(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The not so doubtful Thomases of MANsfield/MONticello Parks & Antigua

A few days ago, replying to Diane Reynolds's response to my initial post ( ) about Sir Thomas Bertram's unwitting "encouragement" of Tom Bertram's theatrical rebellion at Mansfield Park, I wrote:
"That explanation works perfectly on the overt-story level, I agree with you, Diane. But it leaves out the shadow-story explanation, which is what I wrote about –i.e., Tom as leading a rebellion against Sir Thomas, and exposing Sir Thomas by staging a play, Lovers Vows, which enacts what I believe Sir Thomas has been up to for decades in Antigua- having sired children there on a slave “wife” – and Henry Crawford is one of those biracial children, a true chicken coming home to roost!"

In Janeites, Elissa has now replied to my above post as follows:
"I've long contended that Sir Thomas is a reference to another plantation-owning gentleman who was a contemporary of JA's, a man much in the news of his day, and one especially gossiped about in England because of his close but aborted relationship to English artist (also strategically named) Maria Cosway. Austen, so adept at the multiple-layered pun, created an entire Byzantine puzzle of these complex historical relationships along with ethical, political, and philosophical comment merely by naming Sir Thomas and Maria.."

Yes, Elissa, I remember very well that you were the first in Janeites to make the claim that the Man of Monticello was an allusive source for Sir Thomas Bertram, and bravo once again for that. Here’s a post of mine in Janeites from 2006, which gives you proper credit, and also shows that Thomas Jefferson, like Sir Thomas Bertram, had a close Antigua connection:

“I just realized something that will be particularly funny to Elissa. When she first mentioned in 12/05 that Sir Thomas Bertram and Thomas Jefferson had the same first name, while others disagreed, I responded as follows:
"if all you have is the name, and the bare connection to slavery that you recount, that is not enough for me (shocking as that might be to those here who think I see anything). It would not surprise me to learn that there is more, but I have not seen it. If you were serious, you should now comb through MP and see what leaps out at you, that reminds you of Jefferson. Did Jefferson have any connection to Antigua?"
Well, as wrong as I now believe I was about the name "Thomas" in MP having no connection to slavery, at least I gave some good advice at the end, because I just took it now, 7 months later, and here is what I found, in The Growth of the American Republic, by Morison, Commager & Leuchtenburg, at P. 48:
"As none of the islands east of Puerto Rico were effectively occupied by the Spaniard, these Lesser Antilles attracted small-time English and French adventurers, who were unable to swing a continental venture like Maryland and Canada. Often families split between islands and continent;...The John Jefferson who represented Flowerdew Hundred in the first Virginia Assembly, later helped Sir Thomas Warner to found the English colony on St. Kitts, and also became a leading planter in Antigua. Thomas Jefferson was descended from his brother." Which means that Jefferson had cousins in Antigua. I also had learned, by the way, that Benjamin Franklin's nephew ran the first printing operation in Antigua, having been financed by his well-heeled and very famous uncle.”

I just Googled again today, to see if any new mention of Thomas Jefferson’s Antigua connection had appeared on the Net in the past decade, and I found this at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation website, which suggests that Thomas Jefferson’s Antigua connection is only a possibility:

“…Another possible lineage has been traced to the Suffolk family of Jeaffresons who developed a wide range of commercial interests in the Leeward Islands during the 17th century. One candidate, Samuel Jeaffreson, born in 1607 at Pettistree, Suffolk, lived on St. Kitts and then ANTIGUA, and had 3 sons, one of whom was named Thomas. It has been suggested that this son Thomas is the same man who appears in Henrico County in the 1670s, generally believed to be Jefferson's great-grandfather. From the same family was Colonel John Jeaffreson, a merchant of London, who was involved in the affairs of the Virginia Company in the early 1620s and in schemes to colonize the West Indies. He built up a large fortune on St. Kitts before returning to England in the 1650s, as a wealthy man, and purchasing an estate at Dullingham House in Cambridgeshire. Circumstantial evidence links him to a Thomas Jefferson living in Nevis and then Jamaica around this time, who may have been his son, and who could be the same person who later moved to Henrico. If so, the immediate origins of the Jefferson family were not in Wales, but in eastern England and the West Indies….”

How might Jane Austen have even suspected such a connection? I remind you all that Reverend Austen acted as Trustee of land (presumably a slave plantation) in Antigua for the benefit of his wealthy Hampshire neighbor Mr. Nibbs; and the English population of Antigua (an island 12 miles across comprising less than 100 sq. mi.) in the late 18th century would not have been that large – so it’s easy to imagine word getting back to the Austen family about connections of the very famous author of the Declaration of Independence (and President of the US from 1801-1809, not long before JA wrote MP) to his cousins in Antigua.  

And while I’m on the topic of a famous female novelist making a veiled allusion to Thomas Jefferson tat relates to slavery, a few of you reading this may recall that 3 years ago I wrote a post entitled “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s astonishingly Austenesque PRIDE in being kindly judged by those who should have held PREJUDICE against Uncle Tom’s Cabin  In that 2015 post, after I wrote about the veiled allusion to Pride & Prejudice that I see in Stowe’s hoax-like “explanation” of aspects of her own novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I went on:

“…we read the following letter [in Stowe’s explanation], which I really do believe was also a complete hoax on Stowe’s part—and your first clue is the name of the person who is supposed to have written it. His name just happens to be the identical name to that of the man whose “letter” written 76 years earlier goes by the name of “the Declaration of Independence”—a “letter” which was at the foundation of the institution of slavery in the United States. And that was a man who, exactly like Mr. St. Clare, (in)famously owned slaves but also raised children sired by him upon his slave wife Sally Hemings --- of course I am talking about THOMAS JEFFERSON!:

“The Jefferson Inquirer, published at Jefferson City, Missouri, October 23, 1852, contains the following communication:
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN: I have lately read this celebrated book, which, perhaps, has gone through more editions, and been sold in greater numbers, than any work from the American press, in the same length of time. It is a work of high literary finish, and its several characters are drawn with great power and truthfulness, although, like the characters in most novels and works of fiction, in some instances too highly coloured. There is no attack on slave-holders as such, but, on the contrary, many of them are represented as highly noble, generous, humane, and benevolent. Nor is there any attack upon them as a class. It sets forth many of the evils of slavery, as an institution established by law, but without charging these evils on those who hold the slaves, and seems fully to appreciate the difficulties in finding a remedy. Its effect upon the slave-holder is to make him a kinder and better master; to which none can object. This is said without any intention to endorse everything contained in the book, or, indeed, in any novel, or work of fiction. But, if I mistake not, there are few, excepting those who are greatly PREJUDICED, that will rise from a perusal of the book without being a truer and better Christian, and a more humane and benevolent man. As a slave-holder, I do not feel the least aggrieved. How Mrs. Stowe, the authoress, has obtained her extremely accurate knowledge of the negroes, their character, dialect, habits, &c., is beyond my comprehension, as she never resided—as appears from the preface—in a slave State, or among slaves or negroes. But they are certainly admirably delineated. The book is highly interesting and amusing, and will afford a rich treat to its reader. THOJMAS JEFFERSON. “

Whether Stowe realized that Jefferson inhabited the subtext of MP, I cannot be certain, but it’s sure an interesting possibility, because it sounds like Stowe has created an ironic parody of how the real life Thomas Jefferson might have rationalized his own profoundly hypocritical slave-owning career –i.e., that he somehow ameliorated his ownership of slaves by being “a kinder and better master.” It’s exactly as if Andy Borowitz, in The Onion, wrote a faux letter to the editor in the character of, say, Paul Ryan, rationalizing his failure to take any action to stop the slow-motion destruction of our democratic institutions.

