FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: @JaneAustenCode
(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Letter 61: Edward Bridges...and JA's meditations on the banality of evil in the ordinary English marriage

"Your news of Edw: Bridges was quite news, for I have had no letter from Wrotham. - I wish him happy with all my heart, & hope his choice may turn out according to his own expectations, & beyond those of his Family-And I dare say it will. Marriage is a great Improver-& in a similar situation Harriet may be as amiable as Eleanor.- ....This Match will certainly set John & Lucy going."---Jane Austen, in Letter 61

In my previous post earlier this week about the above passage under Subject Line "The Foote Bridges Low in JA's Estimation?", I wrote the following:

"What Le Faye does not conceal, but does not give emphasis to, however, was the grim side of this game of Foote-Bridges marital chairs---Sir Brook Bridges IV was a kind of "protege" of Samuel Morland (whom I mentioned the other day as the uber-source for General Tilney in Northanger Abbey), in that Sir Brook IV had that (sadly not so rare) distinction of being the conjugal Bluebeard for not one but _two_ wives during his marital career, via death in childbirth. You'd think that after the first one, a guy might think one "murdered" wife was enough for one man's lifetime. Whatever other negative things I might think about Edward Austen Knight, at least he made the decision not to take down a second wife in this fashion."

Yesterday, I realized something very significant about the above passage, i.e., not only that one of those wives whom Sir Brook Bridges IV "murdered" was Eleanor Foote (i.e., Harriet Foote's elder sister), but also that JA was punning like crazy about this very point, in what seem to be JA's positive endorsement of yet another marriage between a Bridges brother and a Foote sister, but is actually the sharpest satire imaginable, using wordplay on death in childbirth!

That's exactly why JA writes that she hopes Edward's "choice may turn out according to his own _expectations_" (wink, wink, as in "expectations" of multiple babies), and that "Marriage is a great _Improver_" (punning on "improvement" of an estate by adding a new section to the mansion, as a metaphor for the expansion of a woman's body due to pregnancy), and then "in a similar situation Harriet may be as _amiable_ as Eleanor"--sharpest irony of all, meaning that Harriet may go to her death in childbirth as "amiably", i.e., as docilely and passively, as her sister Eleanor did only 2 years earlier, like farm animals being led to their slaughter!

And the "coda" of this satirical little Bluebeardian fantasy is looking at the next "victim" patiently waiting her turn in line---Lucy Foote! And there is more than a whiff of sexual behavior in the idea of "setting John & Lucy going"--rather like a rancher putting a bull and a cow in a pen and leaving them some privacy!

And by the way, JA's worries for Harriet turned out to be for naught, because Le Faye advises us that Harriet Foote Bridges survived the gauntlet of bringing "great expectations" into the world for "sire" Edward Bridges, but as for Lucy Foote, we know from Letters 95 & 96 that Lucy was still unmarried 5 years after JA wrote Letter 61, in 1813, but beyond that date, I cannot find any info about her on the Net (so far). I hope she made it to a long lifespan as well.

And last night I recollected that I _had_ written _twice_ about Harriet Foote Bridges in the past, first back in 2008 in Janeites ......

"And Harriet Foote, [Edward Bridges's] Mary Musgrovian wife, had only two children with him (born between 1814 and 1818, so perhaps Edward Bridges and she did not spend a lot of intimate marital time between their marriage in 1809 and those late 1813 visits to JA at Godmersham). And despite all her hypochondria, she, unlike Mrs. Churchill, did not die unexpectedly, but lived to a ripe old age and died in 1864."

.....and then again in February 2011 (long after I discovered the death-in-childbirth theme in Northanger Abbey in early 2009) about Mrs. Bennet and Mary Musgrove in Janeites, in connection with Henry Tilney's famous rant that leaves Catherine Morland in tears:

"And JA was also pointing out that English laws _did_ connive at these atrocities, by stripping wives of all their property, by allowing husbands total control over their sex lives (unless, like Mrs. Bennet, Mary Musgrove, or Lady Bertram, they contrived to have a permanent "headache")..."

And when I recollected those two earlier points last night, I put them together, and I also realized that they were _both_ directly connected to the above passage in Letter 61! They all came together as follows. In writing about Harriet Foote Bridges's persistent hypochondria during her marriage to Edward Bridges (there are several excerpts scattered across JA's later letters, one of them referring to Harriet as a "poor Honey", strikingly reminiscent of calling niece Anna a "poor animal"!), and in painting the portraits of her two fictional wifely hypochondriacs, JA was hinting her suspicions that the real life Harriet Foote Bridges was being very clever indeed, by always complaining about her health, and thereby avoiding being serially pregnant.

And here's something very curious in that regard----despite Le Faye's naked statement in her Bio Index that Harriet and Edward had "many" children, she only listed two, and I can find only those same _two_ children listed in the genealogical sources available on the Internet-all of which suggests to me that unless Le Faye has other information about additional children born of that marriage, I believe that Harriet Foote Bridges was very successful in avoiding serial pregnancy!

And...perhaps Harriet Foote Bridges's persistent "headaches", involving frequent visits to health spas and the like, begin to account for Edward Bridges's persistent interest in Jane Austen during his marriage (a strong, romantic interest which is depicted in _Miss Austen Regrets_), because he was not finding a satisfying sexual outlet in his own marriage, because his "malingering" wife had found a better solution than separate beds to the problem that afflicted poor Mrs. Tilson!

