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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Princess of Godmersham, the Princess of Highbury, and the Prince": Part Two

The impetus to the next level of insight in regard to these two excerpts from Austen's letters, from 1813 and from 1817, was provided by a remarkable post by Derrick Leigh in Austen L:

[Derrick] Forgive me if I find an amusing irony in this sympathy for the Duchess of Richmond on the ground of family infidelity. Her mother, the Duchess of Gordon, also had a daughter Louisa, who married the son of General Cornwallis. When the groom expressed some reservations about the marriage "on account of the supposed insanity in the Gordon family, he received from the Duchess the gratifying assurance that there was not a drop of Gordon blood in Louisa." !

Like someone in a crowded bingo hall who is fortunate to be entitled to say, when the right number is suddenly called out, "Bingo!"

I thought I had heard or read something about that vignette years ago, I could not recall in what context--I just checked, it has never been mentioned before in either of these groups----but in any event, I had no conscious recollection of it, and so I was very grateful this morning to wake up to read Derrick's bringing it forward at this most opportune moment!

Here is a description I found in a book entitled _The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840_ at ppg. 129-130,by A. P. W. Malcomson:

"[Regarding a] letter describing the negotiations in 1799 over the marriage of James Stuart-Wortley...heir to large estates in Yorkshire, Cornwall and Scotland, and the only daughter of the Donegal and Fermanagh proprietor, the 1st Earl Erne....[t]he principal misgiving was, not that the bride's portion was beneath the reasonable
expectations of their eldest son, but that the insanity in her family might be of an hereditary kind.

This same misgiving arose in the near contemporary but non-Irish instance of the marriage of Lady Louisa Gordon, daughter of the 4th Duke of Gordon, to the son and heir of the 1st Marquess Cornwallis in 1797. To overcome Lord Cornwallis's fears of the strain of insanity which dogged the ducal House of Gordon, the matchmaking Duchess of Gordon assured him that her daughter had not a drop of Gordon blood in her." (citing Betty Rizzo's 2008 book, _Companions Without Vows_, P. 334)

So we see that this was not a totally uncommon scenario in British aristocratic courtship circles....

And Wikipedia, citing The Complete Peerage, tells us:

"The next daughter, Louisa, married at her father's house in Piccadilly in 1797 Charles Cornwallis... Allegedly, the Marquess had "expressed to the Duchess of Gordon some hesitation about marrying her daughter on account of the supposed insanity in the Gordon family, he received from the Duchess the gratifying assurance that there was not a drop of Gordon blood in Louisa."

But the earliest source for this vignette I can find in print is the one written by Alexander Dyce (who was a friend, curiously, of James Edward Austen Leigh) in 1856, in his _Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers_ , a literary lion who lived from 1763-1855, as Dyce quotes Rogers thusly:

"I knew Jane Duchess of Gordon intimately, and many pleasant hours have I passed in her society. She used to say, "I have been acquainted with David Hume and William Pitt, and therefore I am not afraid to converse with any body." The Duchess told the following anecdote to Lord Stowell, who told it to Lord Dunmore, who told it to me. "The son of Lord Cornwallis [Lord Brome] fell in love with my daughter Louisa; and she liked him much. They were to be married; but the intended match was broken off by Lord C, whose only objection to it sprung from his belief that there was madness in my husband's family. Upon this I contrived to have a tete-d-tete with Lord C, and said to him, ' I know your reason for disapproving of your son's marriage with my daughter: now, I will tell you one thing plainly,—there is not a drop of the Gordon Mood in Louisa's body? With this statement Lord C. was quite satisfied, and the
marriage took place." The Duchess prided herself greatly on the success of this manoeuvre, though it had forced her to slander her own character so cruelly and so unjustly! In fact, manoeuvring was her delight."

This anecdote was then repeated by William Dean Howells, famous today as Mark Twain's friend, while writing in 1867 about Charles and (poor mad) Mary Lamb.

But.....I am going to hazard a guess that Nancy's reply will be that we have no evidence that JA would have known this story, because there is no evidence that it had been published prior to 1813, nor did JA routinely move in aristocratic circles where she might have overheard this story being repeated at a ball or dinner party.

And that is certainly true, but then I suddenly realized, with delight, that I had not previously heard or read the anecdote that Derrick brought to us this morning---what I was remembering was _another_ passage from a letter written by...................Jane Austen herself!

That letter is dated November 3, 1813, and was written by JA from Godmersham to CEA in London, as to which I will now quote the "smoking gun" excerpt:

"We dine at Chilham-Castle to-morrow, and I expect to find some amusement, but more from the concert the next day, as I am sure of seeing several that I want to see. We are to meet a party from Goodnestone, Lady B., Miss Hawley, and Lucy Foote, and I am to meet Mrs. Harrison, and we are to talk about Ben and Anna. "My dear Mrs. Harrison," I shall say, "_I am afraid the young man has some of your family madness, and though there often appears to be something of madness in Anna too, I think she inherits more of it from her mother's family than from ours._" That is what I shall say, and I think she will find it difficult to answer me.

If there was a shred of doubt remaining in your mind, Nancy, surely the fact that JA----obviously having a _blast_ at Godmersham as she lurks among the rich and snobbish in their own natural environment, experimentally collecting material for her novels----explicitly conjuring up a fantasy of how she will speak to Mrs. Harrison, and describing this fantasy with evident satirical relish, impersonates the
Duchess of Gordon to a tee, must convince even _you_ that JA was well aware of what must have been a very famous anecdote by 1813--sixteen years after the actual event---when JA is burlesquing it in this obvious way!

So, Nancy, do you _still_ believe that JA was serious when she wrote what she wrote to snob-in-training niece Fanny about the Pagets in 1817? Or do you see that this passage is in exactly the same vein as JA's letters to James Stanier Clarke--letters which are total put-ons, where JA tells the clueless recipient exactly what (s)he wants to hear.

I will now accept your resignation in our little chess game at any time you are ready--look at your "Queen", she is already horizontal.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Entirely as a sidebar, that same Wikipedia entry alerted me to the following factoid:

The [Duchess of Gordon's] youngest daughter, Georgiana, was born at Gordon Castle, on 18 July 1781. She married at Fife House, in 1803, Johnn Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, as his second wife."

That last sentence is of special interest to me, because that means that the Duchess of Gordon's daughter Georgiana was the stepmother of Lord John Russell---protege of Charles James Fox, much later Prime Minister of England twice in the mid-19th century, grandfather of Bertrand Russell, friend of Dickens, Trollope, and other English literary luminaries, I revealed in my first public Austen presentation at Oxford in July 2007, a passionate but secret Janeite who delved
deeply into the wordgames of Jane Austen as an old man, but who had crossed paths with the Austen family in his youth. But that is a _long_ story for my book.

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