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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mrs. Hastings’ voyage down the Ganges puts ME in mind of……ANOTHER “heroic” voyage all serious Janeites are familiar with

Letter 55: “I do not at all regard Martha’s disappointment in the Island; she will like it the better in the end.—I cannot help thinking & rethinking of your going to the Island so heroically. It puts me in mind of Mrs. Hastings’ voyage down the Ganges, & if we had but a room to retire into to eat our fruit, we wd have a picture of it hung there.”

Diana Birchall (in Austen L):“As for the [above] passage, it's a joke. Don't you see? She's wittily comparing Cassandra's mini-sea voyage to the Isle of Wight with Mrs. Hastings'epic journey down the Ganges. Not seriously wanting that painting, however sublime and picturesque it is. She's being witty about commissioning a portraitof Cassandra going to Wight! And laughing at the grandiosity of Daylesford.That's the joke.”

Of course you are 1000% correct in this assertion, Diana, for about 5 different reasons, which I think are worth unpacking—so here goes!

We know from the first part about Martha that JA has assumed her favorite fake “voice”, which we might call “The Snob”---Jane Austen would never ever, with a straight face, use a phony, snobbish heartless expression like “I do not at all regard…” in any way other than as a joke! Only someone like Lady Catherine-or some of the “elite” folk JA met at Godmersham--would talk like that! And anyway, if Martha had really been disappointed, do you think for a second that JA, who was such a close friend of hers, would be so cold and unsympathetic to Martha? No darned way!

This is JA imitating the heartless privileged folk she so often met at Godmersham, who rationalized away all the possible disappointment that their less fortunate “inferiors’ might feel in their daily lives—or, for that matter, this is also JA mocking the way that JA’s non-sailor brothers also readily rationalized away the lack of choices that the Austen women had in _their_ daily lives, compared to the brothers’s much wider range of choices. Just think about James and Mary Austen as John and Fanny Dashwood.

And then, while in full satirical mode, JA turns her playful eye on CEA, and waxes hyperbolically in mock-adulation of CEA’s “heroic” trip to “the Island”.

So, as you say, Diana, the stage has then been perfectly set for the punch line, the absurd image of CEA sailing to the Isle of Wight, braving” tempests” and “pirates” on the “long” and “perilous” journey--- which actually was about 5 miles and probably took less than an hour, I’d guess, from Portsmouth, or two hours from Southampton!

And JA has been pretending to be a rich snob, because she already had in mind a certain real life rich powerful snob completely familiar to the Austen family, who turned _his_ wife’s river trip into a mythic odyssey in exactly this same over-the-top way JA has been mocking—Warren Hastings.

And the piece de resistance of JA’s absurdist epistolary mini-playlet is the absurd image of hanging the picture of CEA in a room where she and JA would eat fruit, like two great ladies.Except…the biting irony that undergirds JA’s satire is that in the dreary reality of JA’s and CEA’s lives in July 1808 (not having any idea that their living conditions would, due to Elizabeth Austen Knight’s death, change drastically for the better within 4 months), they did not even have a room of their own to which to retire (having to share a tenement apartment with Frank’s new family), and probably did not even have the money to buy much fruit to eat as well! So the tone of light satire has suddenly turned quite dark and disturbing, in classic Austenian style.

And that elaborate satirical joke, unpacked as stated above, would be fantastic enough if that were all there was to it. But, as I first read Diana’s post, I was also struck by the phrase “It puts me in mind…”, and I realized, I’ve _read_ that same exact phrase somewhere _else_ in JA’s writing, where it was also spoken in a satirical voice ---but where? A quick search confirmed that the passage I had been “put in mind of” by Letter 55 was the following one in MP, spoken by JA’s most satirical speaker (narrowly edging out Elizabeth Bennet), Mary Crawford:

“Your father’s return will be a very interesting event.”

“It will, indeed, after such an absence; an absence not only long, but including so many dangers.”

“It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister’s marriage, and your taking orders.”


“Don’t be affronted,” said she, laughing, “but it does PUT ME IN MIND of some of the old heathen HEROES, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return.”

“There is no sacrifice in the case,” replied Edmund, with a serious smile, and glancing at the pianoforte again; “it is entirely her own doing.”

“Oh yes I know it is. I was merely joking. …”

Merely joking, Mary Crawford? Sounds a lot like Jane Austen, “merely joking” as she wrote Letter 55 in July 1808—which means, not joking at all—Mary is taking a serious potshot at Sir Thomas, just as JA took a serious potshot at Warren Hastings! And look at all the verbal and situational parallels that spring to mind, upon examination, in addition to the parallel of language with “put in mind of”:

First, in Letter 55, JA writes of CEA “going to the Island so HEROically”, while Mary Crawford has been put in mind of “the old heathen HEROES”!

Second, Mary of course is describing Sir Thomas Bertram’s return from Antigua to England (both of them, of course, being _islands_ like the Isle of Wight where CEA went or was to go).

Third, according to Ellen’s calendar, Sir Thomas was in Antigua during 1808—exactly the same time that JA wrote Letter 55!

Fourth, 1808 was also exactly the same year that the slave trade was abolished, which some have speculated was the crisis that kept Sir Thomas in Antigua for much longer than originally anticipated.

So it’s clear to me, from all these striking parallels, that JA had this passage from Letter 55 firmly in mind (perhaps having reread it) when she wrote the above-quoted passage from MP.

But…even _that_ is not all the wonderfulness of this multilayered allusion and joke by JA. It turns out that there is a _third_ layer of meaning hidden here just beneath the surface. After all, when you think about it, there are many parallels between Sir Thomas Bertram and Warren Hastings. Each was a man of power in a colonial setting (one in the West Indies, one in the East Indies). So, it is plausible to assert that there is more than a little of Warren Hastings in Sir Thomas Bertram (as well as in Colonel Brandon in S&S, of course, as has been suggested by several commentators including myself).

And I find that I did write about these very parallels back in February 2011:

But then, I recalled with a shiver that Mary Crawford has long been suggested by many Janeites as a representation of Eliza Hancock (de Feuillide) Austen. And I shivered because I recalled the _beginning of Diana’s’ post:

“Dear Ellen, you can't seriously think I said we "shouldn't speak frankly"about Eliza, you're misinterpreting me, as I think you also have misinterpretedthis passage. I said it's not scholarly to state as fact what isn't known for sure. It should be discussed freely of course! It's like all these people whoare saying the new JA portrait is real. The scholarly thing would be to say thatit **might** be.”

Of course, Diana, you were suggesting to Ellen that it was not a clearly established fact that Warren Hastings was the father of Eliza Hancock, fathered on Philadelphia Hancock while she was married to Tysoe Hancock, Hastings’s associate.

But now I must amiably quibble with you on that point for a moment. First, we know from Lady Clive’s correspondence that the _rumor_ of that illegitimacy _was_ a fact, even though we don’t know for sure whether Hastings’s long standing paternal interest in Eliza arose out of his being her godfather, the friend of her deceased father, or her actual biological father.

And now second I find myself in the astounding position of suggesting to you that JA’s joke about Mrs. Hastings in Letter 55 itself constitutes additional, significantly probative evidence that JA, at least, felt very comfortable being scandalously satirical about the Hastings-Eliza connection, even if it doesn’t tell us whether JA believe it was rumor or fact.

And now the _fourth_ and most scandalous layer of meaning in all of the above—these parallels between Letter 55 and MP seem to me to be corroborative of the dark vision that Rozema brought to her adaptation of MP, with Sir Thomas Bertram depicted as having a nightmarish second life in Antigua, which, Tom Bertram’s drawings suggest, might have included siring children in Antigua. I have seriously held to that same interpretation since 2006, when I first examined the slavery subtext of MP.

And here’s the literary algebra I now see:

If Sir Thomas = Warren Hastings, and if Mary Crawford = Eliza Hancock, _and_ if Warren Hastings was rumored to be the father of Eliza Hancock, then is JA hinting that in the shadows of MP, Sir Thomas might be the father ofMary Crawford, sired in Antigua? It would surely fit with the following passage early in MP, which has caught the eye of several Austen scholars, including myself:

“Miss Crawford's beauty did her no disservice with the Miss Bertrams. They were too handsome themselves to dislike any woman for being so too, and were almost as much charmed as their brothers with her lively DARK EYE, CLEAR BROWN COMPLEXION, and general prettiness. Had she been tall, full formed, and fair, it might have been more of a trial: but as it was, there could be no comparison; and she was most allowably a sweet, pretty girl, while they were the finest young women in the country. HER BROTHER was not handsome: no, when they first saw him he was absolutely plain, BLACK and plain…”

And about that last point, in case anyone was in doubt, I am not joking at all.

Cheers, ARNIE

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