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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jane Austen's Black Hole of England

The continuing discussion of Jane Austen's Letter #6 dated September 1796 in Janeites and Austen-L turned at one point to the following passage in that letter:

"Mr Children's two Sons are going to be married, John & George-. They are to have one wife between them, a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta."

This passage has never been discussed more than in passing by any Austen's biographer, as far as I can tell, except for Deirdre Le Faye, who in her edition of the Letters, pointed out the important factoid that Miss Holwell, part of the social circle of her brother Edward Austen and his wife Elizabeth at Rowling in Kent, was the granddaughter of a famous person from 18th Century history, John Zephaniah Holwell, who in 1756 lived through a horrible day and night in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta and survived to write about it, his account having become famous throughout England by Jane Austen's time.

At first, I myself did not make more of this short passage, other than to have a good time myself riffing on the names of the two prospective husbands of Miss Holwell:

"The shadow story of that comment is that Mr. Children's two Sons were not only polygamous, they were also gay, and so, after they got married to their two (not one, as JA thought) "wives", they performed as a musical group at local assemblies, under the stage name "the Quadrille", but sometimes were also affectionately known by their Christian names:
John, Paul, George & Ringo."

After Christy Somer pointed out the correspondence between "Holwell" and "Hole", I observed that Jane Austen had noticed this coincidental pun, and had not been able to resist making some sort of joke out of it, in this case the sharing of one wife by two brothers.

However, as soon as I sent the above message about Holwell and the Black Hole of Calcutta, I realized that there might be more to this than a silly trivial pun, so I went back to Google Books on a hunch, following up on my sense that Jane Austen's seemingly absurd reference to two men sharing one wife was in some way pointing toward, and connected to, the culturally alien world of the Asian subcontinent where Holwell and his men endured their Black Hole horror.

And sure enough, I found something extraordinary in the published account written by that very same John Zephaniah Holwell years after his return to England, in which he not only told the horrible tale of what happened to him and his 146 men in the Black Hole of Calcutta (graphic detailed descriptions which sounded like the horrors experienced by Jews being shipped in cattle cars to Auschwitz--which is why 80% of the English prisoners died overnight), but he also brought to bear his considerable learning about the culture and religion of India, in lengthy descriptions and analyses of same.

And that was when I saw with delight that my hunch was spot-on, as I will now explain.

First here again is the relevant excerpt from Jane Austen's Letter #6:

"Mr Children's two Sons are going to be married, John & George-. THEY ARE TO HAVE BUT ONE WIFE BETWEEN THEM, a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta."

And now here is the passage that Holwell wrote, as part of a lengthy description of the curious custom, after the death of a Brahmin husband, of his wife (or if he had more than one wife, all of them) fiercely competing for the honor and sanctification of being allowed to be burned alive in her husband's funeral pyre (or "pile" as Holwell calls it). This was one particularly extraordinary instance of a very determined wife:

"At five of the clock on the morning of the 4th of February, 1742-3, died Rhaant Chund Pundit of the Mahahrattor tribe aged twenty-eight years; his widow (FOR HE HAD BUT ONE WIFE) aged between seventeen and eighteen, as soon as he expired, disdaining to wait the term allowed her
for reflection, immediately declared to the Bramins and witnesses present her resolution to burn ; as the family was of no small consideration, all the merchants of Cossimbuzaar, and her relations, left no arguments unessayed to dissuade her from it—Lady Russell, with the tenderest humanity, sent her several messages to the same purpose;—the infant state of her children (two girls and a boy, the eldest not four years of age) and the terrors and pain of the death me sought, were painted to her in the strongest and most lively colouring—she was deaf to all,—she gratefully thanked Lady Russell, and sent her word she had now nothing to live for, but recommended her children to her protection.—When the torments of burning were urged in terrorem to her, she with a resolved and calm countenance, put her finger into the fire, and held it there a considerable time, time, she then with one hand put fire in the palm of the other, sprinkled incense oil it, and fumigated the Bramins. The consideration of her children left destitute of a parent was again urged to her.—She replied, be that made them, would take care of them. She was at last given to understands she should not be permitted to burn; this for a short space seemed to give her deep affliction, but soon recollecting herself, she told them, death was in her power, and that if she 'was not allowed to burn, according to the principles of her calling she would starve herself.—Her friends, finding her thus peremptory and resolved, were obliged at last to assent. "

So now we see Austen's absurdism having a rational foundation--she has read Holwell's account, and her attention was naturally drawn, exactly as I would have expected, to the description by an Englishman of the self-destructive behavior of Indian women.

