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

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

“A pleasing-looking young woman”/“a pretty young woman”: Jane Austen/Mrs. Weston, per YOUNG Wyndham Knatchbull/Frank Churchill!

After writing my last post, in the second half of which I suggested that young Wyndham Knatchbull was a real life source for the fictional Frank Churchill, I went back to Le Faye’s letters, to double-check and make sure I had looked at all references to him in JA’s letters. According to Le Faye’s Index, it was only in Letter 98 from March 1814. However, I noted several mentions in the Index entry for Wyndham Knatchbull the elder (the scion of a junior branch of the Knatchbull family).

From my LONG experience of finding, on dozens of occasions, that Deirdre Le Faye has a particular penchant for concealing what she would deem unpleasant, unseemly, or even scandalous attributions or explanations for cryptic passages in JA’s letters, I was immediately on alert---could it be that one or more of her attributions to Wyndham Knatchbull the elder ought instead to have been made to his younger namesake? As you will see by the end of this short post, the answer is “YES!”, and in a way that strongly corroborates my seeing Frank Churchill as a representation of young Wyndham Knatchbull!

To begin, here are the passages in two of JA’s letters, written by Jane to Cassandra while Jane was in London, which I believe Le Faye has incorrectly (perhaps intentionally) attributed to Wyndham Knatchbull the elder:

Letter 71, 4/25/1811:” I was quite surrounded by acquaintances, especially gentlemen; and what with Mr. Hampson, Mr. Seymour, Mr. W. Knatchbull, Mr. Guillemarde, Mr. Cure, a Captain Simpson, brother to the Captain Simpson, besides Mr. Walter and Mr. Egerton, in addition to the Cookes, and Miss Beckford, and Miss Middleton, I had quite as much upon my hands as I could do.”

Letter 72, 4/30/11: “My head-dress was a bugle-band like the border to my gown, and a flower of Mrs. Tilson's. I depended upon hearing something of the evening from Mr. W. K., and am very well satisfied with his notice of me -- "A pleasing-looking young woman" -- that must do; one cannot pretend to anything better now; thankful to have it continued a few years longer!”

In her Chronology of Jane Austen, Le Faye duly notes her belief that “Mr. W. Knatchbull” in Letter 71 and “Mr. W.K.” in Letter 72, both refer to Wyndham Knatchbull, Sr., who was then 61 years of age. And, at first blush, it would make perfect sense for a sexagenarian to refer to the 35 year old Jane Austen as “a pleasing-looking young woman”.

However, Le Faye’s sole source for this definitive attribution is JA’s Letter 72 itself—yet Le Faye does not even mention the possibility that this might be the younger Wyndham Knatchbull. So, there does not appear to be any other reason other than the older-man tone of the comment on JA’s appearance, why this could not be Wyndham Knatchbull the younger, i.e., the younger half-brother of Edward Knatchbull, whom I just discussed in my previous post as the “nice, gentleman-like, unaffected sort of young man” whom JA thought might make a match with her niece Fanny.

And I suspect that, all other things being equal, most of you reading this would immediately object that a 25-year old man, especially a gentleman, would never refer to Jane Austen, a woman a decade older than himself, as “a pleasing looking young woman”. Right? It would be inappropriate, possibly ironical, and almost creepy.

Well… about the following well-known statement made by a 21 year old man about the beauty of a woman in her mid 30’s whom he has recently met:  

“…And at last, as if resolved to qualify his opinion completely for travelling round to its object, he wound it all up with astonishment at the youth and beauty of her person.
"Elegant, agreeable manners, I was prepared for," said he; "but I confess that, considering every thing, I had not expected more than a very tolerably well-looking woman of a certain age; I did not know that I was to find a pretty young woman in Mrs. Weston."
"You cannot see too much perfection in Mrs. Weston for my feelings," said Emma; "were you to guess her to be eighteen, I should listen with pleasure; but she would be ready to quarrel with you for using such words. Don't let her imagine that you have spoken of her as a pretty young woman."

Of course you know who that young flatterer is---Frank Churchill, the very same fictional character I claimed in my previous post was a representation of Wyndham Knatchbull the younger, who was also one and the same as the real life, very eligible young bachelor who, three years later, in March 1814, wrote a long letter of excuse for not showing up at a social occasion where he knew he was going to meet, for the first time,  an eligible young heiress, Fanny Austen (not yet Knight)!

Just another coincidence between reality and fiction? I think it is now fair for me to aver, with a high degree of confidence, that if you read back over this post, plus my past several posts regarding the presence of the Knatchbull family in the subtext of Emma, you will note the steady accumulation of densely connected evidence drawn entirely from two categories of Jane Austen’s own writings from exactly the same time period—her letters written from 1808-1814, and her greatest fictional masterpiece, Emma.

But again, note also the powerful but totally invisible effect that Deirdre Le Faye has had in putting the kibosh on any sort of quirky, outside-the-box interpretation of JA’s letters. From her position of enormous authority as the still unchallenged mistress of Austen letter editing, she has once again led all Janeites down a garden path of easy assumptions, and away from “dangerous openings”! Just imagine the effect it would have had if her footnote to the two first-above-quoted passages in Letters 71 and 72, respectively, had read as follows:

“Probably Wyndham Knatchbull the elder, because of the paternal tone of his compliment to JA’s appearance, but possibly Wyndham Knatchbull the younger, if he had a Frank Churchill-like attitude”

But apples would bloom in June every year, before Le Faye would annotate JA’s letters that way!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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