Apropos our recent thread in Janeites & Austen L about “the disciple of Godwin” whom Jane Austen met in Bath in 1801, today I stumbled upon what I believe was a veiled and very positive allusion by JA in Persuasion to a novel by one of Godwin’s closest “Jacobin” friends during the 1790’s, Thomas Holcroft. My path to Holcroft was circuitous, I hope you’ll enjoy my “travelogue”.
I was reading along in Jane Austen's Anglicanism, Laura Mooneyham White’s 2013 book, when I read the following:
“…the name of Lord St. Ives, one of the ‘new creations’ Sir Walter deplores in Persuasion, reminds us of the old riddle about how many are going to St. Ives. The riddle balances anxiety about Malthusian excess (all those ‘kits, cats, sacks, and wives”) with its solution (one) to mirror Sir Walter’s anxiety about the many ‘new creations’ who will overrun the ‘limited remnant’ of older families.”
I had previously been completely unaware of that riddle, which I quickly located, and which was indeed extant in JA’s time:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
And here is the relevant portion of Sir Walter’s rant:
“A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine…It is a pity [sailors] are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."
Based on the above, I found White’s analysis to be plausible, but I suspected JA of even subversive intent with the name “St. Ives”, recalling that JA often chose names which turned out to have multiple allusive sources. So I Googled a bit, to see if there might be some more to that seemingly random character name ”St. Ives” in Persuasion. It didn’t take me long to find the following discussion of Mansfield Park in Mona Scheuermann, in Reading Jane Austen (2009), which, as I will explain shortly, and as I’m certain you’ll agree, actually leads straight to Sir Walter Elliot’s reference to St. Ives:
“The other major argument against the fashion for improvements is the cost. Mr. Rushworth seems well able to handle the expense of any changes he might wish to put in, but this was not the case with all those who began to improve their property and found themselves unable to call a halt. Thomas Holcroft, writing a decade or so before Austen, presents just this situation in Anna St. Ives, where Anna’s father, the baronet St. Ives, is on the verge of impoverishment because his steward, Abimelech Henley, has been overseeing ‘improvements’ to the baronet’s property for years and years—all improvements resulting in his own enrichment. Holcroft makes it clear that the whole idea of improvement to properties that are just fine in the first place is a scam offered to separate those who are well off but not too bright from the resources that they are too stupid to husband properly. Holcroft’s is not an unrecognized opinion…”
Isn’t it obvious to any well-versed Janeite that Scheuermann’s analysis of Holcroft’s novel is much more germane to Persuasion than to MP? Her description of the ”improvements” scammer/steward and the scammee/baronet fit uncannily well with Mr. Shepherd and Sir Walter; and Holcroft’s heroine/daughter Anna, is of course heroine/daughter Anne Elliot!
And that makes me realize that part of the way that Sir Walter managed to get so deeply into debt was not merely by incurring extravagant expenses in daily life, travel, and the like, but also in “improving” Kellynch—it is easy to imagine Mr. Shepherd encouraging Sir Walter to start “improving” Kellynch after Sir Walter’s wife died, but we are only tuning in to the Elliot family saga after years of such improvident spending—and JA hints at those years via the name “St. Ives”.
To show that Scheuermann was not exaggerating in her synopsis, here is a passage from the very beginning of Holcroft’s 1792 epistolary novel, the very first letter, written by Anna to her friend Louisa:
“My father is exceedingly busy with his head man, his plotter, his planner; giving directions concerning still further improvements that are to be made, in his grounds and park, during our absence. You know his mania. Improvement is his disease. I have before hinted to you that I do not like this factotum of his, this Abimelech Henley. The amiable qualities of his son more than compensate for the meanness of the father; whom I have long suspected to be and am indeed convinced that he is artful, selfish, and honest enough to seek his own profit, were it at the expence of his employer's ruin. He is continually insinuating new plans to my father, whom he Sir Arthurs, and Honours, and Nobles, at every word, and then persuades him the hints and thoughts are all his own. The illiterate fellow has a language peculiar to himself; energetic but half unintelligible; compounded of a few fine phrases, and an inundation of proverbial wisdom and uncouth cant terms. Of the scanty number of polite words, which he has endeavoured to catch, he is very bountiful to Sir Arthur. 'That's noble! That's great your noble honour! Well, by my truly, that's an elegunt ideer! But I always said your honour had more nobler and elegunter ideers than any other noble gentleman, knight, lord, or dooke, in every thing of what your honour calls the grand gusto.' Pshaw! It is ridiculous in me to imitate his language; the cunning nonsense of which evaporates upon paper, but is highly characteristic when delivered with all its attendant bows and cringes; which, like the accompaniments to a concerto, enforce the character of the composition, and give it full effect.”
It is easy to see how JA transformed the crude ore of above passage into the gold of the darkly funny satire we read at the beginning of Persuasion, when Mr. Shepherd flatters Sir Walter in that same way, and the “amiable” son has been transformed into the schemingly amiable Mrs. Clay.
And so, that is my case for my claim that the “St. Ives” character name in Persuasion was meant by JA to refer both to the riddle (as White argued), but even more so to Holcroft’s radical novel. All the more reason to see JA, at the very end of her life, as being every bit as radical in her politics as I believe she already was as a teenager, when she might have first read Holcroft’s novel. And we also see that JA was adept at hiding her true beliefs in plain sight, where they would remain undetected by the Sir Walters of her world, but visible to the Mrs. Smiths who might have read Persuasion and recalled both the riddle and the Holcroft novel.
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