Discussing the passage about Brunton's Self Control in Jane Austen’s 1815 Letter 111 to Anna Austen Lefroy.....
"I will improve upon it; - my Heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, & never stop till she reaches Gravesent."
.....Diana Birchall wrote the following today in Janeites & Austen-L:
"[JA] earlier expressed her unease about Self-Control, writing in Letter 72 (5/29/11) to CEA before reading it, " We have tried to get "Self-control," but in vain. I should like to know what her estimate is, but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever - & of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled."...Later, in Letter #91, 1813, (10/11/13) to CEA: she has read it, and writes, "I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura's passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.- "
Diana, it is noteworthy that Jane Austen writes about Self-Control three times in letters over a span of four years, and in the latter two instances, zeroes in, as you quoted, on the improbability of Laura's passage down the American River.
I became curious to read the actual passage JA repeatedly mocked. Here it is, it occurs just before the end of the novel, and as you can readily ascertain, it describes the heroine going over a waterfall in a canoe, surviving somehow, and then being rescued promptly thereafter by a witness to her fall. “Improbable” is precisely the word for it!:
“Chapter 33 (near end): The day declined; and Laura, with the joy of her escape, began to mingle a wish, that, ere the darkness closed around her, she might find shelter near her fellow beings. She was not ignorant of the dangers of her voyage. She knew that the navigation of the river was interrupted by rapids. A cataract which broke its course had been purposely described in her hearing. She examined her frail vessel and trembled; for life was again become precious, and feeble seemed her defence against the torrent. The canoe, which could not have contained more than two persons, was constructed of a slender frame of wood, covered with the bark of the birch. It yielded to the slightest motion, and caution was necessary to poise in it even the light form of Laura. Slowly it floated down the lingering tide; and, when a pine of larger size or form more fantastic than his fellows enabled her to measure her progress, she thought that through wilds less impassible her own limbs would have borne her more swiftly. In vain behind each tangled point did her fancy picture the haunt of man. Vainly amid the mists of eve did she trace the smoke of sheltered cottages. In vain at every winding of the stream she sent forward a longing eye in search of human dwelling. The narrow view was bounded by the dark wilderness, repeating ever the same picture of dreary repose.
The sun went down. The shadows of evening fell; not such as in her happy native land blend softly with the last radiance of day; but black and heavy, harshly contrasting with the light of a naked sky reflected from the waters, where they spread beyond the gloom of impending woods. Dark, and more dark the night came on. Solemn even amid the peopled land, in this vast solitude it became more awful. Ignorant how near the place of danger might be, fearing to pursue darkling her perilous way, Laura tried to steer her light bark to the shore, intending to moor it, to find in it a rude resting place, and in the morning to pursue her way. Laboriously she toiled, and at length reached the bank in safety; but in vain she tried to draw her little vessel to land. Its weight resisted her strength. Dreading that it should slip from her grasp and leave her without means of escape, she re-entered it, and again glided on in her dismal voyage. She had found in the canoe a little coarse bread made of Indian corn; and this, with the water of the river, formed her whole sustenance. Her frame worn out with previous suffering, awe and fear at last yielded to fatigue; and the weary wanderer sunk to sleep.
It was late on the morning of a cloudy day, when a low murmuring sound stealing on the silence awoke Laura from the rest of innocence. She listened. The murmur seemed to swell on her ear. She looked up. The dark woods still bent over her. But they no longer touched the margin of the stream. They stretched their giant arms from the summit of a precipice. Their image was no more reflected unbroken. The gray rocks which supported them but half lent their colours to the rippling water. The wild duck, no longer tempting the stream, flew screaming over its bed. Each object hastened on with fearful rapidity, and the murmuring sound was now a deafening roar. Fear supplying super-human strength, Laura strove to turn the course of her vessel. She strained every nerve; she used the force of desperation. Half-hoping that the struggle might save her, half-fearing to note her dreadful progress, she toiled on till the oar was torn from her powerless grasp, and hurried along with the tide. The fear of death alone had not the power to overwhelm the soul of Laura. Somewhat might yet be done perhaps to avert her fate, at least to prepare for it. Feeble as was the chance of life, it was not to be rejected. Fixing her cloak more firmly about her, Laura bound it to the slender frame of the canoe. Then commending herself to heaven with the fervour of a last prayer, she, in dread stillness, awaited her doom. With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent—tossed fearfully—and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!
Chapter 34: When Laura was restored to recollection, she found herself in a plain decent apartment. Several persons of her own sex were humanely busied in attending her. Her mind retaining a confused remembrance of the past, she inquired where she was, and how she had been brought thither. An elderly woman, of a prepossessing appearance, answered with almost maternal kindness, 'that she was among friends all anxious for her safety; begged that she would try to sleep; and promised to satisfy her curiosity when she should be more able to converse.' This benevolent person, whose name was Falkland, then administered a restorative to her patient; and Laura, uttering almost incoherent expressions of gratitude, composed herself to rest.
