Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 18 2016 01:00PM

Work on Jane Austen, whether biography or literary criticism, arrays itself along a spectrum whose poles might be labeled Jolly Jane and Angry Austen.


Jolly Jane is a secure, contented woman who grew up surrounded by fond, supportive relatives. Her delightfully escapist comic novels poke gentle, affectionate fun at human foibles while ushering charming heroes and heroines into blissful marriages. Ultimately, the books reaffirm traditional Tory values and portray a fundamentally just moral universe.


Angry Austen is a frustrated, rebellious woman who grew up surrounded by difficult, oppressive relatives. Her dark and edgy satiric novels ruthlessly skewer the misogyny and materialism of her era while ushering deeply flawed protagonists into problematic marriages. Ultimately, the books reveal the emptiness of traditional patriarchal values and portray a fundamentally bleak moral universe.


John Halperin’s 1984 biography, The Life of Jane Austen, falls about as solidly into the Angry Austen camp as any book could. I chose it as the next entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging gaps in my Janeite education, because I knew that it was one of the most controversial of the many Austen biographies. “I can imagine Janeites burning effigies of John Halperin all over North America,” one academic reviewer wrote not long after the book’s publication.


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