(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

There's EVEN MORE Fielding Subtext in the 1805 Godmersham All-Female Theatricals

Diana Birchall in Janeites and Austen L: "…I am delighting in the Fielding connections. I don't think I've read anything that has charmed me so much as the little word-picture image of Aunt Cassandra playing Miss Teachum to Jane Austen's The Governess, and Miss Sharpe in the thick of it!"

And I am equally delighted, Diana, at all the responses I've received, both in these groups and privately, to my discovery of the Sarah Fielding’s The Governess subtext in the 1805 Godmersham all-female theatricals, as (for those who might have missed it) I posted here:

Among those responses, it was suggested to me that if The Governess was actually adapted/parodized, it must have been a very free adaptation, because several of the characters listed by Fanny Knight in her diary entry do _not_ appear in The Governess. It was also suggested to me that perhaps The Governess was not adapted at all, but that, as was the Godmersham custom on Twelfth Night, characters were assumed like costumes, and all was improvised.

These were both plausible observations, and they made me curious to have a second, closer look at those subordinate characters, and see what else Google might turn up, which might bring further clarity to these interesting and important questions. And, it turned out that in this instance, to my great good fortune, lightning struck a second time, and just as powerfully!

First, here again is that excerpt from Fanny Knight’s diary for June 26, 1805:
“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…”

At first I misidentified Miss Popham as a character name, but then realized that must have been a real life Miss Popham, part of the Godmersham social circle (and probably a close relation of Sir Home Popham, the famous English military man, as to whom JA wrote the following poem in 1807:

Of a Ministry pitiful, angry, mean,
A gallant commander the victim is seen.
For promptitude, vigour, success, does he stand
Condemn'd to receive a severe reprimand!
To his foes I could wish a resemblance in fate:
That they, too, may suffer themselves, soon or late,
The injustice they warrant. But vain is my spite,
They cannot so suffer who never do right.

So, while that was an interesting factoid, it was a dead end in terms of allusive sources for the thematic significance of these Godmersham all-female theatricals. But then I Googled “Dancing Master” & “Apothecary”, and look at what popped up on my monitor!:

An Old Man Taught Wisdom, or The Virgin Unmask’d by Henry Fielding, Esq. (1734)
Dramatis Personae: Good-will, Lucy, his daughter, Blister, an _apothecary_, Coupee, a _dancing-master_, Quaver, a singing-master, Worm-wood, a lawyer, Mr Thomas, a footman

Was it just a coincidence that Googling character names from those theatricals had _again_ led me to a work written by a Fielding, this one by _Henry_? Of course it could not be a coincidence!! I quickly read through the text of Fielding’s wicked little farce, and concocted the following very interesting synopsis:

Goodwill, an arrogant 70-year old, rich widower, wants to marry off his 16 year old daughter Lucy to a rich relative, to keep his wealth ‘in the family’ (shades of Mr. Collins in P&P, and also the Bible stories of Zelophehad’s daughters!). Goodwill is cocksure that Lucy, whom he has deliberately raised in isolation, is under his complete control. However, as the action quickly unfolds, and not surprisingly in a farce, it is immediately apparent that Lucy has her own mind, including some strong but conflicting mercenary and sexual inclinations, far beyond the control of her clueless father.

Lucy winds up marrying Thomas the handsome footman of a neighboring lord, but first deftly deflects several unpleasant suitors, including Blister the _apothecary_ (who tries to physic everyone, even Lucy), and Coupee the _dancing master_ (who finds it scandalous that Lucy has not been taught to dance).

And, apropos the role of “Serjeant” that Fanny also listed, would you be surprised to learn that there are different ranks of footmen, and that the one just beneath valet status is called “_sergeant_ footman”?!

And, for good measure, there is also a character named Mr. Achum, a disabled old man—so now we have a Fielding triumvirate of Thwackum (from Tom Jones), Teachum (from The Governess), & Achum (from The Virgin Unmask’d)!]

And Blister, by the way, sounds disturbingly like the real life Harris Bigg Wither, when Lucy tells him point blank that she finds him too fat and ugly.
And perhaps most relevant to my inquiry vis a vis the Governess, the threat that Goodwill hangs over the head of Lucy (the same name, by the way, as the sharp-eyed girl in The Governess) is that if Lucy disobeys his courtship orders, he will send her to a _boarding school_ where she will be whipt.
So, from the half dozen direct echoes I have just quickly outlined, I feel safe in claiming that the performance that day at Godmersham was in some way a blending of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, with Henry Fielding’s The Virgin Unmask’d, a truly Fieldingesque extravaganza!

