Dearest Cousin Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

The story begins with a little disagreement between the Reverend and Mrs. George Austen (cross-reference the opening scene from P and P) about the influence of George’s niece Eliza over Cassandra and especially Jane (and of course, over Henry and James, both of whom she flirts with). Jane, age 12, is narrating. It is a truth we all acknowledge that any story purporting to be about someone close to Jane Austen is really another angle from which to approach getting to know our Jane better, and this story attempts to do that from several perspectives. Pitkeathley gives us the voices and backgrounds of, among others, Jane at various stages in her life, both Cassandras (mother and sister), Philla, Philly, Henry, the Rev Austen, and of course, Eliza, whose voice yields the title, at various stages in her life. With each voice, another piece of the puzzle gets placed, and we feel just a wee bit closer to understanding the various influences on our beloved writer.

Though the character Jane keeps insisting she does not base her characters on real people, it is impossible for any true fan of her work to read this text without making some conclusions about Eliza’s influence and, indeed, about the influence of all the people Jane encounters. When Eliza suggests the family circle perform theatricals and then flirts with two of the six brothers, we see the origins of Mary Crawford. Jane, unlike her mother, is drawn to Eliza, which might explain why Mary, who should be the evil twin of Wickham, is so attractive to readers. Later, Eliza’s feelings about Henry’s becoming a clergyman sound a lot like Mary’s about Edmund, but, of course, Henry becomes a banker, and they live happily ever after. If this really is a parallel for the Mansfield Park couple, it’s interesting that Jane makes Mary “lose” in her ideal version (92). Perhaps that’s because Eliza is very much a warm and loving member of Jane’s family—and not entirely self-serving, as Mary Crawford is. Eliza later calls Mary the “more interesting one,” but still wants “the good one [i.e. Fanny] [to] find her true love” (252). Eliza may also be a model for Lady Susan (at least, that’s what Henry suggests), which made me think that Lady Susan may soften into Mary Crawford as Jane matured (and/or saw prudently saw how far she could take wickedness in a woman). Jane does later admit that one character in Mansfield Park is “so crotchety as to put [them] all in mind of cousin Philly” (262). Ah, how we all love to despise Mrs. Norris.

Eliza would also appear to deserve some credit for Jane’s continuing to write, despite discouragement from circumstances (Bath, publishers, and sometimes even her mother). When young Jane worries that writing “sketches for [ ] family theatricals” . . . is “for men to do,” her cousin Eliza tells her that “women must and should presume” to do such writing (65). When Jane shares more writing with Eliza, the latter comments that, “it does not seem to me that [her] writing is a poor imitation of anyone else’s” the way Jane’s brothers’ writings are, and wonders what Jane “will produce at one and twenty” if she’s so clever at twelve (74). When Eliza is visiting, Jane decides, for the peace of the family, to conceal her “notebook under [her] sewing on the worktable,” a key historic moment to which we are now privy (58). Eliza also seems to make a lot of Austen family decisions—discouraging Edward from making Fanny mother her brothers and sisters after their mother’s death, for instance, and encouraging Jane to “approach Edward with regard to Chawton (though the latter is first Frank’s idea when he comes back from war and is quickly horrified by the conditions in Bath in which his sisters and mother have been permitted—by Frank and Henry—to live) (225, 212). It is also Eliza who happens to be reading “Miss Burney’s Cecilia” and finds the expression that then becomes the title of Austen’s best-known work (249). (I thought it strange that, after Jane claps her hands with delight upon hearing the title, she exclaims, “His pride and her prejudice—how exactly it fits my story” since I always read the story as teaching that each protagonist has both of the titular traits, despite it seeming initially that Darcy is all pride and Elizabeth, prejudice.) When Eliza praises Jane’s writing, she says that “the great joy . . . is that each reader will think they know a character such as the ones you draw,” which reminded me so much of what Lynn Batten says to his students in his Jane Austen seminar that I chuckled aloud (247). He told us to keep a list of Jane’s characters and check them off as we meet each one of them in our lives; perhaps Pitkeathley was once his student?

Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law, Mary, who marries James after James’ first wife (and the mother of Anna) dies, serves to inspire yet another character: Mary Musgrove. If it were not obvious from her generally querulous nature, the collarbone incident and her selfish reaction to it certainly make the link incontrovertible. Pitkeathley has really captured Austen’s characters’ voices to suggest their origins in Jane’s life, even as Jane insists her work is fictional. Mary’s pushing the Austens out of Steventon so she and James can replace Deane with the larger home reeks of Mrs. John Dashwood (203).

Several lines from the novels appear in Jane’s actual life, much as they do in films that purport to convey Austen’s life (Miss Austen Regrets, Becoming Jane, etc).  Jane’s mother tells her husband, “it is not to be borne,” with respect to Eliza’s marriage to the Comte, in a way that echoes Lady Catherine (39). Similarly, she believes both daughters will “do well enough in the sphere to which they [were] born” (46). She also sounds like Mrs. Bennet on several occasions (though a little brighter), including when she scolds her husband for taking “delight in vexing” her (41). Eliza, too, lends her voice to Mrs. Bennet, when she boasts that, in Paris, “we dine and sup with at least four and twenty families” (49). Once she marries Henry, she sounds a lot like Lydia after she marries Wickham; she writes to her annoying cousin Philly that she “has little time for writing” since her “time has been taken up with all the officers and their families who wish to pay their respects”—interesting choice, I thought, that we hear about this behavior in the voice of the annoying—and annoyed—cousin, rather than in Eliza’s own voice (136). Jane, herself sounds a lot like Marianne Dashwood when she says that “there could be only a single time” for her to be in love and to “have that love returned” (250). It even appears that the novels affect what then happens in Jane’s life. After First impressions, for instance, Jane’s father worries that he, like Mr. Bennet, might have been “shirking his responsibilities so far as the matrimonial prospects of his daughters were concerned” and for that reason, contemplates the family’s move to Bath as a way of redressing that laxity (134).

I learned several interesting facts from the time period. Boys went to the navy very young—little Charles at age 13! (89). During the French Revolution, the calendar changed; instead of 12 months, there were 10, and they had different names (95).

There are a few awkward moments in the narration. Mr. Austen, after his wife says some silly things Eliza’s match, mocks her dramatic imaginings by saying “’tis the plot of a novel [she is] setting out here” (41). Why, in 1781, long before the windswept moors of Wuthering Heights and the burning haunted house of Jane Eyre would a well-read man assume all novels are overly dramatic? When Eliza’s mother sees the face of her little girl, she is reminded of the girl’s biological father. She comments that “it touches [her] heart to see [the biological father] with her, to see how the curve of her cheek resembles—” and then interrupts her own thoughts with an admonition to herself: “No, I will not think of that” (13). Such heavy-handedness successfully conveys Eliza’s parentage but the resulting thoughts don’t sound like those a woman would censor in her own mind.

Any awkwardness, however, is more than ameliorated with what I thought the most amusing line in this tale. They come from Philly Walter, the annoying cousin, who, when thinking about Eliza’s report that Jane has written a full-length novel, says, “I do not know if there is any limit to cousin Jane’s impudence—does she think herself a Miss Burney?” (118)

HA. Miss Burney indeed.

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Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 11:08 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Normally I do not read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it!

    Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, quite nice article.


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