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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eliza Fowle's miscarriage in Jane Austen's first two letters: "Matters have fallen out so unpleasantly"

Last Friday, in regard to Jane Austen's Letter #1, written to her sister Cassandra shortly after Jane turned 20, a letter which is very famous for its description of Jane's flirtations with Tom Lefroy (Letter #1 is readable at the following link).....

....I posted in Austen L and Janeites about another little-noticed passage in that same letter.....

"I condole with Miss M. on her losses and with Eliza on her gains, and am ever yours..."

The above sentence has nothing to do with Tom Lefroy, but it is, I would argue, of even greater importance in terms of understanding Jane Austen's novels, than the Tom Lefroy stuff.

Here is what I surmised about the meaning of Eliza Fowle's "gains":

Le Faye tells us that "Eliza" is Elizabeth Fowle, wife of Revd. Fulwar Craven Fowle, elder brother of Tom Fowle. It takes one minute to look at Le Faye's Bio Index and to also realize that of equal importance was that Eliza was the middle of the three Lloyd sisters, of whom Mary of course married James Austen, and Martha was Jane's closest friend. So both Jane and Cassandra each had two very close connections to this woman over a lifetime. And looking at the description of Eliza's life in the Bio Index also gives us a big hint as to what "her gains" refers to---I believe Eliza had become pregnant again--I write "again" because she was in 1796 twenty eight years old and had already borne children in 1791, 1792, 1793, and 1794 (baby born and died). That is every year for four straight years.

Le Faye's listings show the next children born to Eliza in 1798 and 1799, resuming the annual drumbeat, but I betcha that the 3-year "gap" in between serial pregnancies was itself filled by one, maybe even two, miscarriages. Somehow I doubt that the good Revd Fowle took a 3-year vacation from his Biblical "duty" to multiply as rapidly as humanly possible....I think Jane, at 20, already had a decided bent toward venting a considerable amount of anger, sarcasm and spleen when the topic of pregnancy and childbirth was extant, and it continued till the day she died."

Then, a short while ago today, I revisited this same question, because, as soon as I started reading in Letter #2, written 4-5 days after Letter #1, I was very pleased and surprised to see what I consider to be dramatic additional supporting evidence for my surmise about Eliza Lloyd Fowle having had a miscarriage, evidence which I had not previously noticed but which leapt out at me now because of what I noticed on Friday in Letter #1:

"I have just received yours and Mary's letter, and I thank you both, though _their contents_ might have been more agreeable. I do not at all expect to see you on Tuesday, since matters have fallen out so unpleasantly; and if you are not able to return till after that day, it will hardly be possible for us to send for you before Saturday, though for my own part I care so little about the ball that it would be no sacrifice to me to give it up for the sake of seeing you two days earlier. We are extremely sorry for poor Eliza's illness. I trust, however, that she has continued to recover since you wrote, and that you will none of you be the worse for your attendance on her."

In characteristically coded Austenian fashion, I claim that Jane was elliptically referring to Eliza Fowle having suffered a miscarriage, while being attended by both Cassandra (who would have been her future sister in law, had Tom Fowle returned from the West Indies) and Mary Lloyd (her actual sister). I further surmise that Cassandra and Mary Lloyd were already both there at Kintbury for an extended visit precisely because Eliza was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and probably seeming in precarious health as a result of same, as well as, surely, being overwhelmed with being very pregnant while trying to take care of four children ages 2 through 5.

There is something extremely edgy, almost shocking despite its euphemism, about Jane referring to "matters" which have "fallen out" so "unpleasantly", to refer to a miscarriage. I think this reflects JA's anger over poor Eliza Fowle having to endure a potentially fatal miscarriage in order to keep fulfilling her wifely duty to her husband. Eliza was 28 in 1796, and Le Faye's Bio Index tells us that she was to bear 2 more children within 3 years of Letter #2, and then another two children later on, before her child bearing career ended at age 39 in 1807. Fortunately for Eliza, she managed to live till 1839.

Then, an hour ago, I posted the following after Nancy Mayer raised a clarification:

[Nancy] "Others may define the word differently, but generally a miscarriage takes place before a woman is heavily pregnant. Once she is heavily pregnant and loses the baby it is premature delivery."

Nancy, thanks for clarifying the proper terminology, but my point is unchanged---regardless of the stage of the pregnancy Eliza Fowle was in when she lost her baby, I still claim this was JA speaking in her characteristically elliptical way, but with particular edginess, about a charged subject having to do with a woman suffering because of "the way things were" between male and female.

And Eliza Fowle's illness was very personal for JA and CEA, as Eliza was clearly a close friend of _both_ of them, as well as being a sister to Martha and Mary Lloyd. I checked Le Faye's Index, and there are numerous references to Eliza in JA's letters stretching over seventeen years, all of them affectionate and interested in Eliza's life and news. And as we will see as we proceed a bit further through JA's letters, I claim that the 1798 letters referring to Eliza's "illness" are _also_ about her childbirth--in that instance, to a baby who survived.

That choice of words strongly supports my claim that JA viewed serial pregnancy as an "illness" which the majority of married Englishwomen "caught" the minute they got married, and which was (like Mrs. Tilney's fever) "constitutional", i.e., chronic, because serial pregnancy was deemed, by the powers that be, to be part of the legal, moral, and religious duty of an Englishwoman. Or, to paraphrase Henry Crawford, serial pregnancy was part of an English_woman's_ constitution.

Which is precisely why I believe JA never married---she much preferred serial Shakespeare to serial pregnancy!

Cheers, Arnie

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