A lot of Janeites worldwide have heard by now that 2016 is the bicentennial of publication of Emma. Conversely, only a relative handful of Janeites know about a significant discovery about Emma made a decade ago by my friend and fellow Austen scholar, Colleen Sheehan -- i.e., after Emma had been out in the world for 190 long years---i.e., Austen’s dangerous, daring, derogatory satire of the Prince Regent as the “Prince of Whales”, the secret answer to the charade in Emma.
Colleen, a distinguished senior political science prof at Villanova, has been modest about her discovery since she published it in 2006, and if you Google “Prince of Whales” & “Emma”, you’ll see that a number of the hits are to my blog posts in which I’ve repeatedly spread the word over the past decade.
Another of my friends, Linda Walker, in her 2013 Persuasions article (speculating about S&S’s Colonel Brandon having been forcibly circumcised in India) is the only scholar other than myself to have embraced the large implications of Sheehan’s discovery:
“...[Austen] would have not only have known what circumcision was but wouldn’t have quailed at writing about it, employing the allusiveness with which she always protected herself. In Emma, after all, Austen took on the Price Regent either despite or because of having more or less been ordered to dedicate it to him, composing a charade that could be solved, as Sheehan has so cleverly shown, not only as “Courtship” but also “Prince of Whales,” taken from a satirical poem on the fat, unfaithful spendthrift by Charles Lamb. Anybody who missed the source of the insult might have been tipped off by the anagrams Austen devised with the first letters of two sets of four lines that twice, rearranged, spell “Lamb.”
Jane Austen was fearless: willing to address issues of sexuality, politics, the military, and family secrets….”
Besides Sheehan, Walker and myself, only Douglas Murray, Janine Barchas, Megan A. Woodworth, A. Marie Sprayberry, Laurie Kaplan, and Michelle Levy have taken note of Sheehan’s discovery during the past 10 years; and of them, only Murray, in 2007, gave it more than passing attention.
As to the vast body of other scholarly articles, book chapters, and dissertations that have been written about Emma during the past decade ---and I’d guess there’ve been a few hundred if not more—to say nothing of the thousand-plus articles written about Emma in the pop culture press, where the vast majority of Janeites (and Jane-curious folks) get their Austen info---it is, sadly, as if Sheehan’s discovery had never been made. This is the case, even though her articles detailing her findings have been right there at the JASNA website, the obvious place where any Austen researcher or scholar ought to begin, freely and readily searchable and readable.
So it is, ten years after, still an almost universal belief among Janeites that Jane Austen was humbled and/or discomfited by the royal request that Emma be dedicated to the Prince Regent, rather than (as Colleen, Linda, and I all believe) this dedication was actually the icing on the cake of Austen’s subversive “Prince of Whales” satire. I.e., what more delicious way to top off the satire than to actually have the butt of that satire demand a dedication to himself?!
But, even today in 2016, it would still shock the average Janeite, who has been fed a continuous diet of what I call the Myth of Jane Austen, to even imagine the possibility that Jane Austen would have taken on the most powerful man in Great Britain in this manner worthy of a Jonathan Swift with his modest proposal (which Diane Reynolds and I have previously argued is a source for Mr. Woodhouse’s porcine obsession in Emma).
And that’s not all. Even the trailblazing Sheehan in her pair of 2006 articles did not go so far as to suggest that this extrinsic political satire might significantly alter the way the plot of Emma should be read, because that, too, would be too far outside the box of conventional Austen scholarship. Whereas I believe the political satire and the alternative reading of the novel itself go hand in hand.
So, I have a proposal to all of you reading this post, if you’ve gotten this far. If you haven’t do so already, please read Sheehan’s two articles here (there’s a link to the second one at the end of the first one):
Sheehan’s writing is jargon-free, and witty as well as informative, and an investment of thirty minutes of your time should suffice to give you a firm handle on her prima facie case for Jane Austen having intentionally alluded to the Prince Regent as the “Prince of Whales”.
Keep in mind also, as Colleen noted, the brothers Hunt, editors of the Examiner, were jailed for two years in 1812, for being too blunt in an editorial castigating the Prince for exactly the same miscreancy that Lamb and Cruikshank mocked. So JA was taking a real chance, gambling that neither the Prince nor anyone loyal to him would be clever enough to decode that highly derogatory secret answer.
After you’ve read that, please let me know if you believe Sheehan was correct that this was an intentional, daringly satirical poke at the Prince by Jane Austen. Or, instead, do you believe that this is somehow a coincidence? or that Jane Austen unconsciously recalled reading Lamb’s poem or seeing Cruikshank’s caricature, and unwittingly wrote her charade so that it would fit with such a scandalous alternative answer?
I’m very curious to know whether the lack of awareness of discoveries like Sheehan’s is just a problem of getting the word out, or is instead a much more troubling problem, of getting across a radical new idea about Jane Austen that doesn’t fit within the comfortable confines of the Myth of Jane Austen.
After I give people a chance to respond, I will write a followup post in which I will present brand-new evidence, just discovered by me, hidden in plain sight in the text of Emma itself, which provides dramatic new validation for Sheehan’s remarkable 2006 discovery.
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