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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A long, agreeable, meaty Austenesque carriage ride in early May

Pending my giving the answer to my pending quiz question posed yesterday, here’s another smaller-scale Austen quiz for which I’ll give you the answer, below, in this same post. As you’ll find out tomorrow when you see the answer to yesterday’s quiz, I stumbled upon today’s finding, while following up on yesterday’s.

Without further ado:

I’m thinking of a passage in Jane Austen’s writing, which includes all 15 of the following specific points:

1, 2, 3 & 4: It describes a long “agreeable” trip in a chaise taken by a few women from one part of England to another.

5: The trip includes a stop midway to eat at a roadside inn.

6: The trip takes place early in May.

7: The arrival of the chaise at a stop is observed from a window by a waiting observer.

8: We hear about meat and a cucumber during the food stop.

9: We hear about bonnets.

10: We hear about someone with “a long chin”.

11: We hear about someone who looks odd.

12: We hear about a servant.

13 & 14: We hear about someone named Chamlerlayne dressed in a gown.

15: The person doing all the talking is a young single women who speaks in a brash, jocular voice.

So, what passage am I thinking of?   Scroll down a bit for my answer….




I think it safe to guess that most of you reading this quiz who recognized the answer, thought of the following scene in Chapter 39 of Pride &Prejudice (and I’ve put in ALL CAPS the 15 quiz points):

 “It was the SECOND WEEK IN MAY, in which the THREE young LADIES set out together from Gracechurch Street for the town of ——, in Hertfordshire; and, as they drew near the appointed INN where Mr. Bennet's carriage was to meet them, they quickly perceived, in token of the coachman's punctuality, both Kitty and Lydia LOOKING OUT of a dining-room up stairs. These two girls had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and dressing a salad and CUCUMBER.
After welcoming their sisters, they triumphantly displayed a table set out with such cold MEAT as an inn larder usually affords, exclaiming, "Is not this nice? Is not this an AGREEABLE surprise?...
…Lydia laughed, and said -- "Ay, that is just like your formality and discretion. You thought the WAITER must not hear, as if he cared! I dare say he often hears worse things said than I am going to say. But he is an UGLY fellow! I am glad he is gone. I never saw such A LONG CHIN in my life. Well, but now for my news...How nicely we are all crammed in," cried Lydia. "I am glad I bought my BONNET, if it is only for the fun of having another bandbox!...and then, what do you think we did? We dressed up CHAMBERLAYNE in WOMAN’S CLOTHES on purpose to PASS FOR A LADY, only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow ONE OF HER GOWNS; and you cannot imagine how well he looked!”

So what, I hear you saying, where’s the magic in those 14 scattered points?

Well, now let me now show you another passage, also written by Jane Austen, which ALSO contains all 14 of those same specific points! It is in Jane Austen’s own real life Letter 35 dated May 3-5, 1801, written by her just after her arrival to live in Bath, written, I believe, from her aunt & uncle’s residence  at the Paragon:

My Dear Cassandra, I have the pleasure of writing from my own room up two pair of stairs, with everything very comfortable about me. Our journey here was perfectly free from accident or event; we changed horses at the end of every stage, and paid at almost every turn-pike. We had charming weather, hardly any dust, and were exceedingly AGREEABLE, as we did not speak above once in three miles. Between Luggershall and Everley WE MADE OUR GRAND MEAL, and then with admiring astonishment perceived in what a magnificent manner our support had been provided for. We could not with the utmost exertion consume above the twentieth part of the BEEF. The CUCUMBER will, I believe, be a very acceptable present, as my uncle talks of having inquired the price of one lately, when he was told a shilling.
We had a very neat CHAISE from Devizes; it looked almost as well as a gentleman's, at least as a very shabby gentleman's; in spite of this advantage, however, we were above three hours coming from thence to Paragon, and it was half after seven by your clocks before we entered the house. FRANK, WHOSE BLACK HEAD was in WAITING IN THE HALL WINDOW, received us very kindly; and his master and mistress did not show less cordiality…One thing only among all our concerns has not arrived in safety: when I got into the CHAISE at Devizes I discovered that your drawing ruler was broke in two; it is just at the top where the cross-piece is fastened on. I beg pardon.
…The CHAMBERLAYNES are still here. I begin to think better of Mrs. C----, and upon recollection believe she has rather A LONG CHIN than otherwise, as she remembers us in Gloucestershire when we were very charming young women.
My mother has ordered a new BONNET, and so have I; both white strip, TRIMMED with white ribbon. I find my straw BONNET looking very much like other people's, and quite as smart. BONNETS of cambric muslin on the plan of Lady Bridges' are a good deal worn, and some of them are very pretty; but I shall defer one of that sort till your arrival. …We have had Mrs. Lillingstone and the CHAMBERLAYNES to call on us. My mother was very much struck with the ODD LOOKS of the two latter; I have only seen her. Mrs. Busby drinks tea and plays at cribbage here to-morrow; and on Friday, I believe, we go to the CHAMBERLAYNES….”

So, what in the world does this mean?

Why would JA, in her 1813 novel, so obviously (to CEA, at least) go out of her way to make such a 15-pronged, extremely specific echoing of her letter, written to CEA 12 years earlier on the momentous occasion of the Austen family’s move to Bath?  

More specifically, why take the real life Mrs. Chamberlayne (who, from the several mentions we read of her in JA’s letters from May 1801, was someone JA really liked, and was genuinely sad when Mrs. Chamberlayne abruptly left Bath) and re-present her as a young, involuntarily cross-dressed militiaman, who is lewdly joked about by Lydia?

And most shocking of all, why in the world would JA choose to translate her own real-life words, written to her sister, into the fictional words spoken by the vulgar, outrageous Lydia Bennet to three of her sisters?

Isn’t this taking an Austen family in-joke a little far?

I leave you with my best guess at this moment:

First, I see this as strong further confirmation of the sense I got dozens of times during our long group read of JA’s 154 surviving letters --- i.e., that so many of these letters were always hoped/ intended by JA to be kept, to survive, and one day to be published, as a kind of codebook for readers to use to decipher the meaning of the shadows in her novels.

But that’s only half of it--in reverse, I believe she intended that the survival of these coded letters would also turn her novels into a codebook for those who personally knew her, for deciphering the meaning of the shadows of her letters, the better for her secret self, the secret story of her own life, to be safely revealed, to those with eyes to see.

And so my answer re why she so puzzlingly chose Lydia as her mouthpiece in this instance is the same reason, at other points in P&P, why she chose Mary as her mouthpiece. They are both reflections not of her actual character, but of sides of her own character, as she knew she was (inaccurately) perceived by her family and friends.

I.e., to some (like e.g., Mitford who famously referred to her as a sharp poker), JA had too big a mouth for her own good, and was an embarrassment to the Austen family, just as is Lydia in the Bennet family --- in contrast to the diffident, retiring Cassandra, who was like Jane in the Bennet family.

But, to others in her family circle, JA was perceived the way Elizabeth sees sister Mary, which is as a pompous, attention-hungry, piano-playing nerd and killjoy.  

So….what do you see? What I hope I will not hear is that this was a coincidence, of which JA was unaware when she wrote P&P, or that it had no meaning beyond a harmless little family joke.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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