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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Letter 159 to Anne Sharp, Part Two: the Dying JA’s Alter Egos: Galigai de Concini & St. Swithin!

“…But how you are worried! Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort. Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice! It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed. Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.-Adeiu.”

Le Faye’s footnote re Galigai de Concini reads as follows: “RWC gives the explanation: Eleonore Galigai, a maid of honour to Maria de Medicis, married Concino Concini, and was burned as a sorceress in 1617. When one of her judges asked her what charm she had put on her mistress, she replied: ‘Mon sortilege a ete le pouvoir que les ames fortes doivent avoir sur les esprits faibles.’ [“My sorcery was the power that strong souls must have over weak spirits.”] Voltaire, Essai  sur les Moeurs, Ch. 175. JA may have owed her knowledge to Lord Chesterfield (see his letter of 30 April 1752; or to Edgeworth’s The Absentee, Ch. 3”  END QUOTE FROM LE FAYE/CHAPMAN

From my research today, I believe JA and Anne Sharpe knew all about Galligai de Concini from several different sources, and not just the Chesterfield and Edgeworth. Let’s look at each of them now:

First, here is the passage in Lord Chesterfield’s Letter that Chapman cited, in which the worldly wise Lord eloquently touts the value of practical life experience over purely intellectual knowledge, when it comes to human nature. When I read this passage, I think of Jane Austen herself as a writer, and I think of strong-minded characters like the Luciferian Charlotte LUC-as and LUC-y FERrars!:

“The man 'qui a du monde' knows all this from his own experience and observation: the conceited, cloistered philosopher knows nothing of it from his own theory; his practice is absurd and improper, and he acts as awkwardly as a man would dance, who had never seen others dance, nor learned of a dancing-master; but who had only studied the notes by which dances are now pricked down as well as tunes. Observe and imitate, then, the address, the arts, and the manners of those 'qui ont du monde': see by what methods they first make, and afterward improve impressions in their favor. Those impressions are much oftener owing to little causes than to intrinsic merit; which is less volatile, and hath not so sudden an effect. Strong minds have undoubtedly an ascendant over weak ones, as GALIGAI Marachale d'Ancre very justly observed, when, to the disgrace and reproach of those times, she was executed for having governed Mary of Medicis by the arts of witchcraft and magic. But then ascendant is to be gained by degrees, and by those arts only which experience and the knowledge of the world teaches; for few are mean enough to be bullied, though most are weak enough to be bubbled. I have often seen people of superior, governed by people of much inferior parts, without knowing or even suspecting that they were so governed.”

Next, we have the passage from Edgeworth’s The Absentee,which is a lighter, comic version of the archetype, in which the quick-witted Mrs. Dareville repeatedly “dares” to tweak the vanity of the slow-witted society snob Lady Clonbrony. Here’s the end of that scene, where Galigai is referred to:

“Having with great difficulty got the malicious wit out of the pagoda and into the Turkish tent, Lady Clonbrony began to breathe more freely; for here she thought she was upon safe ground: 'Everything, I flatter myself' said she, 'is correct and appropriate, and quite picturesque.' The company, dispersed in happy groups, or reposing on seraglio ottomans, drinking lemonade and sherbet beautiful Fatimas admiring, or being admired—'Everything here quite correct, appropriate, and picturesque,' repeated Mrs. Dareville.
This lady's powers as a mimic were extraordinary, and she found them irresistible. Hitherto she had imitated Lady Clonbrony's air and accent only behind her back; but, bolder grown, she now ventured, in spite of Lady Langdale's warning pinches, to mimic her kind hostess before her face, and to her face.
[More examples of Mrs. Dareville’s mockery of Lady Clonbrony, then…]
'Salisbury!—explain this to me,' said a lady, drawing Mr. Salisbury aside. 'If you are in the secret, do explain this to me; for unless I had seen it, I could not have believed it. Nay, though I have seen it, I do not believe it. How was that daring spirit laid? By what spell?'
'By the spell which superior minds always cast on inferior spirits.'
'Very fine,' said the lady, laughing, 'but as old as the days of Leonora de GALIGAI, quoted a million times. Now tell me something new and to the purpose, and better suited to modern days.'
'Well, then, since you will not allow me to talk of superior minds in the present days, let me ask you if you have never observed that a wit, once conquered in company by a wit of a higher order, is thenceforward in complete subjection to the conqueror, whenever and wherever they meet.'
'You would not persuade me that yonder gentle-looking could ever be a match for the veteran Mrs. Dareville? She may have the wit, but has she the courage?'
'Yes; no one has more courage, more civil courage, where her own dignity, or the interests of her friends are concerned. I will tell you an instance or two to-morrow.”

Even though I believe JA did indeed read both Lord Chesterfield’s letters AND The Absentee, I believe JA was also very familiar with Mary Hays’s 1807 biographical sketch of Galigai, which itself was a condensation of a much longer bio published by Bayle a half  century earlier:

LEONORA GALLIGAI, a Florentine, the daughter of a joiner, and the nurse of Mary de Medicis, by whom she was greatly beloved, accompanied Mary into France on her marriage with Henry IV in 1606. Leonora, plain in her person, but possessed of wit and talents, wholly governed the queen her mistress, whom she attended as woman of the bed-chamber. She gave her hand to Concino Conceni, afterwards marshal d'Ancre, who was also a native of Florence, and who came into France with the queen. Conceni, through the influence of his wife, rapidly obtained wealth and employments. The domestic jars which embittered the life of Henry IV are attributed to the machinations of this Florentine pair, who found their account in abusing the confidence of their mistress.
After the death of Henry, the Concernis, by their ascendency over the queen, obtained yet greater powers; and, by their rapacity and insolence, offended the nobles, and disgusted the nation. The marquisate of Ancre in Picardy was purchased by Conceni; who was also made governor of Amiens, Peronne, Roie, and Montdidier. He was afterwards created a marshal of France, and first gentleman of the bedchamber to the young king. Two hundred gentlemen attended him when he appeared in public, beside the servants to whom he allowed wages, and whom he was accustomed to call his ' thousandlivre poltroons.' He removed at pleasure the counsellors of the king, whom he replaced with his own creatures; disposed of the finances, distributed the offices of state, and by terror crushed all who opposed him.
Leonora, thus arrived at the pinnacle of fortune, affected the most ridiculous fastidiousness. The princes, princesses, and first personages of the kingdom, were prohibited from coming to her apartments, while it was accounted a crime to look at her. The people terrified her, she declared, and made her dread lest they should bewitch her by gazing in her face. Wearied at length by the complaints of his courtiers, and the exactions and caprices of the Italian favourites, Lewis XIII determined to rid himself of their usurpations; for which purpose he gave a commission to Vitri, a captain of the guards, who received orders to dispatch Conceni, by pistols, on the drawbridge of the Louvre. This sentence was accordingly executed April 24, 1617. The body of the unfortunate favourite suffered, after his death, the vilest indignities [gory details, followed by…] Leonora heard of the fate of her husband with little concern, except for her own interest. Without shedding a tear, or expressing a regret, she appeared solicitous only for the preservation of her jewels. Having enclosed them in her bed, she caused herself to be undressed and placed in it; but the officers of the provost, sent to search her chamber, compelled her to arise, and discovered the treasure. 'You have killed my husband,' said she, 'does not that satisfy you? Let me be permitted to leave the kingdom.' When informed of the indignities practised on the body of Conceni, she appeared somewhat moved, yet she shed no tears. After a pause, she declared that her husband had been a presumptuous insolent man, who had deserved his fate. It was three years, she added, since they had separate apartments; that Conceni was a bad man, and that, to rid herself of him, she had determined, to retire into Italy, and had prepared every thing for her journey. This assertion she offered to prove. She behaved with great confidence, as if she had nothing to apprehend, and even expressed a hope of being taken again into favour.
She was first carried to the Bastile, and afterwards committed to the Conciergerie, or prison of the parliament, by which she was tried. Having been condemned to lose her head, and have her body consumed to ashes, she pleaded pregnancy; a plea which was over-ruled by her own confession, that she had lived apart from her husband for three years. Convicted of high treason against God and the king, she suffered her sentence with firmness and courage, July 8th, 1617.
She was accused, with her husband, of having judaized, and practised magic arts; which, with judicial astrology, were, in those times, seriously professed. On being questioned by counsellor Courtin, respecting the kind of sorcery which, she had employed to gain an ascendency over Mary de Medicis, she sensibly replied, 'That she had used no other magic, than that power which strong minds possess over those that are weak.'

With that background, I now express my agreement with Claire Tomalin’s 1999 assessment of this allusion in Letter 159, which is that JA saw herself as a strong minded woman condemned by society as a “sorceress”:  “Suddenly, surprisingly, she invokes the 17th century French ‘sorceress’ Eleonore Galigai de Concini, who, according to Voltaire, told her judges before she was burned that her magic was simply the force that strong spirits exert over weak ones…Was it Eliza who read Voltaire and told her about Eleonore? Whoever it was, “Galigai de Concini for ever & ever’ wrote Jane, her own spirit strong enough for a sorceress.” And in a 2013 book chapter entitled “Getting to Know Miss Jane Austen: Images of an Author”, Rana Tekcan, a Turkish scholar, strongly endorsed Tomalin’s reading:  “Tomalin…connects the strong spirit of the sorceress not with Anne Sharpe but with JA herself about to face death. Tomalin entitles the chapter “The Sorceress’ and surrounds the quotation with details of her illness and her last attempt at composition.”

But the still bigger picture I see, is that JA writes this to Anne Sharp as a code already so familiar between the two of them from past interactions, that it needs no explanation, beyond stating the mantra. I believe JA is indeed speaking about herself and Anne, as two persecuted co-conspirators in the heresy that two women without formal education could be wiser and (by deception) more powerful even than those invested with real power in their world, mostly men.

And…there is also in Galigai the idea of a smart woman who gains power not through her physical attractiveness, but through her sharp mind. We are reminded of Lady Susan, Lucy Ferrars, Mary Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, Mrs. Smith and (yes) Harriet Smith—who use their wits to gain what they seek. And also such women are viewed as dangerous by the patriarchy, and so are demonized as witches and often violently disposed of—that persecution is as much part of why JA mentions Galigai to Anne Sharp as the powerfully sharp female mind.

And that’s when I connected the dots I show in my Subject Line—of course JA wrote Letter 159 only 6 weeks or so before she wrote her final poem, Winchester Races, which I have written about many times as JA’s swan song of defiant, indomitable spirit. She will not be silenced, she may even have been quietly put  to death (Ashford’s novel is not a ridiculous flight of fancy, it is grounded in Letter 159, Winchester Races, and the references to poison in Sanditon and Emma). But JA’s strong spirit, and her writings, will survive!

No wonder Anne Sharp kept this one letter so sacred, and passed it on (as Le Faye describes its provenance) so that it would eventually (in 1926) emerge into the light of day for the world to see.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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