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Monday, January 31, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter #8: The Mansfield Park Double Connection

In Janeites and Austen L, we began the 8th week of what will probably be more than a two year group read of Jane Austen's letters, and this week there were two letters in the hopper, Letters 8 and 9 (which can be read online, by the way, at a number of websites, for those of you unfamiliar with them).

Letter #8 is a condolence letter dated Sunday April 8, 1798 (I don't know if it was Easter Sunday or not) to cousin Philadelphia ("Phylly") Walter, upon the death of JA's uncle in Kent.

Nancy Mayer got the ball rolling with an interesting question....

[Nancy] "Actually I am wrong about one point. Cassandra and Jane were separated for part of this time because she says so in the beginning of the letter: As Cassandra is at present from home..." I wonder if it was the oldest daughter's duty to write such letters. Why wouldn't her father write his own letter of condolence?"

Fantastic question, Nancy!

At first, it does sound like Revd Austen has not written his own letter, but then, perhaps the words "our sincere Condolance" might refer only to Cassandra and Jane, the only Austen children still living at home in April, 1798? Perhaps Revd. Austen or Mrs. Austen wrote a separate letter of "condolance" to the widow Mrs. Walter? Or is it possible that Revd. Austen (whether or not accompanied by Mrs. Austen) actually traveled to attend the funeral, or at least to pay respects afterwards? How far exactly was Steventon from Sevenoaks?

The Deceased, William-Hampson Walter, of course was Revd Austen's half brother, ten years older than Revd. Austen and born from the same mother. What was the relationship between Revd. Austen and his much older half-brother?

The Family Record says the following of "George Austen's relations of the half-blood--the Walters. With his mother's son by her first husband, William Hampson Walter, he remained on intimate terms. A good many letters are extant which passed between the Austens and the Walters during the early married life of the former, the last of them containing the news of the birth of Jane. Besides this, William Walter's daughter, 'Phila,' was a constant correspondent of George Austen's niece Eliza."

I at first wondered whether there might have been some strain in the relationship between Wiiliam Hampson, on the one hand, and his younger half siblings, on the other, because of the especially hard times that befell those younger half siblings when their mother died, leaving them orphans when George was 6 and Phila was 7, whereas William Hampson was already 17. E.g., could William Hampson, who married in 1745 and proceeded to sire many children, have done more to help his half-siblings, especially Phila? Who knows. But I can see no evidence of an estrangement during their adult lives.

My main interest in Philadelphia Walter is all the "smoke" that suggests that she is one of the real life models for Fanny Price, with the young Eliza Hancock playing the role of Mary Crawford. This has been written about in several of the Austen bios and novel analyses, in regard to the Steventon theatricals and Eliza flirting with James and Henry, while the teenaged JA and CEA watched. And I also was already aware that Eliza and Phylly Walter exchanged many letters which can be seen in the Austen Papers and also in Le Faye's bio of Eliza, which are very reminiscent of the relationship between Mary C. and Fanny P. in MP--with Eliza's spirited wit and flirtatiousness in counterpoint to Phylly's shy caution. It very much sounds like Fanny and Mary!

But...I did not know till this morning that there was a _second_ real life family depicted in MP, and not just any family, but a family as closely connected by blood to the Steventon Austens as the MP Bertrams were to the Portsmouth Prices!

I found it very interesting just now learning from Ruth Perry, in her chapter "JA and British Imperialism" in _Monstrous dreams of reason: body, self, and other in the Enlightenment_ (2002), edited by Laura Jean Rosenthal and Mita Choudhury, at P 236, that "...[JA's] father's older half brother, William-Hampson Walter, had two sons (William and George) who settled in the West Indies. A letter from Jane's mother...to her niece Philadelphia Walter at Christmastime 1786, wishing she were with them and describing the happy family circle at Steventon, declared 'You might as well be in Jamaica keeping your Brother's House, for anything that we see of you or are like to see."

Perry perhaps did not peruse Le Faye's Biographical Index, so as to realize that George Walter had already died in his twenties in 1779, and William was about to die in his thirties in 1787, i.e., soon after Mrs. Austen's letter--it sounds like the West Indies was a place where young English men went to die of infectious diseases! And perhaps we have a conscious allusion to this in the near-death of Tom Bertram, and the worries of Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram about Sir Thomas's safe return from Antigua.

And it makes Phila Walter as Fanny Price even more interesting, when we consider this strong West Indian connection, and also Mrs. Austen's joking suggestion that the unmarried 27 year old Phila might have been playing the same sort of role in her soon-to-die brother's home in Jamaica as both the young Fanny Price and the mature Mrs. Norris played at Mansfield Park.

And there is an even more dramatic MP connection, when we read in Tucker's _A Goodly Heritage:a history of Jane Austen's family_ at P. 43:

"...when [Phiadelphia Hancock] was staying with her half brother, William Hampson Walter, in Kent, her visit was considerably enlivened when one of his young sons became so infatuated with the already flirtatious Betsy that, as the latter recalled, 'he made verses on me in which he compared me to Venus & I know not what other Divinity, & played off fireworks in the cellar in honour of my charms." [Austen Papers, 101]

So that suggests Phila Hancock as Mrs. Grant, and Betsy Hancock as Mary Crawford, William Hampson as Sir Thomas, and the Walter sons as Tom and Edmund.

And...what is not commonly known to Janeites is that Phylly Walter did not die a spinster, but actually married in 1811 at the age of 50--of course a whole lot sooner than Fanny ties the knot with Edmund. I cannot find out if Phylly married a clergyman--and (as JA did not live to find out) Phylly died (of course childless) at age 73 in 1834. It is a pity that JA did not obtain her cousin's opinion of MP--and of course it was too late to obtain Eliza's, who died while JA was writing MP.

So the plot, as they say, has considerably thickened!

Cheers, ARNIE

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