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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The two deathbed utterances of Sense & Sensibility

It has often been noted that, for all of the vivid psychological realism of JA’s novels, they contain very few direct references to, and no enacted depiction of, the ultimate fact of human existence: death. Unless my memory fails me, there are only four characters who actually die during the chronology of any of the six novels, with none of those deaths being depicted in actual scenes. They are:

Mr. Henry Dashwood, at the very beginning of S&S;
Mr. Norris at the beginning of MP, and Dr. Grant at the very end of MP; and
Mrs. Churchill near the end of Emma.

Of course, there is fear for the lives of a couple of characters --- Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove --- but they both survive and fully recover from their respective ailments.

This dearth of Austenian death is perhaps not as surprising as it at first seems, because the action of all the novels except MP takes place in a very constricted time frame of one year or less; plus, the majority of the main characters are under 25, and nearly all are under the age of 45, and so there are just not that many old characters ready to shuffle off their mortal coil while we are observing them.

But this Austenian death scarcity extends further. We find perhaps its most extreme example in the remarkable number of apparently deceased parents (of young characters) who are never, or only barely and incompletely, mentioned, in Emma. We never hear a single word about the parents of the Knightley brothers, or those of Mr. Elton or Miss Hawkins, for that matter; we get a short paragraph about Jane Fairfax’s parents; we hear nothing at all about Harriet’s mother, and we only hear that Harriet’s father was a “tradesman” at the very end. And to a lesser extent, that pattern holds true in most of the other novels as well. Explicit backstory about deceased family in Austen novels is very scarce indeed.

What’s less striking, but also significant, is how little we hear, beyond the vaguest generalities, about the words spoken by the dead while they lived. Lady Catherine reports (if we can believe her) that her sister the late Mrs. Darcy had decades earlier made a pact with her for their firstborn children to marry. Mr. Woodhouse (disturbingly) reports that his late wife loved Garrick’s Kitty riddle. And the great Mrs. Churchill never gets to speak a word during the entire action of her novel, even when she dies “after a brief struggle” (a phrase that Leland Monk was the first, in 1990, to take as evidence that Frank Churchill smothered her!).

All of that omission and scarcity in the rest of the Austen canon therefore makes it quite noteworthy that it is only in Sense & Sensibility that we hear about not one, but two deathbed utterances! The first is in Chapter 1, and we all instantly recall the gist of this brief narration describing the words of the dying Henry Dashwood to his son John: “His son was sent for as soon as his danger was known, and to him Mr. Dashwood recommended, with all the strength and urgency which illness could command, the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters.”

As memorable as that narration is, so is almost universally unnoticed the other reference to a dying character’s words in S&S. Before today, I never did. It was only while reading a scholarly article about Mrs. Jennings, who has occupied my special attention the past few days, that I read a quotation of the last dozen words of the following narrative passage:

“Neither Lady Middleton nor Mrs. Jennings could supply to [Elinor] the conversation she missed [in Edward’s absence]; although the latter [Mrs. Jennings] was an everlasting talker, and from the first had regarded her with a kindness which ensured her a large share of her discourse. She had already repeated her own history to Elinor three or four times; and had Elinor's memory been equal to her means of improvement, she might have known very early in their acquaintance all the particulars of Mr. Jennings's last illness, and what he said to his wife a few minutes before he died.”

Just as Emma zones out while Miss Bates is speaking, and therefore ignores the rich subtext of her torrent of words, so too does Elinor do the same in a less obvious way vis a vis Mrs. Jennings. In the above passage, JA’s narrator may seem to be joining in Elinor’s non-listening, suggesting a lack of substance to be attended to, and so we readers tend to tune it out as well. But having recognized Mrs. Jennings as another garrulous but unheeded Cassandra, I wondered for the first time today----what did Mrs. Jennings’ late husband say to her “a few minutes before he died”, that Mrs. Jennings apparently repeated to Elinor? Was this echo of Henry Dashwood’s precatory bequest for his wife and daughters intentional on JA’s part, or purely random? I think not. And, thinking about it further, how long ago did he die? I find a clue to the answer to both questions in this narration: “Mrs. Jennings was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world.”

