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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

“The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another”: ONE Interesting Answer Solves TWO Austen Puzzles

In my recent post about last weekend’s JASNA AGM, I thanked my friend Joan Strasbaugh for mentioning me in her breakout session about real-life allusive sources behind Jane Austen’s satire of hypocritical greed in Chapter 2 of S&S. Today, I am thrilled to be thanking Joan again, this time not only for highlighting this great topic, but also for asking a really great question, which eventually propelled me toward an even more complete understanding of _all_ the real-life allusive sources for Chapter 2 of S&S---an understanding which _also_ brings with it an unexpected bonus-a simple explanation for the quartet of characters named John in S&S, which has been under discussion recently here. Here’s how it all hangs together, and I will return to those “Johns” at the end.

In her AGM talk, Joan provided, inter alia, her own fresh take on prior speculations (by both Austen family and non-Austen family biographers) about possible real life sources for John Dashwood, including the following two:

In 1800-1801, James Austen buying the Austen Steventon assets from his parents and sisters moving to Bath, for what we in the US refer to as pennies on a dollar (i.e., dirt cheap), and….

in 1704, John Austen V inheriting the large Austen family fortune (including the family estate known as Broadford, all garnered from the lucrative family wool business in Kent), from _his_ grandfather, John III, resulting in JA’s great grandmother (nee ElizabethWeller) using heroic efforts over 2 decades to single handedly and successfully raise her _other_ 6 children---including JA’s paternal grandfather---who were cruelly disinherited by their grandfather (and her husband’s father) John Austen III.

Joan and I corresponded briefly about all of the above two days ago, ending with her following challenging comment/question:

“If whether [JA] read her great grandmother [Weller]’s tract can’t be pinned down, there is plenty of evidence that Jane Austen cared very much about wills and inheritances, her family often seemed to be at the cusp of receiving money only to be sometimes bitterly disappointed. Here’s an example. In a February 1807 letter written in Southampton to Cassandra begins with “We heard last night of Mr. Austen’s Will. It is believed at Tunbridge – [so it’s this line of John Austens we were talking about] -- that he has left everything after the death of his widow to Mr. [John Austen of Broadford, Jane’s father’s nephew] 3rd son John; & as the said John was the only one of the Family who attended the Funeral, it seems likely to be true.—Such ill-gotten wealth can never prosper!” I wonder what she was referring to!”

I did not have an answer at the time, other than that I knew in my gut that JA knew, by some means or another, the whole sad tale told by her great grandmother, and that JA did write Ch. 2, _in part_ at least, as a memorial preserving that crucial bit of Austen family history.

But then, serendipity! As part of our weekly group read of JA’s letters, having said my piece about Letter 50 on Friday, I turned to Letter 51 dated Feb. 20-22, 1807, to see what I could see. And what _did_ I see right after “My dear Cassandra” but that very same passage that Joan had just quoted to me, with JA’s angry outburst about “Mr. Austen’s Will”!

That’s when I realized what had been staring me right in the eye in Le Faye’s complex biographical index entries for JA’s paternal lineage, the Austens of Kent, i.e., _John_ III, _John_ IV, _John _V_, John _VI_--could the answer to Joan’s question really be _that_ simple and obvious? YES!

I quickly traced the _direct_ connection to JA’s outburst from “the inheritance crime” (Honan’s metaphor, which I like) which, in 1704, bypassed Elizabeth Weller and her younger children! The initial beneficiary of that “crime” was John Austen V, Elizabeth Weller’s eldest son. He surely is (as Honan suggested in 1987, Tomalin elaborated in 1993, and Strasbaugh just resurrected) the (chronologically) first real life model for John Dashwood---a young man, a first born son, with a heart of stone toward his mother and multiple siblings.

But the backstory of S&S does not end there, and it also does not end with the duo of James Austen and Edward Austen as a second source for John Dashwood. No, the third link in the chain is John Austen VII, who inherited from his rich old cousin, John Austen VI, the son of John Austen V. Follow the bouncing ball with me, it can be a bit confusing to follow, what with all the “Johns”!

In 1728, John Austen V had died young, like his father, but he lived long enough to sire a son of his own (John Austen VI). Now John Austen VI was _doubly_ lucky, because he not only inherited great wealth like his great-grandfather and father, he also got to enjoy that wealth for a _very_ long time (he was 12 when he inherited, and he lived to the age of 91!). And, when he died without a living descendant to leave his wealth to, he chose to leave substantially all he had to one person---his young cousin, John Austen VII.

So in John Austen VII, you have the _third_ real life model for John Dashwood, and you also have a perfect explanation for JA’s outburst in Letter 51---John Austen VII’s inheritance of vast wealth in 1807 from his rich old cousin was straight out of Proverbs 10:2, i.e., it was “ill-gotten” not only because, as JA suggested, he had been sucking up to his rich old cousin (for at least a decade, judging from the fact that John Austen VI’s Will was signed in 1799, over eight years before his death in 1807), but also because the wealth of that rich old cousin, John Austen VI, was _itself_ ill-gotten, because he had inherited his wealth from his father, and his father inherited from his grandfather, in the 1704 “inheritance crime”!
In short, it’s all obvious once you make the connection between the inheritance crime of 1704 and the inheritance crime of 1807.

And that obviousness is why I find it remarkable that this connection _between_ the events of 1704 and 1807 has _never_ ever, as far as I can tell online, been discerned by _any_ of JA’s biographers. In fact, the one scholarly reaction I found regarding JA’s comments about “ill-gotten wealth” in Letter 51 was completely wrong headed. In _Obstinate Heart_ , Valerie Grosvenor Myer (1997) renders a very harsh judgment on JA at ppg. 134-5: “Another malicious comment was called forth when a distant cousin, John Austen, inherited a fortune stemming from old Francis Austen. ‘Such ill-gotten wealth can never prosper!” What annoyed her was that it was not ill-gotten. It had bypassed her and it did prosper.”

Ouch! Myer not only harshly judged JA, it turns out Myer was completely _wrong_ in that harsh judgment! And the one discussion I found in the archives of Austen L and Janeites on the topic of JA’s outburst in Letter 51 was equally misguided.

So… I claim that the original inheritance crime has been uncannily and horribly repeated almost exactly one century later, in 1807! In 1704, an estate that should have been divided among 7 children was instead given to one son. Then, in 1807, once again fate conspired such that a single man, the sole beneficiary of that earlier outrage, with no descendants had the choice as to whether to rectify the wrong perpetrated in 1704, and this time spread that wealth among the descendants of those originally frozen out children. However, once more, a choice was made to give everything to only one of those descendants. So, no wonder JA wrote Ch. 2 of S&S. That was the _third_ “inheritance crime” in the Austen family.

And this adds poignant new meaning to JA’s famous comment in Letter _37 dated 5/22/01, after JA comments on the low valuation given to the books in the Steventon rectory library being sold: “The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.” As JA watched James Austen steal his parents and sisters blind, she recalled hearing or reading about the same thing happening in 1704. And little did she know that only 6 years later, in 1807, Austen family history would repeat itself _again_!

So what does this mean in terms of our understanding of Ch. 2 of S&S? I suggest first that the messy doubling of inheritance favoritism that we see in Chapter 1 is a faithful mirroring of the _multi_ generational nature of the real life Austen family inheritance favoritism.

History repeats itself, JA is telling us in code, and selfish young men who inherit disproportionate amounts of family wealth at the expense of other family members, usually women, who get shut out, and who then somehow always seem to find a way to rationalize holding on to everything they’ve unfairly inherited.

And there is one last, additional irony (one that JA would have savored) which was also brought to light by Joan Strasbaugh, which is that the provenance of Elizabeth Weller Austen’s “memorandum” shows that it passed through the hands of John Austen VII, the very same inheritor who drew JA’s 1807 curse about ill-gotten wealth! When John VII read that memorandum, was the irony of history repeating itself for _his_ benefit lost on him (who was, by the way, born in 1777, two years after JA)? Did he feel entitled to the wealth that he had inherited, and was he aware of the startling parallel between his inheritance in 1807 and the one described so heartwrenchingly in his great grandmother’s testament? If he did recognize it, was he ever tempted to try to conceal the dark secrets behind his own inheritance, by burning the part about the 1704 inheritance crime? My guess is that it was already too late to hide those dark secrets, as the truth was probably already known and preserved in the _oral_ lore of the disinherited branches of the Austen family, including JA’s own family.

And, last question, did John VII realize that among those other descendants was one who, fortunately for us all, held the pen and therefore recorded in veiled form the history of his ill gotten wealth?

What is for sure is that now, finally, after 200 years, this whole Austen family moral morass has finally become publicly understood for the first time!


And last but not least, as I am sure is now obvious from all of the above, my above connecting of the dots also provides one simple explanation for the curious factoid noted by Anielka the other day—those 4 Johns in S&S—I suggest that these can be understood, in addition to any other subtextual meanings, as a very dark joke by JA, pointing to all five of those selfish, hypocritical real life John Austens (III, IV, V, VI & VII) who participated in that conspiracy against Jane Austen’ s side of the family for over a century.

And the fact that John was the most popular male name in JA’s era only adds to the satire—JA is saying that these men are, in a way, interchangeable ciphers—put a man in a situation where his greed is activated, and he will become greedy, and what’s more, he will rationalize it away, the way John Dashwood does. And finally, there is an even darker meaning lurking there—the idea of a “John” as a generic name for a male patron of a brothel. To my eyes, JA is saying that the world is a kind of brothel, set up to service and cater to the “needs” of “Johns”. Not a pretty picture, then, in S&S, but, from JA’s own life experience, an all too accurate one!

Cheers, ARNIE

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