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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jane Austen's Letter 92: Mrs. Holder as a real life Mrs. Churchill

"The ladies were at home. I was in luck, and saw Lady Fagg and all her five daughters, with an old Mrs. Hamilton, from Canterbury, and Mrs. and Miss Chapman, from Margate, into the bargain. I never saw so plain a family -- five sisters so very plain! They are as plain as the Foresters, or the Franfraddops, or the Seagraves, or the Rivers, excluding Sophy. Miss Sally Fagg has a pretty figure, and that comprises all the good looks of the family. It was stupidish; Fanny did her part very well, but there was a lack of talk altogether, and the three friends in the house only sat by and looked at us. However, Miss Chapman's name is Laura, and she had a double flounce to her gown. You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce -- too short?"

Earlier today, Diana Birchall wrote the following about the above passage (and other passages in Letter 92) in Austen L and Janeites:

"Then comes the visit to Mystole, referred to in the previous letter, 4 miles away and home of the Faggs. Pretty house, ugly Faggs. "I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!" Let me say right up front that if I had to pick one, I believe this is the letter of Jane Austen's with the highest number of nasty sniping comments."

Diana, I believe you're misreading the tone of JA's description of the Faggs. I see JA just being silly in her clever way, horsing around, and not meaning any special jab at the Faggs's appearance. Yeah, we may infer that JA probably considered the family as not the handsomest in the neighborhood, but I don't feel any sharp malice in JA's comments.

How serious can JA be in deprecating the looks of the Faggs when the ugly families she compares them to are (as even Le Faye acknowledges) completely _fictional_? And, in classic Jane Austen absurdist style, she adds a faux ring of authenticity to the fake names by adding "excluding Sophy"--as if there were actually a Sophy Rivers. And then, after making a comment she seemed to always make after meeting people utterly lacking in conversational skills, JA continues the joking tone with a classic frivolous hendiadys: "Miss Chapman's name is Laura, and she has a double flounce to her gown." As if that was a capsule description of a person in two completely trivial details. And _then_, JA, in a Miss Batesian way, turns her stream of consciousness abruptly in a new direction, re CEA needing some flounces.

From all this, JA seems to me to just be having some witty fun with her most appreciative audience, Cassandra.

By the way, while Franfraddop clearly is a name Swift would have been proud of, I suspect that JA did not invent the name "Forester" on the spot, but included it in her list, because she already knew it was the fictional name of one the families in niece Anna's soon to be begun but never to be completed novel--a novel which will be mentioned explicitly in letters written only a few months after Letter 92, but which literary niece Anna was surely dreaming and thinking and talking about with her literary aunt Jane back then.

But Diana, of course you are 100% correct in observing that the following famous zinger is a totally sincere, angry slur on Mrs. Holder:

"Only think of Mrs. Holder's being dead! Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her. Now, if you please, Hooper must have it in his power to do more by his uncle. Lucky for the little girl. An Anne Ekins can hardly be so unfit for the care of a child as a Mrs. Holder. "

My guess is that Mrs. Holder was _not_ a charmer-a selfish, domineering harridan who made her children's lives a misery, or else why would JA write such horrible things about her? As you point out in your subject line, a mother so bad that a little girl was lucky to be rid of her!

Now, how am I so certain that this was not just a passing mean mood for JA? What seals the deal on what must have been JA's genuine, and, in JA's mind, justified, hatred of Mrs. Holder is the resonance of the above-quoted sentence to the following even more famous lines in Emma:

"Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame. Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints. "

The parallels between the Holder family in real life and the Churchills in _Emma_ are obvious (and, as I just determined by Googling, were first noted by Marvin Mudrick 40+ years ago).

From reading Le Faye's fn 3 to Letter 92, I infer that Mrs. Holder was, like Mrs. Churchill, not very nice, and her death apparently vested power in her son, Hooper (John Hooper-Holder, per the note) to do some sort of good by his uncle (his predeceased father’s senile, bankrupt older brother, James) that her power over the estate she’d inherited from his father had prevented him from doing while she was alive. Clearly John was in the position of a financially dependent son. The note also says that in 1812 Mr. Hooper-Holder married Anne Elkins, a few years after the death of his first wife, who left him a little girl. So JA’s opinion is clear, that the little girl is better off being raised by a young, nice stepmother than by his dictatorial grandmother.All in all, the real Mrs. Holder was sufficiently Churchillian to warrant JA's savage wit directed against her.

So, so far (I have not got through the whole letter yet), these two examples each seem _not_ to fit a pattern of JA being in a very malicious mood while writing Letter 92--the first case was just a joke, the second was based on a natural reaction to the death of an old ogre who did harm in the world.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Here is my reply to Diana's excellent reply to the above:

Diana: "Arnie, I think you're right that Jane Austen was "horsing around" in her joking about the Faggs - of course she was, with the fictional characters mixed in. Good pickup about the name Forester too, and I'm fascinated that Marvin Mudrick saw a connection between the Holders and the Churchills as long as 40 years ago. I also was puzzled that Jane Austen had more nasty remarks, in sheer number, in this than practically any other letter, when her mood was not despondent - but playful. Tells you something!"

Indeed it does! I think there's some subtle truth about her paradoxical character in what you've observed, and I've tweaked---my best formulation would be that she had a deep vein of anger about mistreatment (mostly of herself within the Austen family but also more generally, of women in general), and she also had the frustration of the great genius knowing herself to be still largely invisible in English culture at the advanced (for that era) age of 38, a genius who did not suffer fools gladly--and she had little patience with women who had nothing to say, as if she were angry at them for being such passive blobs. And so she blew off steam harmlessly in these endless little fantasies in letters to CEA (and even more so, I think, to Martha, but alas, so few of those letters survive). 

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