But, perhaps some amongst you will now rebut, that is just one more example of me taking stuff out of context and spinning my own fantasy about JA's alleged feminist agenda against the holocaust of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth that afflicted English gentlewomen during her lifetime? I.e., where is the hard evidentiary context to support the notion that JA saw any of the Foote sisters as victims of serial pregnancy?

Well....... how about _this_ for some whopping strong context:

One of the most (in)famous statements by JA on the subject of the horrors of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth appears in Chapter 29, as I detailed nearly a year ago here:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/06/jane-austens-letter-29-so-lady-bridges.html

In that above linked blog post, I quoted the relevant passage in Letter 29, and then opined on it, as follows:

"So, Lady Bridges in the delicate language of Coulson Wallop is IN FOR IT! " Le Faye's footnote advises the reader that Lady Bridges was pregnant, but what you have to work to find out is that Lady Bridges was the new bride of (and, at 22, eleven years younger than) the eldest Bridges son, Brook-William, and she wound up bearing him 4 children before she really _was_ "in for it", and died after giving birth to a baby girl. But then, Brook-William was not fazed, he remarried within three years, and since his "blue beard" was perhaps by then tinged with more than a touch of "grey", it took him seven years to murder his second wife in childbirth, when it only took him five years to finish off the first Lady Bridges! So Jane Austen had this guy pegged a mile off. Add this vignette to the long list of Jane Austen's complaints about dutiful English wives being made serially pregnant by their proper English husbands until they either died or were overwhelmed with childcare." END QUOTE

Now, in case you haven't figured it out by now, that "Lady Bridges" who was "IN FOR IT" was none other than _Eleanor_ Foote Bridges! And how awful that JA was spot-on in her Cassandra-like prediction, because Eleanor Foote Bridges did in fact die in childbirth in 1806, i.e., when "IT" did her in!

So, by my unconventional methods, I have managed to provide a powerfully web of densely interwoven context for what JA wrote in Letter 61 in November 1808 in what JA wrote in Letter 29 in January 1801, nearly eight _years_ earlier!

And there's still more. You know how JA had such total command over her novels, that you can find very subtle connections between passages separated by dozens of chapters, which, until 20 years ago only a reader with a photographic memory could spot, but which today a reader armed with a search engine can find in seconds? I have found hundreds of those long-distance connections in the texts of all her novels. Well, now you should realize that JA viewed the collective corpus of all her letters as a kind of "seventh novel", and that "context" within that very long "novel" could stretch back decades!

And last but by no means least, I also have a powerful rebuttal to the suggestion that JA liked and admired Edward Bridges personally, and therefore JA would not have depicted him as a wife-murderer. Actually, I also believe that JA though Edward Bridges was a nice guy, but that does not in the slightest bit undermine my claims--in fact, when analyzed properly, it is an enormous validation of my claims! How?

That's where the anti-parody of Northanger Abbey comes in, in which we realize that Henry Tilney's ranting tongue-lashing of Catherine Morland is meant by JA to be read topsy-turvy, i.e., that the true horror of England during JA's lifetime was that it was so completely normal, so banal, that English gentlewomen wives were so routinely made serially pregnant, and many died in childbirth. And nobody, not the church, not the government, not the courts, and most of all, not the _husbands_, thought there was anything wrong with this picture! The evil of _ordinary_ English marriage, where the husband used "poison" taken from his own body to "murder" his wife, did not depend upon those husbands cruelly or intentionally wishing to harm his wife--since it was "normal", most husbands did it, most wives, like Stepford Wives, did not complain (despite many of them living in perpetual fear), and many of these husbands really _were_ "nice guys" who were cultured, kind in their daily interactions with the world, patriotic citizens, etc etc.

I have borrowed Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil" not to suggest that the Edward Bridgeses of JA's world were just like the Adolph Eichmanns who did Hitler's bidding, even though they knew better----but to point out that even a distant parallelism between the two is bad enough, when "nice guys" do bad things because in their world, nobody is saying that the emperor is naked, and that a horrible wrong is being done on a society-wide scale.

And I am certain that had JA lived long enough to have seen Northanger Abbey be published and become very popular, she would one day have dropped a bombshell and announced the "code" that would enable a nation of devoted female readers to understand its deeper meaning. And maybe, then, some future Eleanor Foote Bridges might have taken heed, and taken steps to prevent their joining the ranks of the dead Mrs. Tilneys.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: One final sidebar about context in JA's writing. "There are six Bedchambers at Chawton" is the very _next_ sentence in JA's endless epistolary staccato of abrupt changes of subject--and that illustrates that even though JA abruptly changed the subject every few sentences in her letters, she often found a way to create a subliminal segue between two completely unrelated news tidbits--and in this case, the fact that Chawton would have six Bedchambers was JA's "lead" for her turn to that new subject, precisely because her previous news flash about Edward Bridges and his new bride Harriet was predicting that within a half dozen years, the Bridgeses would need six Bedchambers just to house the children born of their marriage! Call it "the hidden Segue"!

No comments: