Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lynn Domina

Today, I reconnected with Lynn Domina, a poet and English professor. She and I met several years ago at an Earlham School of Religion intensive, courses that cram a semester's worth of work into two weeks to accommodate working people. I believe we met in Interfaith Dialogue, but neither of us can remember exactly. In any case, for me it was instant simpatico, so I am delighted we are back in communication.

Below is one of Lynn's poem where she reviews other poets. Here is a link to her blog:

    ...I need not feel grief, I can eat grief...
    --Sara Suleri, Meatless Days

The table is prepared:
the burgundy as robust as blood
coursing through a torso, the crusty bread
uncut and hot, the honey, the butter.

In this gust of time, our lives
seem nearly perfect.
Against the butter knife, the bread board, our touch
is brief and premediated. Honey floats on my tongue,
a last still point of assurance
before our cascade of grief.

My body hazy with wine, I lean back
into my misbelief that life is
everlasting. We receive the night as a third body
arrived to eat and drink. We've forgotten
how bodies transfuse themselves
into night, first an ordinary
flake of skin, an unmissed eylash,
then an entire birthmark or scar
twisted among the roots
of a field, soaked up into a tassel of wheat,
kneaded into a loaf
which multiplies as we leave ourselves
at this irresistible edge of hunger,
this brink of thirst.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cassandra: Dominatrix? part IV

From the earliest book-length memoir of Jane Austen comes strong testimony of her closeness and devotion to Cassandra:

 "But dearest of all to the heart of Jane was her sister Cassandra, about three years her senior.  Their sisterly affection for each other could scarcely be exceeded.  Perhaps it began on Jane’s side with the feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister.  Something of this feeling always remained; and even in the maturity of her powers, and in the enjoyment of increasing success, she would still speak of Cassandra as of one wiser and better than herself.  In childhood, when the elder was sent to the school ... the younger went with her ... because she would have been miserable without her sister; her mother observing that ‘if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’  This attachment was never interrupted or weakened.  They lived in the same home, and shared the same bed-room, till separated by death.  They were not exactly alike. Cassandra’s was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well judging, but with less outward demonstration of feeling and less sunniness of temper than Jane possessed." (James Edward Austen Leigh's Memoir)

We touched in the last blog on the 1797 death of Cassandra's fiance, Thomas Fowle. He was a dear friend of Cassandra's older brother, the clergyman James Austen. In a poem written many years later, James ruminates on the death of his friend and on the marriage he had hoped for between his friend and his sister:

"And had I lived with confidence to join
A much loved sister's trembling hand to thine..."

What jumps out of this couplet is the juxtaposition of "confidence" on James's part to "trembling" on Cassandra's. Was Cassandra nervous--possibly uncertain--about marrying her brother's close friend? Could she have felt simultaneously cursed and yet relieved over the death of her fiance? What if we take the death as a stroke of great luck in Cassandra's (unconscious?) eye, relieving her forever of the need to marry? After all, relatives remarked that she took herself off the marriage market prematurely. Would she have done that if she truly wanted a husband?

On December 2, 1802 Harris Bigg-Wither proposed marriage to Jane Austen while she and Cassandra visited his sisters at Manydown, the Bigg-Wither estate. Jane accepted the offer, and the evening was filled, according to Tomalin, with toasts and celebration. Tomalin goes on to write as follows:   

"[Jane would be] future mistress of a large Hampshire house and estate, only a few miles from her birthplace, and close to her brother James. She would be almost as grand as Elizabeth Austen [her sister-in-law] at Godmersham. She would be able to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days, and give a home to Cassandra. She would probably be in a position to help her brothers in their careers. She would be surrounded by dear sisters-in-law and friends." (181)

The next morning Jane changed her mind and turned down the marriage proposal. Why? She hated Bath, missed the country and had been brought up to expect marriage and motherhood. 

Who would have gotten to her if not Cassandra? 

What if Tomalin's rosy picture of Jane's future life had been anathema to Cassandra?  Wouldn't the haughty older sister, once the toast of the family, have been galled at the prospect of playing second fiddle to her lesser little sister, becoming, in one stroke, the poor relation to Jane, the pitied and isolated family old maid? If her plan had been to keep Jane as her subordinate life partner, two spinster sisters always together, wouldn't this new arrangement ruin everything? She had seen before how friends, like Mary Lloyd, changed upon marriage. And who could Cassandra, now almost 30, hope to wed who could rival Bigg Wither?

