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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 9, 2016

Jane Austen’s Career-Long Fascination with Ovid’s Protofeminist Heroides Letters

I’ve long been ensconced in the camp of Janeites who agree with the speculation (first articulated a half century ago by Zachary Cope) that the following letter signed by “Sophia Sentiment”  (which appeared in the 9th issue of Oxfordian brothers James & Henry Austen’s literary magazine The Loiterer) was actually written by their younger sister, the not yet 12 ½ year old, precocious child genius, Jane Austen:

No. IX of The Loiterer. Saturday, March 28, 1789. 
Non venit ante suum nostra querela diem.--Ovid.
To the AUTHOR of the LOITERER.
Sir,  I write this to inform you that you are very much out of my good graces, and that, if you do not mend your manners, I shall soon drop your acquaintance. You must know, Sir, I am a great reader, and not to mention some hundred volumes of Novels and Plays, have, in the last two summers, actually got through all the entertaining papers of our most celebrated periodical writers, from the Tatler and Spectator to the Microcosm and the Olla Podrida. Indeed I love a periodical work beyond any thing, especially those in which one meets with a great many stories, and where the papers are not too long. I assure you my heart beat with joy when I first heard of your publication, which I immediately sent for, and have taken in ever since.
I am sorry, however, to say it, but really, Sir, I think it the stupidest work of the kind I ever saw: not but that some of the papers are well written; but then your subjects are so badly chosen, that they never interest one. – Only conceive, in eight papers, not one sentimental story about love and honour, and all that. – Not one Eastern Tale full of Bashas and Hermits, Pyramids and Mosques – no, not even an allegory or dream have yet made their appearance in the Loiterer. Why, my dear Sir – what do you think we care about the way in which Oxford men spend their time and money – we, who have enough to do to spend our own. For my part, I never, but once, was at Oxford in my life, and I am sure I never wish to go there again – They dragged me through so many dismal chapels, dusty libraries, and greasy halls, that it gave me the vapours for two days afterwards. As for your last paper, indeed, the story was good enough, but there was no love, and no lady in it, at least no young lady; and I wonder how you could be guilty of such an omission, especially when it could have been so easily avoided. Instead of retiring to Yorkshire, he might have fled into France, and there, you know, you might have made him fall in love with a French Paysanne, who might have turned out to be some great person. Or you might have let him set fire to a convent, and carry off a nun, whom he might afterwards have converted, or any thing of that kind, just to have created a little bustle, and made the story more interesting.
In short, you have never yet dedicated any one number to the amusement of our sex, and have taken no more notice of us, than if you thought, like the Turks, we had no souls. From all which I do conclude, that you are neither more nor less than some old Fellow of a College, who never saw any thing of the world beyond the limits of the University, and never conversed with a female, except your bed-maker and laundress. I therefore give you this advice, which you will follow as you value our favour, or your own reputation. – Let us hear no more of your Oxford Journals, your Homelys and Cockney: but send them about their business, and get a new set of correspondents, from among the young of both sexes, but particularly ours; and let us see some nice affecting stories, relating the misfortunes of two lovers, who died suddenly, just as they were going to church. Let the lover be killed in a duel, or lost at sea, or you may make him shoot himself, just as you please; and as for his mistress, she will of course go mad; or if you will, you may kill the lady, and let the lover run mad; only remember, whatever you do, that your hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names. If you think fit to comply with this my injunction, you may expect to hear from me again, and perhaps I may even give you a little assistance: – but, if not – may your work be condemned to the pastry–cook's shop, and may you always continue a bachelor, and be plagued with a maiden sister to keep house for you.
Your's, as you behave,  SOPHIA SENTIMENT.

As you can gather from the above, “Sophia” complains about The Loiterer‘s failure to provide reading material of interest to female readers, which she then parodically outlines in terms of the clichéd tropes of melodramatic fiction directed toward the overactive imaginations of foolish female readers.

2 ½ years ago, I last blogged about Jane Austen as Sophia Sentiment here:  My revisiting that topic today arises from reading “Jane Austen’s First Publication” in 23/3 of Women’s Writing (2016), by Peter Sabor, a senior Austen scholar and editor of an edition of Austen’s juvenilia a few years back. My eye was caught by something Sabor mentioned in passing, which I’d never taken note of before: “The ninth issue of The Loiterer published on 28 March 1789, featured one such contribution, but it was anomalous in many ways. Like all of the numbers, it is prefixed by a Latin tag, in this case from Ovid’s Epistles. The epigraph fills its usual function of appealing to an educated male readership, steeped in the classics, yet the complaint in question is from a woman, “Sophia Sentiment.”

