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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Robert Southey's Letters from England: "....these lords of the sea....being the...slaves of the rest of the world..." AND the enclosure subtext

Ellen Moody wrote the following in Austen L earlier today: "I've bought myself an inexpensive copy of Southey's Letters from England."

Here is an online version:

[Ellen] "Southey imagines himself a Spaniard visiting England and writing letters back to a periodical."

Even though Southey adopted the pose of (anonymous) translator--complete with ersatz translator's notes--it was apparently well known pretty quickly that he was the author, and JA's comment about "the foreigner he assumes" shows _she_ is fully aware that he is the writer.

I found a long and mostly favorable 1808 review of the book here:

And JA would have had a very personal reason to know Southey was the author--indeed, to know about the book as soon as anyone would have--which is that earlier in that same Letter 56 in which JA writes about the Espriella book, she advises CEA that their friendthe 33-year old Catherine Bigg was about to marry the 59 year old Revd. Herbert Hill, who just happens to be Robert Southey’s uncle: “[Mary Lloyd Austen] hears that Miss Bigg is to be married in a fortnight. I wish it may be so.”

It can't be a coincidence that JA lays her hands on the second volume of Southey's book at the very instant when her good friend was about to marry Southey's uncle!--Perhaps she got to borrow a copy from Catherine Bigg?

[Ellen] "By remaining more realistic than most of these...he can really describe customs realistically from the vantage point of Spain (where I believe he went) and both satirize and comment on humanity and its social customs. Southey is very readable. "

I browsed through several sections of the second volume of Espriella, and I think that Southey in general does an excellent job in skewering the inhumanity of several aspects of the English economic system and in particular its brutal exploitation of the poor. However, Southey does lapse now and again into little unconscious misogynies presented as little witticisms, which JA would have noted (and I can imagine how she'd have camped them up as she read aloud, presumably to Mrs. Austen, by candlelight) and JA would _not_ have been amused by them.

But otherwise I think it a creditable performance by Southey, and I believe JA would also have overall approved of Southey's ideas---our first clue is that JA is reading the _second_ volume-if she had found the first volume unacceptable, why in the world would she go on and read the second one? Shades of Mark Twain here with his faux criticism of P&P which _he_ has read repeatedly--and I think Twain might well have taken note of JA's faux critique of Southey's book!

[Ellen] "I like travel books but am drawn to this because Austen (we know) read it. As is so common with her, she comments caustically and adversarially. She was one jealous author :) She also shows an unfortunate narrow-minded and chauvinism: how dare he comment adversely on England! "

I completely disagree with Ellen. As usual, I claim she is missing that JA is being ironic, and she is _not_ writing in her own voice, when she writes "The horribly anti-english. He deserves to be the foreigner he assumes."

That is, I would imagine, _Mrs. Austen's_ view of Southey's blistering critique of the English economic system, not JA, so she is mocking her mother's xenophobic chauvinism!

There is an enormous amount of evidence in JA's letters and novels to show that she would have felt exactly the same as "Espriella" did about exploitation of the poor and the working class, even though JA's focus was, for good reason, on injustices toward the _rural_, rather than the urban, laborer. JA was the antithesis of a narrow minded chauvinist--indeed Northanger Abbey in particular is, from start to finish, a wide ranging critique of English patriarchalism.

I bet JA took particular note (and so did Southey's friend Charles Lamb) of the following line written by "Espriella" in his 49th letter:

"Let us leave to England the BOAST of supplying all Europe with her wares; let us leave to these LORDS OF THE SEA the distinction of which they are so tenacious, that of being the white SLAVES of the rest of the world, and doing for it all its dirty work."

Compare the above, written in 1808, with its topsy-turvy irony of the lords being slaves to the following, published by JA in 1816 in some political tract--I think the title is something like _Emma_?: ;)

"My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings, LORDS of the earth! their luxury and ease. Another view of man, my second brings, Behold him there, the MONARCH OF THE SEAS! But ah! united, what reverse we have! Man's BOASTED power and freedom, all are flown; LORD of the earth and SEA, he bends a SLAVE, And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone."

