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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 16, 2017

On Jane Austen’s 242nd birthday, a vindication of her passionate “Scarlets Letter” complaint

Had Jane Austen been a vampire from an Anne Rice novel, today would have been her 242nd birthday. I believe that she’d have enjoyed Rice as a worthy modern successor to the Gothic novels of Radcliffe et al in Austen’s lifetime; and I also believe Austen, like Rice, would’ve been right in the thick of the #metoo movement -- while also taking private but strong satisfaction in the subtle but key role her novels have played over 2 centuries in bringing about what will hopefully turn out to be a decisive shift in the history of human gender relations, in the great quest of all good people for true gender equity.

It is JASNA’s wonderful custom to publish the latest edition of Persuasions Online on Jane Austen’s birthday every year, and today is no different. I’ve begun browsing in the latest issue, and the first essay that caught my eye and I’ve quickly read is Juliette Wells’ short piece about the attribution of authorship of the 1817 “Biographical Notice” to Henry Austen, which I heartily recommend you read:
It led me to some surprising new insights and speculations which bear on Austen and gender equity.

Wells begins as follows:    “While preparing an introduction for Penguin Classics’ new 200th-anniversary edition of Persuasion, I encountered an unexpected difficulty.  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were first published “with a biographical notice of the author,” as stated on the title page of John Murray’s 1818 edition. Although the “Biographical Notice” includes no byline, it is widely known to be the work of Jane Austen’s brother Henry.  But how exactly do we know that Henry wrote it? I expected this seemingly obvious question to be easy to answer.  To my surprise, however, I found that it was not.“

First, kudos to Wells for spotting that interesting question. Second, after reviewing the evidence, which you can read via her above-linked article, Wells concludes as follows:          “Clery, in keeping with her claims regarding Jane and Henry’s ardent mutual attachment and his equally strong desire to promote her fame, discerns in the wording of the “Biographical Notice” what she calls “the mark of more cautious influences” upon Henry.  Who among Austen’s surviving family members weighed in on this piece’s composition, who actually penned it, and who transmitted it to Murray may never be known.  It is plain, however, that considering Henry to be the sole author of this important first biography of Austen results from speculation and assumption, rather than resting on documentary evidence.”

Reading Wells’s essay has prompted in me these reactions:

First, as I’ve noted in the past, one striking aspect of the 1817 “Biographical Notice” is the way that it protests WAY too much about what Jane Austen did not do: that she did not love the “gross” and not very “moral” fiction of writers such as Fielding; that she was not particularly ambitious to be a published author; and that she did not represent real people (in a satirical light) in her fictional characters – all of which are, in my considered opinion, bald-faced and deliberate lies on the part of whoever penned them.

In strange parallel to those three negations, the satirical narrator of Northanger Abbey (of course, one of the two Austen novels for which the “Biographical Notice” served as a preface) famously went to great ironic lengths in wryly noting all the ways in which Catherine Morland, her parents, and various other characters did not do what Gothic novel conventions might’ve led us to expect them to do. However, behind that superficial appearance of gentle mockery of Catherine’s confusion of unrealistic Gothic novels with real life, which is still the mainstream interpretation of Northanger Abbey, I’ve long asserted that this pervasive negation of Gothicisms in Northanger Abbey is actually a key that unlocks the door to Jane Austen’s anti-parody hidden in plain sight. In that anti-parody, Austen actually celebrates Gothic novels as blowing an ultrasonic dog whistle on the very real, very deadly “normal” patriarchal abuse of women in England –abuse which was utterly ignored by church, state, and custom.  Austen had to do this via an ironic anti-parody, I’ve long claimed, because any overt condemnation of everyday abusive male power would never have been published – in that sense, Northanger Abbey, for all of its and Auste’s other novels’ clear-eyed realism, is exactly like the surrealistic Gothic novels which Catherine (and her creator, Jane Austen) loved, which also depicted, in code, the quotidian Gothic horror of marriage in England.

