Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Whinnying of Harpies?" : Humor in Jane Austen's Letters

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Whinnying of Harpies?" : Humor in Jane Austen's Letters

Article excerpt

THE LETTERS THAT JANE AUSTEN INCLUDED in the novels are endlessly fascinating, from Darcy's explanation to Elizabeth to the splendid whining letter from Mary Musgrove to her sister Anne at Bath, the one in which she claims that "'my sore-throats, you know, are always worse than anybody's'" (P 164). On a number of occasions, JASNA has called for members to submit letters from the characters--and in doing so we are almost following in the footsteps of Austen's own niece Fanny Knight, who apparently wrote a letter to Jane Austen as though addressed to Georgiana Darcy, hoping to elicit a reply in character. Austen replied, "I cannot pretend to answer it. Even had I more time, I should not feel at all sure of the sort of Letter that Miss D.[arcy] would write" (24 May 1813). (1) We are all as readers, I think, a little overcome when Austen herself tells Fanny that she doesn't know what Georgiana would write. How can we possibly understand that statement? How can Austen not know?--she who gives the impression of knowing everything about her characters though telling us at best only half, she who makes us feel as though we know her characters intimately, more so than some of our acquaintances. If it is a joke, it eludes us. (2)

This moment of bafflement reading Jane Austen's actual letters reminds us of their frequent incomprehensibility to us, especially, I would argue, in their humor. I hope to make more legible, ultimately more pleasurable, some of the elliptical humor that can baffle so many of us so much. I would like to unpack the humor in the letters as a way of trying to get at what it would be like to think like Austen--which means also, I think, to appreciate some of the humor in the novels better: their focus on our comical irrationalities, on our love of grievances and quarrels, our wish to depreciate others. And one way to do that is to look first at those who do not think as she does, who don't get some of the humor in the letters--particularly E. M. Forster, whose phrase "whinnying of harpies" I've used in my title. Forster offers us in this phrase the most famous uncomprehending disparagement of Austen's letters. Here it is in context:

   her lapses of taste over carnality can be deplorable, no doubt
   because they arise from lack of feeling. She can write, for
   instance, and write it as a jolly joke, that "Mrs Hall of Sherborne
   was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she
   expected, ow[e]ing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares
   to look at her husband" [27 October 1798]. Did Cassandra laugh?
   Probably, but all that we catch at this distance is the whinnying
   of harpies. (184)

In hearing the whinnying of harpies, Forster alludes to mythological creatures originally described as powerful daughters of gods, personifying the "demonic force of storms" according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996). In some early representations they are shown as beautiful winged women who act out the god Zeus's vengeance on the Thracian king Phineus by snatching his food. In later traditions, however, they became winged monsters, "said to have been feathered, with cocks' heads, wings, and human arms, with great claws; breasts, bellies, and female parts human" according to a second-century source. (3) Thus harpies morphed from "natural forces" (4) who served the gods' vengeance by taking food treats away from a king to monsters who fouled the food they left behind--thus depicted in Virgil's Aeneid: "Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they are; abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable." (5) That is, their monstrous female bodies--ugly, winged, taloned--became associated not just with deprivation but with excrement. Escalating fear of the female body could hardly be more perfectly summarized by any myth. In some versions, the harpies or their offspring give birth to horses, which perhaps inspired Forster to add a further monstrosity to his account--whinnying. …

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