Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1798. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 27 2016 01:00PM

Sixteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Two hundred and eighteen years ago today, on October 27, 1798, the twenty-two-year-old Jane Austen wrote perhaps the most controversial and reviled passage in all her work. In a chatty letter to her sister, Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward’s family in Kent – Letter #10 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- Austen offered up this tidbit of news about the family of a local clergyman:


“Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”


From the reaction of readers over the years, you’d think Austen had confessed to smothering the baby herself. “Did Cassandra laugh?” asked E.M. Forster, a devout Janeite who was nonetheless appalled by the passage. “Probably, but all that we catch at this distance is the whinnying of harpies.”


“Malicious, nasty, and tasteless, certainly,” says John Halperin, one of the less sympathetic Austen biographers. “The sentence is an unfortunate one,” acknowledges Elizabeth Jenkins, one of the more sympathetic.


The shock waves apparently continue to reverberate. “I do not think I know of *any* woman whom I have ever met in over fifty years who would ever make such a frankly depraved statement -- and as a jest, no less -- about a dead newborn,” a first-time reader told the online Janeites discussion list during a 2011 group read-through of Austen’s letters. “It is a gravely immoral thing to say. And I simply cannot get around that. And so, I'll stop my reading of these letters here. I really do feel as though I've been expelled from Eden. . . . Why on earth would Cassandra not have consigned this one to the flames??”


I suppose I must be a bad person, because I think the dead baby line is hilarious.


Yes, of course, had Austen made that remark to Mrs. Hall – or to Mr. Hall, or to a close friend of the bereaved parents, or to anyone who might have repeated it to them – that would have been unforgivably callous. But she didn’t! She wrote it in a private, not-intended-for-publication letter to her closest confidante! Lighten up, people!


Black humor of this variety isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but nevertheless I find the outrage over Austen’s joke disproportionate. Infant death is very sad, but Jane Austen jokes about death in her novels (remember the late, unlamented Mrs. Churchill?) and we don’t recoil in horror. True, the Halls were real-life acquaintances of Austen’s, not fictional creations, but none of us knew them, and there is not a scintilla of evidence that Austen’s irreverent reaction to their tragedy caused them a moment’s distress.


In a perceptive look at Austen’s humor, Jan Fergus analyzes the widespread discomfort with Austen’s “very carnal, very irreverent” suggestion that some men are so hideous that it’s dangerous for pregnant women to get too close to them. For some readers, Fergus says, it’s hard “to accept that Jane Austen is so frank, so comfortable. . .with the connection between the mind and body, so easy about sexuality and birth and death that she can joke about them, apparently offhand.”


Why should it be so hard to accept this frankness? Because Janeites take their Austen very personally. It’s not enough that she should be a great writer; she must also be a great human being, and a particular kind of great human being.


Despite the oceans of ink spilled in analyzing the sexual, political or subversive sides of Austen’s work, some readers remain invested in a more familiar, less destabilizing picture of her – and, perhaps, of any woman writer. For these readers, Austen is invariably decorous, polite and high-minded – or, alternatively, forever kind, cuddly and warm-hearted. Sophisticated icon of good taste or literary BFF: either way, not a dead-baby-joke kind of person.


2 comments
Oct 27 2016 08:05PM by Maggie Sullivan

I, too, find the dead baby joke hilarious, but I think everyone will agree that I am a bad person. :-)

That being said, I think it's a bit privileged for the 21st century reader to be appalled, living as we do in a time when an infant's chances of reaching adulthood are substantially higher than they were in Jane Austen's time. It's black humor, certainly, but I think forgivable.

Oct 27 2016 08:13PM by dyaffe

Yes, that's a good point: In JA's day, perhaps you had to view these events with a certain measure of distance, or else you'd be overwhelmed by sadness at their frequency. (The historian Lawrence Stone goes so far as to argue that parents in the early modern period didn't get attached to young children because they died so often. But this is a controversial thesis.) Sentimentality about children is a Victorian development, I think. Still, I'd be willing to bet that JA, with her mordant sense of humor and writer's eye, was a bit more detached than average. . .

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