What I hadn’t previously noticed was the Latin epigraph by Ovid, which, I quickly learned, translated to “You will find that my complaint comes not before its time.” I wondered: was Sabor correct in his attribution of the “usual function” of a Latin quotation as appealing to classically-savvy male readers, given that this seemed to conflict with the complaint of the letter supposedly being from a woman, writing on behalf of female readers?

I decided to dig deeper, and check out all the Latin tags (at least 40 in all) in the two volumes of The Loiterer.  My quick survey revealed that the vast majority of the Latin tags were quotes from Horace and Virgil, with a half dozen more from Juvenal, but only three from Ovid (a fourth was incorrectly attributed to Ovid). That’s when it got very interesting, because two of those three Ovidian epigraphs were drawn from Ovid’s famous Heroides, and they just happened to appear in consecutive issues—specifically Issues 8 and 9, with the latter being….Sophia Sentiment’s letter. And lo and behold, Issue 9 explicitly referred to its predecessor twice:   “As for your last paper, indeed, the story was good enough, but there was no love, and no lady in it, at least no young lady…Let us hear no more of your Oxford Journals, your Homelys [the author of the letter in Issue 8] and Cockney…”

So, it certainly appears that the occurrence of these epigraphs both drawn from The Heroides (the very famous letters Ovid wrote, of which the first 14 are based on well-known myths and are written by women to the legendary heroes who have abandoned them) was no coincidence-----especially when we factor in that the Sophia Sentiment letter which the latter epigraph introduces is itself a female complaint about men not addressing the needs of women—wheels within allusive wheels! Based on that prima facie case, I quickly decided to dig deeper still, and go back to the full context of those two epigraphs in Ovid’s work itself.

The epigraph for Issue 8 quotes from the fourth Heroides letter, penned by Phaedra to her stepson Hippolytus (son of Theseus), in which she goes to great lengths to convince her much younger stepson to accept her as his incestuous lover. That turns out to be a very apt epigraph for the letter in Issue 8 written by “H. Homely”, who concludes his confession of youthful imprudence followed by a sharp turn to a worthy country clerical life, by reference to his marrying a much older woman, regardless of his neighbors’ disapproval:     “In short, at the end of six years, …I had recommended myself so well as a companion to the Squire of the parish, and his only sister, that I gained at once their common consent to become the brother-in-law of the one, and the husband of the other. My wife was to be sure a few years older than myself. But though the good-natured world may therefore put an unfavourable opinion on the motives of her regard to me, I can only say that fifteen years of the tenderest attention and uninterrupted contentment on both sides convinced me too well, what a friend I lost at the end of them.”

So, we can see that the female point of view in the Heroides epigraph was intentional in Issue 8, which only builds the case that it was also intentional for the Heroides epigraph in Issue 9, the one so many Janeites believe was written by JA at age 12 ½.  It turns out that, just as with Issue 8, the epigraph fits the letter to a tee.

In Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds (1945) by Hermann Fränkel, we read the following about the Heroides letter Jane Austen alluded to via her epigraph:   “In contrast to most of the other epistles, the subject of the Phyllis letter (II) was taken from some rather obscure source. But the tradition from which it came is irrelevant, because the story is essentially an everyday occurrence and it is treated in a simple, direct, and unaffected manner. True enough, since here we are in the province of legend, Phyllis is a princess and her lover a son of Theseus, king of Athens; nevertheless, the royal station of the characters is only incidental and does not detract from the typical nature of the situation. The Thracian girl Phyllis, an artless young orphan, has hospitably received young Demophon, who had been shipwrecked off the coast of her land. She put him up in her house, fell in love with him and gave him her all, on the promise that he would come back within a month and live happily with her ever after. The letter is written four months after Demophon’s departure, when Phyllis has little hope left for his eventual return and is soon to commit suicide….” END QUOTE FROM FRANKEL

It is clear that the Ovidian quotation was meant by JA to provide the knowing reader with a powerful  lens through which to read some of the key points made by Sophia Sentiment! I.e., her letter is basically calling for The Loiterer to include more female stories of the very kind that Ovid included in Heroides! And as I noted above, there’s a startlingly modern, self-reflexive quality to this nested literary structure: i.e., a girl author, Jane Austen, pretending to be her older brother, James Austen, a young man, writing a letter in the voice of a mature woman, advocating for more female oriented story telling in her brother’s literary magazine, and using a classical epigraph drawn from the most famous work of antiquity in which female stories (Heroides) were told by a male author (Ovid)!

All of which, I am sure you’ll agree, only magnifies twofold the wonder of a 12 ½ year old country girl, without formal education, creating such a subtle, ironic, learned, classical matrioshka. A little further digging showed me that JA was not the only young English female prodigy to engage with Ovid in this way. “Julia to Ovid”, Mary Wortley Montagu’s (born Mary Pierrepoint) poem written nearly a century before JA’s contribution to The Loiterer, was subtitled “Written at Twelve Years of Age, in imitation of Ovid's Epistles”. I wonder if the young Jane Austen read Montagu’s published writings in the Steventon home library, and was inspired to follow in her predecessor’s Ovidian footsteps at the exact same age!

But that’s only the beginning of the extraordinary story of Jane Austen’s artistic engagement with Ovid’s proto-feminist Heroides. I blogged a number of years ago about the Heroides subtext I saw in Marianne Dashwood’s character in S&S, which I saw as having been inspired by Ovid’s Dido’s letter to Aeneas. But I didn’t realize till I did a quick search in my good friend Mary DeForest’s new book, Jane Austen Closet Classicist, that I saw the third, final, and perhaps most spectacular engagement of Jane Austen with Ovid’s Heroides, one written in the final year of JA’s life, nearly 3 decades after “Sophia Sentiment” marked Austen’s anonymous literary debut.

PART TWO: OVID’S HEROIDES IN PERSUASION:  I begin with this quotation from Mary’s book:   “Odysseus encountered Nausicaa, an attractive princess of a rich land, just before his return to Ithaca. He was offered a chance to marry her, and with her parents’ approval. Here, Austen improves on Homer. She brings the rivals into the same social circle so that Anne witnesses Wentworth’s growing intimacy with the Miss Musgroves. Then she must listen to Mary and Charles Musgrove’s endless arguments about which sister will get him. Penelope, far away on Ithaca, was at least spared from watching Odysseus charm the beautiful Nausicaa. Ovid suggested that possibility. His Penelope wrote Odysseus a letter in which she imagined him describing her as an ignorant rustic to a polished, elegant princess. [fn: Ovid’s Penelope was haunted by the idea that Odysseus was mocking her to another woman, Heroides, 1.75–78.] During a long walk organized by Louisa, Anne walks alone, recalling quotations about autumn and trying to block out the tender exchanges between Louisa and Wentworth. The pleasures of autumnal literature are flimsy, however, easily scattered by Louisa, a rival in the springtime of life. Particularly disturbing, Louisa says to Captain Wentworth exactly what, in his opinion, Anne should have said. Anne had broken their engagement from prudence, but Louisa cries out enthusiastically that she would rather crash in a carriage with the man she loves than be driven safely by anyone else.”

So, Mary is asserting that the scene in Chapter 10 of Persuasion (depicting the long walk from Winthrop back to Uppercross when Anne Elliot eavesdrops over a hedgerow on the conversation between Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove) is Jane Austen’s clever, erudite allusion to Ovid’s Penelope worrying about Odysseus talking trash about her with a female lover. And I agree with Mary that this was indeed an intentional allusion by JA to Ovid, although not a tight one: i.e., Wentworth is not talking trash in a crude way about Anne, so much as making a polite and implicit comparison between Anne’s caution 8 years earlier, and Louisa’s romantic intrepidity in the present, a comparison by which Anne comes out by far the worse of the two in Wentworth’s estimation.

But here’s where I diverge from Mary, thanks to her footnote which alerted me to look to the full text of Penelope’s letter of complaint about her beloved seafarer. When I did, I saw a second veiled allusion in Persuasion to lines 59-80 of Penelope letter to Odysseus:

Whoever turns his wandering ship to these shores,
Is asked by me many questions about you before he departs,
And he is given the letter written by these fingers,
To give to you if he ever even sees you anywhere.
…I would know where you fought, and would fear only war,
And my complaint would be joined with many others.
What I fear I do not know--nevertheless, half-crazed, I fear all things,
And a wide field lies open for my fears.
Whatever dangers the ocean has, whatever the land,
I suspect to be the cause of your long delay.
While I foolishly fear these things, such is your appetite
That you may be captive to a foreign love.
May I be wrong, and may this crime vanish in thin air,
And may it not be that, free to return, you wish to remain away.