Finally, before I close, Elissa, after reading your post this morning, I was curious to see if any Austen scholar had ever published any comments about a connection between Sir Thomas Bertram and Thomas Jefferson. I smiled when I found the following screed in Alistair Duckworth’s review (in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12/4, July 2000, 565-672) of Patricia Rozema’s brilliant 1999 MP film, which remains to this day the only Austen film adaptation to incorporate significant elements of the shadow story of its novel.

Duckworth, in his desperate Marilyn Butler-like conservative denial of any shred of validity to Rozema’s radical anti-slavery interpretation of MP, reminded me of (oh, what rich irony Jane Austen would have savored!) Sir Thomas Bertram channeling Torquemada by burning every unbound copy of Lover’s Vows. However, as you will see, below, and as is often the case with those who are desperate to deny, Duckworth unwittingly made a backdoor case for Sir Thomas Bertram as a fictionalized Thomas Jefferson!

Duckworth began as follows:

“The coarsening of Sir Thomas's character is especially marked in the film. True, he is no paragon in the novel; a pompous and misguided patriarch, he comes to recognize that his grievous mismanagement of his children's education was the cause of their various moral transgressions. But Rozema's Sir Thomas (played superbly well by Harold Pinter) is a travesty of the fictional character. His lubricious appreciations of Fanny's maturing body are the least of his faults. While nursing Tom Bertram in his near-fatal illness, Fanny discovers a portfolio of Tom's sketches revealing atrocities committed on the Antigua plantation: slaves being flogged, tortured, and raped (as Fanny looks in horror at the drawings, the cries of the slaves are heard on the soundtrack). Not only has Sir Thomas countenanced these horrors, he has participated in them; in one sketch he is shown exacting tribute in the form of fellatio from a female slave.”

And now, here is the best part (from my point of view), in which Duckworth’s scholarly integrity and imagination get the better of his ideology:

“The addition of these details, for which the novel provides absolutely no warrant, may seem justified to some viewers-why should the fictional Sir Thomas behave any better than his historical contemporary and namesake, Thomas Jefferson?

Indeed, Prof. Duckworth, why should he?!

And then Duckworth goes on to compound his unwitting suggestions of the very same sort of radical interpretation he abhors, when he condemns Rozema’s version of Tom Bertram (which, as is evident from my posts, I not only agree with, I take them even further):

“Tom Bertram undergoes equally radical changes in Rozema's script. In the novel he is a feckless eldest son whose extravagance has caused the loss of the Mansfield living intended for Edmund; but he is not, as in the film, a habitual drunkard, or a Fuseli-like artist ("very modern," says Mrs Norris), or a man burdened by guilt over his family's exploitation of slave labour. Nor does he shout insults at his father, overturn tables, and stalk out of rooms; on the contrary, he is deferential in the extreme. The cinematic Tom resembles a doomed Byronic hero or—in a film that often seems to engage in the "Brontification" of Austen--he recalls Branwell Brontë. His demoralization, according to his father, stems from his never having found the heroic "mission" that he sought as a child. This addition by Rozema is particularly problematic…”

What Duckworth’s unconscious seems to hint to him, like a Siren’s alluring call, is the possibility that at least two of the Bronte sisters (Charlotte and Anne) were actually closet Janeites, who were picking up on Jane Austen’s shadow Byronic heroes – in this case Tom Bertram. In other words, as I have also posted on a number of occasions, the alleged ill-conceived Brontification of Austen consists of actual positive allusions to Austen which Charlotte and Anne Bronte hid in plain sight in Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, respectively!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, May 21, 2018

“Byng-Oh"! Jane Austen’s complex web of “encouragement” & allusion to martyred Admiral Byng:

[For those who don’t do Twitter, and who mostly think of it as a tool for badness (epitomized by certain vile Tweetstorms which currently threaten the civilized world), the below Part One (and Part Two, which  will follow within a day) illustrate the positive side of Twitter: the serendipity of crossed scholarly paths.]

PART ONE:  Last week I Tweeted the link for a recent blog post of mine entitled: “Sir Thomas Bertram’s (and Jane Austen’s) ‘encouragement’…of theatrical rebellion in Mansfield Park”.
My post originated from my first noticing that Tom Bertram, in speeches six chapters apart in Mansfield Park, twice refers to paterfamilias Sir Thomas’s early “encouragement” of Tom and younger brother Edmund, as children, to recite speeches from tragic plays, as a justification and inspiration for Tom’s successful scheme to persuade his siblings, and their thespian guests the Crawfords, to stage and perform in a home theatrical of Inchbald/Kotzebue’s controversial play, Lover’s Vows.

As is my custom, I specifically Tweeted that link to various Tweeps whose Tweets suggested a specific interest in the character of Tom Bertram. One of those Tweeps was @AdmiralByngCampaign who had, a few months earlier, Tweeted:       “Jane Austen satirised George III through avatars: "John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, TOM BERTRAM & Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, & both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion". Would she have satirised George II & the Adm Byng affair?”

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick reply Tweet from @AdmiralByng, identifying herself as Thane Byng, an artist and Byng family member. We then moved to email, free to exceed 280 characters:

Me: “I'm interested to hear what you've got to tell me about Admiral Byng & Jane Austen -- i know that
her circle included members of the Byng family, but have no idea of her connection to him personally, mainly because he was executed two decades before she was born.”

Thane: “Please let me know who were the Byngs in Jane Austen's circle? The tragedy of Admiral John Byng's execution would not have faded in two decades! I am interested to know how Jane Austen recorded her thoughts feelings/sentiment/judgement about it. Any clues?”

I searched in Twitter, and learned that Thane had intriguing intuitions, which resonated very strongly with my own sense of Jane Austen as an author passionate about injustice:

05/25/2017:  “Jane Austen, sensitive artist and writer would have known the story of Admiral John Byng”
09/14/2017: “#JaneAusten with her fertile and sensitive mind must have known the story of Admiral the Honourable John Byng. What were her #thoughts?”

I also found this article about Thane, which beautifully encapsulates the modern Byng family’s passionate quest for justice and vindication for Admiral Byng, their martyred naval COLLATERAL ancestor [NOTE: the article is unclear on one point: Admiral Byng had no children, and therefore Thane and other Byng Family members are all his COLLATERAL descendants]:

“‘I’ve remortgaged my house to clear my ancestor Admiral Byng’s name’ says Camden artist”  
Thane Byng, a seventh-generation descendant of Admiral John Byng – the only British admiral to be executed by firing squad – said she would do whatever it takes to restore his honour.
“He was made a scapegoat and has been remembered as a coward – it is simply not right. He faced an impossible situation that the history books have recorded incorrectly.”
In 1756 Admiral John Byng was despatched to Gibraltar to stop the French from taking control of the British garrison on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. But by the time he had arrived, the enemy had already landed.
“He told the admiralty he didn’t have enough ships or sailors but all complaints fell on deaf ears,” said Ms Byng. As a result the garrison surrendered and after an unsuccessful skirmish with the French, Admiral Byng was ordered home. Charged with “failing to do his utmost”, and despite the court’s unanimous recommendation for mercy, on March 14 1757 Admiral Byng was executed by firing squad on board the HMS Monarch in Portsmouth Harbour.
Three previous attempts to clear Admiral Byng’s name have all failed because his descendants are not considered “to be in living memory of the deed”.
“His story has affected my entire life,” said Ms Byng. “I feel like I have always been on a quest to set the record straight.”
Since 2007 the Admiral Byng Campaign has lobbied the Ministry of Defence for an official pardon, attempted to have the case against the Admiral overturned on legal grounds and submitted a petition to the House of Commons, all without success.
Ms Byng said: “If we can’t change things the black and white letters way, then we have to be more imaginative in gaining support, and this year we’re on track to do just that.”
Last month at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in an effort to raise the Admiral’s profile, Ms Byng’s remortgaged house paid for composer Piers Maxim and a number of soloists to perform a threnody in memory of Admiral Byng. On the 260th anniversary of the Admiral’s death Ms Byng plans to hand in another petition at the exact time and date of her forbear’s execution, demanding his exoneration.
She said: “We want history to finally be made right and we will never give up, we’ve waited too long.”