In contrast to Austen’s “ironical negations” motif in Northanger Abbey, the author of the “Biographical Notice” reveals not a trace of irony I can discern, in negating Jane Austen’s worldliness, ambition, and irreverence toward sacred cows. So I see no reason to believe that those negations were meant to point to the Jane Austen my research has revealed to me, the fearless female genius who did all of the following:

She alluded not only to Tom Jones and Shamela, but also to much more scandalous literary sources like Cleland’s Fanny Hill –and let’s not forget the 16 year old Jane Austen’s Sharade on James the First’s fondness for his male courtier ‘pets’, or Mary Crawford’s “rears and vices” pun, which I believe was meant to warn Fanny Price about the “price” William had to pay for his naval promotion;  and

She was extremely ambitious for publication, recognition, and public influence from a young age; above all, as I have argued most recently in my AGM talk a few months ago, she was in the last year of her life most focused on the “bounden duty” of those with “strong minds” to use their powers to strengthen the minds of women weakened by denial of a good education; and

She constructed every one of her novels in a manner analogous to the famous cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ....
…in that, in the crowded allusive subtext of her novels, we find Austen lampooning everyone from members of her own family, to many of her family’s friends and acquaintances, to the richest and most dangerous predator of the English “sea”, the Prince of “Whales”:

That’s just a brief sampler of the many reasons why I believe the author of the “Biographical Notice” knew very well that his sketch of Jane Austen’s angelic, acquiescent character was, like Emma’s sketch of Harriet Smith, profoundly unfaithful to the original.

With that background, I want to now riff off Wells’s provocative analysis of the pros and cons of the standard attribution of authorship of the “Biographical Notice” to Henry Austen. What she didn’t note, but I believe is a crucial clue to the identity and the motives of that very first Austen biographer, is the following passage (in the December 20, 1817 Postscript, dated exactly one week after the December 13 main body of the Biographical Notice), which supplies quotations from letters Jane Austen wrote in late May, 1817, just after she had recovered enough strength to be safely transported to Winchester:

“[Jane Austen] next touches with just and gentle animadversion [i.e., criticism] on a subject of domestic disappointment. Of this the particulars do not concern the public. Yet in justice to her characteristic sweetness and resignation, the concluding observation of our authoress thereon must not be suppressed. 'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.'
The following and final extract will prove the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness. 'You will find Captain ---------- a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.'

On the surface, these two quotations seem to have been selected in order to illustrate Jane Austen’s extraordinarily selfless, even saintly, capacity for letting go of “complaint”, even as she was gradually dying over the last several months of her life. What I have long detected, however, is that, as in the earlier passage which I debunked, above, regarding her writing, is that the writer of this virtual canonization  seems more concerned with exoneration of unnamed members of the Austen family from blame or guilt vis a vis the dying Jane. I.e., if Jane really was so saintly as to reframe her own complaints as moral defects for her to overcome, then those responsible for raising those complaints in the first place would be off the hook, morally speaking.

Therefore, and especially given the biographer’s attempt to whitewash Austen’s unseemly vulgarity, ambition, and malice, I suggest that open and inquiring Janeite minds ought to be suspicious of what those “particulars” which “d[id] not concern the public” regarding Jane Austen’s “domestic disappointment” actually were! What cause did she have for complaint in May 1817, which coincided with that last desperate attempt to save her life?  In my following linked 2013 blog post….  ….I argued that James Edward Austen Leigh, in his 1870 Memoir of his long-dead Aunt Jane, went to great lengths to hint that the “domestic disappointment” with respect to which Jane allegedly magnanimously blamed herself for complaining, was actually the bankruptcy of Henry Austen a year earlier, a seismic financial event which shook the foundations of the Austen family.

Therefore, while some might find, in the fact that the second of the three quoted-from Jane Austen May 1817 letters was written to Mrs. Tilson, wife of Henry Austen’s close personal friend and partner in that same bankruptcy fiasco, evidence that Henry Austen was the author of the 1817 “Biographical Notice”, I now suspect James Edward Austen (still not yet “Austen-Leigh” in late 1817) of having written the first version of the “Biographical Notice”, and I’ll explain why.

