It has recently been stated that the tradition that Pride and Prejudice is a revision of Cecilia began with Q. D. Leavis’s “A Critical Theory of Jane Austen’s Writings (I)” in 1941. However, with the assistance of Google Books today, I believe I can move that date backward nearly a half century, to 1892, when Walter Herries Pollock (a close friend of Wilde, Kipling, and Stevenson, and brother of Sir William Frederick Pollock, the first to assert what I call Pollocks’s Law…
…i.e., the erroneous claim that there are no conversations in any Austen novel where a woman is not present) wrote the following short essay in which he claimed that JA took her title “Pride and Prejudice” from Burney’s Cecilia, and, what’s more, took the scene between Emma and Harriet about Harriet’s precious treasures from Cecilia as well:
“Towards the end of the admirable Miss Burney’s novel Cecilia occurs this memorable passage:
‘The whole of this unfortunate business,’ said Doctor Lyster, ‘has been the result of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.’
[In Messrs. Bell’s excellent reprint (1882) the original huge capitals are retained]
‘Your uncle the Dean began it by his arbitrary will, as if by an ordinance of his own he could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr. Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination ’
The rest of Doctor Lyster’s discourse is vastly appropriate to the circumstances and to the style of Miss Burney in Cecilia; but what is important to the purpose immediately in hand is the fact that here, suggested by Miss Burney, is the title of one of Miss Austen’s best novels. To compare the two writers is as unnecessary as invidious. Those who know both, and also know Miss Ferrier, and, again, are acquainted with Walter Scott’s criticisms, will, I am sure, agree entirely in this. But now comes another curious coincidence between two of these writers—Miss Burney and Miss Austen. Cecilia’s conversation with Henrietta in an important chapter runs in one passage thus (Cecilia begins the conversation):
‘And did he stay with you long?’
‘No, ma’am: a very short time, indeed. But I asked him questions all the while, and kept him as long as I could, that I might hear all he had to say about my brother.’
‘Have you never seen him since?’
‘No, ma’am, not once! I suppose he does not know my brother has come back to us. Perhaps, when he does, he will call.’
‘Do you wish him to call? ’
‘Me?’ cried she, blushing; ‘a little—sometimes I do, for my brother’s sake.’
‘For your brother’s sake ? Pah, my dear Henrietta! but tell me—or don’t tell me if you had rather not—did I not once see you kissing a letter? Perhaps it was from this same noble friend?’
‘It was not a letter, madam,’ said she, looking down. ‘ It was only the cover of one to my brother.’
‘The cover of a letter only, and that to your brother! Is it possible you could so much value it?’
‘Ah, madam ! You, who are always used to the good and the wise, who see no other sort of people but those in high life—you can have no notion how they strike those that they are new to! But I, who see them seldom, and who live with people so very unlike them—oh ! you cannot guess how sweet to me is everything that belongs to them ! Whatever has but once been touched by their hands I should like to lock up and keep for ever! though if I was used to them, as you are, perhaps I might think less of them.’
Let us now take a passage from Emma—in the opinion of many justly-respected critics the most perfect novel of Miss Austen’s, as a work of art, just as Emma herself was in current Highbury opinion perfection. Here the dialogue is between Emma, practically the queen of the village, and Harriet Smith, her protegé, of more than doubtful parentage; and it concerns the egregious Mr. Elton, who has aspired to Emma’s hand, while Emma herself has taken him for one who hopes to marry Harriet. (Harriet Smith begins the dialogue.)
‘To convince you,’ says Harriet, abandoning her infatuation for Mr. Elton, ‘that I have been speaking truth, I am now going to destroy—what I ought to have destroyed long ago—what I ought never to have kept: I know that very well (blushing as she spoke). However, now I will destroy it all; and it is my particular wish to do it in your presence, that you may see how rational I am grown. Cannot you guess what this parcel holds?’ said she, with a conscious look.
‘Not the least in the world. Did he ever give you anything?’
‘No—I cannot call them gifts ; but they are things I have valued very much.’
She held the parcel towards her, and Emma read the words ‘most precious treasures,’ on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel, and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened; it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister.
‘Now,’ said Harriet : ‘ you must recollect.’
‘No : indeed I do not.’
‘Dear me! I should not have thought it possible you could forget what passed in this very room about court-plaister, one of the very last times we ever met in it. It was but a very few days before I had my sore throat—just before Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley came: I think the very evening. Do not you remember his cutting his finger with your new penknife and you recommending court-plaister? But, as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I took mine out, and cut him a piece; but it was a great deal too large, and he cut it smaller, and kept playing some time with what was left before he gave it back to me. And so then, in my nonsense, I could not help making a treasure of it: so I put it by, never to be used, and looked at it now and then as a great treat.’
‘My dearest Harriet!’ cried Emma, putting her hand before her face and jumping up. . . . ‘Well, go on; what else?’ says Emma.
Harriet replies, ‘And had you really some at hand yourself? ’
. . . ‘ Here,’ resumed Harriet, turning to her box again, ‘ here is something still more valuable,—I mean that has been more valuable,-—because this is what did really once belong to him, which the court-plaister never did.’
Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil, the part without any lead.
‘This was really his,’ said Harriet. ‘ Do not you remember one morning?—no: I daresay you do not. But one morning—I forget exactly the day—but perhaps it was the Tuesday or Wednesday before that evening, he wanted to make a memorandum in his pocket-book; it was about spruce-beer. Mr. Knightley had been telling him something about brewing spruce-beer, and he wanted to put it down; but when he took out his pencil, there was so little lead that he soon cut it all away, and it would not do: so you lent him another, and this was left upon the table as good for nothing. But I kept my eye on it; and as soon as I dared, caught it up, and never parted with it again from that moment.’
Now, let who will who has studied both writers decide whether Miss Austen unconsciously remembered a passage in Miss Burney, or whether Miss Austen played the game “ a la Moliere," or whether the likeness is due merely to the fact that two writers of the first rank happened to fall on an almost identical situation. Be that as it may, in these days, when from time to time reckless charges of plagiarism are flung about, I have thought it worth while to call attention to what is, at least, a curious literary coincidence.
WALTER HERRIES POLLOCK.