Awakening refreshed and collected, she found Mrs Falkland and one of her daughters still watching by her bed-side. Laura again repeated her questions, and Mrs Falkland fulfilled her promise, by relating that her husband, who was a farmer, having been employed with his two sons in a field which overlooked the river, had observed the canoe approach the fall; that seeing it too late to prevent the accident, they had hurried down to the bed of the stream below the cataract, in hopes of intercepting the boat at its reappearance: That being accustomed to float wood down the torrent, they knew precisely the spot where their assistance was most likely to prove effectual: That the canoe, though covered with foam for a moment, had instantly risen again, and that Mr Falkland and his sons had, not without danger, succeeded in drawing it to land. She then, in her turn, inquired by what accident Laura had been exposed to such a perilous adventure; expressing her wonder at the direction of her voyage, since Falkland farm was the last inhabited spot in that district. Laura, mingling her natural reserve with a desire to satisfy her kind hostess, answered, that she had been torn from her friends by an inhuman enemy, and that her perilous voyage was the least effect of his barbarity. 'Do you know,' said Mrs Falkland, somewhat mistaking her meaning, 'that to his cruelty you partly owe your life; for had he not bound you to the canoe, you must have sunk while the boat floated on.' Laura heard with a faint smile the effect of her self-possession; but considering it as a call to pious gratitude rather than a theme of self-applause, she forbore to offer any claim to praise; and suffered the subject to drop without further explanation.” END QUOTE
Now, to anyone who believes Jane Austen was serious when she wrote, in that 1811 letter to CEA, that she was worried that readers would find Self-Control a “clever” novel which might have “forestalled” (i.e., scooped) Sense & Sensibility (published later in 1811), and that JA actually felt competitive toward and/or threatened by, Brunton as a formidable literary rival-well, I have a bridge for sale, very cheap, which spans Niagara Falls…..
Seriously….what’s clear from the sting in JA’s irony is that JA considered Brunton a hack, writing popular trash. JA’s irony is particularly sharp, when she refers to the heroine’s survival of a fall over a watery precipice as the most probable event in the novel! In other words, the fatal flaw of Brunton’s novel is not the improbability of the survival of an unsurvivable plunge, but the improbability of the characters and their behavior towards each other. That’s a fatal “fall” in literary skill from which no survival is possible, at least worthy of the name “literature”.
And all of the above is background to a fourth writing by JA referring, obliquely this time, to Brunton’s bestseller---which is the poem JA wrote about niece Anna (interestingly, also the recipient of Letter 111):
Mock Panegyric on a Young Friend
In measured verse I'll now rehearse The charms of lovely Anna:
And, first, her mind is unconfined Like any vast savannah.
Ontario's lake may fitly speak Her fancy's ample bound:
Its circuit may, on strict survey Five hundred miles be found.
Her wit descends on foes and friends Like famed Niagara's fall;
And travellers gaze in wild amaze, And listen, one and all.
Her judgment sound, thick, black, profound, Like transatlantic groves,
Dispenses aid, and friendly shade To all that in it roves.
If thus her mind to be defined America exhausts,
And all that's grand in that great land In similes it costs --
Oh how can I her person try To image and portray?
How paint the face, the form how trace, In which those virtues lay?
Another world must be unfurled, Another language known,
Ere tongue or sound can publish round Her charms of flesh and bone.
Although neither Brunton nor Self Control is explicitly mentioned, there is an obvious resonance in terms of American aquatic imagery that suggests that JA was alluding to them again in this little poem, and Kathryn Sutherland, in 2002, was thinking along similar lines:
"The geography of the poem––‘Ontario’s lake’, in fact the smallest of the five Great Lakes, ‘Niagara’s Fall’, and ‘transatlantic groves’ (groves beyond the Atlantic)––represents a popular, even hackneyed, setting for romantic adventure in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See, for example, Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House and Mary Brunton, Self-Control, to which JA makes amused reference in a letter to Cassandra…”
I think Sutherland is correct that Charlotte Smith was lurking in the back of JA’s mind as well, given that the following passage in Smith's The Old Manor House refers to "an extensive savannah" along the banks of a great North American river:
"This was on the banks of the river St Lawrence, at a spot where it was about a mile and a quarter over. The banks where they encamped were of an immense height, composed of limestone and calcined shells; and an area of about an hundred yards was between the edge of this precipice, which hung over the river, and a fine forest of trees, so magnificent and stately as to sink the woods of Norway into insignificance. On the opposite side of the river lay AN EXTENSIVE SAVANNAH, alive with cattle, and coloured with such a variety of swamp plants, that their colour, even at that distance, detracted something from the vivid green of the new sprung grass: beyond this the eye was lost in a rich and various landscape, quite unlike any thing that European prospects offer; and the acclivity on which the tents stood sinking very suddenly on the left, the high cliffs there gave place to a cypress swamp, or low ground, entirely filled with these trees; while on the right the rocks, rising suddenly and sharply, were clothed with wood of various species; the ever-green oak, the scarlet oak, the tulip tree, and magnolia, seemed bound together by festoons of flowers, some resembling the convolvuluses of our gardens, and others the various sorts of clematis, with vignenias, and the Virginian creeper; some of these already in bloom, others only in the first tender foliage of spring: beneath these fragrant wreaths that wound about the trees, tufts of rhododendron and azalea, of andromedas and calmias, grew in the most luxuriant beauty; and strawberries already ripening, or even ripe, peeped forth among the rich vegetation of grass and flowers. On this side all was cheerful and lovely – on the other mournful and gloomy…”
In addition to the subtle parody of Brunton’s uninspired prose in JA’s poem, I just also noticed that the last two lines are a clever parody of Bottom’s hyperbolic (and Paulian) pronouncements upon awakening:
“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom…”
But back to Brunton. JA, sharp, retentive reader that she was, was well aware that Brunton was not only a hack writer, but also that her writing was "inspired" by Smith’s superior productions----(e.g., Brunton's uncompleted last manuscript was entitled Emmeline, the same title as Smith's much earlier and very famous novel of the same name. Plus, Self-Control’s heroine is named "Laura Montreville", and Montreville was the name of a male character in Smith's Emmeline).
So I guess this was why JA chose to point to both Smith and Brunton in her poem, and it also tells me that Anna was in on the entire joke, and was expected by her aunt to pick up on all the nuances of Anna as a heroine in an American adventure by Smith or Brunton, as Anna worked on the writing of…..Which is the HEROINE”!
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