In the end of October, 1812, Jane Austen wrote a letter [Letter 76(C) in Le Faye] to her literary niece Anna Austen, which is unique among JA’s surviving letters in that its entire (very short) content pertains to one novel by another writer:
“Miss Jane Austen begs her best thanks may be conveyed to Mrs Hunter of Norwich for the Threadpaper which she has been so kind as to send her by Mr Austen, and which will always be very valuable on account of the spirited sketches (made it is supposed by Nicholson or Glover) of the most interesting spots, Tarefield Hall, the Mill & above all the Tomb of Howard’s wife, of the faithful representation of which Miss Jane Austen is undoubtedly a good judge having spent so many summers at Tarefield Abbey the delighted guest of the worthy Mrs Wilson. [It is impossible for any likeness to be more complete.] Miss Jane Austen's tears have flowed over each sweet sketch in such a way as would do Mrs Hunter's heart good to see; if Mrs Hunter could understand all Miss Austen's interest in the subject she would certainly have the kindness to publish at least 4 vols more about the Flint family, & especially would give many fresh particulars on that part of it which Mrs H. has hitherto handled too briefly; viz the history of Mary Flint's marriage with Howard. Miss Jane Austen cannot close this small epitome of the miniature abridgement of her thanks & admiration without expressing her sincere hopes that Mrs Hunter is provided at Norwich with a more safe conveyance to London than Alton can now boast, as the Car of Falkenstein which was the pride of that Town was overturned within the last 10 days. “
The conventional wisdom about this letter, which has a complicated provenance described in Le Faye, is that it was a big joke shared by JA and Anna, in which they were both mocking Rachel Hunter’s “sentimental”, overly long, and silly 1806 novel Lady Maclairn, The Victim of Villainy. The tone for that critical reaction was set by Fanny Caroline Lefroy, Anna’s daughter, who wrote that the letter 'refers to a voluminous and most tiresome & prosy novel the Aunt & Niece had been reading & laughing over, together. It was in eight volumes and the tears of the heroine were for ever flowing' .
Le Faye leads the modern charge, in her 1985 N&Q Note: “The letter was supposed to be an expression of Jane's admiration addressed to Mrs Hunter of Norwich, the authoress of a sentimental novel which Jane and Anna had been reading together…. A reading of the work shows that the Austen family’s comments are fully justified. The heroine Rachel Cowley is sent to Tarefield Hall by her wicked guardian Mr. Flamall, and meets there the eponymous Lady Maclairn together with other members of the Maclairn/Flamall/ Flint/Howard family group, all suffering from secret griefs and guilty consciences. At Tarefield Abbey, Rachel finds the ‘worthy Mrs. Wilson’, and at the Mill she helps a virtuous yeoman family. Every new character gives a verbatim report of his or her life-story to date, a total of nearly twenty flashbacks in all. Nor is it only the heroine who is ‘always in floods of tears’—all the characters, male and female alike, are frequently found to be either weeping already or else burst into tears during conversation. Anna Lefroy’s memory of the work as being both long and silly was certainly quite correct, but if she had re-read it in the primmer atmosphere of the mid 19th century, she might by then have been shocked to realize that the moral Mrs. Hunter treated such matters as seduction, bastardy, perjury, elopements, secret marriages, bigamy, lunacy, and suicide as everyday occurrences.”
Whoa! Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, read on to find out that just the _opposite_ is the case, and, what’s more, to find out that JA’s reaction to Hunter’s novel---not only in Letter 76(C) but also in _another_ letter she wrote to niece Anna Austen--- is actually a huge smoking gun pointing straight into the shadow story of Mansfield Park!
The key clue that enabled me to solve this heretofore undetected Austenesque mystery was the following paragraph in Letter 108 dated 9/28/1814, written by JA to Anna:
“Your Aunt Frank's nursemaid has just given her warning, but whether she is worth your having, or would take your place, I know not. She was Mrs. Webb's maid before she went to the Great House. She leaves your aunt because she cannot agree with the other servants. She is in love with the man, and her head seems rather turned. He returns her affection, but she fancies every one else is wanting him and envying her. Her previous service must have fitted her for such a place as yours, and she is very active and cleanly. She is own sister to the favourite Beatrice. “
As is often the case in my research, my discovery was serendipitous. I was looking into another issue entirely when I read this Letter 108 passage carefully for the very first time, and was struck by the strangeness _and_ suggestiveness of that last quoted sentence. At first, the syntax seemed awry, but then I learnt from Googling that “own sister” was an archaic version of “full sister” as opposed to, say, “half sister”.
But that did not satisfy my curiosity. My recent delvings into the allusions to Dante that I perceive in JA’s writings led me to wonder if JA was being poetic here, and was referring to Dante’s Beatrice. But a drama queen nursemaid did not seem to resonate to Dante’s angelic heroine—so perhaps Shakespeare’s Beatrice, from Much Ado, was the literary heroine JA was alluding to?
