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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Lady Russell’s First Child in Persuasion & Eliza, Jr. in S&S: “Natural” Peas in the same Pod?

Earlier today, I came across a weirdness in the text of Persuasion that I had never noticed before, and which, as far as I can tell, has never been discussed in any venue searchable on the Net. It took me a while to thoroughly analyze, but the payoff at the end made it worth the effort, as my Subject Line suggests---a shocking parallel between the overt references to illegitimacy in S&S, and what I think is a thinly veiled reference to it in Persuasion, which JA almost deleted, but then reinserted!

First, here is the relevant passage in Persuasion, which we find near the very end of the final chapter of the novel, during one of JA’s characteristic “summing up” passages, when, one by one, she gives a capsule description of the various characters’s reactions to the romantic climax and what is to come after the novel ends.

The character under the microscope in this weird excerpt, as you could have guessed from my Subject Line, is Lady Russell, and here it is: “…She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities; and when the awkwardness of the beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child….”

Now, I suspect that most Janeites, basking in the romantic glow of Anne and Wentworth finally coming together, read through that sentence about Lady Russell pretty fast, and so never stop to consider, who exactly is Lady Russell’s “other child”, and then, who is the first child?  

Unless I have been reading Persuasion wrong for 15 years, I find no explicit statement anywhere in the novel that mentions any biological or adoptive child of Lady Russell. But we can nonetheless immediately and accurately identify the “other child” of Lady Russell as Anne Elliot, because what we are being told is that Lady Russell had no trouble attaching herself as a mother to Wentworth, who was securing the happiness of Anne, whom Lady Russell loves. Hence Anne must be that “other child”.

But that only makes the question of who is the first child implied by the reference to Anne as the “other child”  even more intriguing. What we know for sure about Lady Russell’s past is that she was a widow, and from that we might infer that she could have had biological children. And since she is a secondary character, we would not necessarily expect to have been informed if she did have any such children—while it seems most likely to me that she had none, it is also plausible that any surviving biological children of hers were simply no longer living in Somersetshire when the novel’s action takes place, and therefore, their lives were not relevant to the action of the story.

But then again, wouldn’t any biological children of Lady Russell, even if currently living elsewhere, be relevant nonetheless? After all, any such children would have probably been close to Anne Elliot in age, and the extreme closeness of the two young mothers and neighbors, Lady Russell and Lady Elliot, would have meant that Anne would have likely been friends with any of Lady Russell’s own children, who would have been like first cousins to Anne growing up.

And…when we eventually hear about Anne having been sent away to boarding school after her mother’ dies (and Anne then meets and befriends Miss Hamilton), we don’t hear about any daughter of Lady Russell being sent to that school along with Anne.

But what’s for sure is that Anne Elliot is Lady Russell’s god-daughter, Anne is the favorite daughter of Lady Russell’s dear departed friend, Lady Elliot, and we see and hear scenes in which Lady Russell is, in practice, just like a mother to Anne, who of course has no living mother when we meet her.  

So…if Anne is indeed the “other child” whom the narrator is talking about, then what are we to make of the narrator’s mysterious implication that there is a child of Lady Russell’s whom we ought to care about?

Now, we could try to answer this question based purely on the text of Persuasion as it was finally published in 1818, after JA’s death, through the efforts of brother Henry Austen. However, that would be unwise, as it turns out that the surviving manuscript of the so-called “cancelled chapters” of Persuasion contain evidence, which makes this puzzling question even more intriguing.

As far as I can tell, only one Austen scholar, Jocelyn Harris, in A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression, has ever addressed JA’s editing of this passage at all:

ppg 66-7: “Austen fiddles about with the next sentences about Lady Russell until they satisfy her…eliding ‘sort of” before “Mother” enhances the affection between Lady Russell and Captain Wentworth. But Anne and Wentworth are not really her children, and although Austen elides ‘other’ before ‘child’ in the manuscript, the 1818 text oddly restores it.”

It was noticing that deletion that led me to Harris’s discussion, and I was glad to see that I was barking up a tree that she had also found interesting and puzzling.

