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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Austen Papers: Tysoe Hancock Avoids Hanging in Thisbe’s Garter?

“Dear Miss Freeman,                                                                                   Calcutta 29th March 1772.
Your favor dated March 28, 1771 was not delivered to me till the 30th of last December. I was then at Dinner with two young Ladies who some times honor me with their agreeable Company—Opening the Pacquet in great Haste, unluckily the garters fell out, the Ladies snatched them up immediately, declared they were sent me by some Lady who granted me, as the only favor I delivered [deserved] the honor of being hanged in her Garters. They laid violent hands on me and declared they would suspend me to the Tester of my own Bed. I believe they would have executed their Thanks (Threats] had I not been rescued by some of my elder Guests, who thought it better to eat a few more Suppers with me than to see me hanged in jest and dye in earnest. My narrow escape has as yet prevented my wearing the Garters. I now can look at them, I think them too good to be worn by such a decrepit Old Fellow as I am grown and therefore have given them a place among my most Valuable Curiosities. In return I send you some of my Manufacture, if you will allow that name to what I cause to be made. It is directed to Mrs. Hancock who knows better how to get it on shore than you: even she may fail in the attempt.”

After reading the above letter several times, and considering the entire context as revealed in this chapter of The Austen Papers, my best guess is that Hancock and Miss Freeman must have enjoyed a playful sort of correspondence in which (as Darcy famously notes in Lizzy) they each say things they don’t really mean, as part of a mutually agreeable joking long-distance, glacially-unfolding repartee. As my Subject Line suggests, it appears that Hancock and his distant  (in both senses) cousin may have crossed a boundary or two in their correspondence, to get them both through the long lonely nights alone.

First, here are a few observations which may be significant:

ONE: The date of Miss Freeman’s “favor” to Hancock is March 28, 1771, which just happens to be a year and a day before the date of Hancock’s letter—so, is he intentionally writing on a virtual anniversary of the letter he is responding to, or is that just a coincidence of dates?

TWO: The date Hancock states Miss Freeman’s letter-cum-garters was delivered to him was Dec. 30, 1771—was a nine month delay normal for such a pacquet to be delivered from England to India?

THREE: We see in Hancock’s letter dated December 6, 1771, to his wife Philadelphia that he must have received the package with the garters from Miss Freeman at least a month before he claims he received it, unless….Miss Freeman made a habit of writing to him and enclosing garters in each letter!
So, either Hancock has told a white lie to Miss Freeman, as an excuse for why he is so late writing back; or it’s part of their mutual joking to bend the calendar as their wit dictates.  

FOUR: Here is that earlier letter from Hancock to Philadelphia, which referred to the earlier delivery of the garters, and which, perhaps not by coincidence, refers to being married as equivalent to being hung!:
“My regard for Miss Freeman took its origin from what you had frequently told me of her kind Behaviour to you when your Situations were different…On Mrs. Stanhope’s account the News of her Husband’s Death gives me Pleasure; she has had so much of Matrimony that I imagine she will be cautious of trusting her Neck in the Noose again…Miss Freeman has written to me a more agreeable friendly Letter and has sent me a Pair of Garters manufactured by Herself, which to save a sheet of Paper, she enclosed in her Letter—Oh Oeconomy would I had been twenty years ago blest with thee!”

FIVE: And finally and perhaps most intriguingly, why does Hancock seem to channel Falstaff and Theseus from Shakespeare, in concocting an absurd account about himself as a man in danger of being hung by a garter? Now we arrive at the key point:

Right after the end of the play within a play and just before the every end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus replies to Bottom’s request for direction as to the next part of the evening’s entertainment:
“No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there needs none to be blamed. Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus and HANGED HIMSELF IN THISBE’S GARTER, it would have been a fine tragedy: and so it is, truly; and very notably discharged. But come, your Bergomask: let your epilogue alone.

Is Hancock suggesting that he and Miss Freeman are like Pyramus and Thisbe, tragic lovers separated by insurmountable physical barriers (a wall in the play, a couple of oceans in real life)? If they shared a love of Shakespeare, that would be a really clever code to use which would be opaque to any third party reading the letter who did not get the sly reference. I find this a very strong possibility.

But there may be a second Shakesepearean source behind Hancock’s conceit. In Henry IV, Part One, Act 2, Scene 2, per Wikipedia’s handy synopsis, “Prince Hal enjoys insulting his dissolute friend [Falstaff] and makes sport of him by joining in Poins’ plot to disguise themselves and rob and terrify Falstaff and three friends of loot they have stolen in a highway robbery, purely for the fun of watching Falstaff lie about it later, after which Hal returns the stolen money.”

That does not seem to fit the Hancock-Freeman exchange nearly as well as the Pyramus & Thisbe. But… it’s also true that the theme of hanging is constantly repeated during the early stages of the play, most of all by Falstaff, and a big deal is constantly made in the play about his being old and physically disabled (by age and girth). So that does fit with Hancock’s closing self-depreciation as to his own decrepitude.

Are there any other literary allusions in Hancock’s letters? That would be quite relevant, obviously, to determining if he really had Theseus’s speech about Thisbe in mind as he wrote to Miss Freeman.
In any event, I am glad that you brought this little tidbit to our attention, Diane, as it does open an interesting portal into the personality of Tysoe Hancock.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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