I was inspired by Thane’s passion for justice, and decided to dive right in and see what I could do to assist her efforts, and, along the way, shed fresh light on yet another potentially fertile realm of Austenian allusion. And as you’ll see in this, and my next post to come, it really paid rich dividends on both fronts!

To kick things off, a quick scan of Thane’s Tweets over the past year revealed two well-known (at least in scholarly circles) examples of towering 18th century literary figures who shared Thane’s anger at the injustice inflicted on Admiral Byng, and famously articulated that anger, albeit in very different ways:

First, one of her Tweets referred to this passage from Boswell’s Life of [Samuel] Johnson:

“The generosity with which [Johnson] pleads the cause of Admiral Byng is highly to the honour of his heart and spirit. Though Voltaire affects to be witty upon the fate of that unfortunate officer, observing that he was shot ‘pour encourager les autres,” the nation has long been satisfied that his life was sacrificed to the political fervour of the times. In the vault belonging to the Torrington family, in the church of Southill in Bedfordshire, there is the following epitaph upon his monument, which I have transcribed:

One of the incontestable facts of Austen studies is that Jane Austen knew Samuel Johnson’s writings like the back of her hand, as well as Boswell’s famous biography of his idol -- so that alone would support the notion of JA being well aware of Admiral Byng’s tragic end via the above quoted passage.

Another of Thane’s Tweets referred to the following passage from Voltaire’s classic novel of innocence coming of age in an evil world, Candide, written not long after the execution of Admiral Byng:

Talking thus they arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.
"What is all this?" said Candide; "and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?"
He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered, he was an Admiral.
"And why kill this Admiral?"
"It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him."
"But," replied Candide, "the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral."
"There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to ENCOURAGE the others."
Candide was so shocked and bewildered by what he saw and heard, that he would not set foot on shore, and he made a bargain with the Dutch skipper (were he even to rob him like the Surinam captain) to conduct him without delay to Venice.”  END QUOTE FROM CANDIDE

Voltaire of course was well known to all the literati of England continuously from long before Jane Austen’s lifetime, and up to the present; and Candide was translated into English no less than three times within a few years after its initial publication, so was readily accessible to JA. Voltaire’s virtually explicit dramatization of the execution of Admiral Byng was famous for its unconcealed scathing irony and unforgiving moral judgment on the British Navy and Royal Court.

However, I’d wager that it was then, and still is today, completely unknown to everyone currently interested in Admiral Byng’s reputation (and was unknown to myself till Google enlightened me the other day) that the late Austen scholar, Frank Bradbrook, in his classic work on Austenian allusions, Jane Austen and her Predecessors (1966), wrote what I instantly recognized as an inspired speculation about Austen making a veiled allusion to Admiral Byng’s execution in her final completed, novel, Persuasion:

p. 122: “There is almost certainly a reference here to the classic comment in Candide (recalling the sentence passed on Admiral Byng), ‘Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.’ Previously, Sir Walter Elliot had complained of Lord St. Ives, ‘whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat,’ and who may have been suggested by Lord Nelson himself, whose life by Southey Jane Austen had read. G. M. Trevelyan has stated that ‘the naval officers were now the sons of gentlemen of modest means (Nelson was a poor parson’s son), sent to sea as boys…..Sir Walter Elliot, with his Voltairean wit, and his snobbish imitation of Lord Chesterfield’s code of manners, is completely opposed to the stoicism of Dr. Johnson and the fortitude of Nelson and his ‘band of brothers.’ “ END QUOTE FROM BRADBROOK

With eager excitement, I pulled up the entire relevant portion of Sir Walter Elliot’s speech in Chapter 3 of Persuasion:

“…One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. 'In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). 'Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, 'it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?' 'Sixty,' said I, 'or perhaps sixty-two.' 'Forty,' replied Sir Basil, 'forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age…"

I’d imagine that most Austen scholars reading Bradbrook’s breezy certainty of intentional parody by Jane Austen would remain skeptical of his inference, because Bradbrook is so brief and cryptic in his explanation, and the allusion itself is subtle. In a nutshell, I see his claim as resting on two related points:
First, by his reference to Sir Walter’s “Voltairean wit”, Bradbrook surely means that Sir Walter’s “It is a pity [the admirals] are not knocked on the head at once” (for the “crime” of looking much older than their age) is Austen’s brilliant parody of Voltaire’s famous acidic irony about Byng’s execution: “in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others."
Second, Sir Walter’s other sneering reference to “Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat” surely is, as Bradbrook does explain well, Jane Austen’s broad wink at the greatest British admiral of all, Horatio Nelson.
Byng and Nelson – consider these (in Sir Walter’s words “these two men”) side by side. I did, and that is why I am 100% with Bradbrook in seeing Austen’s unmistakably razor sharp, dark (and yes, Voltairean) irony. She has her narcissistic blowhard Sir Walter unwittingly refer, in the same speech, to the two strangest “ship-fellows” in the history of the British Navy:
Admiral Horatio Nelson, for more than two centuries the epitome of heroic death in naval battle; and Admiral John Byng, the only British admiral ever executed for alleged cowardice for avoiding naval battle.
Both Admirals, the (fairly) famous and the (unfairly) infamous, are condemned, convicted, and sentenced (in the same sentence) by Sir Walter to the same punishment -- a knock on the head, and both, so to speak,  for the crime of looking (as) old (as death itself)!

And that concludes, more or less, the existing scholarly wisdom responding to Thane Byng’s sharp intuition that Jane Austen must have alluded to the Byng Family's tragically famous collateral ancestor Admiral Byng, who left the world 18 years before JA entered it.

Two additional quick observations:

First, this validates Thane’s Tweeted intuition that JA would have also parodied King George II, the monarch who insisted on the rapid execution of Admiral Byng despite the judges urging clemency. I say that Bradbrook showed this 50 years ago, and that once again Sir Walter Elliot was JA's parodic vehicle for regal satire.

Second, it occurred to me as I worked on this Part One that there was an amazingly lucky serendipity in my Tweeting to Thane the link to my very recent post about “encouragement” in Mansfield Park, only to then find out that Voltaire’s very famous bon mot about Admiral Byng was about the salutary practice of killing one Admiral to “encourage” the others!  

That serendipity “encouraged” me to do the two days of enjoyable scholarship that will enable me to bring to you, within the next day, the second half of the large iceberg of “Byng-ly” allusion by Jane Austen in both her novels and her letters! So, strap in, and get ready for a second, dizzying ride deep into the subtext of Jane Austen’s multilayered engagement with the memory of Admiral Byng and his family.

