I recently read the 2015 Cambridge Companion to Emma (edited by Peter Sabor) in search of interesting new insights from the lineup of contributors predictably drawn from the elite of the Austen academic establishment: J. Fergus, B. Tandon, J., R.D. Hume, E. Copeland, L.Bree, J. Wiltshire, J. Barchas, R. Perry, J. Heydt-Stevenson, G. Dow, and D. S. Lynch. The only one of the eleven who reads Austen against the grain in a significant way is Heydt-Stevenson, and this is no surprise. She first blew the roof off of Austen studies nearly 2 decades ago with her groundbreaking discoveries of disturbing sexual subtext in Emma and MP. And her essay in the Companion, while not breaking new ground, was nonetheless excellent—I highly recommend it.
However, I was very disappointed in the other ten essays; I found them too safe, too predicable, indeed clueless, about the clues to the many layers of mystery that Jane Austen wove deeply into the fabric of Emma. And the best illustration of this lack of fresh insight, and clinging to safe old notions of a safe Jane Austen, is the manner in which her dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent was discussed by two of the contributors.
But first, please read the short letter which JA wrote to Court Librarian James Stanier Clarke, which is the prime evidence on this subject:
"Nov. 15, 1815. Sir, I must take the liberty of asking you a question. Among the many flattering attentions which I received from you at Carlton House on Monday last was the information of my being at liberty to dedicate any future work to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, without the necessity of any solicitation on my part. Such, at least, I believed to be your words; but as I am very anxious to be quite certain of what was intended, I entreat you to have the goodness to inform me how such a permission is to be understood, and whether it is incumbent on me to show my sense of the honour by inscribing the work now in the press to His Royal Highness. I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or ungrateful.””
For over a decade I’ve read the above letter as a total put-on by Jane Austen, part and parcel of all the put-on letters that JA wrote to Clarke about Emma. I.e., I have not wavered in my conviction that JA had somehow worked behind the scenes, via her brother Henry’s extensive London social network, in order to elicit from the gullible Clarke an offer from the P.R. which she could not safely refuse, of dedicating Emma to the PR.
It was while Colleen Sheehan and I were brainstorming on that very topic in early 2006 that she then came up with her remarkable discovery of the “Prince of Whales” second solution to the charade in Emma, which, to me, makes it abundantly clear that JA viewed the Dedication as an opportunity for further covert skewering of the narcissistic Prince—but this time, at his own “invitation”!
With all that as background, now read three takes on the same topic:
First, here is the utterly conventional discussion by Jan Fergus in her essay on “Composition and Publication”:
“Having admired P&P, the Regent directed the librarian at his London residence, James Stanier Clarke, to call on Austen—at which visit Clarke offered to show her the Regent’s library at Carlton House. Austen accepted, but the consequence of this meeting on 13 November was highly annoying to her: Clarke told her that she was ‘at liberty’ to dedicate her next work to the Regent. Because the Regent took no subsequent notice of Austen or Emma, Clarke may well have slightly overstepped his authority here, perhaps having suggested to the Regent the possibility of a dedication, not the other way about. He would readily assume that Austen would be delighted by the prospect of flattering a prince. Austen seems to have suspected that something was amiss: she wrote to Clarke inquiring whether it were ‘incumbent’ on her to ‘shew my sense of the Honour, by inscribing the Work now in the Press, to HRH – I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or Ungrateful’. Austen’s earlier letters show that she had no admiration for the Prince Regent. Although Clarke assured Austen in reply that dedication was not incumbent on her, her family advised that she must consider this permission a command.
