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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mr. Clay’s Madhouse & Mrs. Clay “born to be” Miss Hanson, all in the subtext of Persuasion


I've begun reading The Trials of the King of Hampshire (Madness, Secrecy, and Betrayal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Foyster (2016), which I first read about a few weeks ago, and then eagerly ordered a copy from ILL. Foyster is a Fellow and Senior College Lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge, and is a specialist in family history, the kind of female-inclusive history left out by the "real solemn" exclusively male-focused history that Catherine Morland (and her creator, Jane Austen) found so unsatisfying.

Why was I so eager to read it? Because it's a biography of John Wallop, aka Lord Portsmouth, the 3rd Earl, who was all of the following:
ONE: one of the very first young students of Revd. Austen at the Steventon Rectory;
TWO: part of the Austen family's extended social network during the better part of JA’s life; and
THREE: someone who suffered all his life from some sort of serious mental infirmity, which, inter alia, rendered him highly vulnerable to persuasion, especially by a trusted advisor.

In 1814, not long after the death of his older, protective first wife Grace in November 1813 (which in turn was less than a year after the death of his dominating, dowager countess mother), the suddenly unprotected Lord Portsmouth (in)famously married the much younger Mary Ann Hanson, daughter of John Wallop’s scheming lawyer and trustee, John Hanson – a lawyer whose legal education evidently failed to include the part about the damage caused by gross (even criminal) abuse of fiduciary duty. Hanson was also personal attorney for Lord Byron, who played a key role in that Wallop-Hanson marriage, as I’ll in part address below.

I’ve long asserted, inspired by Nancy Mayer's first bringing key facts about the 3rd Earl to our collective attention in Janeites in 2005, that Jane Austen parodied, in Persuasion, the tawdry soap opera of the real life "odd quartet" of Lord Portsmouth, his late first wife Grace, his second wife Mary Ann, and Mary Ann's father the attorney Mr. Hanson, in the fictional foursome of Sir Walter Elliot, his late wife Lady Elliot, Mrs. Clay, and her father, attorney Mr. Shepherd. Here's the link to my wide-ranging 2011 post on that subject: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/05/lord-portsmouth-lord-byron-one-wedding.html

For those who are curious to know what happened after that 1814 wedding, but don’t want to have to track down Foyster’s well-researched book, Wikipedia offers this tidy synopsis:

“When Newton attempted to have Portsmouth declared insane that autumn [of 1814], Byron's affidavit as to the circumstances of the marriage was instrumental in getting the charge dismissed. However, the new Countess was by no means equal to the task of controlling Portsmouth; his behavior grew more erratic, while Mary Anne carried on an adulterous affair with William Alder, who fathered three children on her. Eventually, the pair of lovers grew so bold as to have intercourse in the same bed with the Earl (who was almost certainly impotent).
A new commission de lunatico inquirendo took place in 1823, at the instigation of Portsmouth's nephew Henry Wallop Fellowes, and it was revealed that the Earl had been badly mistreated by his new wife and her lover, who had spat on him and beaten him. He was adjudged to have been insane since 1809. In 1828, his second marriage was annulled, and Mary Anne's children were declared bastards. A judgment for the £40,000 cost of the trial was issued against her, and she fled abroad. Portsmouth died in 1853; his brother Newton succeeded him for less than half a year before his own death.”


Without benefit of either Wikipedia or Foyster’s book, I believe JA knew, and made a point of keeping up on, all about current events in the Wallop family, via her Hampshire gossip network. Surely the most significant node of Austen’s network in this regard was the 3rd Earl’s first cousin, Urania Camilla, a contemporary of JA who was also the ‘heroine’ (tragic, in the end, because she died in 1814, perhaps in childbirth) of JA’s “Jump at a Wake” November 1812 poem, as I blogged about recently here:  http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2017/08/jane-austen-was-poetically-awakened-to.html).

I explained therein why I believed Urania Camilla was a friend of JA’s. If I am correct and she was, just think about the kind of inside information she might have transmitted to JA, either in person or by discreetly written letters, about her first cousin the 3rd Earl, in light of the following excerpt I just stumbled upon in the official transcript of the 1823 case:
Rev. Mr. Wake examined: Is Rector of Wallop; is connected by marriage with the Portsmouth family; has known his Lordship from 1813; frequently visited at Hurstborne; has sometimes remained there for a week or a fortnight at a time; met his Lordship at Andover in July last; did not observe any difference in his Lordship at that time.

