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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Austen, Darwin, & ethnographic/experimental acquaintance with moral truth

Mark Brown, in his Guardian article, “Not as good as Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen mother's verdict on Mansfield Park” (British Library to put on display Austen’s notes of what friends, family and correspondents thought of her third novel)….. .  ….samples a few quotes from among the many reactions to Mansfield Park collected by Austen, but doesn’t mention or quote the longest and most incisive reader response, which was provided by a lady known identified only as “Mrs. Pole”: 

"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman --most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates.” [Mrs. Pole is then quoted by Austen in third person] Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly.”

As I discovered in 2005, the “Mrs. Pole” who expressed that remarkable opinion about Mansfield Park to Austen herself, was not only the illegitimate daughter of an earl, she was also a woman who has been faintly remembered in the margins of history for two other reasons:

She was the woman for the love of whom a scandalously erotic, long poem, “The Love of the Plants” was written in 1789 by a famous amorous admirer not then married to her; and in 1808, she became the grandmamma of a boy who was to become one of the greatest “experimentalists” in human history. I’ll stop teasing and reveal that I’m referring to Elizabeth Pole (aka Elizabeth Darwin), the widow of Erasmus Darwin, and the step-grandmamma of Charles Darwin!

Since 2005, I’ve written and spoken many times about Mrs. Pole’s true identity, as in these two posts:

I often cite this as a great example of the passivity of Austen’s many biographers and letter-editors over two centuries: why did none of them ever try to identify “Mrs. Pole”? It was a mystery readily solved in a trip or two to a good library, and one which, in the Google Era, I was able to solve in 5 minutes! It’s been low hanging fruit, ready to pluck, as we see in Katie Halsey’s 2013 book, Jane Austen and her Readers, in which Mrs. Pole and her opinion of Mansfield Park are mentioned twice, not too far from the page in which Halsey describes the devotion of the family of Charles Darwin to Austen. Halsey (and the rest) were all unaware that these two opinions were not only connected, they may even have been a matter of familial cultural descent – i.e., the young Charles Darwin possibly first developed a lifelong love of Austen’s fiction while listening to his grandmother read him Austen – dare we guess Mansfield Park? -- before he went to sleep!

Today, while revisiting this subject, I became curious about that phrase “experimentally acquainted”, which Mrs. Pole used to describe JA’s authorial stance vis a vis the strata of English society she set her stories in. Was it a phrase much in use in England two centuries ago? I went to Google Books to look for usages of that phrase in books of that era, and found two interesting categories of hits:

First (and surprisingly), in nearly all of the dozen usages that popped up, the subject was theological – Christian clergymen of various denominations used “experimentally acquainted” to describe the means by which the true believer would attain salvation. Here’s an exemplary passage from a 1764 sermon by Chaplain Thomas Jones:       “I now invite you to agree with your adversary, by turning from sin, and believing in the name of Jesus Christ, be humbled under a sense of your own unworthiness, and look up by faith, to the Lord Jesus Christ; or rather beg of God to give you his Holy Spirit, that you may be made acquainted with your own hearts, and desire to be EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. It is not enough that ye look on him as a redeemer in general, unless ye can know him to be indeed your Saviour; that he died to expiate your sins, and to bring pardon and peace to your souls. But this is the gift of God. It is not in man to turn himself to God. Implore, then, his Holy Spirit to lead you into all truth, that ye may know what the will of the Lord is.” 

It strikes my modern secular ears as an odd juxtaposition of scientific terminology with the attainment of union with God – a rhetorical device, perhaps, to subtly analogize salvation to an attainable technological discovery. So, was Mrs. Pole aware of this common rhetorical tactic, and thus being ironical, using a theological term of art to describe the art of a novelist scientifically seeking the truth of gentle English society, and then dramatizing the inner workings of the real life she observed? And was Austen implicitly approving of that parody by repeating Mrs. Pole’s words without comment? JA must have known that Erasmus Darwin had been, in the eyes of religious writers of his day, an agent of the devil. They feared the seductiveness of his outspoken “deistic, godless” view of nature for their corruptible flock. And Mrs. Pole, as his last wife, may well have shared his lack of Christian piety, and, via this parody, was praising Austen for exposing the hypocrisies of Christians in name only like Sir Thomas Bertram, slave plantation owner and not so benevolent, materialistic dictator of Mansfield Park.