Or could “the favourite Beatrice” have been a real person? Le Faye’s Biographical Index entry for “Beatrice” points in that direction: “A maidservant to someone in the Chawton district?”.
But then, I already knew that Le Faye has an absolutely tin ear for JA’s wit, irony, and wordplay, as is evidenced by the funniest example of that, which I have written about before, when she wrote the following clueless Index entry for “Mr. Floor”, whom JA wrote was “_low_ in our estimation”:
“?Tradesman in Southampton—perhaps a dyer?”
Le Faye is _not_ someone you want as a guide into the “underworld” of JA’s punny wordplay! So I pressed on, hopeful that Google would lead me to the solution of this mystery—and guess where it led me? To the following passage in, of all books…..Rachel Hunter’s Lady Maclairn, The Victim of Villainy!:
Letter I. From Miss [Rachel] Cowley to Miss [Lucy] Hardcastle. Tarefield, June 24.
The short note which your father has, before this, delivered to you, and which I trust you have destroyed, my dear Lucy, as a proof unworthy to be preserved of your poor Rachel's little advancement in self-knowledge, shall, if it be possible, be rendered useful to me as a warning against presumption. But although I have been taught by experience not to think too highly of my wisdom, yet I mean not, Lucy, to give up the reins to folly. You will have no more despairing rhapsodies from me. The question has been decided, and reason tells me, that in a difficulty which admits of no other alternative but that of either laughing or crying, it is but to take that which will least disagree with my constitution. You have, my dear Lucy, called me many times a TWIN SISTER OF MY FAVOURITE BEATRICE. Whether you meant to compliment me as having a portion of her wit, or meant to repress in me the superabundance of her spirit and flippancy, remains with you to settle. I am contented with the resemblance, and I will, if I can, preserve a light heart, and her disdain of fools and knaves. I will, however, effect my purpose of breaking through the web of mischief which now entangles me, without wishing "I were a man," or "eating Mr. Flamall's heart in the market-place;" a more severe punishment will only satiate my vengeance, he shall live to feel the stings of a wounded conscience, and to see me happy….”
Talk about a smoking gun! So it _was_ Shakespeare’s Beatrice after all [with her wit, spirit, flippancy, and her famous averral to Benedick about Claudio in IV.1: “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”] to whom Hunter had alluded, and then JA alluded to _both_ Hunter _and_ Shakespeare in Letter 108.
And of course it makes perfect sense that JA would allude to Lady Maclairn in two letters _both_ written to the same person, i.e., the 21 year old Anna Austen, the literary niece who obviously had also read Lady Maclairn (surely at JA’s suggestion) and would understand the allusion, in stark contrast to Le Faye’s blindness.
The Mystery of the Deleted Sentences in both Letter 76(C) and in Letter 108
Even at this early point in the arc of this thread of inquiry, I realized that this was clearly another example, in a very long list, of Le Faye trying to dismiss and minimize something in JA’s letters which actually warranted much closer attention. So I decided to push on, believing (correctly as it turned out) that the best was yet to come.
And as I examined this little mystery, the mystery expanded before my eyes. The first thing I found was that even though JEAL quoted brief excerpts from Letter 108 in his 1870 Memoir, and then Lord Brabourne purported to quote all of Letter 108 in his 1884 edition of JA’s letters, _neither_ of them included that very same suggestive sentence I’ve been discussing, “She is own sister to the favourite Beatrice”! How very odd, don’t you think?
Now, in JEAL’s case, where his quotation from Letter 108 was very short, this omission could easily have been an insignificant and inevitable byproduct of drastic editing. However, in Lord Brabourne’s case, that sentence was the _only_ omission from the version printed in Chapman and Le Faye’s editions of the Letters! It is hard to escape the conclusion that _someone_ (and if we can believe Le Faye’s provenance section, it was probably Fanny Caroline Lefroy) _deliberately_ deleted that one sentence for some reason!
It was also possible that Lord Brabourne might have been the mysterious Deleter, because, as I have posted on several occasions, he was rather prone to Bowdlerization of his great aunt’s letters (the most egregious instance being the deletion of JA’s acid joke about Mrs. Knight’s “accidental” pregnancy!).
But then I noted that in the _other_ letter to Anna, Letter 76(C), there was _also_ a single sentence (out of a long paragraph) deleted in Hill’s 1904 bio, but included in Chapman and Le Faye. Here is the context in Letter 76(C)nwith the deleted sentence in brackets:
“Miss Jane Austen begs her best thanks may be conveyed to Mrs Hunter of Norwich for the Threadpaper which she has been so kind as to send her by Mr Austen, and which will always be very valuable on account of the spirited sketches (made it is supposed by Nicholson or Glover) of the most interesting spots, Tarefield Hall, the Mill & above all the Tomb of Howard’s wife, of the faithful representation of which Miss Jane Austen is undoubtedly a good judge having spent so many summers at Tarefield Abbey the delighted guest of the worthy Mrs Wilson. [It is impossible for any likeness to be more complete.]”