And, at the center of that allusive matrix, I will also reveal the identity of yet another very famous work of 18th century literature by another famous English author, who engaged, as it turns out, on a massive, if covert, scale, with the memory of Admiral Byng, cut down so cruelly and unjustly in martyrdom for an alleged lack of courage which was not at all the case.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sir Thomas Bertram’s (and Jane Austen’s) ‘encouragement’…of theatrical rebellion in Mansfield Park

I’ve found that one of the greatest delights of rereading JA’s novels is in hearing, for the first time after multiple rereadings, an unsuspected echo between two (or more) passages --- usually within the same Austen novel, but also at times between passages in multiple Austen novels. I’ve had that experience hundreds of times, and it never gets old.

Because I’ve already found so many of them, they don’t happen for me as often as they used to; but when they do, I always feel an eager anticipation of a better understanding of some aspect of JA’s meaning. These echoes are almost never accidental or unconscious on JA’s part, and I usually find, after further analysis, that JA meant for us, upon repeated rereadings, not only to hear these echoes in our mind’s ear; but then, more important, to thereby grasp something new and significant in her stories.

Here’s a perfect example which I happened upon a few days ago (while looking at something else), which I had never noticed before.

First, in Chapter 13 of MP, the Bertram boys get into it about Tom’s suggestion of staging an amateur home theatrical during their father’s absence far, far away in Antigua: 

[E] “I cannot agree with you; I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it.”
[T] “And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.”
[E] “It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. My father wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”

Now, with that passage in mind, read what I now see is the bookend to the above exchange, six busy chapters (but only one week of fictional time elapsed) later, when Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly to hear Tom’s excuse for the omnipresent evidence of implementation of Tom’s home-theatrical vision:

“This was, in fact, the origin of our acting,” said Tom, after a moment's thought. “My friend Yates brought the infection from Ecclesford, and it spread—as those things always spread, you know, sir—the faster, probably, from your having so often encouraged the sort of thing in us formerly. It was like treading old ground again.”

Surely you now hear the echo, too? It’s in Tom’s repetition of his previous reference to their father’s early “encouragement” of him and Edmund reciting theatrical monologues, as justification for his own idea to produce an actual Mansfield Park theatrical. Tom speaks to his father “after a moment’s thought”, and, at least in part, it’s surely because he’s recalling that exchange with Edmund six chapters earlier. He said it to Edmund, and now he doubles down and says it to his father as well.

A lesser writer might have written something like “after a moment’s thought about his earlier strained exchange with Edmund”, to assure that all her readers connected the dots back to the earlier passage. Not Jane Austen – as we know from her famous comment to Cassandra, she did not write for dull elves lacking ingenuity, and one part of ingenuity is the ability to recognize and then explicate whispered echoes of words read earlier, without relying on any heavy-handed authorial reminder.

And so, when Tom refers to “treading old ground again”, JA means for us to remember, or at least to flip back a few chapters and retrieve, that Chapter 13 passage; and then (most crucial) for us to hear Tom’s first “encouragement” alongside Tom’s later “encouragement”. And then, perhaps, to ask ourselves, might Tom have been thinking for “a moment” about anything else, besides his earlier justification to Edmund?

“Encouragement” is an interesting word; its origin clearly lies in the word “courage”, which has always been used to refer to bravery, the willing to take risk in order to do right. ‘Encouragement’ is rarely, if ever, used to refer to “courage”. Instead it means something like “strong suggestion”; And at first blush, it appears that such milder meaning is what Tom had in mind. But, upon reflection, I believe Jane Austen meant for readers to eventually learn to also read it as referring to “courage” – but, if so, courage to do what, exactly? What sort of risk and what sort of doing right?

Well, I suggest to you that a giant clue to the answer to that question lies in the very same plays which Tom seems to mention in an offhand way, as the sources for the speeches that he and his brother recited under Sir Thomas’s tutelage. Let’s take a closer look at them, to see if they really are ‘offhand’.

Everybody knows that the cited speeches in Julius Caesar and Hamlet both have to do with rebellion against illegitimate regal authority. Prince Hamlet contemplates suicide as he angsts over whether to challenge the apparent usurper, his uncle King Claudius; and there is mourning over the dead body of Caesar, because Brutus et al have assassinated the would-be emperor Julius Caesar, who seemed on the verge of usurping the fair share of governance of Rome from its proper holder, the Senate.

But what about that other line Tom quotes--- “My name is Norval”? As has long ago been discussed in Janeites, that was, like “To be or not to be” in Hamlet, and “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in Julius Caesar, the most famous line from Douglas, a play written two decades before JA’s birth, but which was still famous (especially that speech) a half century after its writing, while JA was writing MP.

Here’s what I wrote about Douglas 8 years ago in Janeites:
“It's no coincidence that Douglas is one of the plays mentioned by Tom Bertram, and also that the son in Lover's Vows, like Oedipus, comes back on a very long journey to the place of his birth without realizing who his father is, and nearly coming to the point of killing his father. It makes ya wonder to what these allusions tend in MP, in terms of proverbial chickens coming home to roost.”

“My name is Norval” is the line spoken by the young hero, during the “Big Reveal” of Douglas, i.e., when we learn that he is actually the long-lost son of Lady Randolph; after which, as in Hamlet and Julius Caesar, pretty much everyone, including the hero, dies.

So Douglas is, like Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Lover’s Vows, also about rebellion against hypocritical authority! And what I now realize as a result of recognizing that “encouragement” echo, is that Tom is really saying, first to his brother and then, again, to his father, that Sir Thomas opened Pandora’s Box when he encouraged Tom and Edmund to recite passages from plays about rebellion. I.e., ironically, despite all the furor in MP about whether it would be “moral” for the Bertrams and Crawfords to perform Lover’s Vows, Tom is actually suggesting that theatre can be a very powerful force for good, by encouraging those who experience a drama about rebellion to rise up and take action against tyrannical, usurping authority themselves.

It’s been twelve years since I first realized that, in the shadow story of MP, Tom is not a dissolute bum but is actually a hero, who has defiantly staged Lover’s Vows in order to confront his father with his sins, just as Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago to elicit a guilty reaction from Claudius.

I’m also reminded that this is yet another reason to believe that Tom Bertram derives his Christian name not only from “Poor Tom” (i.e., Edgar) in King Lear, but also from another clever fellow named Tom (you all know his last name), who wrote the following memorable words about rebellion against illegitimate tyranny, while Jane Austen was still in her mother’s womb:

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

And there’s one other thing about John Home’s Douglas that fits like a glove with what I’ve outlined as Tom Bertram’s use of theater for the worthy purpose of exposing immorality in his father. To explain, I will begin by quoting from an extraordinary scholarly article, “The Cultural Politics of Antitheatricality: The Case of John Home's Douglas" by Lisa A. Freeman in The Eighteenth Century  43/3, Theater and Theatricality (Fall 2002), pp. 210-35:

