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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jane Austen's Literary Espionage Using Her Own Neighbourhood Network of Voluntary Spies

In Letter 28, JA playfully refers to "my spies":

"I have charged my Myrmidons to send me an account of the Basingstoke Ball; I have placed my SPIES at different places that they may collect the more; & by so doing, by sending Miss Bigg to the Townhall itself, & posting my Mother at Steventon I hope to derive from their various observations a good general idea of the whole."

Is this merely another one of JA's playful hyperboles, casting her mother, her friend Miss Biggs and certain unnamed other friends, as a vast network of spies who will gather information about the Basingstoke Ball, as if it were a major battle taking place in a war, as to which the world held its breath awaiting an account of the outcome? As usual, I think there is much more than meets the eye at first in such games of wit as played by JA.

First, note that JA began Letter 28 with a cryptic bit of wordplay that, as has been noted previous by other Austen scholars, harks back to a very famous and important battle depicted in Shakespeare:

"I have been here ever since a quarter after three on thursday last, by the Shrewsbury Clock, which I am fortunately enabled absolutely to ascertain, because Mrs. Stent once lived at Shrewsbury, or at least at Tewksbury.-"

The allusion is to Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene, 4, in the immediate
aftermath of the Battle of Shrewsbury, when Falstaff boasts to Prince Hal that he has slain Percy, and the Prince then wryly points out to Falstaff that he (the Prince) _himself_ killed Percy. Caught in this barefaced lie, the resourceful Falstaff thinks fast:

"Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath; and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the thigh: if the man were alive and would deny it, 'zounds, I would make him eat a piece of my sword."

So, it's noteworthy that JA has retained in her mind the image of the Battle of Shrewsbury as she writes Letter 28, and she decides to revisit that military conceit later in the same letter, casting herself as a general deploying spies at another "skirmish" in the eternal Battle of the Sexes, fought with dance steps and witty repartee at a country town ball.

In this revisiting of a military theme, JA also may have been thinking of a line she wrote in Chapter 24 of Northanger Abbey, the one I have quoted a dozen times in the past few years, in support of my claim that the key subtext of Northanger Abbey is the theme of death in childbirth:

"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary SPIES, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” "

It is interesting to look at that passage in a military light--here is yet another "battlefield" in a "war" waged in the bedroom of every family in England. Atrocities are committed in the heat of war, and so it is not surprising that we hear of "spies" in this same passage.

And let's take a second look at the above quoted passage from Letter 28--"my Myrmidons" might sound like a mere extension of the idea of "spies", but let's look at who the Myrmidons were, they were, basically, the trusted elite private army of Achilles in the Iliad. And, what's much less widely known, they play a special role in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a play I have previously argued on several occasions was a major source for Mansfield Park. I.e., the Myrmidons, on the express order of Achilles, treacherously set upon Hector prior to the expected one-on-one combat between the two great fighting heroes, and murder him while he is still unarmed!

So, JA, by referring to Myrmidons, injects this subtle layer of darkness in Letter 28, JA's "voluntary spies" are, potentially, killers, and not merely gatherers of intelligence.

By the way, there are only two other explicit references to spying in all of JA's writings, fiction and nonfiction, and here they are:

Mansfield Park, Ch. 47:

"Susan too was a grievance [to Mrs. Norris]. She had not spirits to notice [Susan] in more than a few repulsive looks, but she felt her as a spy, and an intruder, and an indigent niece, and everything most odious. "

This one describes the dark war between women, more specifically between the "collaborator" (i.e., Mrs. Norris, who, like the death camp prisoner turned "capo", abuses the rest of the prisoners) and a fresh new victim.

Emma, Ch. 46:

"What has it been but a system of hypocrisy and deceit, ESPIONAGE, and treachery? To come among us with professions of openness and simplicity; and such a league in secret to judge us all!

And the above is Emma describing Jane and Frank's actions right after Emma learns of Jane and Frank's prior secret involvement. Note that the part that bugs Emma most of all is that from such a secret position, it has been possible for Frank especially to be a secret witness to the worst of Emma's own sins, as Frank has egged Emma on to more and more awful snobberies and errors of judgment.


This imagery of a war has its silver lining, as I see it. Yes, it is true that in the battle of the sexes in JA's England, the men were armed with the power of all the blatantly sexist laws, customs, and religious dogmas, as well as much greater physical size and strength, and also (perhaps most imporant) NOT having their bodies be those placed at risk by sexual behavior, pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing. But...women were resourceful, and JA is, by her various references to spies, pointing out that women have weapons that can greatly assist their cause---deception, covert intelligence networks--using their wits and vastly superior emotional intelligence to level the battlefield to some extent.

JA saw herself as a "General" in that war, and her weapon of choice was her fiction! And crucial to her waging that war effectively was good intelligence, the kind gathered not only by her own covert espionage, coming among the rich and powerful at places like Godmersham, where she could spy on the behavior from the vantage point of the demure spinster who yessed men to death, but also by "gossip" networks, where JA really did pay close attention to the "trivial" details she learned from (mostly) female friends and family about every aspect of social life in her world, as to which she herself was not often able to be present in body.

Cheers, ARNIE

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