., I am now convinced that JA used her own brother’s sermon as a prime example of the kind of sermon that put ordinary parishioners to sleep, in part because these people were only in the church on Sunday for show, and in part because the sermon itself was filled with empty, tedious, hypocritical (and, as we see in the recovered text, ANTI-CATHOLIC) pomposities, a la Mr. Collins’s favorite sermon writer, Rev. Fordyce.

And, in JA’s characteristic M.O., she tagged her parody with an unmistakable textual echo, in this case the ALL CAPS language in the sermon Scrap, and in the Rose Poem, both of which I quoted, above.

Finally, additional tangential support, by analogy, for this interpretation comes, I claim, from the following observations I made 4 years ago in another context:

“I spoke at Oxford in 2007 about how JA deliberately changed individual two WORDS in the "woman" charade in Chapter 9 of Emma for thematic purposes. She did the same thing, EXACTLY, with her private handwritten copy of Byron's Napoleon poem that was found in her papers, where she changed two words- RHYMING words. These are not accidents, or misrememberings, they are intentional. JA was self-assured enough to alter Shakespeare, Byron, the Bible, ANY SOURCE, for her own purposes. “

To that distinguished list of creative parodic rewritings, I now add this parody of James Austen’s sermon. I leave you with two questions to consider:

If James actually ever saw his sister’s 1807-8 Rose Poem, did HE notice the echo, and wonder whether JA was mocking him?


Was Mary Crawford’s parody of two lines from a poem by the “infallible” Alexander POPE also a broad but very private wink to those few who had ever read JA’s Rose Poem and James’s sermon at the use of the word “Popery” in the recently disclosed hidden text on the back of the sermon Scrap?

With Jane Austen, such wordplay is so routine that I tend to think Mary Crawford (aka Jane Austen) DID mean this….

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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