“In February 1755, John Home set out for London on his trusty steed Piercy, a band of merry supporters by his side and a copy of the completed manuscript for his tragedy Douglas in his greatcoat pocket in anticipation of a production review by David Garrick. Despite Home's strong letters of introduction and ample connections, Garrick still rejected the play, finding it ‘totally unfit for the stage’. Not to be discouraged, Home and his supporters arranged for a production of the tragedy to be mounted on the Edinburgh stage, reasoning that ‘if it succeeded in the Edinburgh theatre, then Garrick could resist no longer’. Performed for the first time on 14 December 1756 at the Canongate Theater in Edinburgh and ‘attended by all the great literati and most of the judges’ of the day, the tragedy was indeed an ‘unbounded success’. It sent the town of Edinburgh into an ‘uproar of exultation that a Scotchman had written a tragedy of the first rate, and that its merit was first submitted to their judgment’. Indeed, so moved by the play and by Scots pride at the origin of this effort was one audience member that he is reported to have cried out mid-performance, "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" thereby inaugurating a nationalist critical tradition that would find its way into all subsequent discussions of the merits of the play. Based on the old Scottish ballad Gil Motrice and written in declamatory blank verse, the play itself offers the tale of Lady Randolph and the rediscovery of her long-lost son Norval, the secret offspring of her clandestine marriage to a scion of the great Douglas clan. The tragedy unravels as the young Norval is murdered by a jealous villain, and the devastated Lady Randolph commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff. Set in medieval times and played against the background of a gloomy and dark landscape, the tragedy, with its scenes of extreme pathos and sudden eruptions of violence, anticipates the kind of gothic melodrama that became so popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In the more immediate event, Home's triumph in Edinburgh did attract the attention of London; and John Rich took the opportunity forfeited by his rival Garrick to bring the tragedy to Covent Garden in March 1757, where it enjoyed a respectable run of 9 performances in its first season. For all its eventual success on the stage, however, it is arguably the case that the ‘most remarkable circumstance attending its representation,’ and perhaps the motive for Rich's interest in the transfer of the play to London, was, as Henry Mackenzie comments in his Account of the Life and Writings of John Home, ‘the clerical contest which it excited, and the proceedings of the Church of Scotland with regard to it.’ John Home, as it turns out, was actually the Reverend John Home, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland with a parish at Athelstaneford. While the "literati" of Edinburgh may have celebrated and cried up Home's tragedy - indeed they were probably responsible for much of its success on the stage - an equal uproar of outrage was raised both against the play and against theatricality more generally by a well-organized and more orthodox faction in the church.’ ….”

I think I hardly need explain how relevant that metatheatrical history (i.e., how Home’s personal status as a clergyman who wrote a play, became a giant court fracas) is to the two parallel discussions between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram regarding the giving of good performances in the theater, and the giving of good sermons in the church. It could not be more clear that, by having Tom Bertram mention Douglas’s famous speech (and even emphasize it by noting that his father had him repeat it daily during one Christmas season!), Jane Austen, in her infinitely subtle manner, was thereby “encouraging” her alert readers to take this deeper look at Tom B’s covert homage to theatrical tragedies of rebellion.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Searching for (the real) Henry Austen (and, thereby, the real Jane Austen, too)

In Janeites, in reaction to a recent review of Emma Clery's biography of Jane Austen's brother, Henry, Ellen Moody just posted links to two 2012 blog posts of hers about Henry Austen. I replied as follows:


Thank you for reopening the topic of the mystery of the personality of Henry Austen. I happen to be in general agreement with you that Henry’s reputation has in some ways gotten a raw deal, but I strongly disagree with you as to how and why this came about.

I will show how, via my disagreement with two assertions in your second blog post:


First, you wrote: “Henry’s letters, as his nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh bravely avers to his vengeful resentful aunt (whose legacy he desperately needed), show a man of “feeling” (“he does feel” says JEAL, risking all).”

I’m pretty sure you are mistakenly attributing a defense of Henry to JEAL instead of to the actual averrer, JEAL’s father, James. I base my argument on the following letter (in the Austen Papers) from Aunt Leigh Perrot to James Austen dated Jan. 31, 1819 (i.e., not long before James passed away):

“My dear Nephew,
Your letter to-day the less surprised me as I had heard from Mr. Fonnereau that the sale of the Hawkhurst  Farm was postponed…I am grieved you should have so much vexation, nor would I have Henry’s feelings (if he does feel) for more than he has occasioned us to lose by his imprudence- pray do not let this business hang on your mind! Better think of everything as quite lost, & feel no more about it…
Thank you, my dear Nephew, for your anxiety on my account—I should certainly have wished everything had turned out differently on both your account & my own….I am thankful it is no worse. Where would my pretty Scarlets have gone then? I wish you thought as fondly of this place as I must ever do…”

It is clear that in James’s letter to which she replies, he must have complained about his own financial “vexation” in the aftermath of Henry’s bank fiasco four years earlier. I read between the lines, and I infer that James’s defense of Henry (in which he expressed sympathy for Henry’s feelings, as well as his own) damned Henry, so to speak, with faint sympathy --- precisely so as to elicit from his mean-spirited aunt the desired condemnation of Henry (and he succeeds, because she replies “if he does feel”).

Now, the reason why James would stab his own brother in the back in this way is clear. It’s because this was a desperate zero-sum game, and Henry’s loss would be James’s (or JEAL’s) gain.

We know full well that both James and James Edward harbored no illusions about that game; they knew exactly what sort of ogre they were dealing with in Aunt Leigh-Perrot. This is not a matter of mere inference – read the opening of JEAL’s letter to his father written sometime in 1818 (i.e., about a year before that 1819 letter):

“My dear Father…
I am very sorry and certainly surprised at this last motion of Mrs. L. Perrot, but I have long thought too meanly of her, to be much astonished at any fresh instance of want of feeling or of hypocrisy. So much for your reduction of income: now for the effects it is to have…”

So both James and James Edward understood that Aunt Leigh-Perrot took sadistic delight in dangling largesse in front of her financially desperate nephews (James, Frank, and Henry), the better to make them bow and scrape for her favor. And that shows what a consummate, patient suck-up and family politician JEAL was, because in the end, in 1833, it was he who took home the grand prize, beating out both Henry and Frank: Scarlets and the accompanying personal property and wealth left by Aunt Leigh-Perrot.

So, no – nothing I’ve seen suggests that JEAL was ever “brave” in dealing with his Aunt, to defend Henry or otherwise. All I’ve seen shows he was only cynically self-interested, in knowing exactly how to deal with her (just as Lucy Steele knows how to deal with Mrs. Ferrars), and the proof is in the financial pudding, so to speak. If you read all his letters (also in the Austen Papers) to her in the years leading up to her (long-awaited) demise, you almost have to admire the cynical master suck-up he is. He plays her like a violin.

And, apropos JEAL’s attitude toward Henry, and the idea that he would have defended Henry, it is particularly offbase from another motivation besides greed. I’ve argued repeatedly in the past few years that JEAL’s Memoir actually contains a deliberate rewriting of Austen family history in regard to the Leigh Perrot inheritance. JEAL took great pains to conceal that Jane Austen (in her own words!) became sicker because of being disinherited by Uncle Leigh-Perrot, not due to Henry’s earlier bankruptcy. For example, read this:

“Reviving the 1817 news that made Jane Austen sicker, that nephew JEAL tried to submerge”

Embedded within my above-linked 2015 post is an earlier post I wrote in 2014, in which I present the details of JEAL’s deliberate and self-serving editorial deceit, that essentially and falsely places the blame for Jane Austen’s getting sicker in 1816 on Henry’s 1815 bankruptcy:
JEAL made sure that history would (mistakenly) record that (after his father’s death) his ultimate inheritance of Scarlets was a wonderful thing which was in no way connected to the premature death of  Jane Austen, instead of the outrageous, injurious property grab that it actually was.


Which brings me to the second thing you wrote with which I disagree:
“One of Henry’s most remarkable and revealing (about him) texts is his life of his sister. Yes it’s hagiographic, absurdly so. She never had a hard thought in her life, never uttered a cruel statement….”

