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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Queen Galigai, Queen Sarah, & Queen Jane: the lesbian subtext of Letter 159

Ellen Moody wrote the following re Jane Austen's Letter 159 to Anne Sharp, written not long before Jane's premature death at 41:
"Galigai de Concini forever.' I used to think this a reference to a witty French philosophe's letters (very popular) suggesting a world of Enlightenment Jane and Anne shared together as girls but Chapman says it's a reference to a devastating story of a woman burned to death who asked what she had used on her mistress to "charm" her-(the mistress was getting back at this poor woman), answered the power of strong souls over weak. I wish I knew the Voltairian context: he would be telling the story with sardonic irony perhaps.. Anyway that must have been their motto: the source is as revealing as the surface content. Strength influences weakness and yet you are at high risk of destruction. Perhaps Austen believed this: the strong personality, the person with inner strength to whom in her novels (her heroines are this kind of person) she gave a romance happiness at the close of her books as that is what her readers wanted.” END QUOTE

Ellen, your wish is my command—here first is Voltaire, in French and in translation (which I know you don’t need, but others might):

“Le conseiller Courtin lui demanda de quel charme elle s’était servie pour ensorceler la reine: Galigaï, indignée contre le conseiller, et un peu mécontente de Marie de Médicis, répondit: “Mon sortilège a été le pouvoir que les âmes fortes doivent avoir sur les esprits faibles.” Cette réponse ne la sauva pas; quelques juges eurent assez de lumières et d’équité pour ne pas opiner à la mort; mais le reste, entraîné par le préjugé public, par l’ignorance, et plus encore par ceux qui voulaient recueillir les dépouilles de ces infortunés, condamnèrent à la fois le mari déjà mort et la femme, comme convaincus de sortilège, de judaïsme et de malversations. La maréchale fut exécutée (1617), et son corps brûlé.”
Counselor Courtin asked her what magic she had used to cast a spell upon the queen: Galigai, outraged against the counselor and a bit miffed with Maria de Medici, answered: “My magic spell was the power that strong spirits may have upon the weak.” This response did not save her, several judges were intelligent and just enough not to support the penalty of death, but the rest, influenced by public prejudice, by ignorance and still more by those who sought to reap the plunder of those unfortunates, sentenced both the already deceased husband and his wife to death—for sorcery, Judaism and miscreancy. The maréchale was executed (1617) and her body burned.”  Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de l’histoire, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à Louis XIII, ch clxxiv, 7ème lettre (1756)

It is obvious from the above that Voltaire sympathized with Galigai, and that he didn’t buy the prosecutor’s theory of massively corrupt, even evil Rasputin-like influence that harmed many French people.

From my further consideration of, and digging beneath, JA’s cryptic meaning in alluding to “Galigai for ever and ever” in Letter 159, beyond my comments in my previous post, I not only continue to adhere to the belief that this was a mantra expressing  JA’s longstanding secret bond with Anne Sharp, as two single gentlewomen treated as less than equal to the gentlemen around them, but also as having a sexual aspect as well—i.e., it was an expression of a very romantic friendship between JA and Anne, expressed at the very moment in JA’s life when she was in effect already in her deathbed, and therefore likely to be the most truthful, uncensored expression of JA’s deepest feelings. In short, JA was pouring her heart out  to a woman she loved very deeply, more than as a purely platonic friend.

And in that same vein, I believe, after reading up a good deal today about the relationship between Maria de Medicis and Eleonora Galigai de Concini, that at least a part of the widespread hatred & demonization of Galigai—the horrible cry of “Burn the witch!” repeated in countless varied ways a thousand times, over millennia, all over the world, against women who in any way transgressed, or seemed to transgress, against the cruelly unfair restrictions imposed on their gender--was due to the perception that Galigai was not merely manipulating Maria, who was after all mother of the King of France, for gain and power, but the added extra inciting factor that her manipulation was believed to be at least partly based on a lesbian relationship between them.
And that would be strikingly similar to another royal scenario that played out in England less than a century after Galigai was put to death, and, in that regard, I leave it to an 1844 commentator to give you part one of the explanation of that connection….

Notice of Windsor in Olden Times by John Stoughton, at p. 222:
“No reader of English history can fail to associate with the reign of Anne the name of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, whose history is also linked to the locality of Windsor by several interesting incidents. There, in her palmy days, she gave examples of the marvellous influence which she had acquired over her royal mistress, an influence which it has been well remarked, was the same as the sorcery which Leonora Galligai avowed to her judges over Mary de Medicis— "the power of a strong upon a weak mind." She was appointed by the queen ranger of Windsor Park, an appointment which she greatly valued, and had a residence there appropriated for her use, to which she was much attached. The lodge of the park, she remarks, was a very agreeable residence; and "Anne had remembered, in the days of their friendship, that the duchess, in riding by it, had often wished for such a place." The castle was the scene of many a visit from "Queen Sarah," as she was popularly called, till her influence was undermined by the intrigues of the famous Mrs. Masham, that singular personage in English history.”

…and the Booklist synopsis for the recent biography of “Queen Sarah” by Ophelia Field to give you part two:

“Though the life of Sarah Churchill (1660-1744), first duchess of Marlborough and original matriarch of a still-thriving dynasty, has been well chronicled through the centuries, Field still manages to provide new insight. Sarah's intimate relationship with Queen Anne serves as the natural centerpiece of this biography. One of the queen's most favored companions for a great number of years, Sarah eventually blackmailed Anne, whom she believed to have unceremoniously dumped her for another female friend. Intriguingly, Sarah threatened to expose Anne as a lesbian, an accusation that would have implicated Sarah in her own attempted slander of the queen. Such a gutsy power play was par for the course for a savvy operator who used any backdoor source available to her as a woman to wield social, political, and economic power in a man's world. Married to one of England's greatest generals, she exploited whatever and whomever possible in order to advance the Whig party or to increase her already immense fortune.”

I think JA was well aware of both of these very famous royal power plays, including their sexual aspects, and included them not only in that brief code in Letter 159, but also in various of her novels—but that last point is a topic for another day.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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