Now, let me explain one important point which is often misunderstood when analyzing the last chapters of Persuasion. I.e., even though we have the published text, and we have the manuscript of the cancelled chapters, there are really three relevant stages of the last chapters of Persuasion:

VERSION ONE: The version JA finished on July 8, 1816, which is still mostly decodable beneath JA’s extensive hand written editing (cross-outs, insertions, etc);

VERSION TWO: The version JA finished on July 16, 1816, consisting of the original text as edited by JA, which is what is called the “cancelled chapters”; and

VERSION THREE: The version that got published in 1818, which has significant differences from the edited cancelled chapters-most significantly the addition of the White Hart Inn scene with “you pierce my soul”, etc etc.

So, what you can see here in the facsimile of the relevant page in the cancelled chapters manuscript….
…and as Jocelyn Harris has explained, is that this sentence is as follows in the three versions:

VERSION ONE:  She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities—and when the first awkwardness of Novelty was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a sort of Mother to the Man whom she was continually seeing securing that happiness of her other Child.

VERSION TWO:  She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities—and when the awkwardness of the Beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a Mother to the Man who was securing the happiness of her Child.

VERSION THREE: She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities; and when the awkwardness of the beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child.

Several little changes between Version One and Version Two—but notice that there’s only one word altered between Version Two and Version Three—as Harris points out, the curious RE-insertion of the word “other”, that JA (or so one would think it was her) had deleted from Version One to arrive at Version Two.

Now, wuzzup with all of that? Any ideas? Why would JA delete “other” and then reinsert it?

Well, think about it. Without the word “other”, there is no implication of any other child of Lady Russell, and so we would not even be talking about this passage if that were all we saw in the text. But the text does contain the word “other”, which surely suggests that JA at first decided she wanted to tease and puzzle her readers on this point, then thought better of it, then returned to her initial desire to tease!

And so let’s run through some possibilities that occur to me for the identity of the mysterious first child of Lady Russell:

OPTION ONE: It could be some very dry sarcastic humor of the narrator, referring to the overgrown spoiled “child”  whose petty whims and caprices have to be catered to for fear of a tantrum if thwarted—of course I am referring to Sir Walter Elliot!  In some ways, Sir Walter really is like a child to Lady Russell, even as he is also very much of an eligible (at least in some respects) bachelor for her as well.
It’s a witty possibility, but somehow just a little too buried to satisfy as THE likely choice.

OPTION TWO: It could be the one and only suggestion in the novel text that Lady Russell had a single biological child, who, as I suggested earlier, might be utterly removed from the Kellynch and Bath scene inhabited by Lady Russell. But, as discussed earlier, that wouldn’t change anything, and would feel jarring, as if we should suddenly care about characters we know nothing about and who only make it in by the back door in the final paragraphs of the entire novel. No, it can’t be that.

OPTION THREE: It could be Mary Musgrove, who was younger than Anne, and therefore was just as much, if not more, in need of a surrogate mother as Anne when Lady Elliot died. And that attribution would fit nicely with the passage that immediately follows the reference to that “other child”, which just happens to be all about….Mary!:

“Of all the family, Mary was probably the one most immediately gratified by the circumstance. It was creditable to have a sister married, and she might flatter herself with having been greatly instrumental to the connexion, by keeping Anne with her in the autumn; and as her own sister must be better than her husband's sisters, it was very agreeable that Captain Wentworth should be a richer man than either Captain Benwick or Charles Hayter…..”  

And…the above passage about Mary was there in Version One, and the modifications thereof in Versions Two and Three do not deflect attention from Mary. So maybe JA was suggesting that Mary was so much more in the shadow of Lady Russell’s field of vision that she had to, in effect, grab the microphone out of the narrator’s hands, and insert an entire paragraph about what made her happy!

But…it still doesn’t ring true for me, because why would JA delete and then reinsert “other”, if she was going to leave Mary’s paragraph in there anyway in Version Three?

OPTION FOUR: No…I knew there was something else tickling my brain, and then it hit me—of course! The first child of Lady Russell could be Cousin Elliot, whom I am not the first to speculate might just be the illegitimate child of Sir Walter and Lady Russell, the result of a tryst early in the marriages of both the Elliots and the Russells. It would fit with the often-promulgated fiction in highborn families in those days, that referred to illegitimate children as if they were nephews or cousins instead of who they really were. And that allowed some illegitimate children, especially an only son surrounded by legitimate daughters, to inherit real property.  

