Four months ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about Jane Austen’s cryptic reference in Letter 159 (written to Anne Sharp in the last year of JA’s life) to the ill-fated Galigai de Concini, the particular friend of Maria de Medicis:
“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.”
That series of posts culminated in one….
…in which I made a prima facie case for Jane Austen having intended, by that reference, to communicate a strong but coded lesbian subtext, which she meant to be decoded and understood only by its addressee, Anne Sharp. I have long believed Anne Sharp to be one of the two women (along with Martha Lloyd) with whom JA had some sort of intense (but, in Anne’s case, obviously almost entirely long-distance) lesbian relationship.
Today, while researching an entirely different, but still very cool, veiled allusion to Edgeworth’s Belinda which I just spotted in one of JA’s novels, I also chanced upon evidence that strengthens my above claim for lesbian subtext in JA’s Letter 159—that evidence is the following passage in Chapter 17 of Belinda, entitled “Rights of Woman”:
"And will you make me lose my bet?" cried Mrs. Freke "Oh, at all events, you must come to the ball!—I'm down for it. But I'll not press it now, because you're frightened out of your poor little wits, I see, at the bare thoughts of doing any thing considered out of rule by these good people. Well, well! it shall be managed for you—leave that to me: I'm used to managing for cowards. Pray tell me—you and Lady Delacour are off, I understand?—Give ye joy!—She and I were once great friends; that is to say, I HAD OVER HER ‘THAT POWER WHICH STRONG MINDS HAVE OVER WEAK ONES,”' but she was too weak for me—one of those people that have neither courage to be good, nor to be bad."
"The courage to be bad," said Belinda, "I believe, indeed, she does not possess."
Mrs. Freke stared. "Why, I heard you had quarrelled with her!"
"If I had," said Belinda, "I hope that I should still do justice to her merits. It is said that people are apt to suffer more by their friends than their enemies. I hope that will never be the case with Lady Delacour, as I confess that I have been one of her friends."
"'Gad, I like your spirit—you don't want courage, I see, to fight even for your enemies. You are just the kind of girl I admire. I see you have been prejudiced against me by Lady Delacour; but whatever stories she may have trumped up, the truth of the matter is this, there's no living with her, she's so jealous—so ridiculously jealous—of that lord of hers, for whom all the time she has the impudence to pretend not to care more than I do for the sole of my boot," said Mrs. Freke, striking it, with her whip; "but she hasn't the courage to give him tit for tat: now this is what I call weakness…” END QUOTE
Of course, Mrs. Freke (pronounced, not coincidentally, like Henry Crawford’s famous “freaks”) is Harriot Freke, who is, many of you know, one of the two characters mentioned first when the topic of closeted lesbians in the literature of Jane Austen’s era is raised---Elinor Joddrel from Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer being the other.
And so of course a woman like Harriot Freke [who is, famously and obviously---from the title of Chapter 17, for starters---a parody of Mary Wollstonecraft---who had died an awful death only 3 years before Belinda was published] would have known about, and then plausibly invoked in an ironic, but favorable light, Galigai de Concini, who, as my above linked blog post indicated, was rumored to have had a lesbian influence over her powerful patroness, Maria de Medicis, hence the smear about being a “witch”.
And, stepping back for a wider literary perspective, as my Subject Line hints, now I also see Jane Austen (via the character of Mary Crawford, whose lesbian interest in Fanny Price was depicted in Rozema’s Mansfield Park, and has subsequently been unpacked in scholarly fashion by myself and also by my friend Aintzane Legaretta) and Fanny Burney (via the character of Elinor Joddrel in The Wanderer, published 2 months before Mansfield Park) BOTH responding, in different, complicated ways, to Edgeworth. In particular, Mary can be seen as a subtle, wittily understated version of Edgeworth’s wittily over the top original, Harriot.
And finally, as I also stated as I began this post, this also makes it that much more likely that I was right on the money in seeing a lesbian subtext in JA’s allusion to Galigai de Concini in Letter 159 to Anne Sharp. It really is a great chain of covert literary allusion, and it really gives serious pause to wonder about some covert coordination between Jane Austen and Fanny Burney in 1813 when both were composing their respective novels—The Wanderer was discussed by several speakers at the latest JASNA AGM, and I recall enjoying hearing Elaine Bander speak brilliantly about parallels way back at the 2005 (and see the Persuasions article on that topic that Elaine wrote back then).
Jane Austen’s infinitely subtle allusions for ever & ever!
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P.S.: And Sarah Churchill and Emma’s Harriet Smith are in this same Austenian lesbian mix as well!