Those Janeites who followed the big to-do in late 2011 about the discovery of a portrait that some claimed was of Jane Austen herself….
….may recall the BBC special which included a lively debate in which two of the three talking heads (debating the pros and cons on the portrait’s being JA or not) were Deirdre Le Faye, of course the grand old lady of Austen biography, and Paula Byrne, the brash, unconventional newcomer to Austen biography in 2013, making waves with her fresh approach in The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.
In regard to the radically different approaches of Byrne and Le Faye to Austen biography, last summer I posted…
…under Subject Line “Better the false positives of Paula Byrne about Jane Austen, than the false negatives of Delrdre Le Faye”. In that post, I quoted from a post I wrote earlier in 2013 about Jane Austen’s Letter 105, as follows: “…the good work that Byrne has done…makes up for her sloppiness on other points---it's easy for an informed reader to correct a false positive, but there's no easy cure for a reader to correct a false negative (as to which there must be more than a hundred in Le Faye’s editions of the Letters, and in her Family Record)! [E.g.,] here is what Paula Byrne has to say about the Hampson family in her very recent bio of JA:
“[Jane] Austen was intimately connected with the slave trade and plantation owners. In her own family, there were the Hampson and the Walter cousins on her father’s side…Her closest connection to a plantation family was through her father’s family...The Hampson family had a plantation in Jamaica, and two of William’s sons were sent there….In other words, Jane Austen had a cousin twice removed who was called Sir Thomas and who owned a plantation in Jamaica.” END QUOTE FROM BYRNE
…Isn’t it very curious, though, that Le Faye referred to him as a republican, but completed omitted any mention whatsoever (even in the detailed Biographical Index entry for the Hampson family) that he was a plantation owner? It’s hard (no, impossible) to believe that Le Faye was unaware of the Jamaica connection, and yet, Byrne appears to be the first JA biographer to present this crucial fact to the Janeite world….a reader of Letter 105 who could instead have been informed by a footnote that [Hampson] owned a slave plantation in Jamaica, would reasonably speculate that what JA disliked about the 7th baronet was his owning a slave plantation--and that would especially be the case if he also was alerted that JA was right in the midst of writing Mansfield Park as she wrote Letter 105!” END QUOTE FROM MY EARLIER POST
The most important sentence I wrote, above, is “It’s hard (no, impossible) to believe that Le Faye was unaware of the Jamaica connection….” And since Le Faye remains 100 times more influential in Janeite circles than Byrne, unawareness of that unseemly intimate Austen family connection to Jamaican slavery still persists among pretty much all Janeites even today!
When I wrote the above last July, I never imagined that within a year I’d be back writing about a second, even more egregious example of where Byrne, although guilty of a factual error, nonetheless highlighted a crucial disturbing fact that Le Faye had (exactly as with Hampson-slavery data) downplayed & ignored, regarding a much larger Jamaican slavery plantation connection to Jane Austen’s family—this time, in the generation after Jane Austen’s!
My latest tale of these two strange bedfellows of Austen biography began last week when I saw the film Belle. The next day, my friend Steve Wise, who really liked the film (as I did), told me that Paula Byrne, of all people, had just published a companion bio to the film, entitled (naturally) Belle. When I browsed in Byrne’s book at amazon.com, I saw two points of great interest to me.
First, at p. 245, Byrne wrote: “The shadow story of Mansfield Park is slavery….” - I found it personally gratifying to see my own pet phrase “shadow story” being used so casually by Byrne, even if she did not acknowledge (and perhaps was unaware of) my having coined that very phrase vis a vis JA’s novels a decade ago, and my having used it a thousand times since then.
Second, and to the point of this post, at p. 247, Byrne presented the following discussion of William Bedford (1760-1844), who was, of course, in his youth the richest person in England, being heir to the most lucrative slave plantation in the British West Indies, and also famously the author of the extravagant Gothic novel Vathek:
[Byrne]: “The man Beckford principally blamed for his ruin was James Wildman, whom he called an ‘infernal rascal’. Wildman managed Beckford’s plantations in Jamaica, and purchased the ‘Quebec’ plantation from him. Beckford became convinced that he had swindled him of his fortune. Wildman fell in love with a woman called Fanny Knight, who was Jane Austen’s favourite niece. Fanny entreated him to read her aunt’s novels (one wonders what he made of Mansfield Park), and Jane wrote, teasingly, that she would like Fanny to live on his estate, Chilham Castle in Kent. Fanny would have become a plantation mistress, but in the end she refused Wildman. He was eventually forced to sell Chilham Castle because of his falling income after the emancipation of the slaves.” END QUOTE FROM BYRNE
When I read that, something was clearly off in Byrne’s assertion that the unliterary suitor for Fanny Knight at Godmersham in 1813-17 was the same man who had swindled the much older and immensely rich William Beckford out of his fortune. Sure enough, five minutes on Google confirmed that it was the father of Fanny’s beau who was Beckford’s ‘infernal rascal’. In a nutshell, the Wildman brothers of that elder generation were attorneys and agents who collectively handled William Beckford’s vast holdings for him, and then, as he believed, robbed him blind. And Fanny’s suitor’s middle name was Beckford because William Beckford was his godfather!
So Byrne hadn’t done her historical homework carefully--had she done a little more digging, as I did this past weekend, and had she considered how often first born sons had the same names as their fathers back then, she’d have realized she had identified the wrong James Wildman as Beckford’s “infernal rascal”.