Jane Austen has cast the Children sons as if they were Indian princes, who would invert the Indian polygamous custom by sharing a wife, who would then endure the English version of the Black Hole of Calcutta, which was the gauntlet of serial childbirth and death that was the fate of so many English wives.

As I have mentioned in this blog several times before, my presentation at the JASNA Annual General Meeting in Portland a few months ago was all about the fundamental theme of Northanger Abbey, which was the English version of that Indian conjugal horror---i.e., English wives accepting the role of perpetually pregnant breeding animal, each time risking death in childbirth or its aftermath, an epidemic in Jane Austen's time--a custom that perhaps the Indians would have found equally as bizarre, incomprehensible, and barbaric as the English would have found the self-immolating lust of the Indian wife.

And that is, I assert, what was on JA's mind when she wrote that seemingly off the wall sentence, it is seen to have all the power and compression of thought of poetry.

And finally, when i posted the above comments in Janeites and Austen L, I completely forgot to point out the sharpest point of JA's acidulous satire, in her veiled allusion to John Zephaniah Holwell's above captioned account of India.

To wit: it is that JA cast _Holwell's own granddaughter_ in the role of one of the Indian wives who chooses to die on her husband's funeral pyre. I sense that Austen resented Holwell's blithe tolerance for exotic Indian customs such as this, as he advises his English readers not to be too quick to judge such practices as barbaric, and he expresses a kind of detached admiration as he describes how many Indian wives at first were eager to die in their husband's funeral pyre, only to experience "fire remorse" at the last minute--but it was too late, the rules of that twisted game were that once a wife chose to burn, she was not allowed to change her mind at the last minute. And I think that JA also read Holwell's account of his and his men's horrible suffering while confined in the Black Hole of Calcutta, and thought, "Men! If they only knew the pain of childbirth, they would find out how courageous their wives really were!"

So all in all, that little sentence, seeming a silly absurd throwaway, is actually a marvel of poetic compression, as it points to a world of female suffering, Indian and English wives united in their victimhood as being a good wife means valuing your own survival at a pin's worth.

Also, I just found a 1945 medical book entitled _Control of Pain in Childbirth, Anesthesia, Analgesia, Amnesia_ in which the authors pick up on the very metaphor I think JA was pointing to:

"The pain of child-bearing has always been woman's heritage. The Black Hole of Calcutta was no more horrible in the history of mankind than have been the abuses of womankind in her hour of travail. The forgotten woman in the history of civilization has been the woman enduring the
most unjust of all human sufferings--the travail of childbirth...."

And Jim Morrison thought he was only channeling Lord Byron when he wrote "And our love become a funeral pyre" in his biggest hit, Light My Fire---he had no idea that he was also inadvertently echoing JA, who saw marriage and childbirth as a super-slow-motion funeral pyre, in which English wives found themselves doomed to roast slowly over two decades, or death in childbirth, whichever came first.

So, for all of the above reasons, I chose "Jane's Black Hole of England" as the title of this post, because even before she reached the age of 21, I can see that Jane Austen was already a very strong critic of procreation within the framework of the traditional English marriage, and the horrors that the English wife was excepted to grin and bear (so to speak).

And if Jane Austen could have spent a few minutes in the 20th century long enough to learn something about modern physics, she would surely have woven into that sentence an additional metaphor connected to the concept of the black hole, with its overpowering gravity that allows nothing, even light, to escape from it. That was how she saw English marriage, a black hole which an English woman entered, never to again escape except through death, unless she was one of the lucky ones who lived past menopause with her health intact.

Cheers, ARNIE

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