We can only guess at all of that, so I’ll move on to the single contemporary published usage I found of “experimentally acquainted” in that era which had nothing to do with religion. It was used unironically in the scientific sense that I had previously assumed Mrs. Pole to have written it --- praising Jane Austen as a literary naturalist, who observed real social life in the wild of Regency Era salons and ballrooms. That usage I found was in Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (1799) by Mungo Park. Per Wikipedia, “Mungo Park (1771–1806) was a Scottish explorer of West Africa...the first Westerner known to have travelled to the central portion of the Niger River, and his account of his travels is still in print.”

In the opening paragraph of Park’s widely read account, we find that phrase, used in a strictly scientific sense:    “Soon after my return from the East Indies, in 1793, having learned that the noblemen and gentlemen, associated for the purpose of prosecuting Discoveries in the Interior of Africa, were desirous of engaging a person to explore that continent by the way of the Gambia River, I took occasion, through means of the President of the Royal Society, to whom I had the honour to be known, of offering myself for that service; …I had a passionate desire to examine into the productions of a country so little known, and to become EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with the modes of life and character of the natives…”

Park describes his ethnographic goal of becoming “experimentally acquainted” with the inner workings of a confined rural society theretofore unobserved scientifically—and that is the same sense in which Mrs Pole describes JA’s fictional methods vis a vis the “tribe” of the English gentry of which JA was indeed a member! So, even if there was religious parody in the back of Mrs. Pole’s mind, she also took her cue from Park, and was perhaps the first reader of Austen to observe and identify JA as the great naturalist of the human species we all know her to be today. And because Mrs. Pole “told her love” directly to Austen, who noted it, we who read that insightful praise, whether at the British Library or online here….  ….can now fully honor “Mrs. Pole” for it, now that we know her true identity, and see her words in full context.

By the way, there is an excellent discussion of how Charles Darwin's skills as a naturalist were in close parallel with those of Jane Asten as novelist by Liz Bankes (whom I met at the 2009 Chawton House conference, where we each attended the other's talk there) at

Bankes also gives credit in her paper to two other Austen scholars who examined Darwin-Austen parallels:  “Peter Graham, in Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists (2008), suggests that one reason why Darwin continued reading novels after losing his taste for poetry was that “the shared approaches and goals of naturalists and novelists allowed novels to keep appealing when other less empirically grounded aesthetic pleasures had paled”. Peter Knox-Shaw’s Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004) 
emphasizes the empirically-grounded qualities of Austen’s mind and suggests that she had a “special appeal to readers with a scientific background”. Indeed the empirical aspects of her work—her talent for describing the minute details of the ordinary, real world—were noticed frequently by her nineteenth-century readers."

Finally, in case you were wondering, in Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, his 1871 followup to The Origin of Species, he actually referred favorably to Park’s account twice, in the following excerpt in a chapter on “Moral Sense” (with no editing by me of Darwin’s unfortunate, patronizing terminology):

“…besides the family affections, kindness is common, especially during sickness, between the members of the same tribe, and is sometimes extended beyond these limits. Mungo Park's touching account of the kindness of the negro women of the interior to him is well known. Many instances could be given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, "Never, never trust an Indian." There cannot be fidelity without truth; and this fundamental virtue is not rare between the members of the same tribe: thus Mungo Park heard the negro women teaching their young children to love the truth….”

So Charles Darwin, by his sixties, was much impressed by Mungo Park’s famous work, particularly regarding morality in society. We may only wonder, however, whether Darwin was introduced to Park’s ethnographic work by his scientifically-minded step-grandmamma; and whether that was at the same time she initiated him into the subtler domestic ethnography of Austen. Perhaps Charles’s scientific genius was ignited by the combination, and spurred his impulse to become “experimentally acquainted” with the evolution of life on earth!

Note also that in the above passage, Darwin drew upon Park to illustrate the sharp divide between the strict moral code that was enforced within a tribe, versus the license for barbarism toward strangers. I’m far from the first Austen scholar to be fascinated by the ambiguity of JA’s moral stance toward her own “tribe”. D.W. Harding perhaps put it best: "her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine."

So, finally, I also wonder whether Charles Darwin was inspired by both Mrs. Pole and Mungo Park to ponder Austen’s ambivalence toward her own “tribe”. But alas, there’s no way, short of catching a ride in H.G. Wells’s time machine back to Darwin’s lifetime, that we can become “experimentally acquainted” with the facts needed to be confirm all of my above speculations!

In the meanwhile, maybe the above will make those who've objected to Austen's replacing Darwin on the 10 pound note feel a little better about it-- to know that both Darwin and his step grandmother would probably have approved of the change as well!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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