First, I believe that Austen family chronology points to another obvious candidate for that “domestic disappointment”, a seismic financial event which occurred in March 1817, i.e., only two months before that May 1817 letter, and therefore much more likely to have then been weighing on the mind and heart of Jane Austen. I refer to the death of uncle James Leigh-Perrot, followed shortly thereafter by Mrs. Austen and her two daughters having confirmed to them the horrible news that they had, as feared, been disinherited by Mrs. Austen’s rich brother. Instead, it all went into a life interest for his wife their aunt, with the remainder to Jane’s eldest brother James and his descendants. From among that latter group, it was James Edward, as James’s eldest son, who ultimately won the inheritance jackpot more than a decade later, when Mrs. Leigh-Perrot finally met her maker, and left James Edward her estate Scarlets. As I also previously note, “Scarlets” is, not coincidentally, a remarkably close synonym for “Rosings”, another great estate ruled by a grotesquely selfish and dictatorial aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh!

To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet, was this cruel disinheritance not some excuse for complaint, if Jane Austen did complain? Of course it was! As I argued in my above-linked 2014 blog post, that makes James Edward’s 1870 editorial machinations all the more despicable, because it shows that he deliberately misdirected readers to his uncle Henry’s early 1816 bankruptcy, and away from the actual April 1817 explanation for his aunt’s “complaint”.

Ironically, that explanation was left to James Edward’s own son, Richard, to correct, in his 1911 biography of Jane Austen, in which he quoted from that same letter and then wrote this brief discreet comment:  “Some allusion to the family disappointment about the will probably followed, and she added: 'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.'”

That Jane Austen (and her sister and mother) would have been appalled by Uncle Leigh-Perrot having disinherited them is well established. As Uncle Leigh-Perrot lay dying in March 1817, Jane Austen wrote to niece Fanny Knight:  “Indeed I shall be very glad when the event at Scarlets is over, the expectation of it keeps us in a worry, your Grandmama especially; she sits brooding over Evils which cannot be remedied, and Conduct impossible to be understood.  It requires no great imaginative leap to understand Jane Austen’s meaning, and I suspect that I am far from the first Austen scholar to note this.

So, that is why I have tossed out this theory that Wells’s article has triggered in my own admittedly active imagination --- what if the author of the 1817 “Biographical Notice”, which Henry Austen tweaked 15 years later for the 1833 Bentley editions of Austen’s novels, was not Henry himself after all, as Wells has persuasively argued is by no means certain, but instead was the young (not quite 20 year old) James Edward Austen Leigh, writing perhaps with assistance (as speculated by Wells) from his surviving aunt Cassandra?

That would not only fit with Jane Austen’s famous May 1817 letter to James Edward (which lavishes praise on him for his writing) providing the first of the three epistolary excerpts quoted in that December 20, 1817 Postscript; it also provides a compelling self-serving motive for the deception of concealing the catastrophic effect of the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance which benefited James Edward and his side of the family in a needlessly zero-sum game. While Henry did receive something when his aunt died later on, that was small change compared to Scarlets and the wealth that went along with it.

No wonder James Edward would have emphasized Jane Austen’s saintly capacity for putting complaint aside, not only in the reference to the “domestic disappointment”, but (again, protesting way too much) by his awkward segue to that third excerpt which, upon examination, is utterly trivial and is the furthest thing from proof that it was a deeply ingrained part of Jane Austen’s character to “turn from complaint to cheerfulness”:

“The following and final extract will prove the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness. ‘You will find Captain ---------- a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.' “

That the author of the “Biographical Notice” chose not only to add that excerpt at all, but to make them the final prefatory words read before the witty yet significant faux-negations of Chapter 1 of Northanger Abbey, to me reflects the earliest manifestation of that same dreadful mixture of narcissism, hypocrisy, and deceitfulness which is on exhibit, for those with eyes to see, on every page of the 1870 Memoir which is the sad bookend to the “Biographical Notice”, and which has shaped misperception of the true Jane Austen for nearly 150 years.

So, on Jane Austen’s 242nd birthday, it’s not too late to begin to celebrate the life of the real Jane Austen, the fiercely free thinking feminist author who never turned from complaint to cheerfulness, but instead turned to fiction as a vehicle to convert her own personal complaints into high art that would strengthen the minds of all the English gentlewomen who had the same complaints, so that the manifest injustice they collectively suffered as women would one day, sooner or later, be remedied forever!

Cheers, ARNIE

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