One can imagine the sisters rooming together at Manydown and talking far into the night. Or on the off chance they had separate bedrooms, what would be more natural than for  Cassandra to join her giddy, joyful sister in celebrating the engagement? Cassandra, who knew Jane looked up to her, would have had a whole night to work on her--and would have known precisely, ala Mrs. Russell in Persuasion, what to say. Perhaps she only said wait, rethink it. Perhaps she pushed all the buttons that would have made Jane renege.

According to Tomalin, it was Jane who insisted, when the sisters arrived back at James's after breaking the engagement, on the carriage straight back to Bath the next morning. However, another memoir, Richard Arthur Austen Leigh's (RAAL), insisted it was both Jane and Cassandra who made the demand:

"Cassandra and Jane, without offering any explanation ... said that they must at once go back to Bath—the very next day—it was absolutely necessary, and (as an escort for young ladies traveling by coach was also necessary) their brother James must take them—although Saturday was a day on which it was most inconvenient for a single-handed rector to go far from his parish" he agreed. 

Cassandra had to get Jane back to Bath and away from Harris--and she did. It's almost impossible to believe Jane would have been so insistent on her own. 

In RAAL's memoir, niece Caroline, who would have had no first-hand knowledge of the circumstances, gropes for an explanation:

"I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, and her gratitude for his love, and her long friendship with his family, induced my aunt to decide that she would marry him when he should ask her, but that having accepted him she found she was miserable. To be sure, she should not have said 'Yes' overnight; but I have always respected her for her courage in cancelling that 'Yes' the next morning; all worldly advantages would have been to her, and she was of an age to know this quite well (she was nearly twenty-seven). My aunts had very small fortunes; and on their father's death, they and their mother would be, they were aware, but poorly off. I believe most young women so circumstanced would have gone on trusting to love after marriage."

Caroline believes rightly--but most young women did not have a Cassandra in their lives. 

If the "colder" Cassandra manipulated her sister, we see hints of it encoded in the later novels, evidence that Jane came to realize she had been wrong to trust another's advice. If Jane modeled the proud, domineering and self-centered Emma on Cassandra rather than Fanny Knight, Harriet's rejection of Mr. Martin at the tyrannous behest of an older mentor woud be a devastating self-portrait of the Cassandra, Jane and Bigg Wither triangle. If Cassandra influenced Jane to reject Bigg Wither, this would also be encoded in Persuasion, when Anne later questions the wisdom of Mrs. Russell's advice to refuse Wentworth. 

This scenario is as conjectural as Caroline's but makes more sense psychologically. While the two sisters remained close, necessarily co-dependent, we can imagine that Jane at some point realized she had been had. In no novel after 1802 do we see the kind of sisterly closeness celebrated in Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Fanny is alone, Mary Crawford her enemy; Jane Fairfax isolated; Anne Elliot stung and wary. 

We might not have the novels we know and love had Cassandra strongly supported Jane's engagement that first, crucial night. But no wonder the woman who laid claim as Jane's closest friend and companion might have felt her sister's death a punishment from God. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cassandra: Who Is she: part III

In a letter to niece Fanny Knight in the immediate aftermath of Jane Austen's 1817 death, Cassandra writes that she loved Jane "too well." Her partiality for her sister made her "sometimes unjust to & negligent of others." Therefore, Cassandra writes, “I can acknowledge . . . the justice of the hand which has struck this blow.”

Tomalin has harsh words the religious outlook Cassandra expressed above, writing as follows: "Her submission suggests a particularly nasty view of divine justice: because you love someone better than other people, God punishes you by killing the person you love." (Jane Austen: A Life 196)

While we deplore the theology, we understand that Cassandra was trying to impose meaning on seemingly random suffering--and we wonder if she had had a similar reaction to the death of her fiance, Tom Fowle, 20 years before.

We have no words whatsoever from Cassandra on Fowle's death, but witnesses unanimously describe her withdrawing into early spinsterhood and refusing to consider relationships with other men.

Did she, one wonders, believe that Fowle's death was a punishment to her for loving too much? Is this how she made meaning of that particularly cruel blow?