Rev. Mr. Wake was Urania Camilla’s husband during the short, critical time period that began at the death of Lord Portsmouth’s mother, and included the wedding of Mary Ann Hanson to the 3rd Earl. Urania would surely have accompanied her new husband on at least some of those visits to the Wallop ancestral estate at Hurstborne, and I also feel safe in assuming that her new husband would have passed information on to her about what happened during any solo visits he made there.

With that background, I now have two new, related tidbits to add to the spicy mix of my existing interpretation of JA’s thinly veiled allusion in Persuasion to Lord Portsmouth’s ill-fated second marriage.

First, here’s a small one, which if it stood alone would seem no more than a trivial coincidence; but, embedded in the matrix of all these other echoes of real life in Persuasion, appears to me to be deliberate on JA’s part. Some Austen scholars have speculated as to why JA chose the surname “Clay” for her scheming lawyer’s smooth-mannered daughter (Margaret Doody, e.g., sees “Clay” as hinting at Mrs. Clay being as “common as dirt”); but I don’t believe anyone has previously noted a source which was suggested to me by a passing factoid that I just read in Foyster’s book.

Foyster, in her chapter describing the Machiavellian last minute tactics employed by Hanson in 1814 in order to get Lord Portsmouth to the altar to marry Mary Ann, without alerting the other trustees who might’ve put the kibosh on the wedding, writes:

“It may only have been after 10 o’clock, when Charles Hanson [John’s son] was sent to the church to tell the clerk to prepare for a wedding, that John launched his offensive. As Portsmouth later told a gardener in the stables at Hurstborne, Hanson said that he must marry his daughter, ‘otherwise I never should have a wife, and my brother would take me into Devonshire and shut me up.’ Newton Fellowes [Lord Portsmouth’s youngest brother and their mother’s favorite] was planning to confine him in a private madhouse owned by Mr. Clay, Hanson warned.”

Did you see it? ---Mr. CLAY! I don’t know how well known Mr. Clay’s private madhouse in Devonshire was during the Regency Era, but my guess is that if it was considered as a destination for the 3rd Earl of Portsmouth, then it probably was a name that meant something to members of the ton, madness (especially in a “great one”) always being near the top of the list of topics of interest in a gossip network.

So, by naming her temptress Mrs. Clay, perhaps this was meant to conjure in savvy readers’s comic imagination the desperate measures the Elliot children might’ve been tempted to take had Sir Walter suddenly changed his tune about Mrs. Clay’s freckles, and started admiring how “handsome” she seemed to him – would they also have put aside their mutual differences and tried to “take him into Devonshire and shut him up” to prevent Kellynch falling into the hands of a new Lady Elliot, Mrs. Clay?


I came upon my second tidbit while reading Foyster’s vivid account of the lengths John Hanson went to in order to get his daughter married to the 3rd Earl:

“Hanson knew exactly how to scare Portsmouth. He could have been aware that Urania [Lord Portsmouth’s mother] had threatened to lock her son up, and over the years she may have even discussed the possibility with Hanson…Portsmouth was all too willing to believe that Hanson had gained some advance knowledge of his brother’s plans for him. He was left terrified. Marriage beckoned as an attractive escape route.
Hanson had played his trump card, and it worked. Portsmouth agreed to marry one of his daughters, but asked if he could marry Laura ‘the pretty one’. Hanson would not accept, and said that ‘the eldest was the one he had looked out for me.’ The bully Hanson pushed Portsmouth out of the house, and along the passage to meet Byron for their walk to the church…”

Indeed, Foyster’s subtitle “Madness, Secrecy, and Betrayal in Georgian England” is very apt; but my second tidbit came to me from Foyster’s noting of Lord Portsmouth’s  preference for “the pretty one”, i.e., Hanson’s younger daughter, Laura. That the eldest daughter Mary Ann was not fortunate in her own looks had been verified by Foyster two pages earlier:

“John Hanson had every reason to feel wound up and tense that morning. Although he had got everything in place for the wedding, the behaviour of his daughter and her husband-to-be was difficult to predict. At 23 years old, nobody thought Mary Ann was attractive. ‘She was not pretty’, Byron wrote, perhaps offended that others thought he had an affair with her. The best that a guest at the dinner held by Hanson the evening after the wedding could say was that Mary Ann was a ‘well-informed person; not, as I think, of a good figure; very genteel in her manners, and of uniform decorum.’ He may as well have said nice, but ordinary.”