What I saw in that small detail (of Penelope imagining Odysseus comparing her unflatteringly to coarse wool) was the source for another metaphor on low-quality clothing which Wentworth makes in Chapter 8---two chapters earlier than the hedgerow scene---in the following scene in the Uppercross salon:

When [Anne] could let her attention take its natural course again, she found the Miss Musgroves just fetching the Navy List (their own navy list, the first that had ever been at Uppercross), and sitting down together to pore over it, with the professed view of finding out the ships that Captain Wentworth had commanded.
"Your first was the Asp, I remember; we will look for the Asp."
"You will not find her there. Quite worn out and broken up. I was the last man who commanded her. Hardly fit for service then. Reported fit for home service for a year or two, and so I was sent off to the West Indies."
The girls looked all amazement.
"The Admiralty," he continued, "entertain themselves now and then, with sending a few hundred men to sea, in a ship not fit to be employed. But they have a great many to provide for; and among the thousands that may just as well go to the bottom as not, it is impossible for them to distinguish the very set who may be least missed."
"Phoo! phoo!" cried the Admiral, "what stuff these young fellows talk! Never was a better sloop than the Asp in her day. For an old built sloop, you would not see her equal. Lucky fellow to get her! He knows there must have been twenty better men than himself applying for her at the same time. Lucky fellow to get anything so soon, with no more interest than his."
"I felt my luck, Admiral, I assure you;" replied Captain Wentworth, seriously. "I was as well satisfied with my appointment as you can desire. It was a great object with me at that time to be at sea; a very great object, I wanted to be doing something."
"To be sure you did. What should a young fellow like you do ashore for half a year together? If a man had not a wife, he soon wants to be afloat again."
"But, Captain Wentworth," cried Louisa, "how vexed you must have been when you came to the Asp, to see what an old thing they had given you."
"I knew pretty well what she was before that day;" said he, smiling. "I had no more discoveries to make than you would have as to the fashion and strength of any old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance ever since you could remember, and which at last, on some very wet day, is lent to yourself. Ah! she was a dear old Asp to me. She did all that I wanted. I knew she would. I knew that we should either go to the bottom together, or that she would be the making of me; and I never had two days of foul weather all the time I was at sea in her; and after taking privateers enough to be very entertaining, I had the good luck in my passage home the next autumn, to fall in with the very French frigate I wanted. I brought her into Plymouth; and here another instance of luck. We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me." Anne's shudderings were to herself alone; but the Miss Musgroves could be as open as they were sincere, in their exclamations of pity and horror. “

Did you see the reference to old clothing? It is when Wentworth analogizes his first command the “dear old Asp” to “any old pelisse” – a hand-me-down no one else would want to wear. So, you inquire, what exactly does all that have to do with Anne Elliot? My answer, which will shock some, is that six years ago I wrote a blog called “A dear old Asp....go to the bottom together” at  in which I wrote the following:    “this passage contained wordplay which, when Wentworth's comments are read in a different mode, i.e., as sarcastic, bitter, and very vulgar, rather than romantic, wistful, and nostalgic, has a very different meaning. I described that darker and decidedly unpleasant meaning in my presentation at Chawton House in July 2009”.

That shocking meaning was Wentworth’s scatological double pun on an “old ASS” and a “bottom” –suggesting, in modern sexual slang, that Anne Elliot is in effect a worn-out old “piece of ass”, one that Wentworth, in code, is telling Louisa he would like to exchange for a new, unused, fresh “pelisse” like Louisa! I.e., Wentworth’s coded sexual punning on asses/bottoms is JA’s second, and more powerful, allusion to Penelope’s coarse wool metaphor in Ovid’s Heroides. And so Anne, if she only understood, really would have shuddered in horror like Penelope, at being referred to as an old pelisse made of Ovidian coarse wool.  And that ends this little guided tour of Jane Austen’s engagement with Ovid’s Heroides at ages 12 ½, 35, and 40, respectively.

Cheers, ARNIE

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