You must not have read the two posts I wrote a few months ago after reading Juliette Wells’s Persuasions article, in which she for the first time in Austen scholarly history raised excellent questions about the true authorship of the 1818 Biographical Notice.

In essence, I went beyond Wells’s modest suggestion that Cassandra contributed to the writing of that 1818 Notice, and instead I made the more radical argument that it was JEAL, not Henry, who wrote that entire 1818 hagiography. It was only in 1833, I suggest, that Henry Austen got involved, and made that Biographical Notice much less hagiographic in his revision thereof for the Bentley edition. But then, in the 1870 Memoir, JEAL, once again, as with the Austen family inheritance story, had the final word:

But calling it “hagiography” puts a far rosier tint on it than it deserves. This was not about JEAL having an unrealistically positive memory of Aunt Jane. One of JEAL’s absurd claims was the one about JA never uttering a cruel statement about anyone else, and he thereby got the sweetest revenge of all for his late parents. How so?

Because he knew that Aunt Jane had, in her very first published words, in 1811, thoroughly skewered his parents James and Mary Austen in Chapter 2 of S&S. JA had made it clear to all who knew the actual Austen family history and had any “ingenuity” at all, that the vile John and Fanny Dashwood were thinly veiled portraits of James and Mary, and their avaricious grab of the lion’s share of the Steventon assets in 1801. It is only a century and a half after JEAL’s Memoir that I and a few other Austen scholars (like Emily Auerbach) have finally been able to scrape off his “veneer” and revealed those ugly portraits once again!

But there’s even more personal nastiness behind JEAL’s seeming “hagiography”. While he was at it, JEAL also made sure that history would (mistakenly) record that his Aunt Jane was the conservative, pious, unambitious, conformist milquetoast depicted in his Bowdlerized image of her for the 1870 Memoir -- instead of the fiercely nonconformist, non-heterosexual feminist Cassandra actually sketched in 1810, and whom his mother Mary Lloyd Austen fiercely hated. Sweet revenge, indeed!

If you have any disagreement with any of my claims, I welcome your pointing it out to me.


Nancy: "I still see no proof that JEAL wrote the biographical  note in 1818"

And if you read Juliette Wells's recent article here... know that (to quote Wells) "The first hint [that Henry Austen wrote the 1818 version] appeared in 1892, when Reginald Brimley Johnson, editor of a ten-volume edition of Austen’s novels, stated that the “Biographical Notice” was “probably written by Miss Austen’s brother, the Rev. Henry Austen”.

As Wells goes on to say, it was only AFTER that passing, unsubstantiated comment by Reginald Brimley Johnson (who, I will also point out, was born in 1867, and therefore couldn't have spoken to any Austen family member who was old enough to have personal knowledge of who wrote the 1818 Bio Notice) that subsequent 20th & 21st century Austen scholars treated Henry Austen as definitely having written the 1818 version. That's not proof, that's not even close to proof--- it's sloppy scholarship being repeated over and over again till people assume it is true.

So, NOBODY has anything resembling definitive proof about the actual author of the 1818 version; and I've previously made my case that it was JEAL, based not on my "gut feeling", but on demonstrable, striking similarities between the 1818 version and JEAL's 1870 Memoir, similarities which are ABSENT in the one version we DO know (from correspondence written by him to Bentley) that Henry wrote, which is the 1832 revision! As I asked in my Dec. 2017 post, why in the world would Henry delete significant claims in 1832 that he had made in 1818, only for JEAL to restore those very same claims in 1870? Common sense and Occam's Razor suggests instead that JEAL was the author in 1818 and 1870, who did not like that his Uncle had deleted some of his pet claims, and so restored them when Henry's hand was long mouldering in the grave.

Based on all that, I'd say that my argument is the stronger one on the table.

Nancy: "...or that Austen  was a  "fiercely non-conformist, non-heterosexual"."

And we know you and I are never going to agree on that one, but I claim that my position is more plausible than yours, and in any event, JEAL's editorial fraud does not depend on my larger claims also being true.

Nancy: "The description of Jane in the bio was most likely the true feelings of a brother. Just because he was an intelligent  didn't mean that he was aware of irony. Though JEAL was chosen to help carry the coffin, I do not think he would have been chosen to write the biography when a brother was around to do so."

You're guessing, just as I am guessing, but I base my argument on a consistent pattern of distortion on JEAL's part, a pattern that, even when it was previously noted, no Austen scholar before me (except, to some extent, Emily Auerbach) has called it for what it is -- even (as I also blogged back in 2010) DW Harding, way back when, and Kathryn Sutherland, much more recently, stopped short of crossing the proverbial "t" by calling out fraud as fraud on JEAL's part. 

Think I'm exaggerating? Look at what Sutherland wrote in 2000, in her footnotes to JEAL's "severely edited" version of JA's last surviving letter to brother Charles (rather than in Sutherland's Introduction to JEAL's Memoir, where it would've been much more prominent and likely to be noticed by a reader):

“"...some family troubles..."”: apparently a discreet reference to HA’s bankruptcy, which occurred in March 1816. But the letters from which JEAL goes on to quote date from April and May 1817 and refer to the disappointment felt in the Austen family at the will of James Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Austen’s brother, who had died on 28 March 1817….As chief beneficiary on Mrs Leigh Perrot’s death in 1836, JEAL would obviously be discreet in recording this disappointment as he was earlier in his omission from the Memoir of Mrs. Leigh Perrot’s prosecution for theft. But family tradition, as well as her own correspondence, suggest that the terms of the will were a considerable shock to JA and even exacerbated her illness. (Fam. Rec. 221-3).
“...a letter…to Charles...”: JEAL prints a severely edited extract. JA wrote: “…I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse…I am the only one of the legatees [JEAL alters this to ‘party’] who has been so silly….”

I.e., Sutherland tries to explain JEAL's editorial fraud as merely "discreet", just a case of "a severely edited extract" as if the reason for the alteration was to save space?; and Sutherland draws an analogy to JEAL's omission of mention of Mrs. Leigh Perrot's prosecution for theft. But that is an utterly invalid analogy, because neither JEAL nor either of his parents, were at all culpable in Aunt Leigh-Perrot's purloining of lace in Bath --that was all her "bad".  Whereas, changing "legatees" to "party" is, prima facie, a total smoking gun that reveals JEAL's intent to conceal the true cause of what Sutherland correctly calls "a considerable shock to JA and even exacerbated her illness." There is NO other rational explanation, JEAL's personal conflict of interest is overwhelmingly probative.

But such is the enduring power of the Myth of Austen which you so persistently seem to defend, Nancy, and in particular, in this case, the desire of many present-day descendants of James Austen to keep a lid on such an odorous bit of dirty family laundry that reflects badly on their ancestor (JEAL, that is). Even scholars like Harding and Sutherland, who have not shunned controversy about Jane Austen, were not free to straight-out say that JEAL was a self interested, untrustworthy liar.

Nancy: "As for the inheritance of the Perrott Leigh money and property. Who had the prevailing vote on that? Mr. Leigh Perrott or his wife? Both of them probably subscribed to the idea that money and property was best handled by a male who would need it to support a family and aged aunts."