Although various reasons have been given for Emily Tennyson's 15-year engagement to Alfred Tennyson, one that sticks in my mind proposes that she was trapped: a woman who had been once engaged but had broken the engagement was tainted goods other men would shy away from. Emily had no choice but to keep on keeping on and hoping Tennyson would marry her. Did Cassandra also feel this way, that she too had become tainted goods for the bad luck of having a fiance die? Did she overhear whispers that she was marked, that the death was an evil omen? Did she somehow feel responsible for Tom's death, as she did for Jane's? Did she feel cursed, especially after the second beloved in her life died an untimely death?

We have no way of knowing--except the clues that are consistent with this story. Cassandra apparently withdrew from life, entered middle age early, no longer acted the part, at least publicly, of the witty, lively young woman. If she did feel cursed, it would explain, especially after Jane's death, her attempts at self erasure.

But people are not one dimensional.

Cassandra: Who is she, part II

We talked in the last post about Cassandra's attempts to erase her own existence.

As Johnston notes of Austen's novels in his book Unusual Suspects, the blank spaces in the Austen sisters' lives invite us to fill in the gaps.

 Fortunately for us, Austen's great grand-nephew, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (RAAL), happened to read of a cache of letters pertaining to the family in a footnote to an article called "A God-daughter of Warren Hastings" in the May, 1905 edition of Temple Bar. A Mr. John Guy Nicolson gave him family correspondence. That RAAL stumbled on this information through happenstance underscores how much primary source material the immediate family destroyed.

We learn from these letters that the baby Cassandra was, according to her mother, "very healthy and lively," and that the very young Cassandra "talk[ed] all day long and in my opinion is a very entertaining companion."

As a teenager, Cassandra met her cousin Philadelphia Walter, who wrote "I can't help thinking her very pretty." Cassandra and Philadelphia were taken to resemble each other closely, but Philadelphia "fancied ... she [Cassandra] was not so well pleased with the comparison," a hint of Cassandra's early hauteur. All the same, Philadelphia preferred the "amiable" Cassandra to Jane: "The more I see of Cassandra the more I admire." Cassandra, she wrote, "keeps up conversation in a very sensible & pleasing manner."

From little chatty Cassy to the gracious, attractive and socially adept Cassandra, we catch bright and personable glimpses of the oldest daughter of well-respected and well-connected family. In the last post, we saw evidences of her wit.

What happened to this witty, lively woman to turn her into the forbidding presence her nieces and nephews remembered-- as well as a woman who tried to erase herself from history?

One common answer is the 1797 death of her fiance, Tom Fowle. Fowle, a clergyman, had agreed to go as chaplain on military expedition to the West Indies because, in exchange for this duty, his cousin, Lord Craven, had offered him a living in Shropshire that would allow him to marry. Instead, Fowle died of fever in St. Domingo.

“This is a very severe stroke to the whole family, & particularly to poor Cassandra, for whom I feel more than I can express,"  Eliza de Feuillide wrote to Philadelphia Walter." Indeed, I am most sincerely grieved at this event & the pain it must must occasion for our worthy relations. Jane says that her sister behaves with a degree of resolution & propriety which no common mind could evince in so trying a situation.”

In that last sentence, we catch a glimpse again of Cassandra's pride and hauteur: she was going to, as little as possible, show her feelings to acquaintances or allow anybody to pity her. What relation might this have to her much later letters on the occasion of Jane Austen's death? 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cassandra: Who is she?

Joshua Wolf Shank, who is authoring a book on the John Lennon-Paul McCartney collaboration, wrote a piece for The New York Times, "The End of Genius" (July 20, 2014) arguing that art best occurs in collaboration with another person. People spark each other, people push each other, people compete with other, people help each other refine their ideas. If this is true, I began to wonder if the common characterization of Cassandra as a wooden block of conventionality yoked to a sister of extraordinary genius might not underrate Cassandra. Was Cassandra just the woman who made the puddings, managed the Chawton household and kept visitors at bay so her sister could write or have we missed a richer, more intellectual collaboration?

As I began to gather information, I found the following in Kenneth Johnston's superb literary history of the Romantics, Unusual Suspects: "Yet the sense that there is something 'missing' in Austen's stories often gives rise to, or provokes, parodies or critiques of her novels in which the 'blank' spaces in her novels are filled up with grotesque monstrosities like zombies and serial murderers--which symbolize, to sophisticated critics, the return or the revenge of the sexually or politically repressed."