And…(apropos Diana’s comments in particular), it also seems clear to me that Miss Sharpe, in playing the apothecary, the dancing master and the serjeant (footman), has played all three of the listed _male_ parts, the exact reverse of an Elizabethan performance of Shakespeare (as portrayed so memorably in Shakespeare in Love) when men played all the parts, including the female parts! Could there be a more feminist message conveyed to young Fanny? And what, if anything, does this casting suggest regarding Anne Sharpe? Is she like Tom Bertram—whose sexual orientation we have discussed in the past--taking the role of the Rhyming Butler?

The mind reels at all these connections and intimations.

What immediately came to my mind in particular, though, was the following passage from Henry Austen’s 1818 Biographical Notice:

“Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in "Sir Charles Grandison," gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.”

To which I can only respond “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Henry Austen, you naughty man, you were successful for a very long time with your charade that JA found Henry Fielding too gross and lacking in morals—quite the contrary, Fielding’s writing was grist for JA’s mill, just as Richardson’s Grandison—and is it just coincidence that we have JA’s playlet of Grandison alongside this (alas) now lost text of a Fielding playlet? No, of course not! Henry knew there was a lot of “Fielding” smoke surrounding his recently deceased sister (don’t forget the 1796 Tom Lefroy letters!), and now that she was no longer alive to complain, he seized the moment to try to bury any sign of JA’s sympatico with Henry Fielding (and perhaps also with Sarah Fielding). And, as I suggested in my previous message, I suspect that if Le Faye did know about JA’s sympathy for “the devil” Fielding, she was not going to bring that to anyone’s attention!

But wait…..there’s even _more_!

I Googled “Virgin Unmask’d”, and I was immediately transported from Henry Fielding’s short, wicked 1734 farce (which, while not famous today, was deemed worthy of inclusion, later in the 18th century, , in the above-linked collection of great farces), to a truly infamous work of literature from 1724 by Bernard de Mandeville, entitled The Virgin Unmask’d: Or, Female Dialogues Betwixt an Elderly Maiden-Lady and her Niece, On several Diverting Discourses On Love, Marriage, Memoirs and Morals, &c. of the times.

Mandeville’s greatest infamy arose from his very popular Fable of the Bees. Here is what Fredson Bowers, in his 1975 edition of Tom Jones, says, in a footnote at ppg. 268-9, re the beginning of Book VI of Tom Jones, when Fielding addresses the “modern doctrine” that there is no such thing as love in human beings, and “that there were no such things as Virtue or Goodness really existing in Human Nature, and who deduced our best Actions from Pride”:
“Throughout his career as novelist and journalist, Fielding warmly denounced the views of those “Political Philosophers’ who followed Hobbes….In Fielding’s own century, the most notorious exponent of this cynical doctrine was Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), who in several essays in The Fable of the Bees (1714-34) dedicated himself to refuting Shaftesbury and to elaborating the proposition that ‘the nearer we search into human nature, the more we shall be convinced, that the moral virtues are the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride.” (“An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue” (1714)…Accordingly, Fielding’s sharpest criticism of this school was generally directed at ‘that charming Fellow Mandevil’, as Miss Matthews calls him in Amelia (1751, III.v)….”

So….as with my previous post, this additional discovery opens a half dozen doors of fruitful further inquiry, in terms of the significance of there now being not one, but _two_ Fielding subtexts embedded at the heart of the 1805 Godmersham all-female theatricals. It seems clear to me that these were not just random assignments of amusing literary characters, but that there was, as we see with the Sir Charles Grandison playlet that JA wrote (with some unknown input from Anna Austen), some sort of script.

We also see that the overarching theme is that of female education, the pros and cons of good and bad boarding schools, but all filtered through at least two literary works, Henry Fielding’s The Virgin Unmask’d,

And we are left with the very interesting question of why JA (with CEA’s obvious consent) would choose to stage a performance of works of literature that would not only subvert male authority by promoting a female-centered education for girls, but would go one step further and would seem to celebrate darkly cynical views of human nature and morality, as were at the heart of the satire of both Mandeville and Fielding?

What I wonder is, what was Elizabeth Knight’s take on all of this? Was she Fanny Price, dragged into playing a minor role (the Bathing Woman), while the main players had a satirically good time, and all of this with an audience that included Elizabeth’s own 12 year old daughter, Fanny, who seemed to enjoy the proceedings.

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: