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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Anthony Trollope, Sir Walter Scott, Tom Lefroy, Irish Linen, Persian Carpets....and the "Overton Scotchman" !

It occurred to me today to check in Jane Austen's letters, to see if Jane Austen might have made some passing comment therein relation to Scotland or its people, and I found one, in Letter 12 dated 11/25/1798:

“The Overton Scotchman has been kind enough to RID ME OF some of my money, in exchange for six shifts and four pair of stockings. The Irish is not so fine as I should like it; but as I gave as much money for it as I intended, I have no reason to complain. It cost me 3s. 6d. per yard”

As I will lay out, below, this was only the start of an interesting excursus through several varied, but connected, Austen-related topics.

First, I analyzed the above quoted passage as follows. With her characteristic ironic hyperbole and oxymoron, I saw JA daring to cavort around the edges of "the old prejudice" (the euphemism that the Knightley brothers use while discussing a Scottish bailiff), by briefly conjuring a subliminal image of Scots as monetary predators feasting on hard working English folk.

Reading that passage in Letter 12 made me wonder, though, about the identity of "the Overton Scotchman"--was there an actual Scotsman, some sort of itinerant seller of clothes, or perhaps even an actual shop which went by the trade name "The Overton Scotchman"?

My first stop was in Le Faye's footnotes to Letter 12, where I read, in her 3rd edition, apparent confirmation of that latter guess:

"A 'scotchman' (not necessarily Scottish), was a pedlar carrying fabrics and drapery goods round the countryside for doorstep sales.", to which, in her 4th edition, she added "to keep accounts with an illiterate clientele, he 'scotched' (cut notches in) tally sticks."

An interesting and plausible-sounding explanation, but I also got the feeling that Le Faye was protesting too much with that additional sentence, as if she did not want anyone to wonder about "the old prejudice". I also wondered if there might be more to this little passage than that, because I recalled that Letter 11, written a week earlier than Letter 12, was the letter in which we hear about JA's 1796 Irish flirtation partner, Tom Lefroy, and his _last_ visit to his aunt and uncle at Ashe--the visit during which he _didn't_ see fit to say "hi" to JA before he returned to his law studies and also to get married to an Anglo-Irish heiress.

And I also found quite curious JA's references to not one but _two_ Gaelic names, i.e., "the Overton _Scotch_man" and "the _Irish_" in that short passage, in the temporal context that only a month _earlier_, the great Irish Rebellion of 1798 had been brutally crushed by England, and only a few months _later_, the newly married Henry Austen left England to performed military service in Ireland.

So, those whiffs of "smoke" of Scotland and Ireland were enough for me to look behind Le Faye's footnote to see what else might be found via my old friend Google, which led me first to the following passage in an article entitled "A Scotchman at Overton" that appeared in the 1987 issue of Persuasions, which was all about the town of Overton:

"Of course, Jane did not only come to Overton to visit her family. She came, we know, to shop. And now, at last, I will reveal why my title is “A Scotchman at Overton.” Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra: “The Overton Scotchman has been kind enough to rid me of some of my money, in exchange for six shifts and four pair of stockings. The Irish is not so fine as I should like it; but as I gave as much money for it as I intended, I have no reason to complain. It cost me 3s. 6d. per yard” (/Letters/, p. 32). The building occupied by the Scotchman was pulled down only recently and we witnessed its departure under protest, and its replacement with a structure of facile modernity. I am sure you all share our regret that another real link with Jane has gone."

So, apparently, there really _was_ a shop of that name "The Overton Scotchman" in Overton as early as 1798 which had a tenure there of about 2 centuries or more.

And that brings me to the reason for my mentioning Anthony Trollope in my Subject Line----i.e., surprisingly (to me, at least), that is the name of the author of that 1987 Persuasions article! So, purely as a matter of Austen trivia, it seems that the modern Anthony Trollope (who was at the time of writing that article the Honorary Secretary of the Jane Austen Society in England) was, like his very famous 19th century kinsman, a Janeite, and was also someone who lived in proximity to Steventon!

But even though there apparently was (if we can rely on Trollope's assertions in that article) an actual shop in Overton which dated back to 1798, I kept on looking for _more_ intriguing connections, and I was quickly rewarded by what I found in Sir Walter Scott's publication (right around that same time as JA was writing Letter 12) of a book Scott entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, in which he wrote the following footnote at page lvii:

"....we may add the following curious extracts from Mercurius Politicus/, /a newspaper, published during the usurpation. "Thursday, November 11, 1662. Edinburgh.—The Scotts and moss-troopers have again revived their old custom, of robbing and murthering the English, whether soldiers or other, upon all opportunities, within these three weeks. We have had notice of several robberies and murders, committed by them. Among the rest, a lieutenant, and one other of Col. Overton's regiment, returning from England, were robbed not far from Dunbarr. A lieutenant, lately master of the customs at Kirkcudbright, was killed about twenty miles from this place; and four foot soldiers of Colonel Overton's were killed, going to their quarters, by some mossers, who, after they had given them quarter, tied their hands behind them, and then threw them down a steep hill, or rock, as it was related by a Scotchman, who was with them, but escaped."

Several robberies of Englishmen by Scotts and moss-troopers. That sounds disturbingly and exactly like accounts of the early stages of the rebellion in Ireland earlier in 1798, alleged atrocities against Anglo-Irish (like those recounted by Madam Lefroy in her letters) which had prompted England to crush the Irish rebellion.

Just a coincidence of violent rebellions against England by its British Isles possessions, both associated with the names "Overton" and "Scotchmen"? Maybe....but that sort of coincidence would be just the sort of thing JA, with her love of double meanings, would immediately pick up on, a dark, veiled subtext that JA relished for her miniature flights of fancy in her letters and novels.

And it would actually perfectly fit the situation of JA shopping in Overton. I.e., JA was passing along to Cassandra a droll double entendre about the irony of an English gentlewoman buying _Irish_ linen from a _Scotch_ seller in Overton, while mass violence and political upheaval was going on, including a beloved brother, during that same time frame, in distant portions of the non-English parts of the British Isles. Exactly as an American or a Brit might feel today, shopping at a Middle Eastern shop in NYC, while buying a Persian carpet.

Food (or clothing) for thought.

Cheers, ARNIE

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