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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Significant Cowper-Austen Biographical Parallels

From Chalmers's 1810 account of Cowper's biography in Samuel Johnson's Poets volume, which JA would have read:

"This very ingenious poet was the descendant of an ancient and honourable family. His father was the second son of Spenser Cowper (a younger brother of the lord chancellor Cowper) who was appointed chief justice of Chester in 1717...His father, John Cowper, entered into the church and, became rector of Great Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. He married Anne, the 'daughter of Roger Donne, esq. of Ludlam Hall in Norfolk, by whom he had several children, who died in their infancy, and two sons, William and John, who survived their mother. William was born at Berkhamstead Nov. /26, /1731, and from his infancy appears to have been of a very delicate habit both of mind and body. To such a child the loss of a mother is an incalculable misfortune, and must have been particularly so to young Cowper. In his biographer's opinion, it contributed in the highest degree to the dark colouring of his subsequent life. Undoubtedly when a child requires a more than ordinary share of attention, the task can seldom be expected to be performed with so much success as by a mother, who to her natural affection joins that patience and undisturbed care which are rarely to be found in a father: but at the same time, it may be remarked that Cowper's very peculiar frame of mind appears to have been independent of any advantages or misfortunes in education. In 1737, the year of his mother's death, he was sent to a school at Market-Street in Hertfordshire, under the conduct of Dr. Pitman, but was removed from it, at what time is uncertain, on account of a complaint in his eyes, for which he was consigned to the care of a female oculist for the space of two years. It does not, however, appear that he profited so much from her aid, as from the small-pox, which seized him at the age of fourteen, and removed the complaint for the present, but left a disposition to inflammation, to which he was subject nearly the whole of his life.

At Market-Street as well as at Westminster-school, to which he was now removed,he is reported to have suffered much from the wanton tyranny of his school-fellows, who, with the usual unthinking cruelty of youth, triumphed over the gentleness and timidity of his spirit. As he informs us, however, that he " excelled at cricket and football," he could not have been wholly averse from joining in youthful sports, yet a preponderance of uneasiness from the behaviour of his companions was such, that in his advanced years he retained none but painful recollections of what men in general remember with more pleasure than any other period of their lives. These recollections no doubt animated his pen with more than his usual severity in exposing the abuses of public schools, to which be uniformly prefers a domestic education. This subject has since been discussed by various pens, and the conclusion seems to be, that the few instances which occur of domestic education successfully pursued are strongly in its favour where it is practicable, but that from the occupations and general state of talents in parents it can seldom be adopted, and is continually liable to be interrupted by accidents to which public schools are not exposed. In the case of Cowper, the public school might have been judiciously recommended to conquer his constitutional diffidence and shyness which, it was natural to suppose, would have been increased by a seclusion from boys of his own age, but the effect disappointed the expectations of his friends." END QUOTE

So first and foremost from the point of view of JA, she was aware that Cowper had suffered a similar emotional trauma as she did at almost the same young age, as the result of being removed from home and sent to boarding school. So, as Chalmers suggests, and I agree, Tirocinium was very personal for Cowper, writing at age 54, about his own experiences of emotional trauma upon being sent away from home nearly _fifty_ years earlier--talk about an elephant's memory! Second, he was afflicted with chronic eye ailments, which remind me of what we read about in JA's letters--an unfortunate affliction in the case of both of them, being preoccupied as they both were with reading and writing in their lives. Third, I note that he was the child of a rural rector, just as JA was. And, lastly, from a 1900 summary by Elizabeth Lee, I also learned of a schoolboy connection, however, tenuous, between Cowper and Warren Hastings, which would have been of special interest to the Austen family.

So I see the shadows of both the young Jane Austen and the young William Cowper (just a coincidence that Fanny's dear brother is also a William?) hiding in the character of the sensitive, traumatized, poetic Fanny Price.

And Kaplan's article, while entertaining and informative in a number of ways, completely missed the boat on JA's focus on Cowper and exile from home.

Cheers, ARNIE

Nancy Mayer then responded with an important additional insight: "You forget the trauma of George Austen's own young life, being virtually abandoned by all until the kinsman helped him."

Nancy, you are correct, I did entirely forget to connect this thread to those details of George Austen's young life, of which I am well aware. Thank you for reminding me. They are indeed significant, as I see it, because JA would have also known the story of her father's (and also of his sister Aunt Philadelphia's--which we see portrayed in Catharine and the Bower, written when JA was 17) early life traumas.

I don't know how you see those details as impacting on my claims about JA and the Tirocinium, but I think JA would have held her father _especially_ culpable for sending _her_ away as he did, because (as Lennon and McCartney told us) "he shoulda known better with a girl like JA"!

How remarkably insensitive and narcissistic of Revd. Austen to identify with Cowper for _himself_, thinking back to his own childhood, loving to read Cowper aloud to his family, but apparently not associating Cowper's message about youthful exile to Jane's youthful experience. Which....would actually have been very much like Cowper himself, who, as Emily Auerbach argued (and I cited the other day), was a sexist, and only expressed compassion in the Tironicium for _boys_ and not girls, and then going one step further and actually mocking girls--an egregious wrong headedness that JA noticed and quietly corrected in MP!

And....taking this one step further, I speculate that perhaps Revd. Austen was not the driving force in sending CEA and JA away in the first place--maybe it was Mrs. Austen who pushed him to do it, and he just went along, exactly the same way that Mary Lloyd Austen was the one who made her home less than hospitable to stepdaughter Anna, and milquetoast hypocritical husband James just went along. Like father like son.

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