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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, October 2, 2011

An Interesting & Significant Austen-Fielding PERSONAL Connection

My recent string of posts about the 1806 Godmersham amateur theatricals (which I claim were JA's dramatized adaptations of fiction written by both Sarah Fielding and her much more famous brother, Henry, fictions which JA later also alluded to in her own novels) led me to revisit all of my prior research about JA's literary allusions to the Fieldings, which I had accumulated over the past 6 years. However, what I am writing about today is a _biographical_ discovery that my revisiting took me to, an entirely unexpected bonus that arose when two files I had generated years ago on seemingly completely unrelated subjects turned out to have a point of crucial intersection.

I have discovered an Austen-Fielding _personal_ connection which, as best as I can tell online, has never been mentioned by any Austen biographer prior to me, in no small part because members of the Austen family did _not_ wish this connection to be noticed. Read on and see what _you_ think.

First, using Google Desktop, I searched through all my files which included both "Fielding" and "Austen"--a large number of files, but most of them pertained to Jane Austen's fiction vis a vis Tom Jones, which I had last exhaustively researched over a year ago, and which were not the tree I was barking up, so I quickly skimmed past them.

The point of intersection that serendipitously led to my latest discovery was the name "Denbigh". It showed up in a file describing Henry Fielding's ancestry, mentioning that Henry Fielding was born into a junior branch of an ancient noble family, the Earls of Denbigh. No big deal so far. You probably never heard of it in connection with Jane Austen, nor had I noticed it before, and it only rang a bell for me at all, because it was a character name in James Fenimore Cooper's 1820 Austen homage, entitled Precaution---but that appeared to me to be coincidental and insignificant.

But then, a short time later, another of the files I had retrieved _also_ mentioned the Earls of Denbigh--and what electrified me was that this latter file did not mention Henry (or Sarah) Fielding at all, but instead had mentioned the Earls of Denbigh in connection with the Bridges family at Goodnestone!

I had never previously paid attention to, or taken note of, the name "Denbigh" in either of those files, but I quickly realized why this intersection was so interesting--I recalled another factoid that I _had_ taken note of, in passing, round about 2005, which was that there were two female Fieldings who were part of the Bridges/Knight family matrix in Kent!

At that earlier time, as I now recalled, it was during my initial forays into Le Faye's edition of JA's letters, and the question had popped into my head, wondering if those Kentish female Fieldings (some of you might have noticed it, too, because one of them was known by the colorful nickname "Aunt Fatty") might have been family relations of _the_ Henry Fielding. But I also recalled that my curiosity in 2005 was quickly quenched when I read Le Faye's Bio Index entry for the Fielding family, which made _NO_ mention whatsoever of Henry Fielding. In 2005, although I was already neck deep in sleuthing out the shadow story of _Emma_, I was much much less suspicious and inquisitive, and much more passive, than I am today about the standard understanding of JA's biography. So, in 2005, I took Le Faye's Index at face value and assumed that if there _had_ been a personal connection of part of the Austen family to the famous Henry Fielding, of course it would have been discovered long ago.

WRONG! Today, with my policy of questioning every part of the received wisdom about JA, I would have immediately sleuthed out an answer to that question--but better late than never, because this one is significant. Anyone who wishes can use Google and other online resources to verify the following essential genealogical connections:


Henry and Sarah Fielding were some of the children of Edmund Fielding (1681-1741), the 3rd son of John Feilding (1650-77), who was in turn the youngest son of George Feilding (1614-65), the 1st Earl of Desmond (and also younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Denbigh and also uncle of the 3rd Earl of Denbigh and great uncle of the 4th Earl of Denbigh)-or, stated in another way, Henry and Sarah Fielding were great grandchildren of the 1st Earl of Denbigh. (Wikipedia is wrong on this point, by the way)


Colonel Charles Fielding was the son of another Charles Fielding, the 3rd son (therefore the grandson) of the 4th Earl of Denbigh. And he also married Sophia, the niece of the 8th Earl of Winchilsea, but he died of war wounds in 1783. Aunt Fatty, Isabella Fielding, was the spinster sister of that same younger Colonel Charles Fielding! So this means that JA personally knew a 4th cousin (i.e., sharing the 1st Earl of Denbigh as an ancestor) of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and also the widow of a 3rd cousin of Henry Fielding.

So we have one junior line associated with the Goodnestone Bridges family, and a second junior line leading to Henry and Sarah Fielding.

I could not ascertain from the Internet whether Henry or Sarah Fielding, or any of Henry's descendants, ever met any of their cousins, the members of the junior branch of the Feilding family that included Aunt Fatty and her sister in law (JA's Mrs. Fielding). But even if such a meeting never occurred, this heretofore unrecognized family connection is still interesting, for the following reasons.

First and foremost, what the above means is that at the 1806 Godmersham theatricals, three of the participants, Harriot-Mary Bridges (who would shortly marry George Moore), her elder sister, Elizabeth Knight (Edward's wife, who had less than 3 years to live), and of course Fanny Knight, then age 13, were _all_ lineal descendants of Anne Palmer Bridges, who, after the death of her first husband, Brook Bridges II, had, 50+ years earlier, married into that junior line of the Earls of Denbigh, in the person of the aforementioned Col. Charles Fielding, 4th cousin of Henry and Sarah Fielding!

And here's where it gets even more interesting. Even though I appear to be the first Austen scholar to take note in print of this Austen-Fielding connection, I believe this connection _would_ have been well known to JA herself!

