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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jane Austen's Letter #118: Laetitia Matilda Hawkins's Novel Rosanne



In our ongoing group read of Jane Austen's letters which has now reached Letter #119 (so we have about 6 months to go before we reach the end!), Diana Birchall commented on Jane Austen's discussion of a novel she had just read: 

Diana wrote: "#118. "We have got 'Rosanne' in our Society" - refers to a novel by Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, "Rosanne, A Father's Labour Lost," 1814.”

Diana, first, here are a few interesting factoids about LM Hawkins which Le Faye did not consider significant but which I bet most Janeites would have wanted to know, too:

ONE: She was the daughter of an heiress and Sir John Hawkins, friend of Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole. Daddy Hawkins was a co-executor of SJ’s Will, and wrote a life of Johnson. So we know that JA would therefore have been especially interested in the writing and the life of Laetitia Hawkins.

TWO:  After JA died, Laetitia, who grew up in Twickenham, apparently, published memoirs in which she wrote:

re the “Satanic” Sir Francis Dashwood (leader of the Hell-Fire Club):  "the recollection of him...is so pleasing to me, that I cannot reconcile myself to the contemptuous manner in which his memory has been treated, or believe the general assertion that he was unworthy"; and

re: Mrs. Thrale: “I have heard it said, that into whatever company she (Mrs. T[hrale].) fell, she could be the most agreeable person in it."

I bet JA was aware of these personal connections when she read Rosanne.

THREE: My previous research alerted me to the strong possibility that JA was reading Hawkins’s fiction before Rosanne came out in 1814.


Diana also wrote: “[Rosanne] was dedicated (Deirdre says) to the Countess of Waldegrave, in praise of her practice of "pure Christianity." If anyone is familiar with this book, speak up now and describe it, or forever hold your peace. I am not looking it up….” Mlle. Cossart is rather my passion." And we know how Jane Austen feels about "improbabilities" in a story. ("Bad, very bad," as Mr. Knightley said.) The only reason I'd want to read Rosanne is to find out who was Mlle. Cossart who is her passion! Has anyone here read it, and can comment on the justice of her criticism?"

Diana, I just skimmed a bit in Rosanne, and quickly deduced that Mlle. Cossart was the heroine’s governess—a large woman (both in personality and in body) who sounds a lot like Mrs. Jennings from S&S—so I can perfectly well understand why JA would enjoy the broad comedy of Mlle. Cossart in a novel that otherwise was drearily obsessed with Rousseau’s theories of child-rearing.


Diana also wrote: “I will content myself instead with mightily enjoying Jane Austen's epigrammatical and wittily apt phrase of criticism: "we...find it much as you describe it; very good and clever, but tedious." Don't we all know that description! She continues her criticism in much the same manner in which she usually writes literary criticism to Anna, as writing to one with whom she is quite used to sharing these conversations and observations: "Mrs. Hawkins' great excellence is on serious subjects. There are some very delightful conversations and reflections on religion: but on lighter topics I think she falls into many absurdities; and, as to love, her heroine has very comical feelings. There are a thousand improbabilities in the story. Do you remember the two Miss Ormesdens, introduced just at last? Very flat and unnatural.”

Among the absurdities and improbabilities of the story that I gleaned from my skimming is that the heroine, who has been kept away from all religious instruction by her father all her life, manages to hear traces of Christian content by accident, and it miraculously transforms her into a formidable intellect.

JA had no patience for religious propaganda, no matter how cleverly worded.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


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