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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Governess & Jane Austen: the Scholarly Plot Thickens!

, As followup to the four posts I have posted during the past several days about the 1806 Godmersham theatricals, and also Jane Austen's _Emma_, as being strongly connected to various literary works by the famous brother and sister Henry and Sarah Fielding, I got around to checking more deeply, and only then became aware of an article published in the 2009 print edition of the JASNA journal Persuasions, entitled "Identifying Jane Austen’s “Boarding-school”: A Proposed Author for The Governess; or, the Boarding School Dissected" by Arden Hegele.

I quickly read her article, and here is the relevant portion of the email I sent her a short while ago:

...I am writing to you about your 2009 Persuasions article...have a read of the following four entries at my blog that I've written during the past several days:

Now let me try to brlefly put all of this together. After reading your article, I went right to the ECCO database and quickly found and skimmed the 1785 play, and I have now (tentatively) concluded as follows:

1. I think the 1785 playlet is ITSELF an adaptation of Sarah Fielding's 1749 novella, The Governess and Henry Fielding's play The Virgin Unmasked. The character name "Teachwell" seems a spin on Sarah's character name "Teachum", and there is both an apothecary and a dancing master mentioned in the 1785 play, just as there are in Henry Fielding's play. And... I also note that there is a character in the 1785 play surnamed Simple (like Sarah Fielding's famous hero, David Simple), and also a character named Miss Sly (just as in Sarah Fielding's The Governess).

So I think that Mrs. Paxson, or whoever wrote the 1785 play, was clearly pointing to those earlier Fielding works, BUT....Paxson took the story in a very very different direction. There is very very little overlap, content-wise, between the 1749 novella and the 1785 play. What Paxson did was akin to what Mary Sherwood did in 1820 (i.e., after Jane Austen's death) when Sherwood adapted Fielding's novella, and "defanged" it, making it much less subversive and mysterious as to its meaning.

2. I think that you and Vivien Jones are probably correct in your guess that Jane Austen's reference to giving The Boarding School to Fanny Knight in her 1801 letter to Cassandra is indeed a reference to the 1785 play--so your article has made me retract the claim that the 1801 letter reference was to Fielding's Governess. BUT....

3. I nonetheless believe that the June 1805 amateur theatrical at Godmersham reported by Fanny Knight in her diary was NOT principally based on the 1785 play, but was instead primarily based, as I argued in my four blog entries, on the two 1749 works by Sarah and Henry Fielding, respectively. If the name of the Governess noted in Fanny Knight's Diary had been "Teachwell" instead of "Teachum", I might well have agreed with you-but I think that very distinctive name is crucial and decisive in making this determination--Teachum can only refer to Sarah Fielding's famous protagonist. BUT....

4. Given #2, that obviously means that Jane Austen was ALSO aware, in 1801, of the 1785 play, and of its being an allusion to the Fielding play, and so it seems plausible that the 1785 play was also in the back of Jane Austen's mind as well, and perhaps some elements from it were therefore woven into the Godmersham theatrical, perhaps at the request of Fanny Knight, then aged 11, who might have made the request for performance of the 1785 play, thereby triggering Jane Austen to make things more interesting by instead substituting a Fielding spinoff. END QUOTE

If she responds to me substantively, and gives me permission, I will pass on to you what she writes.

Just think--all of this wonderful complexity rescued from history only because the 11 year old Fanny Knight was apparently so affected by her aunts's theatricals that she happened to mention the name "Teachum" in her diary 205 years ago, starting a chain of connection that has led me to all of the above!

Cheers, ARNIE

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