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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jane Austen's Black Hole of England...and Two English Husbands for one English Wife

Ellen's new blog entry also contains a very interesting reaction to my posting yesterday of that excerpt from Holwell's description of Indian wives throwing themselves on their deceased husbands' funeral pyres:

[Ellen] "It should be said that the description of the widow eager to be burnt to death in the article by the Royal Society is a common description of women at the time and since -- ultimately from the families who stood to gain her property by her death. There is much literature which argues these are falsifying (of course texts which say they are perfectly accurate). When the British went about to stamp out widow-burning, there arose a whole literature on this. I did a project on Paul Scott's /Raj Quartet/ and through my reading in post-colonialist texts nowadays and 19th century travel literature (among this is Anthony Trollope) I've only time just to vouch for it, and can if anyone likes on another day offer names of books/articles. I've also read an article about 19th century norms for widows comparing widowhood in the west with widow-burning: of course the latter is horrendous and the former merely repressive but there are a few thematic parallels. There was remarriage within families; women were very much regarded as secondary creatures (as today in some countries in Africa women suffer very badly by a lack of valuing them)."

I am very glad to see that my connecting the dots between JA's Letter #6 and Holwell's widow-burning account taps into an even deeper vein of contemporary resonance between India and England than I had realized. All that Ellen alludes to in her above comments fits with what I believe was JA's own fierce outrage toward the many horrors which English wives endured, and, given her great interest in the wider world, how those English horrors were sadly echoed in distant lands like India.

I also was pleased to see that Ellen was reminded of another Indian connection of JA and her family:

"Austen is on-record in /Catherine, or The Bower/ (through irony) deploring the selling of oneself to British husbands in India -- that was the case with her aunt, her father's sister, Philadelphia, who went to India and married Tysoe Saul Hancock and left him when Hastings and his wife sailed to the UK -- never to return. My guess is Austen had sympathy for her aunt and (though never broached on paper) she might have had understanding for Philadelphia having had Eliza by Hastings.

I was pleased, because last night, before reading Ellen's blog, I was probing on the Web to find even more in JA's suggestive invocation of the Black Hole of Calcutta in Letter #6, and I found material that reminded me of two matters which I already knew, but had not connected to Letter #6, to wit:

#1: In 1759, i.e., three years after Holwell's Black Hole nightmare, Tysoe and Philadelphia Hancock moved to Fort William in Calcutta, where they become friends with Warren Hastings, who of course became Governor General not merely of Bengal, but of all of British India.

So the Black Hole of Calcutta would have been a place Phila Hancock would have had a unique connection to, and therefore JA would have been led to read Holwell's account by what she had heard from her aunt and perhaps also her cousin Eliza on that very subject!

#2: The ongoing debate about whether Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen was really Warren Hastings's illegitimate daughter sired on Phila Hancock.

And this is the mother lode, I think, where that sentence in Letter #6 was pointing in the most subtle way----could JA's mocking fantasy of one _English_ woman being "married to", i.e., having an ongoing intimate relationship with, _two English_ men be the deepest meaning of JA's comment in Letter #6? How rich an irony, to start with England, bounce over to India, and then bounce again to England in India, in the veiled triangle of Phila, Warren, and Tysoe!

And to turn this triangle into a rectangle, it is well known among Janeites that Warren Hastings's first wife was Mary Buchanan, a widow of an officer. What is not well known is that Mary's officer husband had died _in the Black Hole of Calcutta_, he was one of those who were trampled!

From the following website...

...I learnt the following:

From what I can gather (and perhaps Diana can refine this info), "Mary Buchanan gave birth to two children [sired by Hastings], one of whom died in infancy at Murshidabad and another was sent to England. Mrs.Buchanan died on 11th July, 1759 and the second son also died before his father`s [i.e., Hastings's] return to England. After the death of [Hastings's] sons and wife, he indulged himself in literary society and was acquainted with Samuel Johnson and Lord Mansfield."

And, I might add, with Phila Hancock, who arrived in Calcutta more or less at the same time as Hastings was widowed.

So the Austen family connections to the Black Hole of Calcutta grow more and more dense!

Cheers, ARNIE

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