My Subject Line already hinted at where I went with this -- thinking about Mary Ann Hanson as not being, if you will, handsome enough to tempt the 3rd Earl without pressure on him from her father, led me to put the pieces together, taking into account Jane Austen’s infinite love of puns, and present my second new insight, to wit:

The word "handsome" appears with regularity throughout the Austen canon, but I’m now highly confident that Jane Austen LOL’ed when she wrote the following particular line of dialog for Mrs. Clay, in Chapter 3 of Persuasion, rebutting Sir Walter’s complaint about the poor looks of sun- and wind-weathered sailors:

"Nay, Sir Walter," cried Mrs Clay, "this is being severe indeed. Have a little mercy on the poor men. We are not all born to be HANDSOME...."

Jane Austen laughed out loud, I suggest, because it is indeed very funny to think about a fictional character who was “born” (in the imagination of her creator) to be a replica of a real life woman named “Hanson”, which sounds an awful lot like “handsome”!

Think I’ve taken a leap too far? Well, consider that JA quickly followed up in Chapter 5 with the following scene, describing the decision, urged by Mr. Shepherd, to retrench to Bath, which involves bringing Mrs. Clay along, but not Anne. I invite you to read the below passage (especially the ALL CAPS portions) about Mrs. Clay’s unimpressive looks through the lens of Mary Ann Hanson’s not being Lord Portsmouth’s first choice, because she was not as pretty as her younger sister Laura:

“…Anne herself was become hardened to such affronts; but she felt the imprudence of the arrangement quite as keenly as Lady Russell. With a great deal of quiet observation, and a knowledge, which she often wished less, of her father's character, she was sensible that results the most serious to his family from the intimacy were more than possible. She did not imagine that her father had at present an idea of the kind. MRS CLAY HAD FRECKLES, AND A PROJECTING TOOTH, AND A CLUMSY WRIST, which he was continually making severe remarks upon, in her absence; but she was young, and certainly altogether well-looking, and possessed, in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been. Anne was so impressed by the degree of their danger, that she could not excuse herself from trying to make it perceptible to her sister. She had little hope of success; but Elizabeth, who in the event of such a reverse would be so much more to be pitied than herself, should never, she thought, have reason to reproach her for giving no warning. She spoke, and seemed only to offend. Elizabeth could not conceive how such an absurd suspicion should occur to her, and indignantly answered for each party's perfectly knowing their situation.
"Mrs Clay," said she, warmly, "never forgets who she is; and as I am rather better acquainted with her sentiments than you can be, I can assure you, that upon the subject of marriage they are particularly nice, and that she reprobates all inequality of condition and rank more strongly than most people. And as to my father, I really should not have thought that he, who has kept himself single so long for our sakes, need be suspected now. If Mrs Clay were a very beautiful woman, I grant you, it might be wrong to have her so much with me; not that anything in the world, I am sure, would induce my father to make a degrading match, but he might be rendered unhappy. But POOR MRS CLAY who, with all her merits, CAN NEVER HAVE BEEN RECKONED TOLERABLY PRETTY, I really think poor Mrs Clay may be staying here in perfect safety. One would imagine you had never heard MY FATHER SPEAK OF HER PERSONAL MISFORTUNES, though I know you must fifty times. That tooth of her's and those freckles. Freckles do not disgust me so very much as they do him. I have known a face not materially disfigured by a few, but HE ABOMINATES THEM. You must have heard him notice Mrs Clay's freckles."
"There is hardly any personal defect," replied Anne, "which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to."

And now, here’s the special punch (and pun) line:

"I think very differently," answered Elizabeth, shortly; "an agreeable manner may set off HANDSOME features, but can never alter plain ones. However, at any rate, as I have a great deal more at stake on this point than anybody else can have, I think it rather unnecessary in you to be advising me."
Anne had done; glad that it was over, and not absolutely hopeless of doing good. Elizabeth, though resenting the suspicion, might yet be made observant by it….”
The point, again, for those in the know, being that Mrs. Clay was no more “handsome” than her real life source, Mary Ann “Hanson”!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The use of the name of the widow " Mrs Clay was a joke by the author. Eliza de Feuillide's close friend, the poet Lady Sophia Burrell,6 had her title of Lady because she was married to the baronet Sir William Burrell. After he died she married a clergyman, the Reverend William Clay and became just plain Mrs Clay.