Austen was well aware that a dedication would normally be seen as an author’s blatant plea for support, favour or cash. Her joke to Cassandra on 26 November shows both her sense of being forced into this dedication and her awareness that ordinarily she could expect financial reward from it: “I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate &c -for fear of being obliged to do it -- & that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives.’ Many of Austen’s juvenilia had been humorously dedicated to friends and family, and Henry had jokingly responded with a pretended cheque for 100 guineas when Austen dedicated “Lesley Castle” to him, probably in 1792. But Austen clearly was unable to choose hypocrisy over greed: she simply could not write the sort of fulsome dedication to the Regent that might bring her a handsome gift. She or Henry or perhaps John Murray (who informed her that the dedication must appear on a page to itself, not on the title-page) wrote out one page that mentions dedication by permission and includes no compliments. It is almost insulting in its brevity compared to other royal dedications, such as Frances Burney’s to Camilla (1796). Clarke was sent in December a bound copy for the Regent which cost Austen almost two pounds along with incalculable exasperation. He wrote on 21 December that ‘You were very good to send me Emma—which I have in no respect deserved. It is gone to the Prince Regent. I have read only a few Pages which I very much admired’: he seems to conflate the copy Austen mentions sending to him for his own use and the expensive bound copy intended for the Regent. In any case, Clarke did not report any response from the PR until the following March, when ‘thanks’ for ‘the handsome Copy’ are offered, along with a vague mention of praise from ‘many of the Nobility’ staying with the Regent at the Pavilion in Brighton. The Regent may not have read Emma and certainly sent no money. …”
Fergus has no clue that Jane Austen was actually putting Clarke on with her faux humility and deference. Now, second, here is Janine Barchas in “Setting and Community”, who, it seems to me, is being very very coy. She briefly discusses Sheehan’s groundbreaking article, and then raises the key question of whether the Austen’s family’s cover story might not be true, giving hope she will then land that plane--- only to entirely duck giving her own view:
“…Douglas Murray and Laurie Kaplan are among those who locate strong allusions in this novel to the royal family, finding in its wordplay and story extended satirical portraits of George III and the PR. In addition, Colleen A. Sheehan sees the apposite names of Miss Nash and Miss Prince, two of Mrs. Goddard’s pupils, in conjunction with Mr. Knightley’s ‘idea of moving the path to Langham’, as invoking a royal squabble between the PR and his architect John Nash. The ‘courtship’ charade may have a second solution that ciphers out the clues to arrive at an equally plausible alternative, that is, ‘Prince of Whales’ [fn to Sheehan’s articles]. While local allusions remain the stuff of critical debate, Emma’s official dedication to ‘His Royal Highness, The Prince Regent” unambiguously points to a royal reader. The dedication, a public paratext that welcomes a royal into the novel’s community of readers, packaged Emma as Austen’s most reaching book. Irrespective of whether one believes the family’s insistence that Austen was reluctant to accept the implied royal endorsement (illogical for any struggling author), the dedication enhanced Emma’s status. Provocatively, the publication of Austen’s only novel with a high profile dedicatee prompted Sir Walter Scott’s lone review of her work. Perhaps knowledge of the prominent dedication lubricated John Murray’s request that Scott ‘dash off an article on Emma.”
And now, in contrast to the above, here is what Sheehan actually wrote in 2006 about JA’s Dedication to the PR, with fearless, insightful, and subversive speculations in synch with my own:
“JA’s “Tribute” to the Prince Regent: A Gentleman Riddled with Difficulty” Persuasions Online (2006)
“I’ve often wondered, for example, how Jane Austen could have stomached dedicating Emma to the self-indulgent, profligate, rotund buffoon extraordinaire, George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales and, from 1811 to 1820, Prince Regent, prior to becoming King George IV. We know that Austen “hate[d]” the Prince Regent but could “hardly forgive” his wife, Princess Caroline, “for calling herself ‘attached & affectionate’ to a Man whom she must detest” (16 February 1813). In an 1814 scathing, personal letter to her husband, which was afterwards made public, Caroline repeatedly addressed her husband as “His Royal Highness.” Whether this was done deferentially or mockingly one can only surmise, but it is interesting to note that in Austen’s short dedication of Emma to the Prince she too employed the title “His Royal Highness” three times. Exaggerated deference is of course a tool of satire, used to insinuate that something fishy is going on.
What must Jane Austen have felt when James Stanier Clarke, the Mr. Collins-like royal librarian, conveyed to her His Royal Highness’s “permission” to dedicate her next work to him? Could she have done it with a straight face? I think not, or at least if she did, it must have been because she knew that she, and her attentive readers, would eventually have the last laugh. The conventional wisdom is that Austen tried to squirm out of the tribute to the Prince. Was it “incumbent on [her] to shew her sense of the Honour” by dedicating her forthcoming novel to His Royal Highness? she asked Clarke. “It is certainly not incumbent on you” to do so, he responded, “but if you wish to do the Regent that honour either now or at any future period, I am happy to send you that permission which need not require any more trouble or solicitation on your Part” (16 November 1815).