Johnston's is an insightful comment, and I would argue that these gaps account for much of what pull people into Austen. Positive stories as well as zombie tales fill the gaps too, such as the collections Diana contributes to that I dip into every so often: Pride and Prejudice: The Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote and Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

The gaps in Jane and Cassandra's lives tantalize us as much as do the gaps in the novels and almost seem a case of life imitating art: the three-year absence of letters after Jane moves to Bath, the lack of rough drafts of the novels, the missing link of any letter whatsoever from Cassandra to her beloved sister.  In fact, Cassandra seems to have done her best to scrub herself from the historic record. Not only does she seem to have destroyed all her letters, but, argues Arnie, she probably destroyed the vast majority of her artwork too. Frustratingly, we have no photograph of her, even though she lived into the 1840s. All that has come down is a severe silhouette. I count seven extant letters from her: three to Mrs. Philadelphia Whitaker, a cousin, a postscript to a letter to her sister-in-law Mary, two letters to her niece Fanny Knight and one to Jane's friend Anne Sharp. 

Cassandra in silhouette

I am juggling three biographies as I write this: Jane Aiken Hodge's The Double Life of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, and Tomalin, books that span 40 years. All necessarily use the same handful of primary sources-- the always suspect, but still informative recollections of nieces and nephews, a few contemporary letters from other people and Austen's own letters.  

We learn that Cassandra and Jane were inseparable and that Jane looked up to Cassandra. Both her cousin Philadelphia and Nancy Mitford, one writing at the time, one recollecting years later, found Jane "affected" and either "whimsical" or "silly." The idea of being affected, of not quite knowing how to behave naturally, may support Ellen's notion of an autistic Jane Austen. Hodge, however, sees the affectedness as the defense of a highly intelligent girl playing an expected role. Philadelphia describes the young Jane as "not at all pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve,”  supporting Arnie's notion of Mary Bennett as a self portrait of Austen. Philadelphia initially found Cassandra more attractive and socially adept: Gracious might be another way to understand her. Or she might be proud: Proud of being the beautiful elder daughter in a respected family. In his memoir, James Edward Austen-Leigh writes, "Cassandra’s was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well judging." A few years later, in 1791, Philadelphia would find both Jane and Cassandra "perfect beauties," and Jane much improved, at this point preferring Jane for her greater warmth and partiality. Cassandra was cooler.

Philadelphia also describes a close, happy family. In one letter, both the parents and daughters  were “in high spirits and disposed to be pleased with each other." The family members thought well of each other: they were brimful of life, with status in the community, respected, intelligent, accomplished and attractive. Like Emma's Miss Bates once, people were proud to know them. 

A few bits of evidence from this time point to Cassandra having a fully developed sense of humor and fun: she illustrated Jane's History of England with kings and queens whose faces were comic versions her own brothers' and sister's. Further, in her  letter of Sept 1,1796, Jane writes: "The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age." The rest of the letter moves directly into Jane’s own concerns, revealing an intense self-centeredness she will later shed. Jane only returns to Cassandra at the very end, writing, “I am glad to hear so good an account of Mr. Limprey and J. Lovett. I know nothing of my mother's handkerchief, but I dare say I shall find it soon.”

Some of Cassandra's illustrations for Jane's History of England

Without Cassandra's letter, how can we know what in it made Jane Austen "die of laughter." Did Cassandra write comic portraits of Limprey and Lovett, and/or perhaps the lost handkerchief? Or perhaps she wrote seriously on a topic Jane was determined to ignore and treat as comedy? Or perhaps the letter was not as funny as intended, evoking mockery? We just don't know. But it's at least possible a bright, comic, high-spirited Cassandra bubbled up beneath the cool facade, at least to those who knew her well. 

Cassandra's circa 1810 portrait of Jane reveals understanding and insight. Rather than draw a prettified picture, Cassandra captures Jane's weariness, astringency and defensiveness in her tired eyes, tight mouth and crossed arms. This is the year before Jane publishes her first novel, and thus it documents her strain before any compensations have come. Would that we had a front view portrait by Cassandra of Jane from 15 years earlier for comparison. For what happened to both Jane and Cassandra between 1796 - 1810? To be continued.