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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Winchester Races, Gilbert White....and the Sigh-Worthy "Gibraltar Jack" & "Nursing Myself Up Into as Beautiful a State as I can"



In Janeites & Austen L this morning, Diana Birchall responded to my previous post about Gilbert White, the great 18th century English naturalist and antiquary, and the veiled allusion to White's famous book in Jane Austen's Last Poem, "Winchester Races"....


 

...and I then responded to her as follows: 

Diana,

Thanks for your lovely detailed response to my post about the above. As I told you, your prior posts about Gilbert White had sensitized me to his name and his connection to Jane Austen & her family, and so when he popped up in my Google search for "William of Wykeham", I knew straight off that it was a big fish I had inadvertently reeled in.

Selborne is now near the top of my list of places to visit the next time I go to England--in fact, I might just spend one day on one of those walking tours in Jane Austen's old haunts that you linked to, it sounds like a wonderful way to spend a day in good company with other enthusiasts, absorbing that lost world with all one's senses, while getting some good healthy exercise outside.....

And thanks for the link to your other 2011 Gilbert White blog post, indeed there was a great deal of intimate connection between the surviving members of White's extended family and the extended Austen family.

Apropos Dr. John White, the nephew of Gilbert you write about in that post, who as you also know provided some medical care to Jane Austen during her last years, and his connection to Jane Austen, I found something very curious in that Letter 78 (coincidentally the same letter with the Bramston subtext which my new friend Terry brought me back to last week, which we've also been discussing) which was part of the background of your latter blog post in its discussion of Mrs. Grant's letters, as you of course know.

Specifically, Dr. White was "known as ‘Gibraltar Jack’, because he was the son of Gilbert White’s brother the Revd. John White, who had been chaplain to the garrison at Gibraltar, and when he was young stayed for several years with his uncle at The Wakes.

What's so curious about that? Well, read this famous passage in Letter 78, the paragraph which mentions Dr. John White:

"We quite run over with books. My mother has got Sir John Carr’s Travels in Spain from Miss B. and.I am reading a Society octavo, An Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers: a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written and highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson or Buchanan, or even the two Mr. Smiths of the City 2—the first soldier I ever sighed for —but he does write with extraordinary force and spirit. Yesterday, moreover, brought us MRS. GRANT'S LETTERS WITH MR. WHITE'S COMPLIMENTS; but I have disposed of them, compliments and all, for the first fortnight to Miss Papillon, and among so many readers or retainers of books as we have in Chawton I dare say there will be no difficulty in getting rid of them for another fortnight if necessary. I learn from Sir Carr that THERE IS NO GOVERNMENT HOUSE AT GIBRALTAR; I must alter it to the Commissioner’s.”

What’s more than a little strange is that JA seems to mention Dr. White only because he graciously loaned (or gave) JA a copy of Mrs. Grant’s Letters, but then she immediately refers to Sir John Carr’s book as her source for the lack of a Government House in GIBRALTAR—now what are the odds that JA would have in successive sentences mentioned Dr. John White aka "Gibraltar Jack" and Gibraltar purely by coincidence?

I suppose it is possible that JA, in writing about Dr. White's loan of Mrs. Grant's Letters, had his nickname in mind as she continued writing that paragraph, and THAT was why she chose to mention that particular factoid about Gibraltar which she had found in Carr's book, and why, as she says, she has Henry Crawford speak of Gibraltar as follows in MP ("Do you know, I begin to like that queer fashion already, though when I first heard of such things being done in England, I could not believe it; and when Mrs. Brown, and the other women at THE COMMISSIONER'S at Gibraltar, appeared in the same trim, I thought they were mad; but Fanny can reconcile me to anything").

However, my sense of JA as a code-writer is that JA actually composed this paragraph before she wrote a word of it, and the paragraph had a theme, and that theme was JA being attracted to an interesting man of the world. That's why she writes so playfully about sighing for Capt. Pasley, and also her love for Clarkson, Buchana and the two Mr. Smiths of the City---it's all a cover, intended to be understood by Cassandra, for the true meaning of that paragraph, which is JA's interest in Gibraltar Jack himself!