The entire affair of the dedication seems to have been a matter of chance. Here’s how the episode unfolded: According to her sister, Cassandra, Austen began writing Emma 21 January 1814 and completed it 29 March 1815. In August or September 1815 she turned the manuscript in to her publisher, John Murray of London. Revisions (apparently minor) were made in the ensuing months, and the novel was published in December. Prior to this date, in early October, Austen arrived in London to stay with her brother Henry at his residence in Hans Place. In mid-October he fell ill, and a doctor was consulted. Henry’s condition was serious enough to require a second opinion, and another physician, Dr. Baillie, who just happened to be the Prince Regent’s physician, was called in. During his visit at Hans Place, Dr. Baillie mentioned to Jane Austen that the Prince was a great admirer of her novels and that he had a set of them in each of his lodgings. The Prince’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, would call upon her, he said. Shortly thereafter Clarke invited Jane Austen to the Prince’s august residence at Carlton House. She paid the visit on 13 November 1815, at which time Clarke told her that she was at liberty to dedicate her next novel to the Prince Regent. After much apparent hand-wringing and reluctance, Austen decided to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent. Since the novel was already in press at this time, she wrote her publisher and added the perfectly proper dedication (Austen-Leigh). Henry recovered. There seems to have been no more to the episode than this.
But, of course, things are not always what they seem, or as others try to make them appear. Seeking to establish his good repute, the Prince Regent proclaimed himself ‘The First Gentleman of Europe.’
Interestingly, one of the questions explored in Emma is what constitutes a true gentleman. Austen surely laughed at the Prince’s self-appointed title, being well aware of his deserved reputation as a gambler, a glutton, a spendthrift, and an adulterer (reputed to have fathered numerous illegitimate children by a number of women). As the long-running “king” of the English tabloids, he was ferociously caricatured and skewered throughout his long public career, from the grotesque images of Gillray, like the one shown at the beginning of this article, published in 1792, to the particularly imaginative one by Cruikshank in May 1812. It was a tricky business for the lampooners, though, as Leigh and John Hunt, the editors of the Examiner, discovered when they were prosecuted, heavily fined, and jailed for two years for their public attack on the Prince in March of 1812.
I believe that Jane Austen got in on the game too. But she was careful and cagey and seems not to have in the least aroused the suspicions of the Prince, who continued to admire and bestow his praise on her work after Emma was published. If he read past the novel’s dedication, he did not take Emma’s warning that “‘such extreme and perpetual cautiousness of word and manner . . . is apt to suggest suspicions of there being something to conceal’”.
…If Austen made this cheeky but veiled critique of the Prince’s planned scheme for Regent Street prior to any knowledge that she might be invited to dedicate Emma to him, then the encounter with his surgeon, the invitation to Carlton House, and the permission to dedicate the novel to the Prince Regent would seem to constitute an uncanny coincidence at the hands of Fortuna. One can hardly believe it; it is all too pat. Could it have been the case that she revised the novel after it went to the publishers but before it was printed? Or could she have somehow orchestrated the invitation for the dedication? I know of no extant evidence that would solve this riddle. So, for now I must settle with being
“Lampooning the Prince: A Second Solution to the Second Charade in Emma”: “…We recall that the second charade in chapter 9 of Emma is to be considered a kind of “‘prologue to the play’”. The second solution to this charade is precisely a prologue to the play: it is a second dedication to HRH, the Prince of Whales. Moreover, as I have argued in the essay preceding this one, the novel itself includes numerous mischievous plays on the Prince and his exploits, though of course, as Austen expected, he seems never to have picked up on them.” END QUOTE FROM SHEEHAN ARTICLE
So I conclude by pointing out that we can see from the above, in the bicentennial of Emma, that the (good) news about Jane Austen’s subversive shadows, including her covert but powerful feminist political satire, is slowly wending its way into the periphery of the still-strong current of the orthodox version of JA’s writing and life. But I sure hope we won’t have to wait till the tricentennial for it to reach the mainstream!
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