Why? Because the Bridges and Knight families would obviously have been well aware, and very proud, of their connection to a junior line of the family of the Earls of Denbigh, and also, for that matter, of their connection by marriage to the family of the Earls of Winchilsea (which included the Miss Finches of whom JA often writes in her letters). And in their pride, they'd have been sure to make JA and CEA aware of those connections, in exactly the same way Sir Walter Elliot tells the world about their connection to Lady Dalrymple.

And JA, as the _literary_ scholar she most definitely was, would have been aware that Henry and Sarah Fielding were also members of a junior line of that same family of the Earls of Denbigh. Google Books shows that several published accounts of Henry Fielding's biographical info were extant prior to 1806, and we know from JA's earliest surviving letters from 1796 of her longterm interest in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.

So JA would most certainly have connected the "Denbigh dot" to both Aunt Fatty and Mrs. Fielding at Goodnestone, and also to Henry and Sarah Fielding, and that is why I reach the only logical conclusion, which is that JA chose to adapt Sarah's The Governess and Henry's The Virgin Unmasked for that special group of performers and audience, precisely _because_ of that connection!

In light of all the above, it is very interesting to read the following bit of biographical info in Lord Brabourne's 1884 edition of JA's letters remembering that he too was a distant cousin of Henry and Sarah Fielding. We can see Lord Brabourne's class snobbery in full bloom:

"But, in following up the Finches and Hattons, I have left Anne, the third Miss Palmer, too long alone, and must hasten back to her, with many apologies. She was the lady who, as has been already mentioned, married the second Sir Brook Bridges; but, whether the honour of the alliance, or the responsibilities of the office of High Sheriff of the county, or some other cause, brought about the catastrophe, certain it is that Sir Brook left her a widow, as has already been stated, in 1733; and, in 1737, she took to herself a second husband, in the person of Charles Fielding, second son of Basil, fourth Earl of Denbigh, by whom she had two sons and two daughters before her death in 1743. This lady's second son Charles was a commodore in the navy; he married Sophia Finch, sister of George Finch, eighth Earl of Winchilsea, and daughter of William and Lady Charlotte Finch (nee Fermor). Lady Charlotte was governess to the children of King George III., and her daughter, Mrs. Charles Fielding, lived with her at Windsor and St. James', so her children were brought up with the Royal Family. This will explain the various references to members of the Fielding family which will be found in Jane Austen's letters; and, though I feel rather ashamed of having inflicted upon my readers such a dull chapter of genealogy, those who care to do so will be able to identify by its aid many of the people who were her contemporaries, friends, and relations."

What is so juicily ironic is that I bet Brabourne was well aware of Henry Fielding's being from a junior line from the Earls of Denbigh, but that's the last thing he's going to mention--foolish status snob that he obviously was, what he wants to emphasize is the _aristocratic_ connections of his family, not the aesthetic connections, especially Henry Fielding's "vulgar" fictions!

Also, in the Appendix of his 1884 edition of JA's letters, which contained the text of three 1791 letters written to "Mrs. Fielding" by Fanny Fowler, the widow of Brook Bridges III and the Lady Bridges JA knew well, announcing the engagement of her three daughters, respectively, during that fruitful year, Lord Brabourne added the following biographical details:

"Sir Brook died before his daughters were married. ' Fatty' was Isabella, sister of Mrs. C. Fielding's husband, and daughter of ' Anne Palmer,' by her second husband Col. Fielding. She seems to have been a popular person, known all her life as ' Fatty Fielding,' and often at Goodnestone and Godmersham. She was godmother to one of Mr. E. Knight's children (Marianne), and died unmarried in 1812."

Fatty is Fanny Fowler's sister in law, in that Fatty is a half sister of Brook Bridges And Mrs. Fielding must be Sophia Finch Fielding, widow.

And think about Henry Austen's Bio Notice in light of my discovery--I believe he also knew of this connection, just as I believe all the Austen siblings knew:

"She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals. Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals."

Talk about protesting too much, again, shame on Henry Austen for such an unseemly deception! He has to mention Fielding specifically, so as to try to snuff out the very idea that there was an unseemly Austen-Fielding family connection!

I finish with a famous example of Henry Fielding's wit, which happens to pertain to his being from the Denbigh line, and which could very well have been read by JA prior to publication of all of her novels other than S&S:

Literary anecdotes of the eighteenth century, Vol. 3, by John Nichols, Samuel Bentley, 1812: "The following anecdote has been communicated to Dr. Kippis by a friend, who had it from the present Mr. Fielding, our author's son. Henry Fielding being once in company with the Earl of Denbigh [that would have been the 5th Earl], and the conversation turning on Fielding's being of the Denbigh family, the Earl asked the reason why they spelt their names differently; the Earl's family doing it with the E first, (Feilding), and Mr. Henry Fielding with the I 'first, (Fielding.) "I cannot tell, my Lord," answered Harry*, "except it be that my branch o*f the family were the first that knew how to spell."

And how ironic that this spelling error was the very same one that JA chronically made, putting "e" before "i", even when not following "c", was it because she could not spell, or was this a little homage to Fielding's bon mot?

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: It has been previously noted by literary scholars that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was Henry Fielding's much younger second cousin, but that family connection is independent of the one I have outlined.

P.P.S.: Another associated factoid: Ironically, Charles Austen (and his wife) served on the Namur in 1813, LONG after Charles Fielding's command as Captain of the Namur ended in 1779, more or less when Charles Austen was born--but again, it was a factoid JA would have been aware of.

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