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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, July 18, 2014

Jane Austen’s Brokeback Mountain: Cassandra’s poignantly jealous letter to Anne Sharp re: Anne’s “ardent” “sensibility” for the recently deceased Jane

“My dear Miss Sharp, I have great pleasure in sending you the lock of hair you wish for, & I add one pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she had had in constant use for more than twenty years. I know how these articles, trifling as they are, will be valued by you & I am very sure that if she is now conscious of what is passing on earth it gives her pleasure they should be so disposed of. - I am quite well in health & my Mother is very tolerable so & I am much more tranquil than with your ardent feelings you could suppose possible. What I have lost, non one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them? - God's will be done, I have been able to say so all along, I thank God that I have. - If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp. - Beleive me very truly Yr affectte friend Cass. Elizth Austen (CEA)“

Diane Reynolds’s and Ellen Moody’s comments in Janeites & Austen-L are both very insightful about the above letter, I would like to add my own usual allusively-tinged twist on it.

First, this letter clearly is CEA’s response to a letter from Anne Sharp written right after JA’s death, in which Anne requested a lock of JA’s hair as well as any other personal items that CEA could spare. I don’t know whether locks of hair were normally passed between heterosexual women in such instances, but it sounds like a very intimate request to me. And I have long believed, and am not alone in this, that Anne and Jane in fact had an intimate romantic relationship going back at least a decade to when Anne was a governess at Godmersham, just as Jane and Martha had an even longer intimate relationship.

Two scenes from literature come immediately to my mind, which I think uncannily echo this emotionally charged exchange between CEA and Anne Sharp---and, ironically, both of them were powerfully captured on film by Ang Lee (he who, as I recall, inexplicably opined that he did not actually enjoy reading JA’s novels, or something like that). Irony within irony!

First, I see CEA, in writing testily to Anne about their opposite ways of grieving, as very consciously echoing the dramatic exchange between Elinor and Marianne in Chapter 37 of S&S, when Elinor for the first time shares with Marianne her long-concealed, tormenting secret about Lucy and Edward:

“…And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one's happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant—it is not fit—it is not possible that it should be so.— Edward will marry Lucy; he will marry a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex; and time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to HER."—
"If such is your way of thinking," said Marianne, "if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.—They are brought more within my comprehension."
"I understand you.—You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.—For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature; knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you, yet unable to prepare you for it in the least.— It was told me,—it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects; and told me, as I thought, with triumph.— This person's suspicions, therefore, I have had to oppose, by endeavouring to appear indifferent where I have been most deeply interested;—and it has not been only once;—I have had her hopes and exultation to listen to again and again.— I have known myself to be divided from Edward for ever, without hearing one circumstance that could make me less desire the connection.—Nothing has proved him unworthy; nor has anything declared him indifferent to me.— I have had to contend against the unkindness of his sister, and the insolence of his mother; and have suffered the punishment of an attachment, without enjoying its advantages.— And all this has been going on at a time, when, as you know too well, it has not been my only unhappiness.— If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you may suppose that I have suffered NOW. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.— No, Marianne.—THEN, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely—not even what I owed to my dearest friends—from openly shewing that I was VERY unhappy."—
Marianne was quite subdued.— "Oh! Elinor," she cried, "you have made me hate myself for ever.—How barbarous have I been to you!—you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me!—Is this my gratitude?—Is this the only return I can make you?—Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away."
The tenderest caresses followed this confession.”

CEA casts herself as Elinor, and Anne Sharp as Marianne. I think the parallels are obvious to any Janeite, as CEA channels Elinor’s eloquent defense of restrained sensibility, justifying (or rationalizing?) how she came to terms with an irreparable loss.

But I also think the edginess bubbling under the surface of this letter is much more than just testiness about different styles of grieving---it’s more about deep, heart-wrenching jealousy---and as I pondered that, an even more perfect literary analogy came to mind, in the form of the unbearably poignant scene near the end of Brokeback Mountain, when Ennis Del Mar calls Lureen (the widow of Jack Twist, Ennis’s longtime secret gay lover, who Jack has just learned, via a letter he wrote to Jack which was returned to him marked “DECEASED”):

(short story by Annie Proulx, closely adapted in this scene by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana)
ENNIS: Uh, hello, this is Ennis Del Mar, I, uh…
LUREEN: Who is this?
ENNIS: Ennis  Del Mar. I ‘m an old buddy of Jack’s, I…
LUREEN: Jack used to mention you. You’re the fishing buddy or the hunting buddy, I know that. Would have let you know, but wasn’t sure about your name and address. Jack kept his friends’ addresses in his head.
ENNIS: Why I was callin’, to see what happened…
LUREEN: Oh yeah, Jack was pumping up a flat on the truck out on a back  road when the tire  blew up. The rim slammed into his face and broke his nose and jaw, knocked him unconscious on his back. By the time somebody came along, he had drowned in his own blood. Terrible thing. He was only thirty nine years old.
[Ennis can’t answer right away. He wonders, suddenly, if it was the tire iron – imagines Jack being beaten to death by homophobic brutes]
LUREEN: …Hello?
ENNIS: He buried down there?
LUREEN: We put a stone  up. He was cremated, like he wanted, and half his ashes was interred here. The rest I sent up to his folks. He use to say he wanted his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain, but I didn’t know where that was. I thought Brokeback Mountain was around where he grew up. But knowing Jack, it might be some pretend place where the bluebirds  sing and there’s a whiskey spring.
ENNIS: ..We herded sheep up on Brokeback one summer…
LUREEN: Well, he said it was his favorite plaace. I thought he meant to get drunk. He drank a lot.
ENNIS: His folks still up in Lightnin’Flat?
LUREEN: They’ll be there till the day they die. They couldn’t come down for the funeral.
ENNIS: Thanks for your time, then…I sure am sorry…we was good friends…
LUREEN:  Get in touch with his folks. I suppose they’d appreciate it if his wishes was carried out. About the ashes, I mean.
[Although she is polite, her little voice is as cold as ice. Ennis hangs up. Looks like death.]  

Channeling the best Austenesque tradition, in that telephone conversation it’s the words and feelings left unspoken and between the lines that matter most---most of all the sharp jealousy that Lureen feels, but will never state openly, as she finally connects all the dots she’s long been wondering about, for the first time. She realizes with a painful shock what Ennis and Jack have been to each other, how much these two “friends” have unofficially been “married”, during the entirety of her official (and in many ways sham) marriage to Jack. And she is not kind to Ennis for these reasons.

And there could not, I claim, be a closer parallel to the triad of Jane, Cassandra, and Anne at the moment  just after Jane’s death. Perhaps Jane and Anne, neither of whom had the wherewithal to visit each other whenever they liked, also shared their own “Brokeback Mountain”---a treasured memory of a brief interlude or two, years earlier at Godmersham during one of JA’s visits while Anne was still there.  And in the end, Anne seeks out relics of her dead lover to treasure the rest of her life, in the form of the few of  JA’s letters to her that Anne saved, and also the lock of hair and the other trifles CEA sent her—and of course the precious  autographed first edition of Emma. Just as Ennis will forever treasure Jack’s blood-stained flannel shirt, Anne had her “precious treasures” of her beloved Jane as well.  

And those observations almost make me wonder whether Annie Proulx and/or Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana actually had S&S, and also JA’s death, in mind when they wrote this magnificent modern tragedy. And perhaps that was one reason why they sought out Ang Lee to direct it, recalling his masterful work on Sense & Sensibility.

All lovely and poignant thoughts to ponder today, the day after the 197th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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