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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Morality of Philadelphia Austen Hancock

Diana Birchall just wrote the following post in Janeites and Austen L:

[Christy Somer] "Imho, to also introduce and attach a theory around Eliza's mother, Phila, Rev. George Austen's sister and Jane Austen's aunt, being a prostitute before she sailed to India is offensive, unacceptable, and most likely, unpublishable."

[Diana] "Perhaps you'll think it odd, Christy, but I can't quite agree with you. Philadelphia has always been a somewhat suspect character. Doesn't it strike you as odd that her brother was sent to Oxford, but she wasn't trained to be anything even marginally genteel, or put in the way of getting married: she was sent, at only 15, to be apprenticed to a milliner! Why was this? Had she already behaved badly, like some young Lydia? And then, "milliner" was famously a euphemism for prostitute. I can't enter into the whole Fanny Hill/Mrs. Cole thing - it seems rather a coincidence, at too far a remove of time, to know who was who in Covent Garden back in the day. But there is something about Philadelphia that bespeaks a certain lack of character, or at any rate, sense. Why did she go, or why was she sent, dowryless, to India, another world, to marry a stranger? That's an incredibly drastic and desperate measure, and nothing like it happened to anyone else in the Austen family. Maybe the rumors about her daughter being Hastings' child were spiteful but then why did Hastings provide for Eliza so lavishly? And
then, why did Phila unwisely push Eliza to marry the shadily suspect de Feuillide? She was clearly not a wise woman, and had probably misbehaved at some point in her own career. Eliza adored her mother, but it was in a protective sort of way. We can't know the story - it was surely the sort of thing families would hide - but Jane Austen knew it. I don't think the Cole name is enough to conclude that Phila was ever a prostitute (a clergyman's sister? And she did marry respectably), but as Mrs. Elton says, "nothing more is positively known of the Tupmans, though a good many things I assure you are suspected." END OF DIANA'S POST

And I just replied as follows in Austen L:

Diana, thank you very much for your post. As I've been saying in my recent exchanges with Christy, I don't think JA saw her aunt as a Lydia Bennet so much as a would-be Fanny Price or Jane Fairfax who took a desperate wrong step.

[Diana] "I can't enter into the whole Fanny Hill/Mrs. Cole thing - it seems rather a coincidence, at too far a remove of time, to know who was who in Covent Garden back in the day."

There being a real Mrs. Cole in Fanny Hill, in Emma, and in Phila's teenage life would be one thing standing alone--but that triple intersection, like Darcy, Wickham and Collins--who are each part of, or closely connected to, the Darcy family---all converging on Meryton within a very short period of time, does _not_ stand alone. The evaluation of such coincidences is always interesting in regard to Jane Austen.

Just to be sure you've seen them, the following are the posts where I previously presented a fair amount of textual evidence for my claim that JA intentionally alluded to Fanny Hill in both Mansfield Park and Emma. That claim does not depend on my claim regarding the real life "Mrs. Cole" connection, or vice versa, but I think they each reinforce the other:

Cheers, ARNIE

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