Balderdash! (I just checked--that colorful term was indeed in use in JA's lifetime, even though she herself never used it, at least in print). Your suggestion implodes from within, ignited by the fact that Mr. Leigh Perrot actually left his estate completely in his wife's control-- and I think we can at least agree on that point, which is that Aunt Leigh Perrot was indeed a woman! So it was apparently perfectly okay for that woman to decide who would receive the remainder of his estate after her death, when he had all those same male family members at his disposal, whom he could have named as trustees. 

No, what we had in 1817 was nothing less than a dreadfully ironic repetition of what happens in Chapter 2 of S&S -- once again, a weak minded dying man puts a predatory female relative in charge of dispensing much-needed largesse to impecunious relatives. It turns out that JA's 1811 expose of what happened in 1801 and 1805, turned out to be a prophecy of what happened in 1817 -- and in all these cases, the finger of guilt is pointed at James & Mary Austen, and their "knight" and son, James Edward.

Nancy: "Though Austen and her mother were disappointed about the way the property and money was left, most of those who heard about  the legacy would agree that giving it to the oldest son of the oldest nephew was proper. The mind set was different. Though females could and did rail against such thinking, it was the prevailing attitude of the day."

Again, balderdash! This was not an all or none scenario. Nothing, absolutely nothing, prevented Uncle Leigh Perrot from carving out a portion (say, a quarter) of his estate, and thereby easing the precarious financial status of his impecunious sister, and several of her impecunious children. Unlike Mr. Dashwood in S&S, he had full power to divide his estate any way he chose-- but he didn't.

Nancy: "I don't believe that Austen would allow herself to be made ill by such a thing. Unfortunately, her illness worsened at this time  and probably increased her disappointment."

So now, as your piece de resistance, you now say that JA did not mean what she actually wrote in her letter to Charles! She is so obviously doing her best to soft-pedal the shock that she suffered from the disinheritance news, and keep the tone low-key, that we may safely infer that it was much much worse -- and factually, we know that JA died only a few months later. 

No wonder JEAL, a half century later, made it a point to distort the written evidence, so as to get him and his parents off the hook. ]  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The more Eliza Bennet sees of the world, the more she angsts like Mary Wollstonecraft, female Werter!

INTRODUCTION: A year ago I began work in earnest on the talk I eventually presented at the last JASNA AGM in October 2017. My topic was Jane Austen’s persistent literary focus throughout her writing career on the idea of “the power of the strong mind (like hers) over the weak”. In observance of the bicentennial of JA’s death, I zeroed in on three of her lesser known writings from 1817, her last year of life: the Sanditon fragment; her letter to Anne Sharp, former Godmersham governess and, say I, lesbian beloved of JA; and Austen’s defiant claim of immortality, her deathbed “When Winchester Races”. Those late writings repeatedly made explicit the “strong mind” theme which I claim was implicit from JA’s juvenilia onward.

Since I gave that talk (and also an expanded version thereof, to my Portland JASNA friends), I’ve continued to collect more evidence in that same vein. It all tells me that maybe the greatest single influence on Austen’s thinking, morality, and writing was not (as I’ve long argued) Shakespeare, or even Richardson or the Bible, but, by a slight margin over the Bard, the great proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (hereafter WSC for short), JA’s near contemporary and inspirational role model.

WSC died a horrific early death in 1797 in the immediate aftermath of giving birth to a daughter, also a Mary (Shelley), who would herself gain fame two decades later for writing a tale of a horrid birth perhaps inspired by her own, i.e., that of Frankenstein’s tragic monster. I believe that WSC’s death ignited JA’s writing career, by giving her a defining mission – to not merely carry on the protofeminist ideals of her fallen idol, but to surpass WSC by embodying radical feminist ideas in fictional stories that would (as two centuries of evidence prove) take the reading world by storm, even more powerfully than even WSC’s nonfiction brilliance could. To paraphrase Edmund Bertram, behind his loud praise for Shakespeare, I hear Austen whispering: “WSC one gets acquainted with by reading her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, and also about her life. She ought to be a part of an Englishman's constitution, but she’s not (yet). I will spread her thoughts and beauties abroad, so that one touches them everywhere; I must make every English person intimate with WSC by instinct….” .

PART ONE:  I now present a discovery I recently came upon, which not only adds to my varied collection of veiled Wollstonecraft allusions in Austen’s writings; it also provides crucial context that illuminates Austen’s Hamletian preoccupation with the literary “ghost” of Mary Wollstonecraft.

In a famous passage in Chapter 12 of Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth patronizes Bingley, unwittingly revealing her own narcissistic cockiness. Bingley, I suggest, mocks her (just as Mr. Bennet will similarly mock Mr. Collins, the self-styled expert at complimenting, two chapters later) by calling her a “studier of character”. As you read this passage, please focus on the Wollstonecraftian question under debate: is a village as good a “classroom” for the development of a strong mind -- particularly for the study of character -- as a big city?:

“Whatever I do is done in a hurry,” replied [Bingley]; “and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here.”
“That is exactly what I should have supposed of you,” said Elizabeth.
“You begin to comprehend me, do you?” cried he, turning towards her.
“Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly.”
“I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.”
“That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.”
“Lizzy,” cried her mother, “remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home.”
“I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”
“Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”
“The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”
“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”
“Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”
Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.
“I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?”
“When I am in the country,” he replied, “I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.”
“Aye—that is because you have the right disposition. But that gentleman,” looking at Darcy, “seemed to think the country was nothing at all.”
“Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken,” said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. “You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true.”
“Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families.”

The battle lines have been clearly drawn between Darcy and Mrs. Bennet in the debate --- but is that last diplomatic comment by Eliza a hint to the alert reader that Darcy has planted a seed of doubt in Eliza’s mind, as to whether he might be correct? I.e., has Eliza’s confined village existence at Longbourn near Meryton really provided her with as a good education in human nature as her mother seems to claim?

Hold that question in mind as we now skip forward a dozen chapters to the following speech (which verges on pontification) by Eliza in Chapter 24. Eliza first gently chastises Jane for her Pollyannish willingness to ascribe good motives to all people; but then, in a burst of post-adolescent angst (which the truly worldly-wise Jane Austen no doubt smiled indulgently at as she wrote it), Eliza almost seems to echo Hamlet’s despairing “What a piece of work is man” speech:

“Nay,” said Elizabeth, “this is not fair. You wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of anybody. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it. Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good-will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, THE MORE AM I DISSATISFIED with it; and every day confirms my belief of the INCONSISTENCY of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately, one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte's marriage. It is unaccountable! In every view it is unaccountable!”

May I suggest that it is crucial that one of the two instances which elicits Eliza’s bewildered anger is Charlotte’s “unaccountable” marriage to Mr. Collins? Why? Because, in a post a few years back, I gave reasons for believing that “unaccountable” was, in part, code for “lesbian” –i.e., that Eliza unwittingly is expressing anger, because she is jealous of Charlotte, who is being “inconsistent” by marrying a man; and what’s worse, then moving far away, instead of remaining at home and continuing her intimate relationship of several years with Elizabeth. And some of you may be aware that WSC’s intensely close relationship with Fanny Blood has led a number of scholars to view WSC as bisexual.

That leads me to my “punch line” --- a penultimate quotation from P&P, three chapters further on, in Chapter 27, when Eliza, still clearly upset about Charlotte and other things, vents her spleen to her wise confidant, her aunt Gardiner, just before Eliza is to leave for Hunsford to see (who else?) Charlotte!:

“Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all.”
“Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment.”