What on earth could this _deletion_ signify?
Le Faye writes the following curious note: “This sentence does not appear in Anna Lefroy’s two copies, but only in those made by Fanny Caroline Lefroy. It is impossible to determine whether this was an omission by Anna or an invention by FCL.”
And by the way, don’t you wonder why Le Faye did not think it worth mentioning the deleted sentence in Letter 108, even though she mentioned it, re Letter 76(C), both of them occurring among the small handful of surviving JA letters written to Anna Austen? Could it be that Le Faye recognized the pattern, and did not want anyone else to recognize it?
But, by my usual obsession-driven serendipity, I _did_ recognize the pattern! And given my discovery of the deleted sentence in Letter 108, my vote was clearly for a deletion in Letter 76(C) as well, an attempt by someone to hide some aspect of JA’s meaning from the public—but what and why? If you read that passage carefully, and reflect on it, I think the answer is obvious.
The Parallel Between Hunter’s Fictional World & JA’s Real World
Several commentators have noted that JA in Letter 76(C) has adopted the conceit that she is actually writing to Rachel Hunter (who actually died in 1813, not long after the writing of Letter 76(C) and not long before the writing of Letter 108), a conceit that includes the notion that JA spent a lot of time at “Tarefield Abbey the delighted guest of the worthy Mrs. Wilson. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR ANY LIKENESS TO BE MORE COMPLETE.”
One would have to be a very dull elf----or a very deceitful elf--- to not affirm the meaning that JA is hinting at so broadly----she is hinting that there are two _real life_ estates located very close to each other, where JA spent “so many summers”, which must be the ones which completely resemble Tarefield Hall! And of course, anyone familiar with JA’s biography knows _exactly_ which real estates I am talking about---Godmersham and Goodnestone!
But if you delete that last sentence, which functions as a giant arrow pointing back at the _previous_ sentence, then the previous sentence becomes murkier, much more likely to just be glided by as a bunch of confusing details—especially to a reader who has not read Hunter’s novel---and what reader of JA’s letters is going to even attempt to read Hunter’s novel after reading Le Faye’s demolition of it?
It would almost be laughable if it weren’t sad--when Le Faye writes “…the moral Mrs. Hunter treated such matters as seduction, bastardy, perjury, elopements, secret marriages, bigamy, lunacy, and suicide as everyday occurrences, ” I was distinctly reminded of Dorothy in Oz: “Lions and tigers….and bears???!!!!” Shocking indeed! And certainly not something for a proper Austen scholar to examine, for fear of….who knows what?!
So it seems like more than one person was determined to do everything possible (short of burning Letters 76(C) and 108 to prevent, or at least strongly discourage, anyone from asking the question: What _is_ it in Lady Mclairn that so powerfully reminded JA of the real life world at Godmersham and Goodnestone? Read on to find out. We are almost “home”. ;)
Tarefield Hall/Abbey = Godmersham/Goodnestone = Mansfield Park/Northanger & Donwell Abbey
Before myself reading Hunter’s very long novel, I checked to see if someone else might have already done so, and saved me the trouble. And fortunately, there was someone very smart who had done so, and written all about it—my friend and fellow Austen scholar, Isobel Grundy, who took the opposite tack with Hunter’s novel than did Le Faye 9 years earlier—in 1994, Isobel wrote a long, thorough, insightful, probing article analyzing Hunter’s novel as a serious work of literature, in particular as it pertained to the hot button (in 1806) subject of West Indies plantation slavery. Here is the citation, I urge those of you who are so inclined to read it:
Women's Writing, Volume 1, No. 1, 1994, ppg. 25-34, “ Rachel Hunter and the Victims of Slavery”
I am not going to reinvent the wheel by even attempting to summarize and the rich and complex argumentation and analysis that Isobel presented in the above article. The bottom line from an Austenian point of view is that Rachel Hunter’s novel may well have been verbose, but it was also a nuanced, wide ranging exploration of the world of English plantation slavery, both in England and in the West Indies, which also drew disturbing parallels between the lives of African slaves on plantations, and the lives of Englishwomen in England. And if that does not bring to mind _Mansfield Park_ most of all, but also the dark shadows of Northanger Abbey, Emma and the other Austen novels as well, then you haven’t been paying attention to the strong current of Austen scholarship in the last few decades.
As I have, of necessity, gone on a very long time already to bring you to this point, I will henceforth limit myself to a handful of quotations from Isobel’s article that are directly relevant to my post today.
The first is Isobel’s description of Hunter’s heroine, Rachel Cowley:
“Self-contradiction characterises Rachel's views on gender as well as on slavery. She likens herself to Shakespeare's Beatrice for "spirit and flippancy" (she is remarkably well-read, from Philip Sidney to Ossian…Rachel astonishes a lawyer and a doctor by her strength of character: "I shall in future blush, when I hear strength of mind called a masculine endowment' (1, p. 80; 4, p. 235). She plays with the idea of role-reversal, and plans "to draw my sword should it be necessary". She several times assents to unpleasing female stereotypes in the course of distancing herself from them: "I am not a spiritless, whining, love-sick girl"; "Let us ... aim at being something better than mere teeming animals" (1, p. 234; 4, p. 273). Yet she is resolved not to emulate Beatrice in "wishing 'I were a man,' or 'eating Mr Flamall's heart in the market-place'" (1, pp. 154, 115-116). Despite her distrust of marriage shackles, she is domesticated by the close: "the vivacity and brilliancy of her mind, appear to yield to the satisfactions of her heart. She is always amiable; but [at home] she is more placid, more affectionate ..." (4, p. 309).”
Had Isobel been aware of the deleted sentence in Letter 108 at the time she was writing her article, she would obviously have connected the dots between it and Hunter’s novel—but she was not--so that happy task fell to me.
My second quotation arises from Isobel’s awareness of the allusion by JA to Hunter’s novel in Letter 76(C):
“Jane Austen, paying Lady Maclairn the dubious compliment of ironical encomium and fantasy, pretends to believe in the existence of the characters as real-life persons….Austen directs her mockery at the sentiment surrounding Mary (Flint) Howard, and ignores the Jamaican component…It is noteworthy that critics are divided as to whether her treatment of Sir Thomas Bertram's West Indian property reflects pro- or anti-slavery views.”
Had Isobel been aware of Letter 108’s veiled allusion to Hunter’s novel, and also had Isobel had the benefit of reading the past 17 years of
scholarship about the slavery subtext of MP, and had realized that the
consensus has clearly turned toward seeing MP as the unified, complex
_anti_ slavery (and feminist) work that it so clearly is, perhaps she
might have looked past the joking tone of Letter 76(C) and
perhaps might been induced to read Letter 76(C) more deeply than she
did. Isobel's article is a gold mine for an Austen scholar with my feminist, anti-slavery perspective, demonstrating in a dozen ways why JA would have been so interested in Hunter’s novel, to the point of initiating her own beloved niece Anna into these mysteries as well, so that Anna, as a budding novelist, would learn to weave allusive shadows into _her_ fiction as well! This was much more important advice than the familiar nostrums about writing about people you knew, and only about a few families in a country village, and Anna’s fiction demonstrates that she absorbed this lesson very well indeed.
My third quotation relates to the oft-drawn parallel which my work extends, between the role of slave on a plantation, and of a wife in an English marriage, in JA’s era:
“It is tempting to read a parallel between Rachel's two closing acceptances - of marriage and of slavery - but both, and the latter particularly, remain opaque. In a later novel Hunter allows herself some explicit discussion of the marriage ending. "It has been", says the narrator of Family Annals/'for a considerable length of time, my secret hope, and avowed opinion", that her heroine, still beautiful at twenty-six, and having lost her first and only lover, would enjoy "the honours and rewards of a well-spent life, under the title of The Maiden Aunt".
I think the applicability of that discussion to JA’s fiction and also to JA’s own life, is unmistakable.
And finally, I quote the following because I believe JA found Hunter’s novel interesting in a variety of important ways, but most of all, perhaps in JA’s _emulation_ of Hunter in depicting her _own_ family and friend circle in her novels, exactly as Hunter, apparently, did—and JA’s conceit about writing directly to Rachel Hunter is exactly the clever way that JA showed this:
“We have already heard that Mr Cowley's dead wife was nee Marian Dawson, and that the novel's protagonist is Rachel Marian Cowley. It must be the case, though it is not made explicit, that Mrs Cowley gave her Christian name both to her daughter and a slave. (The novelist's bestowal of her own first name on the protagonist of this work, with its inevitable suggestion of possible autobiographical content, is another issue.)”
There’s much more, but that is the essential detail that lands the plane, and demonstrates that the attempt to conceal JA’s true attitude toward Hunter’s Lady of Maclairn, The Victim of Villainy, was motivated by a desire to conceal the slavery and feminist subtext of JA’s novels, and to substitute for same the notion of JA being amused by a silly, prosy novel by another female writer.
But now finally, that wrong has been righted, after nearly 200 years.
- Deirdre Le Faye & Me: "I am a scholar, she is a scholar: so far we are equal"
- The Hunger Games’s Veiled Allusion to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
- Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation
- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
- 20 shades of hero/villain Mr. Darcy