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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, July 20, 2015

“…we must think the best & hope the best & do the best”: Jane Austen’s irony, NOT her charity!

Saturday was the 198th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen at 41. I realized that the emotional highpoint of Austen bicentennial remembrance, which began 4 years ago on the 200th anniversary of her first publication (Sense & Sensibility), will likely be reached two years from now when her premature death is again mourned. Although I won’t be observing her quarter-millenial observances personally, I’m sure that 2067 Janeites will.

As has happened on every previous bicentennial Austen observance, there’ve been several remembrance articles written, and Saturday was no exception—the most interesting one I read was by fellow JASNA member and sharp elf Sarah Emsley, which I reproduce below:

“We must think the best & hope the best & do the best.” Jane Austen wrote this line in a letter to her sister Cassandra on November 26, 1815, when their brother Henry was very ill, and I’ve returned to it many times over the years that I’ve been studying her life and letters. Henry has been hoping he’ll be able to travel to Oxford for a few days, but although he “gets out in his Garden every day … at present his inclination for doing more seems over” and “his feelings are for continuing where he is, through the next two months.” “One knows the uncertainty of all this,” Jane acknowledges, “but should it be so, we must think the best & hope the best & do the best.” She tells Cassandra that “Henry calls himself stronger every day & Mr. H. keeps on approving his Pulse – which seems generally better than ever – but still they will not let him be well. – The fever is not yet quite removed. – The Medicine he takes (the same as before you went) is cheifly to improve his Stomach, & only a little aperient. He is so well, that I cannot think why he is not perfectly well.” She was determined to be optimistic in the face of death, just as she was eighteen months later after Henry had recovered and she herself was ill…..Later in that same letter to Miss Sharp there’s another example of her “thinking the best.” She’s grateful for the kindness of those who are caring for her, and she concludes, “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.” Jane Austen died 198 years ago today, on July 18, 1817. “

My first reaction to the above, as anyone who follows my Austenian heresies might’ve guessed, was to be skeptical of Sarah’s unironic reading of Jane’s take on brother Henry’s health prospects:  “we must think the best & hope the best & do the best.” Recognizing the aphoristic quality, I searched her novels, and was quickly brought to the following troubling passage in Mansfield Park:

“Edmund’s account of Fanny’s disposition [Sir Thomas] could believe to be just; he supposed she had all those feelings, but he must consider it as very unfortunate that she had; for, less willing than his son to trust to the future, he could not help fearing that if such very long allowances of time and habit were necessary for her, she might not have persuaded herself into receiving his addresses properly before the young man’s inclination for paying them were over. There was nothing to be done, however, but to submit quietly and hope the best.”

Note the subtle but dark irony in Jane Austen having used that very same phrase, “hope the best”, a year before she wrote the letter Sarah quoted from. Although in a very different context, it also involves hoping the best for a man named “Henry” (“the young man, Henry Crawford, the rake). The sharp irony is that “the best” hoped for by Sir Thomas is the worst from Fanny’s (and the reader’s) point of view---Fanny is at that moment desperately resisting the coercion being exerted on her to accept Henry’s proposal. And those familiar with Mansfield Park know that the darkest irony lies right ahead in the novel text---in fact, we soon learn that Sir Thomas does not submit quietly and hope the best, as he says to Edmund, but instead the ogreish Sir T promptly exiles Fanny to the smells, noise, and glare of Portsmouth, all for the “higher” purpose of “persuading” her to “reconsider” Henry’s proposal—which she almost does, by the way.

So…that novelistic irony in turn sent me right back to the 1815 Austen letter Sarah had quoted from, to see if my initial suspicion of an ironic usage of three “bests” was borne out. You can see for yourself, as you read that passage in the full context of the entire letter to sister Cassandra dated 11/26/1815. My  (subversive) comments immediately follow the letter text:

“Hans Place, Sunday (Nov. 26). My Dearest, — The parcel arrived safely, and I am much obliged to you for your trouble. It cost 2s.10-- but as there is a certain saving of 2s. 4 ½. on the other side, I am sure it is well worth doing. I send four pair of silk stockings, but I do not want them washed at present. In the three neck handkerchiefs I include the one sent down before. These things, perhaps, Edwd. may be able to bring, but even if he is not, I am extremely pleased with his returning to you from Steventon. It is much better, far preferable. I did mention the P. R. in my note to Mr. Murray; it brought me a fine compliment in return. Whether it has done any other good I do not know, but Henry thought it worth trying. The printers continue to supply me very well. I am advanced in Vol. III. to my arra-root, upon which peculiar style of spelling there is a modest query in the margin. I will not forget Anna's arrowroot. I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate, etc., for fear of being obliged to do it, and that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives. I have paid nine shillings on her account to Miss Palmer; there was no more owing. Well, we were very busy all yesterday; from half-past eleven till four in the streets, working almost entirely for other people, driving from place to place after a parcel for Sandling, which we could never find, and encountering the miseries of Grafton House to get a purple frock for Eleanor Bridges. We got to Keppel St., however, which was all I cared for; and though we could stay only a quarter of an hour, Fanny's calling gave great pleasure, and her sensibility still greater, for she was very much affected at the sight of the children. Poor little F. looked heavy. We saw the whole party. Aunt Harriet hopes Cassy will not forget to make a pincushion for Mrs. Kelly, as she has spoken of its being promised her several times. I hope we shall see Aunt H. and the dear little girls here on Thursday. So much for the morning. Then came the dinner and Mr. Haden, who brought good manners and clever conversation. From seven to eight the harp; at eight Mrs. L. and Miss E. arrived, and for the rest of the evening the drawing-room was thus arranged: on the sofa side the two ladies, Henry, and myself making the best of it; on the opposite side Fanny and Mr. Haden, in two chairs (I believe, at least, they had two chairs), talking together uninterruptedly. Fancy the scene! And what is to be fancied next? Why, that Mr. H. dines here again to-morrow. To-day we are to have Mr. Barlow. Mr. H. is reading "Mansfield Park" for the first time, and prefers it to P. and P. A hare and four rabbits from Gm. yesterday, so that we are stocked for nearly a week. Poor Farmer Andrews! I am very sorry for him, and sincerely wish his recovery. A better account of the sugar than I could have expected. I should like to help you break some more. I am glad you cannot wake early; I am sure you must have been under great arrears of rest.
Fanny and I have been to B. Chapel, and walked back with Maria Cuthbert. We have been very little plagued with visitors this last week. I remember only Miss Herries, the aunt, but I am in terror for to-day, a fine bright Sunday; plenty of mortar, and nothing to do….”

