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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Letter 149 and The Herschel Connection Behind JA's "Lunar Observation"

In Letter 149 to 12-year  old niece Caroline, Jane Austen wrote this about “Anne”, apparently a fictional character created by Caroline herself:  
“She should not only place her Quilt in the Centre, but give its' Latitude & Longitude, & measure its Dimensions by a LUNAR OBSERVATION if she chose.”

Ellen Moody wrote this in Janeites & Austen-L: "I take “Lunar” to be a reference to the group that met calling themselves the Lunar Society and that’s interesting because it shows her awareness of philosophical cults in her time. She did know Maria Edgeworth enough to send her a copy of Emma so she might have been able to hear of Edgeworth, Day and that group’s activities. They were located in Birmingham:  "

And then Diana Birchall replied: "Good on Ellen, picking up that "Lunar" shows Jane Austen's awareness of the Lunar Society!"

Yes, Diana, it is very good on Ellen, thank you for alerting me to what she wrote, which I had not noticed earlier.

But you and she have only scratched the surface of the full extent of the "goodness" of Ellen's catch, because it’s even better than the explanation Ellen stated. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s not news that JA was aware of the Lunar Society. In the below-linked 1993 Persuasions article by a Staffordship native, Gaye King…

…we hear all about JA’s one degree of separation from various members of the Lunar Society, which had its center of gravity, so to speak, in and near Staffordshire. In that article, King gave excellent background on the luminaries the Austen women might have encountered socially during their 1806 trip to Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire (the major city of which, I believe, is Newcastle, where, interestingly, Wickham is initially stationed after he and Lydia are married).

King’s article describes the Lunar Society social circle, which included the Austens’ cousin, the porcine Revd. Edward Cooper.

[I describe him as porcine because of CEA’s satirical portrait of his face in the guise of one of Edward IV in JA’s History of England (as per Annette Upfal’s persuasive case for that satire):

Anyway, it’s therefore been known for 20 years that JA was only one degree of separation removed from that illustrious circle, one of the famous members of which was Erasmus Darwin, of  course grandpa to Charles Darwin, but in his time one of the great famous names of British science and culture.

And, on top of that, I’ve known since 2005 that JA was aware of the Lunar Society in an even more direct way than King’s article demonstrates, because I discovered (as I’ve posted numerous times since) that the “Mrs. Pole” who gives such a sophisticated, laudatory opinion about Mansfield Park was actually the widow of Erasmus Darwin himself!:

(one post among many of mine on various aspects of Mrs. Pole vis a vis JA)

So, if JA was connected closely enough to Mrs. Pole aka Mrs. Darwin to elicit such praise of MP in 1814-5, it is not at all surprising that JA would refer to “lunar observation” in 1817. But that is still peripheral to what I think is the deepest significance of JA’s specific reference to “lunar observation” in Letter 149.

The salient fact here is that the name of one of the members of the Lunar Society was actually virtually synonymous with “lunar observation”, because he was the greatest astronomer of the 18th century, and also a designer of state of the art telescopes, who famously observed (in many cases from his observatory in--you'll never guess---BATH!) not only Earth’s moon, but also discovered moons of other planets as well, as well as discovering the planet Uranus itself---of course I am talking about William Herschel!

In fact, Erasmus Darwin included an oblique tribute to his friend, Herschel, in Canto 2 of Darwin’s famous poem, The Loves of the Plants:

--The calm Philosopher in ether fails,
Views broader stars, and breathes in purer gales;
Sees, like a map, in many a waving line
Round Earth's blue plains her lucid waters mine; 45
Sees at his feet the forky lightnings glow,
And hears innocuous thunders roar below.
----Rise, great MONGOLFIER! urge thy venturous flight
High o'er the Moon's pale ice-REFLECTED light;
High o'er the pearly Star, whose beamy horn. 50
Hangs in the east, gay harbinger of morn;
Leave the red eye of Mars on rapid wing;
Jove's silver guards, and Saturn's dusky ring;
Leave the fair beams, which, issuing from afar;
Play with new lustres round the Georgian star;  55
Shun with strong oars the Sun's ATTRACTIVE throne,
The sparkling zodiack, and the MILKY zone;
Where headlong COMETS with increasing force
Through other systems bend their BLAZING course.-
For thee Cassiope her chair withdraws, 60
For thee the Bear retracts his shaggy paws;
High o'er the North thy golden orb shall roll,
So Argo, rising from the southern main,
Lights with new stars the BLUE etherial plain;  65
With favoring beams the mariner protects,
And the bold course, which first it steer'd, directs.

I knew all this, because I have been working off and on for a couple of months on a post I will be making in the next month about the heretofore never noticed Jane Austen literary allusion to William Herschel AND also about the smaller, less famous astronomer-“star” who orbited around him, i.e,. his younger sister, Caroline, who was famous in her own right during JA’s lifetime as the femal comet-discoverer!

What I will be posting about as soon as I have followed a few more leads, is my claim that Caroline Herschel was a major allusive source for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and that it is Caroline Herschel whom Jane Austen specifically wished to honor in the famous star-gazing scene in MP, which, not coincidentally, ALSO (like Darwin’s poem) refers to Cassiopeia and the North Star!

So, again, very good on Ellen, because, for all the apparently frivolity of JA’s reference to “lunar observation” in Letter 149, there was actually all this rich subtext related to the Darwins (including the “Pole” Erasmus married!) and the Herschels.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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