(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sarah Fielding's The Governess: The Unmistakable Austen allusions to same in Emma and S&S

My recent two part discovery was that JA, CEA and Anne Sharpe, joined by Elizabeth Knight, put on a Fielding extravaganza combining Sarah's The Governess with Henry's The Virgin Unmasked----joined, no doubt, by Fanny, Louisa, and Marianne Knight, playing some unknown combination of the girls at the Female Academy and the very un-naive heroine of The Virgin Unmasked:

(which includes a link to my first post)

I will now disclose the principal Austenian allusions to The Governess I see:

First and foremost, the story of Chloe, Caelia, and Sempronius was taken by JA and reworked in the most interesting and complex way imaginable into the characters of Emma, Jane F/Harriet S, and Knightley, respectively.

Chloe and Caelia are two girls of 22 (Emma and Jane are both 21) who lost their mothers while they were six (Emma was 3, Jane was younger still), who are supposed to be friends, but one (Chloe) tells jealous and slanderous tales about the other (Caelia) --sound familiar?

And, even more important, the same disturbance noted in Ellen's blog at the Machiavellian character of Sempronius has been mirrored even more disturbingly in the character of Knightley. He is the self-interested Pygmalion who covertly sets up "educational" experiences for the young women who place their trust in him.

I think JA was well aware of Sarah Fielding's subversive silence about Sempronius's machinations, and mirrored it with her own subversive silence about the dark side of Knightley's machinations---and it's no accident that the tale of Sempronius comes not longer after we read the fairy tale of the two giants, one benevolent, one malevolent----those are transformed by JA into two _alternative_ views of Knightley.

And there's much, much more to this allusion when you carefully read Fielding's tale, and match it, in your mind, against the 1000 times more complex interaction of Jane F and Emma in Austen's novel.

And that's just the beginning....

We also, of course, have Mrs. Teachum, the wise, proactive governess of the Little Female Academy, transformed satirically into Mrs. Weston, the governess who seems to have _no_ power to educate her primary charge, Emma, and also into the societal role of governess itself, which is held up by Jane Fairfax as a horrible fate to be avoided at all costs, "the sale of human intellect".

And....we have Mrs. Teachum's boarding school transformed satirically into Mrs. Goddard's parlour boarding school, where the primary education the girls receive seems to be how to place themselves in the path of dangerous and/or mercenary young men, and/or to ingratiate themselves to rich naive girls they can manipulate to gain advantage.

And the story of Lucy Sly is transformed by JA into the story of the very sly Lucy _Steele_ Ferrars ("Lucifer", as I noted years ago), a survivor who finds a way to level the playing field tilted so heavily against females. Lucy Sly has "a pair of exceeding fine black eyes, only with the alloy ofsomething cunning in their look". Lucy Sly also says of her original governess, "I knew by her tone of voice, and her manner of speaking, that she did not blame me in her heart, but rather commended my ingenuity." Lucy-Ferrars to a tee, I'd say.

And, continuing with allusions in _Emma_, take a look at this description in The Governess of the youngest student in Mrs. Teachum's Little Academy, Polly _SUCKLING_:

"Miss Polly Suckling was just turned of eight years old, but so short of her age, that few people took her to be above five. It was not a dwarfish shortness; for she had the most exact proportioned limbs in the world, very small bones, and was as fat as a little cherub. She was extremely fair, and her hair quite flaxen. Her eyes a perfect blue, her mouth small, and her lips quite plump and red. She had the freshness of a milkmaid; and when she smiled and laughed, she seemed to show an hundred agreeable dimples. She was, in short, the very picture of health and good-humour, and was the plaything and general favorite of the whole school."

JA not only gives the last name of this little girl to Mrs. Elton's sister and brother in law, JA also gives many of the little girl's physical and personality attributes (shortness, plumpness, fairness, blue eyes, milkmaidishness, good humour) to Harriet Smith!

And, what's more, look at how JA transforms the following description in Fielding's story of the al fresco adventure Mrs. Teachum takes her little female charges on:

"The housekeeper led them through an avenue of tall elm-trees into this magnificent house, in which were many spacious apartments, furnished with the utmost grandeur and elegance. Some of the rooms were adorned with fine pictures, others were hung with tapestry almost as lively as those paintings, and most of the apartments above stairs were furnished with the finest sorts of short, they should not go till they had been in her room, and eat some sweetmeats of her own making. The good woman seemed to take so much delight in giving them any pleasure, that Miss Jenny could not refuse accepting her offer; and, when they were all in her room, Polly Suckling said, 'Well, this is a most charming house; I wish we could all live here for ever. How happy must the lord and lady of this fine place be!'

There you have the prototype of Harriet Smith at Donwell Abbey, being led by Mr. Knightley through an avenue of lime trees, and then not long afterwards shocking Emma with Harriet's ambition to marry Knightley and become the lady of Donwell Abbey (and by the way, the fairy tale (and there are two fairy tales in The Governess) of Harriet and the Gipsies takes place just outside Highbury on a road "deeply shaded by _elms_ on each side"! And when Emma's nephews insist on hearing the story of Harriet and the Gipsies repeated just so, we hear the echo of the girlsat Mrs. Teachum's school also wishing to hear the fairy tales recited just so.

And as I was just editing this post, I realized that this passage in The Governess is also (and equally disturbingly) pointed to in Lizzy Bennet's reactions upon first seeing Pemberley.

And underlying all of the above is the overarching question of female education--what is good for girls to learn, and what role should imagination play in the development of their minds? The mind reels at the richness and mysteriousness of Austen's allusions to The Governess, which seem to me to demonstrate that JA read Fielding _against_ the grain, picking up on the unstated satire subtly embedded by Sarah Fielding beneath the seemingly conventional moral message to young girls to conform, accept, and obey the orders of men.

And there's more, but that's plenty for now.....

So, how is it possible that so many Janeites, including a fair number of knowledgeable Austen scholars, could actually read Sarah Fielding's The Governess and _not_ see any of the above unmistakable parallels that, it is obvious to me, were intentionally drawn by JA to Fielding's _very_ famous and influential novella, which is generally acknowledged as the first English fiction written for _and_ about children?

I claim that this deep blindness has arisen because nobody before me has read JA as being so audacious, sly, _and_ erudite, as to allude so subtly and covertly, so as to hide such massive parallels in plain sight. JA knew from personal experience in the world, especially at Godmersham where she was viewed by many of the rich and powerful she met as a poor spinster nobody, that her readers would not accord JA sufficient respect to pay attention to those echoes, but instead would treat these echoes the way that Emma treats Miss Bates's stream of comments about everything--as so much blah, blah, blah, to be ignored, and thereby the most important layer of meaning is missed entirely. No one before me has suspected JA of this sort of massive subversive feminist agenda, and therefore no one has seen it. Because, as Tom Wolfe so cleverly turned the proverb on its head 40 years ago, believing is seeing--and no one has previously believed that JA was this sort of author!

JA knew exactly what she was doing, and hoped that there would be some sharp elves among her readers who would pick up on some or all of this. Her novels were _her_ incredibly sophisticated version of Mrs. Teachum's fairy tales and parables, intended to educate her adult female readers as to what they needed to know in order to survive in a man's world!

And all of the above must be related back to JA's enactment of an amateur theatrical at Godmersham in 1805 (ie., 10 years before she wrote _Emma__), and we must realize that JA made very very good use of the delay in publication of her novels until she was in her mid 30's, enabling her to send all six of them out into the world as works of mature fiction, all informed by her fully developed genius.

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: