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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mary Russell Mitford's Friend, Jane Austen's Single Blessedness, Hermia, and Harris Bigg-Wither

Apropos my recent post about Mary Russell Mitford and her famous comments about Jane Austen.....

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/11/russellmitfordausten-husband-hunting.html

...I only realized today that there is a sly literary allusion hidden in plain sight in Mitford's comments.

Here is the relevant portion of what Mitford wrote:"...a friend of mine, who visits [JA] now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of 'single blessedness' that every existed..."

What I came across by accident today was the literary _source_ of that bon mot in the following passage---we find it early in Midsummer Night's Dream:

HERMIA:
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

THESEUS:
Either to die the death or to abjure
Forever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires.
Know of your youth. Examine well your blood—
Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.
Thrice-bless├Ęd they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage.
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in _single_ _blessedness._


So Mitford, if she was not making up an imaginary friend to provide cover for her _own_ thoughts about JA--and I don't believe she was---was reporting her unnamed friend's image of JA as not merely a spinster, but as JA "chanting hymns to the cold, fruitless moon"--a very striking image of JA writing her novels--and also with more than a trace of irony, given that Mitford herself never married, but instead "chanted" her own "hymns" until her own less-premature death in her fifties!

So I immediately began to speculate about the identity of that unnamed friend who was visiting JA in 1815 and who was a learned wit capable of making a subtle Shakespearean allusion--it clearly was not the "Mrs. Russell" who JA wrote about in her letters--that Mrs. Russell was a kinswoman of MRM, not a friend, and anyway she had, as I mentioned the other day, died in 1803. But perhaps it was a friend of Mrs. Russell?

But it could not be Madam Lefroy, who had died in 1804. And it probably wasn't Lucy Lefroy, who had married Henry Rice in 1801 and had moved to Kent.

But they were not the only friends of Mrs. Russell whom we hear about in JA's letters. There is also one other very intriguing candidate----Catherine Bigg! Why her, you ask?

Well, we know from JA's Letter 18 that in early 1799, Catherine Bigg (still single at that time) dined with that same Mrs. Russell whom JA wrote about. Might that be an indicator of a longstanding connection between Catherine Bigg and the Russell family in general? I think so!

And what makes that possibility intriguing, is that it would also fit perfectly with the _context_ of the above-quoted allusion to Hermia's precarious position in the above passage. Hermia is not merely being invited to voluntarily contemplate life as a nun--no, she is in a much more dire situation---she is being subjected to cruel, brutal pressure by her horrible father to marry a wealthy man she does not love, and to give up the person (whether male or female) she really loves, or else live the rest of her life as a nun.

And does that scenario sound at all familiar?

It should! That interpretation fits perfectly with my sense (and also that of the screenwriter of Miss Austen Regrets) that JA was intensely pressured by her family to marry Harris Bigg Wither in 1802--and perhaps also was being pressured to give up someone else whom she did love---but in the end of the day, JA refused to buckle to that pressure, and married no one.

And so of all people to think of the resonance between Hermia and JA, who more likely than Catherine Bigg, the sister of Harris Bigg and close friend of JA and CEEA. Catherine Bigg, who herself had, in 1808, perhaps buckled under pressure from her own family, in marrying Revd. Herbert Hill, a man _26_ years her senior--and also, of course, uncle to the poet (and Shakespeare devotee, no doubt) Robert Southey!

And think about some more context. In 1815, when Mary Russell Mitford quotes her friend, Mansfield Park has recently been published, and in MP we of course have Fanny Price's refusal to marry Henry Crawford as strong evidence that JA _still_ felt very good about her own resistance to pressure 12 years after the fact! Although JA did not collect an opinion about MP from Catherine Bigg Hill, we know that JA visited Catherine and her much older husband in 1811, and possibly again in 1814. Hmm......sounds even more likely.

I am guessing that if it was indeed Catherine Bigg who opined to Mary Russell Mitford about JA, it tells me that Catherine did _not_ (as has been suggested by several Austen biographers) hold any grudge against JA for not marrying Harris Bigg-Wither, but instead felt empathy and kinship with JA in their shared female resistance to patriarchal oppression.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

P.S. On 11/23/2011, Christy Somer wrote: "Arnie, The Catherine Bigg
idea is interesting, though there is another reasonable context
-Edward’s lawsuit. And this seems supported by what Miss Mitford writes after she has written her “single blessedness” recollections.

“….After all, I do not know that I can quite vouch for this account, though the friend from whom I received it is truth itself; but her family connections must render her disagreeable to Miss Austen, since she is the sister-in-law of a gentleman who is at law with Miss A.'s brother forthe greater part of his fortune. You must have remarked how much her stories hinge upon entailed estates; doubtless she has learnt to dislike entails. Her brother was adopted by a Mr. Knight, who left him his name and two much better legacies in an estate of five thousand a year in Kent, and another of nearly double the value in Hampshire; but it seems he forgotsome ceremony – passing a fine, I think they call it – with regard to the Hampshire property, which Mr. Baverstock has claimed in right of his mother, together with the mesne rents, and is likely to be successful." (April 3, 1815 vol. 1, of The Life of Mary Russell Mitford ed. by Rev.A.G. L'Estrange, 1870 pp. 305-7)

Christy,

Thank you for the correction, my laziness in not checking behind the
famous quote resulted in my having no idea about the above paragraph
till you brought it forward. It does seem to settle the question pretty definitively, as to the source of the "single blessedness" part of Mitford's letter--it is indeed Miss Hinton who was the unnamed friend of MRM (RAAL quoted the above paragraph in The Life& Letters, and Le Faye, in her Family Record, quotes from a letter from Mrs. Austen to Anna in
which Mrs. Austen mentions a visit by Miss Hinton and then adds: "...we visit as heretofore, and are apparently as good Neighbours, as we were before the tremendous Law-Suit threatened us.")

So....if Miss Hinton really did tell that "poker" story to MRM, it means that Miss Hinton (who is mentioned only once in JA's letters, in passing, in one brief sentence) had some literary knowledge and also some very shrewd awareness of how JA was indeed watching her neighbours
and "taking notes". And perhaps Miss (Jane) Hinton (who was 44 in 1815) had been part of the same social circle as Madam Lefroy and Mrs. Russell, with JA perhaps having been a topic of conversation amongst all of them. And perhaps the lawsuit was a source of sadness to both JA and
Miss Hinton, who suddenly found themselves in the same dilemma as Romeo & Juliet, i.e., having their natural amity disturbed by a "feud" between their respective family members.

But...the above correction does not have any effect on the "husband
hunting butterfly" part, which appears to stand as an accurate report of what MRM's mother said to MRM about JA.

Thanks again,

ARNIE