In Janeites, in response to my post (about Letter 73).....
....which included a
reference to the sexual meaning of "accident" in relation to Mrs.
Knight, someone named Terry sharpened matters by pointing out the recognized
euphemism of "accident" for "miscarriage" in JA's era. I responded as
Terry, glad you were prompted to write the above by my post about Aunt
Leigh-Perrot and Mrs. Knight as unwitting "victims" of "accidents" in
JA's wickedly satirical imagination. You have in turn prompted me to
revisit this whole question, with fruitful results!
In my longstanding reading of that passage from JA's 1801 letter about
Mrs. Knight's "accident", I had always focused on the absurd aspect of a
pregnancy outside wedlock of a woman past childbearing years. In that
focus, I had always glided past the _specific_ euphemistic replacement
of "accident" for miscarriage. But your post prompted me to look more
closely at "accident" for the first time---i.e., I did a global search
of the word "accident" in JA's writings.
In addition to some usages of interest, I found not one but two _very_
interesting (and, as you will, closely and significantly interrelated)
passages that fit perfectly with that sexual euphemism in a way that
hints at a hushed-up scandal in JA's extended family.
First the following passage from Letter 87 dated Sept. 15-16, 1813:
"Now for Bath. Poor F. cage has suffered a good deal from her ACCIDENT.
The noise of the White Hart was terrible to her. They will keep her
quiet, I dare say. She is not so much delighted with the place as the
rest of the party; probably, as she says herself, from having been less
well, but she thinks she should like it better in the season. The
streets are very empty now, and the shops not so gay as she expected.
They are at No. 1 Henrietta Street, the corner of Laura Place, and have
no acquaintance at present but the Bramstons."
Fanny Cage was the orphaned first cousin of Fanny Knight, and was in
1813 twenty years old, the same age as Fanny K.
No Janeite can read that passage, with its various details about an
accident and a stay at the White Hart, without immediately thinking of
Louisa Musgrove's fall down the steps on the Cobb in Lyme in Persuasion.
I would have expected Le Faye (ever the enemy of unpleasant parallels
between real life and JA's fiction) to be especially intent upon
ignoring those parallels. However, Le Faye could not very well ignore
them in this instance, because Chapman had already let the cat out of
the bag decades earlier! So Le Faye was forced to acknowledge them in fn
19 to Letter 87, by quoting Chapman's footnote:
"The combination of the White Hart and susceptibility to noise reminds
us of Louisa Musgrove's accident and subsequent nerves. I can find no
report of the accident in the Bath newspapers."
I would suggest that the reason Chapman could find no report of the
"accident" in the Bath newspapers is that Fanny Cage's misfortune was
precisely the sort of "accident" that commentators like Valerie
Grosvenor Myer (who discussed the alternative meaning of "accident" in
1995, long before Jones did so in 2009) took note of, but that
respectable families did all they could to keep _out_ of the newspapers!
I.e. I suggest that there was no more likelihood of Chapman finding that
report in the Bath newspapers than there was of Le Faye's finding a
real-life dyer in Southampton named "Mr. Floor" (the one, you'll recall,
who was _low_ in JA's estimation!).
Once again, we have JA indulging in creative metaphor and wordplay in
her letters as well as her novels! And, speaking of her novels ....what
I also realized is that my longstanding interpretation of Louisa
Musgrove as having "fallen" (sexually) to Wentworth's masculine charms
and became pregnant prior to the excursion to Lyme, needed to be amended
to take into account the further, specific innuendo that Louisa
miscarried in Lyme! And, further, that JA had chosen to memorialize
Fanny Cage's 1813 "accident" forever in one of the most dramatic scenes
Here are the two passages in Persuasion where JA delicately brings the
scandalous subtext an inch from the surface, using the word "accident"
in its euphemistic sense of "miscarriage", without allowing it to break
through to clear visibility:
"There was a little awkwardness at first in their discourse on another
subject. They must speak of the _accident_ at Lyme. Lady Russell had not
been arrived five minutes the day before, when a full account of the
whole had _burst_ on her; but still it must be talked of, she must make
enquiries, she must regret the imprudence, lament the result, and
Captain Wentworth's name must be mentioned by both. Anne was conscious
of not doing it so well as Lady Russell. She could not speak the name,
and look straight forward to Lady Russell's eye, till she had adopted
the expedient of telling her briefly what she thought of the attachment
between him and Louisa. When this was told, his name distressed her no
longer. Lady Russell had only to listen composedly, and wish them happy,
but internally her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased
contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand
somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards,
be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove."
