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Monday, July 30, 2012

Betrayed Beyond an Accident: Fanny Cage and Louisa Musgrove

In Janeites, in response to my post (about Letter 73).....

 http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2012/07/jane-austens-letter-73-i-had-forgot.html


 ....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 follows:

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 in Persuasion!

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 childbirth.

"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?

Cheers, ARNIE
@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:

 http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/05/dear-old-aspgo-to-bottom-together.html

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! 

2 comments:

Desafina said...

Since reading Persuasion the last week, something bothered me endlessly: What the heck is that accident in Lyme really!
I was wrapping my head around it, and got more and more suspicious about Austen at what she is reaaaaaaally writing.
She is so sneaky.

I had to google, and are now obsessed with your blog!

But one tip, what about tagging the entries? I am now going mad trying to find all your posts on Persuasion.

Good evening

Arnie Perlstein said...

sorry, i didnt tag posts until I had written about 600 of them,and then I gave up on it.

If you use the search engine for the blog, and enter various character names like Wentworth or Louisa, you will find my Persuasion posts---but I hope you will enjoy my other posts too!