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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter #10: The "innocent country girl", Mrs. HarWOOD's "progress'

I earlier today wrote in Janeites about Jane Austen's mentioning her Steventon Earle Harwood and his wife thusly in Letter #10 written when she was 23:

"Earle Harwood has been to Deane lately, as I think Mary [Austen, James Austen's wife] wrote us word, and his family then told him that they would receive his wife, if she continued to behave well for another year. He was very grateful, as well he might, their behaviour throughout the whole affair has been particularly kind. Earle and his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. What a prodigious innate love of virtue she must have, to marry under such circumstances!"

Initially, I wrote the following analysis of the above:

"I detect major irony and sarcasm in "if she continued to behave well for another year", and "What a prodigious innate love", and I strongly suspect that JA means precisely the opposite when she writes "their [meaning the Harwood family's] behaviour throughout the whole affair has been particularly kind". Remember, the Harwood father is the one who eventually saddled the elder brother of Earle Harwood with the burden of spending the rest of his own sad life paying off his father's debts, thereby preventing him from being able to marry JA's close friend Elizabeth Bigg. Le Faye's Bio Index entry says that Earle Harwood married "Sarah Scott, a girl of apparently doubtful reputation"---and I say the operative word is "apparently", i.e., Le Faye is basing this characterization solely on JA's comments about her in Letter #10--talk about begging the most interesting question! My sense is that this is all mockery on JA's part, she must have seen the writing on the wall with the Harwood family, and was sympathetic to the young lovers, not the in-laws who did not accept her."

However, I revisited the question a few hours later, by treating Jane Austen's letters as comprising one long epistolary "nonfiction novel" and frequently reading ahead to see what happens next, and more important, to see if what we learn in a later letter sheds light backwards on what we read in an earlier letter.

And sure enough, Earle Harwood and his wife make several appearances later on, including the following extraordinarily interesting one in terms of understanding JA's above, somewhat cryptic comments in Letter #10:

Letter #22, 6/13/99 from JA in Southampton to CEA at Steventon: "I cannot help thinking from your account of Mrs. E. H. that Earle's vanity has tempted him to invent the account of her former way of life, that his triumph in securing her might be greater; I dare say she was nothing but an innocent country girl in fact. Adieu! I shall not write again before Sunday, unless anything particular happens."

So, Letter #22 is crucial to understanding that passage in Letter #10, because I hear JA _accurately_ reporting, and not fancifully imagining, what Earle Harwood spread around the Steventon neighbourhood about his wife's "former way of life". This would of course make Earle H. something of a tactless, boorish, stupid ass of a man, who somehow gratified his own vanity, by painting himself as a man who, by his irresistible masculine charisma, managed to miraculously turn a slut into a virtuous woman! So his being James Austen's good buddy (as later letters show him to be) does _not_ speak very well about the kind of man James chose as a friend.

And....there is also a very unsavory but unmistakable echo in that description of Earle Harwood's gloating "triumph" in Letter #22 of Colonel Fitzwilliam's tactless comments while talking to Lizzy about Darcy's gloating "triumph" in having successfully separated Bingley from Jane. Recall this very famous scene from P&P:

[Lizzy] "I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend's inclination, or why, upon his own judgment alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner that friend was to be happy. But," she continued, recollecting herself, "as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case."

"That is not an unnatural surmise," said Fitzwilliam, "but it is lessening the honour of my cousin's triumph very sadly."

This was spoken jestingly; but it appeared to her so just a picture of Mr. Darcy, that she would not trust herself with an answer, and therefore, abruptly changing the conversation, talked on indifferent matters till they reached the Parsonage."

I read this allusion as working in two directions--first, it suggests to me that JA felt strongly enough about Earle Harwood's crude insult to his wife's reputation to memorialize (actually, to "notorietize") it for all posterity in her novel; and, second, it also suggests to me that Colonel Fitzwilliam is broadly hinting that Darcy, tempted by _his_ vanity, has referred to Jane not merely as coming from a vulgar, upstart family, but that Jane actually had been a slut herself--which is what Earle Harwood has apparently suggested about his blushing bride! And, just like what JA wrote about Princess Caroline vis a vis the Prince Regent, my feeling is that in Letter #22, as always, JA ultimately would take the side of the woman in cases of transgressive behavior, because of the gender power differential.

And, in conclusion, perhaps the word "slut" is not strong enough to describe Earle Harwood's smearing of his wife's reputation----when we think about JA describing the future Mrs. Earle Harwood as an "innocent country girl", it leads me inexorably back to JA's Letter #7, written two years earlier, in which JA covertly alluded to Hogarth's Harlot's Progress engraving of the fat woman who tempts a "young country girl" into prostitution with "small beer". And that makes the connection to Darcy all the more disturbing.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. Then, a short time afterwards, I revisited this question one more time, as I realized there was more gold to be mined from that short passage in Letter #10, in that there were _two other_ even more extraordinary satirical echoes of P&P in the very short description of Earle Harwood and his wife in Letter #10:

First we have Jane Austen describing the Earl Harwoods.....

"....his family then told him that they would receive his wife, if she continued to behave well for another year."

...being echoed by the Bennet family's receiving of Lydia and Wickham at Longbourn in Chapter 50....

"But Jane and Elizabeth, who agreed in wishing, for the sake of their sister's feelings and consequence, that she should be noticed on her marriage by her parents, urged him so earnestly, yet so rationally and so mildly, to _receive her and her husband_ at Longbourn as soon as they were married, that he was prevailed on to think as they thought, and act as they wished....The family were assembled in the breakfast room to _receive them_...."

...and also being echoed by Mr. Bennet when he shortly thereafter says to Kitty....

"Well, well," said he, "do not make yourself unhappy. If you are a good girl for the next ten years, I will take you to a review at the end of them."

And second, we have......

"...their behaviour throughout the whole affair has been _particularly kind_....What a _prodigious_ innate love of virtue she must have, to marry under such circumstances!"

as the virtual "twin" of the following text in Chapter 48 of P&P......

"Oh! yes," said Elizabeth drily -- "Mr Darcy is _uncommonly kind_ to Mr Bingley, and takes a _prodigious_ deal of care of him."

And so, in aggregate, are we not hearing echoes of Lydia and Wickham's elopement in both Letter #10 _and_ in Darcy's comments to Bingley about Jane?

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