According to Richard Mabey's bio of Gilbert White, Gibraltar Jack's first wife died (I do not know in which year), and then (at in some later year, which I also do not know) Dr. John White remarried (who appears to have been his first cousin) Elizabeth White, daughter of Henry White, but he never had children, and he died in 1821.

So.....is it possible that in early 1813 Gibraltar Jack was single and aged 48, and perhaps interested in Jane Austen herself? He does after all lend her a book with his compliments---perhaps this was not the first such kindness shown to JA? It suggests that Mr. White was aware of JA's writing, that they had been discussing literature and he was looking for a way to be responsive to JA's writing career, certainly a good way to win her favor, I'd think.

I know it's a wild speculation, but there's something about the giddy tone in which JA writes about sighing and love in that paragraph, which makes me wonder whether the whole paragraph was a coded way of telling Cassandra that JA was pleased by the attentions of such an interesting older man?

And that wild speculation becomes a LOT less wild, I think, when we read in Letter145 from 1816, the following:

“I am nursing myself up now into as beautiful a state as I can, because I hear that Dr. White means to call on me before he leaves the Country. “

"As BEAUTIFUL a state as I can"????

That's not what you'd write if you were just writing about a doctor visiting you to give you some medical treatment. No way. It's actually quite funny--she is nursing /herself/, so that she will be beautiful for the Doctor's delectation! That's like cleaning your house in advance of your cleaning service coming to clean your house!

In the hunt for potential suitors for JA's hand during her life, how is it possible that Dr. White has never been put forward as a candidate? I don't see him mentioned at all in Halperin's lengthy 1985 article about Jane Austen's possible lovers.

And I just did some more Googling and searching, and the only indication I can find that someone else besides myself has even noticed that sentence about Dr. White at all, is in Syrie James's novel, /The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen/:

http://www.syriejames.com/MissingMsExcerpt.php

However, Syrie alters the identity of the man JA is writing about in Letter 145 from Dr. White to nephew "Edward" (JEAL), and then launches into a discussion of JEAL's novel-in-progress--hardly a romantic reading!

Again, how is this possible that I am the first to suggest this?

That passage in Letter 145 leaps out at you as a romantic hint, and then when you connect it back to the passage in Letter 78 that also is filled with romantic verbiage associated with books, it becomes even more so! 

WILLIAM OF WYKEHAM IN WHITE'S BOOK & IN AUSTEN'S LAST POEM: 

Diana: " Good work pinpointing the William of Wykeham passages, Arnie, which must have had Jane Austen in stitches, seeing William as this over-the-top avenger. This certainly must have been on her mind in her Winchester Races poem, her last piece of writing. David Nokes was definitely right when he identified the poem as a curse by a dying woman. Curse it may be, but the original references in White's book are hilarious, such as the image of William of Wykeham leaping onto the roof shouting imprecations. "

Yes, indeed, it reminded me of the kinds of special effects you see in modern action movies, where strange creatures are leaping and flying around (I am thinking of Spiderman, and also the giant demon dogs on the roof in Ghostbusters!), leaping from one spot to another in a cat-like way. And actually, I noticed that in White's famous book, there are many references to roofs, often in connection with the swallows White was famous for observing. So perhaps that was what inspired JA to that ludicrous hilarious imagery of a super-creature St. Swithin leaping onto a roof!

Can you imagine the screenplay that Jane Austen might have written for an action movie had she been alive today?

Indeed, it is quintessential Jane Austen, harking back to her juvenilia the day before she died.

And now I must end on a serious note. Just imagine what was going through her mind at that moment, as she reviewed her entire writing life, and knew it was being cut off in its prime.

I am reminded of the great line of Laurie Anderson, describing the death of her father:

"When my father died, it was like a whole library// had burned down."

Was that not exactly the case when Jane Austen died?

Very very sad to contemplate.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Here is a better link for the Letter in Gilbert White's famous book which has to do with William of Wykeham:

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004806094.0001.000/1:5.2.14?rgn=div3;view=fulltext


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