So there we have 624 words---a Miss Batesian barrage of words --- about a dozen small gossip topics, before the subject of Henry’s health is even reached. In that pre-telegraphic era, had Jane believed Cassandra to be worried about Henry’s “serious illness”, would Jane have waited till her 625th word to start updating her sister about it? Of course not!  And now, here finally is the section about Henry Austen:

“Henry gets out in his garden every day, but at present his inclination for doing more seems over, nor has he now any plan for leaving London before Dec. 18, when he thinks of going to Oxford for a few days; to-day, indeed, his feelings are for continuing where he is through the next two months.
One knows the uncertainty of all this; but should it be so, we must think the best, and hope the best, and do the best; and my idea in that case is, that when he goes to Oxford I should go home, and have nearly a week of you before you take my place. This is only a silent project, you know, to be gladly given up if better things occur. Henry calls himself stronger every day, and Mr. H. keeps on approving his pulse, which seems generally better than ever, but still they will not let him be well. Perhaps when Fanny is gone he will be allowed to recover faster.”

I think it clear from the consistently light-hearted tone of this letter that Sarah has inadvertently taken that aphoristic passage out of context. What comes across very clearly to me, in a half dozen different ways, is that there is no real worry at all, either on Jane’s or Cassandra’s part, about Henry’s being ill. While Henry was apparently quite ill a month earlier, he has, equally apparently, made a pretty quick recovery. What he seems to be suffering from at this point are some major jitters about a possible relapse—which are understandable, especially given the primitive understanding of infectious illness in 1815. But the point here is that what Jane is doing, in an entirely ironic tone (very similar to her ironical reference, in an 1813 letter, to Alexander Pope’s ironic line “Whatever is, is best”), is gently mocking Henry’s hypochondria, and noting how niece Fanny, among others, is enabling Henry, the same way that Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria is tolerated by the band of understanding friends who surround him.

Henry Austen is thinking of taking a trip in a few weeks to Oxford for a few days–now, how sick can he be? And there is further irony in Jane’s saying “but still they will not let him be well. Perhaps when Fanny is gone he will be allowed to recover faster.” So much for real worry, when Jane cracks wise this way. What Jane probably was worried about, but she’s not talking about it in this letter, is her own health, which has not been good. She’s as much as saying to Cassandra, that Henry is being a big baby.

And…let’s zero in on why Jane is feeling so ebullient as she writes that letter. She exults in the great pleasure derived from the stimulating company of Henry’s apothecary, Mr. Haden, to whom she gives a copy of MP to read (and perhaps points out that very passage about Sir Thomas “hoping the best” with a wink about Haden’s patient Henry Austen?)  And…recall also that this letter refers to Emma’s final pre-publication stage--imagine the great anticipation that Jane is experiencing, the authorial triumph she so eagerly anticipates. And on top of all that, her 1815 letters teem with her enjoyment of her extended visits to London with its theatres and opportunities for the best….company!

And finally, the icing on the cake of the utterly calm, unworried tone of the letter. JA finishes it with a joke about….illness!:    “I am not disappointed: I never thought the little girl at Wyards very pretty, but she will have a fine complexion and curly hair, and pass for a beauty. We are glad the mamma's cold has not been worse, and send her our love and good wishes by every convenient opportunity. Sweet, amiable Frank! why does he have a cold too? Like Captain Mirvan to Mr. Duval, "I wish it well over with him."

Would Jane jokingly complain about brother Frank not having a cold like niece Anna at Wyards, and then playfully wink at a Fanny Burney novel, if brother Henry were really still sick—sick enough to warrant a pious resolution to “hope the best”?  Of course not!  And then, yet a little more light gossip and the letter is over.

Now, speaking of pious resolution, I did detect one final layer of irony in JA’s aphorism that is more speculative, but I still think is there. To wit, while I could not find any direct allusive source, like her famous reference to the “infallible Pope”, for “We must think the best, and hope the best, and do the best”, I do believe JA intended to subtly echo verse 7 from the following, very famous Chapter 13 in 1 Corinthians:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
CHARITY suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Just as I have previously written…
… about how Jane Austen brilliantly wove a satirical allusion to 1 Corinthians 9:14 into her April 1 (aka April Fool’s), 1816 letter to the blowhard hypocrite court librarian James Stanier Clarke, so too I now believe that JA wove 1 Corinthians 13:7 into the subtext of her letter to Cassandra about Henry’s (extinct) illness.

So, while I do believe Jane sincerely aspired to extend charity to others, she was always ready to temper that aspiration with a healthy dose of ironic skepticism—those who were truly worthy of charity received it from her, but those who didn’t received their due in her subtle, profound irony.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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