When something "bursts" on someone in a Jane Austen novel, you can be
sure the powerful watery imagery is entirely intentional, and is meant
to convey the raw physicality of events pertaining to pregnancy and
"The sad _accident_ at Lyme was soon the prevailing topic, and on
comparing their latest accounts of the invalid, it appeared that each
lady dated her intelligence from the same hour of yestermorn; that
Captain Wentworth had been in Kellynch yesterday (the first time since
the _accident_), had brought Anne the last note, which she had not been
able to trace the exact steps of; had staid a few hours and then
returned again to Lyme, and without any present intention of quitting it
any more. He had enquired after her, she found, particularly; had
expressed his hope of Miss Elliot's not being the worse for her
exertions, and had spoken of those exertions as great. This was
handsome, and gave her more pleasure than almost anything else could
have done. As to the sad catastrophe itself, it could be canvassed only
in one style by a couple of steady, sensible women, whose judgements had
to work on ascertained events; and it was perfectly decided that it had
been the consequence of much thoughtlessness and much imprudence; that
its effects were most alarming, and that it was frightful to think, how
long Miss Musgrove's recovery might yet be doubtful, and how liable she
would still remain to suffer from the concussion hereafter! The Admiral
wound it up summarily by exclaiming--"Ay, a very bad business indeed. A
new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking
his mistress's head, is not it, Miss Elliot? This is breaking a head and
giving a plaster, truly!""
Indeed, Admiral Croft, you witty rogue!
And the above interpretation also sheds fresh light on the critical
practical importance of the question of who would care for Louisa during
the critical days at Captain Harville's home---perhaps Mary's
histrionics, demanding priority over Anne as caretaker, followed later
that same day by Mary's being entirely displaced by Mrs. Harville who
assumed exclusive control over the nursing of Louisa, was not
accidental, and not merely evidence of Wentworth's esteem for Anne's
capableness, Mary's selfish jealousy toward Anne, and Mrs. Harville's
ultimate assumption of exclusive control, but was actually evidence of
subtle manipulation by certain watchful, concerned persons who wished at
all costs to take Anne's sharp, insightful eyes far far away from
witnessing things which it would be, shall we say, devastating for her
to see, terrible things which even Anne's enduring love could not survive.
My personal favorite bit of wordplay in all of this is JA's comment
about Fanny Cage: "They will keep her quiet, I dare say." In context, it
seems to mean that the Bridges family will keep Fanny Cage in a quiet
room where her nerves will be soothed by quiet. However, a plain
alternative meaning, which takes on a very droll, even cynical,
connotation, is that the Bridges family will convince their young (and
perhaps Romantic) niece of the dire necessity for keeping permanently
quiet, i.e., keeping her mouth shut, about the true nature of her
"accident"! Did they succeed?
Fanny Cage, in case you were wondering, did not marry until age 41. One
wonders whether her "accident" in 1813 had anything to do with her not
marrying during childbearing years. And while we know nothing about
Fanny Cage's taste for romantic poetry, we do know that she liked P&P a
lot, liked Emma somewhat less, and liked MP less still.....but oh,
wouldn't you like to know what Fanny Cage thought about Louisa
Musgrove's "accident" in particular?
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: Several comments in Janeites, responding to the above, strongly objected to the notion of Wentworth being so unheroic as to engage in sexual relations with Louisa Musgrove and then compound matters by not marrying her. I responded to their objections as follows:
Such an interesting sampling of reactions to my claim about Wentworth
and Louisa--which claim, I reiterate, I did not invent out of thin air,
I followed the "bread crumbs" in the text, including the particularly
telling one about "accidents" as "miscarriages". And I will take a
moment to turn your attention to my earlier post from several years back
in which I presented a great deal of textual evidence about "the dear
old Asp" which first alerted me to Wentworth and Louisa, and in
particular the persistence of Wentworth's bitter anger toward Anne:
It took me several years _after_ I first understood the doubleness of
all of Jane Austen's novels to realize the answer to the problem of the
Austen hero who does unheroic things. It's quite simple, elegant, and
powerful, to wit:
By giving us romantic, intelligent, powerful heroes like Wentworth, JA
taps into the natural wellspring of female fantasy. But...by showing us,
in the shadows, a version of Wentworth which seems completely
inconsistent with that romantic fantasy--a version which even the
perceptive, intelligent, pragmatic heroine, Anne, cannot detect, JA
provides the reader with the ultimate cautionary tale, the necessary
corrective to the romantic fantasy. So instead of trying to blend the
heroic and unheroic sides of Wentworth into one "grey" character, I
suggest that JA instead gives us Wentworth in bright "white", but,
simultaneously, Wentworth in dark "black"! The Wentworth who acts in an
ungentlemanly way is one possibility--and the Wentworth who does
everything right in the second half of the novel is another
possibility---JA is saying, to the female reader who can see both
versions of Wentworth--be careful, don't be overly romantic and don't be
overly cynical---strive for the clearest possible vision unclouded by
either fantasy or cynicism, be as alert as you can to subtle cues that
may hold elusive truth about human nature, and in the end, make the best
judgment you can as to the "Wentworth" in your own life, and try to get
it right, because (in Jane Austen's era, at least) your very life may
well depend on getting it right!
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