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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, November 18, 2016

Constantia Wine, the Eve of St. Agnes, & Sense & Sensibility

Earlier this year, I suggested here….  ….that the allusion to the Eve of St. Agnes hidden in the implicit calendar of Sense & Sensibility (which I noted several years ago) was also connected to the Romeo & Juliet subtext of Queen Mab the horse Willoughby offers to Marianne; in a (hazel) nutshell, both have at their core erotic/romantic dreams.

Today I take note of yet another sly hint in S&S at the Eve of St. Agnes—specifically, the ritual of the wine that a single young woman customarily drinks, so she will dream of her future husband. Here is the relevant passage (with the hint in ALL CAPS):

“…In the drawing-room, whither [Elinor] then repaired, she was soon joined by Mrs. Jennings, with a wine-glass, full of something, in her hand.
"My dear," said she, entering, "I have just recollected that I have SOME OF THE FINEST OLD CONSTANTIA WINE in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than any thing else in the world. Do take it to your sister."
"Dear Ma'am," replied Elinor, smiling at the difference of the complaints for which it was recommended, "how good you are! But I have just left Marianne in bed, and, I hope, almost asleep; and as I think nothing will be of so much service to her as rest, if you will give me leave, I will drink the wine myself."
Mrs. Jennings, though regretting that she had not been five minutes earlier, was satisfied with the compromise; and Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected, that though its effects on a colicky gout were, at present, of little importance to her, its healing powers, on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister.”

We all know that Elinor winds up drinking the wine that Mrs. Jennings suggested she bring to Marianne. But would you believe that Mrs. Jennnings, in her Miss Batesian way, has dropt a sly clue about the Eve of St. Agnes? It’s in the name of the variety of wine she touts so highly. I had a hunch that “Constantia” might mean something more than wine, and sure enough, when I Googled “Constantia” and “St. Agnes” together, I was first led here:  That’s an image of the 1654 painting by Pietro da Cortona entitled “Saint Constantia's Vision before the Tomb of Saints Agnes and Emerentiana”.

Never heard of it? Well, I quickly found this about Saint Constantia: “Saint Constantia, or Constance (d. 350 AD) was the daughter of the Roman emperor Constantine; after being healed miraculously (of leprosy) at the tomb of St. Agnes, she took a vow of virginity.”

That only whetted my appetite for the more complete explanation lovingly provided here:   “Saint Constance was born in about 325 AD, as Constantine Augustus. Her father was the Emperor, Constantine the Great. She had leprosy, which made her very sad, and she cried often. Since the leprosy created ugly spots on her face, not many people could bear to look at her, or even be with her. Giving up hope at times, she wanted to wear a mask. Her father had doctors from every land searching for a cure, but it seemed hopeless. As a last resort, a friend told Constance about a young martyr named Agnes, at whose tomb cures were known to happen. On the way to the tomb of Saint Agnes, a woman overheard Constance and her friend questioning each other about what to do when they arrived at the tomb. The woman explained how God performs miracles when people pray to Him through the saints. Constance was moved by this woman’s faith and become a Christian. Upon arriving at the tomb of Saint Agnes, Constance covered her face with a scarf and knelt down to pray, as the woman had taught her. When she got up and removed the scarf, the leprosy was gone from her face, as well as from the rest of her body.
Saint Constance chose not to marry. She spent the rest of her life helping others, the way that God had helped her, working with the sick and giving them hope. She died in about 354 AD, near the Basilica of Saint Agnes, which was commissioned by Constance. This basilica was built at the site where she was cured.”

So now we can understand not only why Mrs. Jennings serves “Constantia” wine, it’s why she touts its healing properties-- but JA, with masterfully ironic understatement, has reduced leprosy to gout!: “Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than any thing else in the world.” And, in that same vein, it’s also why “Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected, that though its effects on a colicky gout were, at present, of little importance to her, its healing powers, on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister.” From leprosy to gout to a broken heart in three short steps!

And by the way, Wikipedia reveals that Jane Austen is not the only famous author who wove “Constantia Wine”, with special powers, into a story:

“In Charles Dickens’ last (and unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Constantia wine is served to the Reverend Septimus by his mother. "As, whenever the Reverend Septimus fell a-musing, his good mother took it to be an infallible sign that he ‘wanted support,’ the blooming old lady made all haste to the dining-room closet, to produce from it the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit."
In Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (poem XXVI) entitled sed non satiata, Baudelaire compares the charms of his beloved to the pleasures brought by Nuits-Saint-Georges and Constantia wine: “Even more than Constantia, than opium, than Nuits, I prefer the elixir of your mouth, where love performs its slow dance.” 

And finally, our own Diane Reynolds, recent author of her biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the women in his life, will get a kick out of this account (by the young Bonhoeffer in his diary) of a visit to certain art heritage sites in Rome with a Sense & Sensibility aura:

"Then Sant'Agnese fuori. In spite of a lot of restoration, it gives the impression of being stylistically pure. The catacombs are very interesting. Among other things, a painting of the Madonna without a halo but with a halo above her head, Santa Costanza.". The editor glosses this as follows “St. Agnes outside the walls was founded at a nearby site by Constantia, daughter of Constantine...Saint Constance is the mausoleum for the daughter of Constantine; it has mosaics from the 4th century."

So now you have yet another example of why the wise reader will pay as close attention to Mrs. Jennings’ ‘trivial’ dialog as to Miss Bates’s ‘little matters’. And you ain’t heard nothing yet—wait till my next post, when I’ll tell you how Mrs. Jennings’ glass of Constantia wine is actually the key to one of the most significant plot turns in the shadow story of Sense & Sensibility, as it helps Marianne with what really ails her!

Cheers, ARNIE

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