And there would also be karmic significance in the narrator referring to Anne as Lady Russell’s “other child” having had her happiness secured by Wentworth, when we could surely say, in the same breath, that Wentworth was also responsible for securing the misery of Cousin Elliot, by trumping the latter’s determined courtship of Anne!

But…what cinches Option Four for me is that JA’s attempted alteration in Version Two would thereby be eerily parallel to the exact same sort of changes made by JA to S&S---but instead of seeing editing in a handwritten manuscript, the changes in S&S were done between the first and the second edition of the published novel!

Of course I am referring to Mrs. Jennings’s references to Eliza, Jr., the “natural child” of Colonel Brandon. So as not to reinvent the wheel, I refer you now to my blog post of nearly 3 years ago…
…in which, in meticulous detail, I lay out my interpretation of how and why Jane Austen altered the text of S&S in a couple of places, so as to alter the way that the delicate and scandalous aspects of the illegitimacy of Eliza, Jr. is handled-most of all, I suggest, to alter the way that the real life Warren Hastings and his love child, Eliza Hancock Austen, were represented by the Colonel and his ward.

So….isn’t it amazing to realize for the first time this compelling parallel of the publication history of JA’s first published novel, and her last published novel.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Trina Lorde said...

Sorry, I have to disagree. It's Wentworth. She now has two "children."

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks for your reply, Trina!

You've reminded me that i forgot to cross post here the following followup post, which I wrote in Austen L a week ago:

One of my private correspondents just enlightened me as to the simplest and most elegant interpretation of Jane Austen's narrator referring to Lady Russell's "other child", which I (and Jocelyn Harris) overlooked.

Here it is in my brilliant friend's own words:

"Austen speaks in one sentence of Lady R loving Anne like a daughter and learning to be a mother to Wentworth, who will make "her other child" happy. Surely the logical and grammatical antecedent of that other child is Anne?"

I.e, not only is Anne the "other child", the fairest implication is also that Wentworth is the first "child", by virtue of Lady R's attaching herself to him "as a mother"!

And that interpretation also works in all three versions in the progression of JA's writing of that passage.

Having said all of that, and as I also responded to my friend, I believe her interpretation actually bolsters my claim about the other "illegitimate child" explanation, because Jane Austen usually masked her subtext with a simple explanation.

Although that direct explanation is so elegant, that If it weren't for the uncannily close echo of the elaborate "natural child" editing progression between the first two published editions of S&S, I'd probably retract my original claim as overexplanation.

But that parallel between Persuasion and S&S fits too beautifully (or should I also say "two beautifully"?) for it to be an unintended coincidence. Jane Austen had many reasons, I think, for going to the trouble of writing "other", deleting it, and then reinserting it, all within one month. She was, I think, thinking through those other interpretations, and whether she wanted to "go there". In the end, she went there, having decided, perhaps that the respectable "mask" sufficed to give deniability to the scandalous subtext.

Plus, upon further reflection, this example has another telltale marker of multiple meaning in JA's writing-- the reader has to stop and think, hmmm, who is the first child? And I have found that in many of such textual excerpts, JA has usually opened one door in front of the reader's eyes, but has also quietly tipped open a few other doors off to the side.

I think JA's deeper point in all this is that life can be thought of as an endless series of decisions about which doors to walk through.

Diana said...

I think JA clarifies it herself in the passage. She is a mother to Wentworth. So he is her child. And he makes her other child happy. I read it pretty simply as such. in my opinion JA reinserted "other" precisely to ensure we understand that Lady Russell views both Wentworth and Anne as her children. Imaginative explanations you have. Although I personally doubt the theory of Cousin Elliot being Anne's illegitimate half brother via Lady Russell and Sir Walter seeing how much a marriage was encouraged between them. I may not be well read in the custom of the times but somehow siblings marrying still rings alarm bells.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you, Diana, for your sensible reply. However, as I argued in my post, I believe this is a classic example of Jane Austen having her cake and eating it too, literarily speaking--the passage works fine as you read it, but I am also very confident that it also works in the dark disturbing incestuous sense that i see there. JA was a wickedly sly elf.