And here is my followup post to the above:

When I wrote the above earlier today, I had not:

1. Read all of Southey's Espriella letters, I only skimmed Vol. 2, and

2. Did not stop to follow up on the word I had in my mind when I wrote the following:

"There is an enormous amount of evidence in JA's letters and novels to show that she would have felt exactly the same as "Espriella" did about
exploitation of the poor and the working class, even though JA's focus was, for good reason, on injustices toward the_rural_, rather than the urban, laborer. "

The word I was thinking was "enclosure" and it turns out that I had completely forgotten that Helena Kelly, in her excellent excellent article....

..._begins_ that article about the enclosure subtext of JA's novels by quoting that very line from JA's Letter 56, and then taking it straight to the topic of enclosure!:

Robert Southey’s 1807/Letters from England/—the text Austen refers to in this letter to Cassandra—takes the form of correspondence purporting
to be from a Spanish traveler, Don Espriella. The/Letters/ describes a landscape in a state of alteration. Indeed at times it seems that
Espriella can discern little or nothing from his carriage that is not connected to a discussion of the enclosure or lack of enclosure in the
surrounding countryside. The commentary begins in the second letter, where Espriella shares his opinion that “the beauty of the country is
much injured by enclosures” (7). In the next letter, the traveler begins to see the potential aesthetic attractions of an enclosed countryside: “the Vale of Honiton, which we overlooked on the way, is considered as one of the richest landscapes in the kingdom: it is indeed a prodigious extent of highly cultivated country, set thickly with hedges and hedgerow trees” (8). The open field system of unenclosed Dorsetshire appears to him by contrast, “dreary. . . . I had been disposed to think that the English enclosures rather deformed than beautified the landscape, but I now perceived how cheerless and naked the cultivated country appears without them” (9). Espriella’s description of Salisbury Plain in Letter Five makes brief reference to Stonehenge, “the famous druidical monument,” but only after describing how “Salisbury plain stretches to the North, but little of it is visible from the road which we were travelling; much of this wide waste has recently been enclosed and cultivated” (12). Almost everywhere Espriella travels subsequently—Basingstoke (12), the outskirts of London (13, 61), Blenheim (66), the Midlands—enclosure rears its head. The/Letters/ describes a countryside that looks both unreal—“lines of enclosure lay below us like a map” (89)—and rawly new: “an open country of broken ground with hills at a little distance enclosed in square patches and newly as it appeared brought into cultivation. There was not a single tree rising in the hedgerows” (89). Southey’s 1805 poem
/Madoc/ touches on the emotional and philosophical implications of enclosure, but the picture of England that the/Letters/ offers is, as Austen appears to acknowledge, grounded firmly in reality. Enclosure occurred from the Tudor period into the twentieth century, but traditional accounts fail to make clear the sheer scale—and speed—of agricultural change during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Around half of all the Enclosure Acts passed between 1727 and 1845 were enacted during one twenty-year period between 1795 and 1815 (Mingay 20) when more than three million acres of wastes, commons, and heaths were enclosed (John 30). This figure equates to just under five thousand square miles, an area about one tenth the size of England. Simon Winchester calculates that during this time parliament must have been passing enclosure acts at “the rate of one a week” (23)."

In my overlooking Vol. 1 of Espriella, I missed Southey's focus on enclosure --now that i know about it, however, that only solidifies my certainty that JA was only joking about disapproving of Southey's radical social critique---JA must have been thrilled and even electrified at reading Southey's biting, comprehensive, brilliant, outside the box gonzo journalism--JA surely took inspiration from Southey's courageous stand for the little guy.

Diane Reynolds then wrote: "Henry Tilney's comment, in the middle of the speech about how rational and non-Gothic Britain is, noting that every man spies on his neighbors. Harding uses that as evidence of JA's "regulated hatred." It's not flattering."

Diane, you are correct in that interpretation, but that is only the tip of a huge ironic iceberg "floating" beneath the surface of Henry's rant--that rant is like the charade in Emma, wheels within wheels within wheels.... world without end.

Cheers, ARNIE

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