By negative implication, since we don’t read that she and her husband lived long enough to see that happy marital ending for their daughters, I infer that he died a number of years earlier. But, you may ask, why should we care? You probably already know my answer—to me, no “trivial detail” is ever really trivial in an Austen novel. And so I believe we are meant to ask ourselves what deathbed utterance Mr. Jennings may have made to his wife, and to look in earnest to the rest of the novel to help us guess what it was, and how that answer might have shaped the outcome of the story.

As a preliminary stab in that direction ---I get the sense that Mr. Jennings’s last words were, like Mr. Dashwood’s last request to son John, a plea that Mrs. Jennings correct some legal stricture leading to a morally repugnant outcome, by means of some voluntary generosity. E.g., did Mr. Jennings leave behind a loved one to whom he’d been unable to provide a sufficient bequest? Taking that idea one step further, was it also a deathbed confession, in which Mr. Jennings revealed some long-ago concealed misdeed on his part, as to which he wished to relieve a guilty conscience, and/or to provide for an illegitimate child, the result of a dalliance early in their marriage?

That is another meme that resonates with the innuendo that Mrs. Jennings tosses in Brandon’s direction:
"Well, my dear, 'tis a true saying about an ill-wind, for it will be all the better for Colonel Brandon. He will have her at last; aye, that he will. Mind me, now, if they an't married by Mid-summer. Lord! how he'll chuckle over this news! I hope he will come tonight. It will be all to one a better match for your sister. Two thousand a year without debt or drawback—except the little love-child, indeed; aye, I had forgot her; but she may be 'prenticed out at a small cost, and then what does it signify?...”

So, in the world of S&S, some fathers die with concerns for their children on their lips, and others take responsibility for their illegitimate offspring. So…who might that illegitimate offspring of Mr. Jennings be?

When I look around the ecosystem of characters who might fit into that category, I find my attention being drawn to Lucy Steele and her sister --- they enter the story at Chapter 21 with this paragraph of narration:  “In a morning's excursion to Exeter, they had met with two young ladies, whom Mrs. Jennings had the satisfaction of discovering to be her relations…Lady Middleton was thrown into no little alarm on the return of Sir John, by hearing that she was very soon to receive a visit from two girls whom she had never seen in her life, and of whose elegance,—whose tolerable gentility even, she could have no proof; for the assurances of her husband and mother on that subject went for nothing at all. Their being her relations too made it so much the worse; and Mrs. Jennings's attempts at consolation were therefore unfortunately founded, when she advised her daughter not to care about their being so fashionable; because they were all cousins and must put up with one another.
…Sir John wanted the whole family to walk to the Park directly and look at his guests. Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself. "Do come now," said he—"pray come—you must come—I declare you shall come—You can't think how you will like them. Lucy is monstrous pretty, and so good humoured and agreeable! The children are all hanging about her already, as if she was an old acquaintance. And they both long to see you of all things, for they have heard at Exeter that you are the most beautiful creatures in the world; and I have told them it is all very true, and a great deal more. You will be delighted with them I am sure. They have brought the whole coach full of playthings for the children. How can you be so cross as not to come? Why they are your cousins, you know, after a fashion. YOU are my cousins, and they are my wife's, so you must be related."

So, it is Mrs. Jennings who “accidentally” crosses paths with Lucy and her sister, is surprised to find out they are “relations”, and invites them to visit—and then it just happens to be the case that Lucy has been engaged to Edward. I can’t help but be reminded of the way the Thorpes “accidentally” meet the Allens, and how Harriet “randomly” winds up as Emma’s “pet” at Hartfield. And all of that makes me wonder whether Mrs. Jennings has been choreographing the dance of many characters across the stage of S&S from the very beginning, with the endgame being that all the young people wind up married, and part of that surely involves Mrs. Jennings satisfying her moral obligation to fulfill her dying husband’s request.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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