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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, May 9, 2016

More re Austen’s ironic self-portrait as hypochondriac hypocritical busybody Diana Parker in Sanditon

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post…  …entitled
Sanditon‘s “unaccountable” Diana Parker as dying Jane Austen’s veiled lesbian self-portrait”.

In that post, I pointed out the striking (and never previously noticed) parallel between two paragraphs written by Jane Austen in the Spring of 1817, both of which harked back to a famous aphorism about strong and weak minds, attributed to Galigai de Concini (Maria de Medeci’s close female advisor—and more) as she was about to be burnt at the stake in 1617. This same aphorism had previously been requoted in Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son and by Maria Edgeworth in both Leonora and Belinda.

The first passage by JA is in Letter 159, written by her on May 22, 1817 (2 months before her death) to her dear friend (and a woman JA loved much more than as a friend), Ann Sharpe:

“Beleive me, I was interested in all you wrote, though with all the Egotism of an Invalid I write only of myself.-Your Charity to the poor Woman I trust fails no more in effect, than I am sure it does in exertion. What an interest it must be to you all! & how gladly sh. I contribute more than my good wishes, were it possible!-But how you are worried! Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort.  Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice!-IT IS THE INFLUENCE OF STRENGTH OVER WEAKNESS INDEED.-Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.-Adeiu.- “

The second passage is in the Sanditon fragment JA stopped writing in April, 1817, in which Diana Parker (the character I claim was a veiled self-portrait by JA) refers to her own and her sister’s strong minds:

“…Miss Heywood, I astonish you. You hardly know what to make of me. I see by your looks that you are not used to such quick measures."
The words "Unaccountable officiousness!—Activity run mad!" had just passed through Charlotte's mind, but a civil answer was easy.
"I dare say I do look surprised," said [Charlotte], "because these are very great exertions, and I know what invalids both you and your sister are.
"Invalids indeed. I trust there are not three people in England who have so sad a right to that appellation! But my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of strength of mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us or incline us to excuse ourselves. THE WORLD IS PRETTY MUCH DIVIDED BETWEEN THE WEAK OF MIND AND THE STRONG; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. My sister's complaints and mine are happily not often of a nature to threaten existence immediately. And as long as we can exert ourselves to be of use to others, I am convinced that the body is the better for the refreshment the mind receives in doing its duty. While I have been travelling with this object in view, I have been perfectly well."
The entrance of the children ended this little panegyric on her own disposition…”

What I didn’t notice two weeks ago, was that this was only half of the echoing between Sanditon and her contemporaneous final letters, on the specific topic of personal strength and weakness. I became aware of the other half today, when I read the following speech by Diana Parker’s younger brother, Mr. Parker, while talking to heroine Charlotte about his sisters (Diana and the elder Miss Parker) prior to the arrival of those two ladies in Sanditon:

“And you must know, [Sidney] will have it there is a good deal of imagination in my two sisters' complaints. But it really is not so, or very little. They have wretched health, as you have heard us say frequently, and are subject to a variety of very serious disorders. Indeed, I do not believe they know what a day's health is. And at the same time, they are such excellent useful women and have so much energy of character that where any good is to be done, they force themselves on exertions which, to those who do not thoroughly know them, have an extraordinary appearance. But there is really no affectation about them, you know. THEY HAVE ONLY WEAKER CONSTITUTIONS AND STRONGER MINDS THAN ARE OFTEN MET WITH, either separate or together…”

I only then realized that Diana’s speech was actually a close echo of her brother’s comments, in referring to her and her sister’s strong minds in the context of referring to their bodily weakness:

“it is not a feeble body which will excuse us or incline us to excuse ourselves…. as long as we can exert ourselves to be of use to others, I am convinced that the body is the better for the refreshment the mind receives in doing its duty. While I have been travelling with this object in view, I have been perfectly well.”

It makes perfect sense that Mr. Parker would mouth his sister’s words, because he has surely heard her speak the same shpiel many times before.

But that’s not all. I went back to Le Faye’s edition of JA’s letters, and found another passage in yet another of JA’s final letters, on the same theme! It’s in the letter written by JA less than a month before  the one she wrote to Anne Sharpe, and it’s to brother Charles, dated April 27, 1817, containing this passage:

“I live upstairs however for the present & am coddled. I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but A WEAK BODY MUST EXCUSE WEAK NERVES. My Mother has born the forgetfulness of her extremely well—her expectations for herself were never beyond the extreme of moderation, & she thinks with you that my Uncle always looked forward to surviving her…”

So we see even more clearly how much Jane Austen the novelist was pouring into her new fictional creation, Diana Parker, the essence of the tragedy of Jane Austen the human being in her last year of life: the tragedy of a genius-strong mind finding itself trapped inside a prematurely dying body. And of course, being Jane Austen, she did this in a highly ironic fashion—i.e., just as Miss Bates was the healthy JA’s ironic self portrait, in 1815, as a healthy tedious foolish busybody, so too was the “unaccountable” Diana Parker the dying JA’s ironic self portrait in 1817, as a hypochondriac tedious hypocritical busybody.

I see in what JA wrote to her younger brother Charles the need JA felt to minimize her serious illness, in order to spare her family. And who knows whether there were those in the family (such as entitled niece Fanny or spiteful sister in law Mary Lloyd?) who may’ve actually seen Jane as a hypochondriac, with her mysterious illness that came and went—until, of course, it came and stayed.

And all of the above also fits with her final written words, dictated to her sister in the last few days of her life—the poem “When Winchester Races”---which, as I’ve written a number of times, is Jane Austen’s  ironic, defiant thumbing of her nose at Death and at those who thought her fiction would die with her. Even as her weak body was about to finally surrender, her still strong mind screamed its final defiance:

“When once we are buried, you think we are gone. But behold me immortal!”

If only she had been given the time to give us Diana Parker in all her glory, everything I now see in Sanditon tells me JA would’ve given us priceless additional hints at the passionate, protean genius concealed behind that mask of irony.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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