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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jane Austen's Playlet Adaptation of a Famous Novel (other than Sir Charles Grandison)

A few days ago, I wrote the following to Christy Somer in Austen L and also here in this blog:

"...if you look at all of _your_ posts from the past 72 hours, there is information contained in _one_ of them which I (with my suspicious eye, working on the assumption that there are interesting connections and meanings everywhere which have never been noticed by Le Faye et al) immediately identified as worthy of closer examination in one respect. That information immediately (via _one_ Google search) led me to a heretofore unidentified, significant, and meaningful connection from Jane Austen to an allusive source from the world of literature published and extant in her world. And, that connection, upon further examination, turns out to strongly support my claim that Jane Austen had a strong authorial agenda to educate and empower young women to think critically and independently, and not to passively accept male prescriptions for female education."

In that post, I promised a quick explanation of the above, and, after a few days’ delay due to travel, here is my explanation.

This is what Christy wrote that caught my eye:

“Another recording from Fanny [Knight]’s diary for Wednesday, the 26th: “Aunts and Grandmama played at school with us. Aunt Cassandra was Mrs Teachum, the Governess Aunt Jane, Miss Popham the Teacher Aunt Harriet, Sally the Housemaid, Miss Sharpe, the Dancing master the Apothecary and the Serjeant. Grandmama Better Jones the Pie woman, and Mama the Bathing Woman. They dressed in Character and we had a most delightful day…” From DLF Record: :”In July some of the Bridges in-laws joined the house-party, and three years afterwards Jane remembered how ‘animated’ she and Cassandra had been when talking with Harriet Bridges and the Godmersham governess, Anne Sharp…..Miss Sharp left Godmersham a few months later, early in 1806.…” END QUOTE

As you see, Christy was quoting from Fanny Knight’s and Le Faye's accounts of an all-female Godmersham amateur theatrical that took place early in 1806.

What struck me immediately was the farcical name Mrs. TEACHUM, the role played by CEA in the theatrical. It reminded me of THWACKUM, the pious horrible hypocritical clergyman/tutor in Henry Fielding's very famous 1749 novel Tom Jones. It was just the kind of verbal—and character- similarity I thought JA-- to whom I ascribed the role of stage director---would definitely have been aware of. And so I thought, hmm… there's a pretty good chance that Teachum was either a name made up by JA as a parody of Thwackum, or maybe, just maybe, it was an allusion to some other work of literature which in some way was related to Fielding’s Tom Jones.

So I Googled "Teachum" and I saw a remarkable validation of my hunch beyond my wildest expectations. In a nutshell, it turns out that Mrs. Teachum is the main adult character in _another_ novel, which, amazingly, shared _three_ crucial similarities with _Tom Jones_:

Both were published in 1749; both were wildly successful, going through many 18th century editions, and (last but certainly not least)…..both were written by an author with the surname Fielding!!!!

How could this be? Because that other novel was _The Governess, or The Little Female Academy_, and its author was none other than SARAH Fielding, the less famous but still well known (among literary scholars) _sister_ of Henry Fielding!

As far as I can tell, after diligent online search during the past 5 days, no literary scholar prior to myself has ever pointed out that this little "play" staged at Godmersham was an adaptation of Sarah Fielding’s famous didactic novel. And what is particularly curious about that lack is the following passage in JA’s Letter 32 dated 1/22/1801….

“Fanny shall have the Boarding-school as soon as her Papa gives me an opportunity of sending it-& I do not know whether I may not by that time have worked myself up into so generous a fit as to give it to her for ever….”

…and Le Faye’s footnote to that passage:

“This would appear to be one of JA’s own childhood storybooks, now being lent to little Fanny; in which case, it may have been Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or, Little Female Academy (1741, and reprinted up to 1768), or [two other possible books]…”

So there we have Le Faye speculating—based on what might seem to be a tenuous resonance between the two titles, “The Boarding School” and “Little Female Academy”--that JA may have given Sarah Fielding's novel to niece Fanny, age 8 in 1801.

But then Le Faye appears completely unaware of a connection of that passage in Letter 32 to the amateur theatricals that actually occurred at Godmersham in early 1806, a connection which would appear to validate Le Faye’s footnoted speculation, as it would make perfect sense that JA gave that novel to Fanny in 1801, and then, 5 years later, when Fanny has become a young teen, JA and CEA put on a little performance of scenes from that same novel with the participation of the Godmersham women, in effect turning Godmersham into a Little Female Academy for that time period!

There is so much more about the complex relationship between Sarah Fielding’s and Jane Austen’s writing, of which I was previously aware, but which becomes much more interesting in light of this discovery, but that is far beyond the scope of this posting.

Suffice for now to say that I believe I have fulfilled my promise of producing significant evidence of JA’s complex relationship to feminist literature available to be read during her lifetime, which has literally been hiding in plain sight under the nose of Le Faye and all those who swear by her authority. This example is, as I have previously stated, one of a thousand just like it that I have uncovered during the past 7 years, for one simple reason—I actively look for them, and expect to find them!

And my discovery doesn’t just have significance for Austen scholars—I wonder how many Fielding scholars have ever taken note of the coincidence of the character names Teachum & Thwackum (which would make a rather satirical name for a boarding school in JA’s era), and have written about covert coordination between Sarah and brother Henry in their two contemporaneous publications—that would certainly seem likely in the instance of _The Governess_ and _Tom Jones_!

And one final thought—I would not at all be surprised to learn that Le Faye was _already_ aware of the Sarah Fielding subtext underlying Fanny Knight’s 1806 diary entry, but chose not to say anything about it in a footnote—why? Because Sarah Fielding’s novel was _subversive_ in a very proto-feminist way (and there are several excellent modern scholarly articles on that very topic), and Le Faye would rather not raise the ominous spectre of feminism in the minds of readers of JA’s letters.

Or maybe Le Faye really was just clueless about it. Either way, it’s not exactly an advertisement for the usefulness of her footnotes.

Cheers, ARNIE

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