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Monday, February 14, 2011

Philadephia Austen and the Temple of Hastings the Godfather of the Austen Family

In the aftermath of the two blog posts immediately preceding this one about S&S as a veiled representation of Warren Hastings in the character of Colonel Brandon, I’ve been reading some more about the history of the Hastings impeachment trial, and realizing that in many ways the life of Warren Hastings is the _primary_ real world subtext behind not just S&S but _all_ of JA’s novels, even more significant than the Prince Regent.

Why? Because it makes perfect sense—Warren Hastings was enmeshed with the Austen family in a half dozen crucial ways, most of all via his long complex relationship not only with Philadelphia Austen (who predeceased him by decades) and Eliza Austen (who predeceased him by a few years), but also with Revd. Austen going back to the time before JA was even born, and also with Henry Austen as the husband of Eliza. This shadow of this “Godfather” (and I mean that both literally vis a vis Eliza Hancock and also metaphorically in the modern Mafia sense) loomed over the Austen family as no other, and so the allusions to this man’s life therefore take on much greater significance.

As part of my followup reading, I found a fantastic article about the Hastings impeachment trial, and its reverberations in the wider society, and also its thinly veiled theatricalization by Sheridan (which makes me realize even more than I previously had that Sir Thomas Bertram is also a representation of Warren Hastings), which I recommend highly to those interested in this subject:

“Theatricality, Legalism, and the Scenography of Suffering: The Trial of Warren Hastings and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro” by Julie Stone Peters, Law and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 15-46.

I also was reading some more contemporary accounts of the Hastings trial, and I was really struck by the following description of one particularly important day at the trial:
“Mr. Holt was then called, and examined by Mr. Sheridan. The examination turned principally upon the state of the country of Oude, the authority of the Nabob in his own dominions, and the influence of the English government, and its representative the English Resident, in the administration of affairs belonging to Oude. It appeared from the evidence, that the Witness had been assistant to the English Resident at Lucknow, the capital of the Nabob Vizier's dominions; that the country had once been in a very flourishing condition; but that for causes, which the Witness said it was not for him to point out, it had fallen off, and poverty and wretchedness had succeeded to the opulence and happiness of the inhabitants. The country, he said, had been afflicted with a drought, and consequent bad seasons; that it was thought that some of the rents, &c. payable by the people to the government, ought to be remitted; but that instead of this, the officers employed in the collection of the revenue had levied it with great rigour, and without making the least abatement. The people in many places were reduced to such distress that they were obliged to sell their children: the Witness, however, had heard, that the selling of the children, was a practice which sometimes obtained in lndostan. He said, that zemindars and farmers, who were unable to pay their rents, were seized, and confined; sixty of them had at one time been confined within as small a space as was that in which the Court was actually sitting, surrounded with bamboos, and open over head, so that the poor creatures were exposed to the intolerable heat of & vertical sun; and several were punished with stripes from a korah, which was a large thong tied to a stick.— From Mr. Holt's evidence it appeared also, that many of the Company's military officers, had civil employments in Oude, and were employed in the collection of the revenue; and that if they were guilty of any acts of oppression, they could not be punished; nor could redress be given to the oppressed, but by the authority of the British Resident or government—That it was usual for officers employed in the collection of the revenues to receive presents, which were in the nature of fees, and were understood to be their principal, if not only emolument…”.

Although the above description reminded me in a general way of the roar for justice welling up from the masses gathered last week in Tahrir Square in Cairo, it reminded me _uncannily_ (and maybe you as well?) of Georg Lucas/Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom! You have the droughts, the selling of children, the slave labor, the corruption in India, it can’t be coincidence, it’s actually high camp!

That insight caused me to wonder whether I have been missing something important for 25 years in that film, and that perhaps Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom can be validly seen as a very sly critique of the history of British colonialism in India. All you need to do is to think of the “thuggis” who swoop in and reduce the general population to a state of awful zombie-like servitude as veiled representations of the rapacious British Empire itself, epitomized by the East India Company, which raped India and its people of its resources and self-determining spirit, and Indiana Jones actually as a representation of the Indian people’s own courage and determination epitomized by Gandhi. And the central star of the British Empire in Jane Austen’s metaphorical cosmos was Warren Hastings.

So, in short, reading that article, and that excerpt from the Hastings trial, brought home to me all the more how the Hastings trial may well have been even more important in shaping Jane Austen’s budding social consciousness even than the French Revolution, which is often claimed to hold that position.

Cheers, ARNIE

2 comments:

mary cantwell said...

Some questions about the influence of the French Revolution on Jane Austen; your previous posts about her distain for the Prince Regent and her willingness to dedicate a book to him....
One reader friend of mine,beyond me in Austen scholarship, believes that Frank Churchill was given the name "Frank" as both an effiminate nomenclature (less than a man of principles) and also as a slap at "Franco" values (going to London to get a hair cut, overall frivolousness). So it would seem that Jane Austen would take a swipe or two at the French. Was this patriotism or did she have to cow-tow a little to the prevailing franco phobia of her time? Did she dedicate her book to the Prince Regent so that people would not assume that she was the subversive that she really is (and I use that in a good sense). Did she live in a time, much like the 50's, that if you made any social statement sympathetic to the poor, you had to follow it up with extreme patriotic comment to make sure you were not suspected of being a commie...? Jane Austen was an iconoclast but she worked her way around society pretty well. If you grew up in her time and you were excited about French enlightenment, ideas of reason and equality, did you have to make sure to let the powers that be know that you did not also go along with all of the beheadings? Finally, to you Jane Austen historians, was Jane a royalist or republican (small "r")? Let us know what your research shows.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Mary, some quick answers:

"So it would seem that Jane Austen would take a swipe or two at the French. Was this patriotism or did she have to cow-tow a little to the prevailing franco phobia of her time?"

I think it's a faux Francophobia, but I think she also saw the French Revolution as having gone very wrong, due mostly to too much testosterone among the revolutionaries.

"Did she dedicate her book to the Prince Regent so that people would not assume that she was the subversive that she really is (and I use that in a good sense). Did she live in a time, much like the 50's, that if you made any social statement sympathetic to the poor, you had to follow it up with extreme patriotic comment to make sure you were not suspected of being a commie...?....."

Yes, to all of the above, PLUS she loved a great put-on, especially if it was pulled on a powerful man. Emma was the ultimate put on.

"was Jane a royalist or republican (small "r")?"

Definitely not a defender of aristocratic (or male) privilege.