But my key point here is that Byrne’s sloppiness is far, far outweighed by Byrne’s courageous going for the intellectual jugular once again, just as she had done with the Hampson-Jamaica-slavery matrix, in connecting the Austen family, with only one degree of separation, to Jamaican plantation slavery, this time with William Beckford via the Wildman family.
I am certain that Jane Austen must have been well aware of this connection, and that is why I now believe that JA in particular covertly alluded to the Beckford-Wildman fraud-drenched client-attorney relationship via the characters of Mr. Shepherd vis a vis Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. I’ve long believed that Mr. Shepherd maneuvered Sir Walter out of Kellynch Hall while hoping his daughter Mrs. Clay would snare the old narcissist’s heart.
And it also makes it seem much more likely to me, that the Elliot fortune had originally been made from West Indies investments which later went sour—and perhaps Mr. Smith’s West Indies connection is not unconnected thereto.
And that is all in addition, and complementary, to my long-standing interpretation of Mr. Shepherd as a representation of the unscrupulous attorney Hanson who, with his sadistic daughter, took such egregious advantage of his weak-minded client Lord Portsmouth, all of which we know Jane Austen knew all about.
And…JA being aware of the Beckford-Wildman scenario also puts a whole different slant on JA’s comments to Fanny about Fanny’s putting young Wildman on the spot, pushing him to give his opinions about JA’s writing. As Byrne suggested, it would indeed have been interesting to know what young Wildman thought of Mansfield Park, given its slavery shadow story. And it might be one reason why JA advised Fanny not to mention Persuasion to Wildman—i.e., might he have recognized his own father in the character of Mr. Shepherd?
In any event, because of Byrne’s above quoted disclosure, and the above well-established and prominent historical facts about Beckford and the Wildman brothers, it is simply mind-boggling to me that Le Faye’s biographical index entry for Fanny’s young suitor, who is the “star” of two of JA’s late letters to Fanny, omits any mention whatsoever of Beckford’s anger toward James Wildman, Sr., notorious scandals, and indeed never mentions the connection of the Wildman family to the super-famous William Beckford. Here, see for yourselves:
“Wildman family of Chilham Castle, nr. Godmersham. James Wildman (1747-1816) purchased Chilham Castle 1792; his son James-Beckford Wildman (1788-1867) married 1820 Mary Anne Lushington, and had 10 children.When he succeeded his father in1816 the estate was worth L20,000/yr., but ‘overgenerous provision for members of the family’ combined with ‘mortgages raised to provide funds to work the family estates in the West Indies by machinery, after the emancipation of the slaves’ meant that the property had to be sold in 1861; Mr. Wildman subsequently lived at Yotes Court, near Maidstone, until his death. ….”
As you can see, Le Faye only mentions the Wildman slavery connection obliquely, and with much less prominence than James Beckford’s (trivial, from an Austenian perspective) marital data. I’d wager that even Janeites who have read JA’s letters carefully, as we’ve been doing, would have no idea whatsoever as to where James Beckford Wildman’s money came from, or that he inherited Chilham Castle after his father’s death within a year of JA’s last correspondence with niece Fanny about him. And indeed, no one in either Janeites or Austen L has ever previously mentioned young Mr. Wildman as being heir to a family which made its fortune from feeding at the vast financial trough of West Indian slave plantations.
In fact, and ironically, no Austen biographer prior to Byrne ever took note of the Beckford/Wildman slavery connection to Fanny Knight, as far as I can tell, and the only Austen scholar who did take note of it was Stephanie Barron---fictionally---when she wrote the following dry commentary for her fictional sleuthing Jane Austen in Barron’s recent Jane and the Canterbury Tale: Being a Jane Austen Mystery:
“Mr. James Wildman amassed his wealth in trade-through the management of a vast sugar plantation in Jamaica, owned by one William Beckford. Mr. Beckford is grown infamous in the Polite World, I understand, for having seduced at a tender age the son and heir of an earl—and for being forced to flee the country with his wife in the wake of the subsequent scandal….It is Beckford’s name that young James Beckford Wildman claims—Beckford having stood as the boys godfather. We may assume the choice of both name and patron to signify gratitude on MR. Wildman Sr.’s part, rather than any approbation of William Beckford’s tastes or habits. The amassing of a considerable fortune must be said to sweep all prudish reserve aside—and Mr. Wildman owed his present comfort entirely to Beckford’s Jamaican plantation. He managed the Quebec Estate, as the plantation was known, so well, in fact—and Beckford proved so profligate in his building and furnishing of his absurd pile at Fonthill Abbey—that Wildman was presently able to relieve his illustrious employer’s straitened circumstances, by purchasing the plantation outright; and at a very good price, if rumour is believed. The revenues from Jamaican sugar proved so lucrative that Mr. Wildman was gradually able to put enough by to purchase Chilham Castle when his son was but four years old. The Wildman income is thought to be in the neighbourhood of twenty thousand a year…. “
The bottom line is that if not for Byrne, I’d never have known about this hugely interesting factual matrix, and so I look forward to her next false positive, because it really is easy to correct a sloppy mistake, but it’s very difficult to even recognize an error of omission, with which Le Faye’s writing is replete. Just add this to the very long list of concealments and omissions by Le Faye which, in aggregate, have hidden so many fruitful lines of inquiry into the shadow stories of, and allusive sources for, JA’s novels.
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