Yes, you read it correctly. It turns out that not only is the character name Mrs. Cole in Emma an allusion to the character of Mrs. Cole in Fanny Hill, it is also, I will argue below, an allusion to the real life Mrs. Cole who is described as follows in Claire Tomalin's 1997 biography of Jane Austen:
"As soon as [Philadephia Austen] reached her fifteenth birthday in May 1745, she was apprenticed to a Covent Garden milliner, Hester Cole...while [her brother] George [i.e., Jane's father] was at Oxford..she was in central London serving her apprenticeship to a trade...John Cleland’s famous pornographic novel Fanny Hill made good use of this equivocal status when he delivered his heroine Fanny into the care of a Mrs. Cole of Covent Garden, ‘a middle aged discreet sort of woman’, ostensibly a milliner, actually a bawd...The coincidence of names and professions is all the more startling in that Fanny Hill was published in 1748-9, which was exactly the period of Philadelphia’s employment by Hester Cole."
Tomalin gives credit for discovering this connection of Phila Austen to a real Mrs. Cole to Robin Vick, long active in the Jane Austen Society in England, but I have done some digging and I found another earlier source for this same info, the late EJ Burford who mentioned all this in a 1986 book I am in the process of retrieving from the library, waiting with "bated" breath for any additional details Burford's book may contain in this regard!
In any event, that connection of Phila Austen to Hester Cole is mind-blowing enough, especially when we consider that Phila Austen has long been associated with another very dicey rumor--which I believe to be fact even though Deirdre Le Faye has tried so long to put the kibosh on it---which is that Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, Jane Austen's favorite cousin/sister in law, was the illegitimate daughter of the powerful nabob of colonialism and notorious impeachee, Warren Hastings.
But...in terms of the fascinating dynamics of contemporary Austen studies, where would be censors like Le Faye continue to fight a losing battle to re-close Pandora's Box, what is even more mind blowing is the following caveat issued by Tomalin immediately after the above-quoted bombshell:
"Two things may be said about this. First, that it seems unlikely Cleland was unaware of the existence of the real Mrs. Cole—Covent Garden was not a vast area—and that if he intended his allusion to her business purely as a joke, it must have caused some embarrassing moments for Philadelphia and her fellow apprentices, Sarah and Rose. But secondly, even if it was not a joke, and Hester Cole was indeed engaged in more than one type of activity, we are not entitled to conclude anything about Philadelphia from Cleland’s fiction. The two Mrs. Coles of Covent Garden remain no more than a striking coincidence."
"Wow!" is all I can say--here we have Tomalin seemingly at war with herself. If it really were true that "we are not entitled to conclude anything about Philadelphia from Cleland's fiction" (and note that Tomalin gives no reason to back up this strange edict, it's just a naked statement of opinion as if it were a fact), then why does Tomalin even mention any of these facts at all?
She seems to be at war with herself, fascinated by information she knows is significant, but deeply ambivalent about readers inferring the logical implications from it.
But what is most astounding is that one might imagine that Tomalin has not read Emma, or else, how is it possible that she does not even mention the Mrs. Cole who is a character in Jane Austen's Emma mentioned by name THIRTY TWO TIMES in the novel!
My previous post has given a significant array of evidence to show that Mrs. Cole in Emma is merely the most visible marker of a complex covert allusion to Fanny Hill in Emma. What does it say about the powerful forces of suppression and Bowlderization that are still at work in the Janeite world, that Tomalin, for whatever reason, would not "go there"?
And note that there are a dozen pages in Tomalin's bio which do discuss Emma--its characters--several are mentioned by nam--but also the famous Dedication, and even the opinions Jane Austen collected about the novel--so one must think that Tomalin actually did read Emma. In fact, it would be literary "malpractice" if someone writing a biography of Jane Austen had not read each of her novels at least a couple of times!
So, could this be unconscious on Tomalin's part, or was she prevented from speculating about Jane Austen's Mrs. Cole being a part of this matrix by her publisher? The mind reels either way, but I think it must be the latter--someone got to her, and said, "You can't write that, you can't even hint at it."
Anyway, it sure seems to me as a genuine possibility that Jane Austen's paternal aunt, the mother of her dear cousin Eliza, might well have been a prostitute for five years in Covent Garden, in the guise of working at a milliner's shop (like Ford's in Highbury!)--and that she might even have "crossed paths" (to put it euphemistically) with the likes of Cleland and the rest of literary London circa 1750, when not only Fanny Hill was being written, but also Richardson's Pamela (who herself resembles Fanny Hill in several startling ways, as some critics have previously pointed out) and Fielding's Tom Jones--
And....ten times more important--no, ten THOUSAND times more important---I believe that Jane Austen took her aunt's plight deeply to heart--because surely if Phila Austen is represented by Jane Fairfax, as I believe she is, then Jane Austen was not alluding to Fanny Hill in a salacious or vulgar way, but because she (and by the way, so was Cleland, as many critics have also pointed out previously) was appalled at how women in her world were treated-- the words they heard put them on a pedestal, but when it came down to brass tacks, they were, metaphorically, treated as if they were whores, to be bought and sold, and the "Price" for their "Fanny" was too dear.
And that message has been simply unassimilable by many in the Janeite world up till now. But I mean, by bringing forward all the evidence I will publish during the coming years, hopefully end that censorship forever, and allow this discussion of Jane Austen's radical, highly Christian (in the best sense of that word) feminism to receive the recognition it so richly deserves.
- Deirdre Le Faye & Me: "I am a scholar, she is a scholar: so far we are equal"
- The Hunger Games’s Veiled Allusion to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
- Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation
- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
- 20 shades of hero/villain Mr. Darcy