Elizabeth just can’t get Charlotte’s marriage to Collins off her mind; whereupon, Mrs. Gardiner presents her generous antidote to Eliza’s romantic ennui – during the intermission at the theatre (were they by any chance watching Hamlet?), she proposes an exciting road trip to a place her niece Eliza has never been before!:

“…Before they were separated by the conclusion of the play, she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.
“We have not determined how far it shall carry us,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “but, perhaps, to the Lakes.”
No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “Oh, my dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”

Her aunt’s scheme is an immediate success, as it immediately perks Elizabeth up, eliciting Gilpinesque rhapsodies, which slyly echo Eliza’s earlier sly joke on Gilpin’s three or four picturesque cows in the Netherfield shrubbery. But Eliza is curiously vague as to the identity of “the generality of travellers” who, per her evidently wide reading of travel literature, fail “to give one accurate idea of anything” they see during their trip. Might one of those travellers by any chance be….Mary Wollstonecraft?

PART TWO: In answering my last question, above, consider now the following two passages about travel by writers whose works Jane Austen clearly knew very well -indeed, I’ve already hinted at both of them in my Subject Line!:

First, here is the passage which I  now assert JA deliberately alluded to in Elizabeth’s above-quoted speech beginning “The more I see of the world…”, in WSC’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Letter 2 (1796):

“THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, THE MORE I AM CONVINCED that civilization is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a VARIETY which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations. Without the aid of the imagination all the pleasures of the sense must sink into grossness, unless continual NOVELTY serve as a substitute for the imagination, which, being impossible, it was to this weariness, I suppose, that Solomon alluded when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun!—nothing for the common sensations excited by the senses. Yet who will deny that the imagination and understanding have made many, very many discoveries since those days, which only seem harbingers of others still more noble and beneficial? I never met with much imagination amongst people who had not acquired a habit of reflection; and in that state of society in which the judgment and taste are not called forth, and formed by the cultivation of the arts and sciences, little of that delicacy of feeling and thinking is to be found characterised by the word sentiment.  The want of scientific pursuits perhaps accounts for the hospitality, as well as for the cordial reception which strangers receive from the inhabitants of small towns. Hospitality has, I think, been too much praised by travellers as a proof of goodness of heart, when, in my opinion, indiscriminate hospitality is rather a criterion by which you may form a tolerable estimate of the indolence or vacancy of a head; or, in other words, a fondness for social pleasures in which the mind not having its proportion of exercise, the bottle must be pushed about.”

In a future post I’ll provide a full interpretation of how and why I believe the above passage was echoed by JA in P&P. For now, however, at a minimum, please note that WSC not only provides the model for the exact, epigrammatical verbiage of the beginning of Eliza’s speech; JA’s wink at WSC is carefully situated in the context of ennui about the world as it is and not as we wish it would be, as well in a discussion of village vs. city as “classroom” for education in human nature. And WSC’s analysis is prompted by travel to a new place, just as in the above quoted dialog in Chapter 27 of P&P!

PART THREE: I believe the above discovery is worthy of consideration by those who love Jane Austen and/or Mary Wollstonecraft. Being obsessive, I felt there might be more behind it, so I searched for any other contemporary literary usages of the phrase “The more I see of the world”. Imagine my delight when I found the following additional bit of angst about the human condition in, of all places, another travel account by another famous contemporary author! I refer to Goethe’s Italian Journey, which was drawn from his diary about his travels from 1786-8, but (as far as I can tell) was not published until 1816 (i.e., 20 years after Wollstonecraft’s travel account, and 3 years after P&P was published):

"THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, the less hope I have that humanity as a whole will ever become wise and happy. Among the millions of worlds which exist, there may, perhaps, be one which can boast of such a state of affairs, but given the constitution of our world, I see as little hope for us [in our world] as for the Sicilian in his.”

So, we have not one, not two, but three of the most influential authors of that era each using that same distinctive turn of phrase (the above English translation is from the later 19th century) in an angsting  passage inspired or relating to travel far from home.

What does this mean? Candidly, I’m uncertain, mainly because if’s accurate that Goethe wrote his version a decade before WSC’s was published, but it remained private in his then unpublished diary, then how would WSC have read what he wrote (which was in German to boot)? Did Wollstonecraft and Goethe meet during her Continental travels –by which time they were both prominent public intellectuals known throughout Europe? I’m unaware of any evidence pointing to such a meeting, or to any correspondence between them.

And yet, there’s just far too much resonance between these two passages to be coincidental. That’s especially so, when we recall that Richard Godwin, WSC’s famous widower, a few short years after his wife’s death, described her as a “female Werter”, while describing her passionate letters to Imlay, from that same collection of letters which included her version of “The more I see of the world”. By “female Werter”, Godwin was of course referring to Goethe’s most famous literary production, The Sorrows of Werther (a super-famous work which JA alluded to in at least two of her juvenilia, Love and Freindship and Lesley Castle).  

All I know for sure at this early point in my delvings into this new information is that it makes Elizabeth Bennet’s world-weary comments about human inconsistency, and her trip to Pemberley during which she undergoes an extraordinary “Wertherian” transformation, much more interesting, when we read them through a Goethean, Wollstonecraftian pair of lenses.

And….I will note in passing that Charlotte Lucas in P&P, like Charlotte Lutterall (sounds a lot like “butter all”) in Lesley Castle, are two Austen characters based in no small part on the fictional Werther’s beloved (Char)Lotte—as I think about JA reading Godwin’s take on Wollstonecraft as a ‘female Werter’, I wonder about the Goethean, Wollstonecrafian overlay of the mysterious Charlotte Lucas.

CONCLUSION: One last point about Austen and WSC, relating to novel-reading. At my 2017 AGM talk, I said this on that point:
“Wollstonecraft decried novel reading as an activity which would never develop strong female minds:
“Novels, music, poetry and gallantry, all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed during the time they are acquiring accomplishments, the only improvement they are excited, by their station in society, to acquire. This overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain, to render a rational creature USEFUL to others, and content with its own station; for the exercise of the understanding, as life advances, is the only method pointed out by nature to calm the passions.”
Curiously, Wollstonecraft wrote the above a few years after an attempt at novelizing of her own called Mary, a Fiction, which she abandoned as a failure. But it appears she reconsidered in 1797, the year she died, when she began working hard on Maria, The Wrongs of Woman—a novel fragment which her husband Godwin published after her death, along with his Memoir. As Susan Lanser observed in 1999:
“Wollstonecraft appeared to experience a “complicated anxiety around the intersections of feminism and sexuality, [which] might explain why [she], once romantically attached to Fanny Blood, figured ‘romantic friendship" in Mary, a Fiction, as "resembl[ing] a passion," yet in The Vindication gratuitously warns women against staying up together at night even to talk, because of the "nasty customs" that girls may have learned "from ignorant servants."
So Wollstonecraft was huge on the idea of useful knowledge in The Vindication, but deeply ambivalent about the role of novels in conveying “useful knowledge” to women. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t very good at creating characters who lived and breathed, like Austen’s.” 

In this post today, I’ve provided dramatic new validation for my above-quoted assertions 6 months ago. And that brings me to my final quotation from P&P, which, I suggest, is Jane Austen, speaking through the mouth of Elizabeth Bennet, about the superiority of her most famous “darling child”, P&P, over any attempt by WSC, however eloquent, to “teach” women readers how to strengthen their minds:

We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

I’d say that literary history has proven that JA has indeed taught what is worth knowing, by concealing her pearls of difficult wisdom within a light, bright, and sparkling “shell” which readers will wish to open again and again and again throughout their lives, and therefore the sharp elves keep learning from it.

Cheers, ARNIE
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