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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Two more heretofore unperceived, related (& explosive) allusions in Emma to Sarah Fielding’s The Governess

Here is something that has just arisen out of my series of posts from Sept. 27-Oct. 2 on the topic of the amateur theatricals that Jane Austen staged at Godmersham in early 1806, which I argued were based on the writings of Sarah and Henry Fielding, most notably Sarah’s novella, The Governess (1749).

In those posts, I also emphasized some allusions I perceived JA making in Emma (published nearly 10 years after those theatricals) to The Governess, in particular to the inset courtship tale of Caelia, Chloe & Sempronius. I suggested that this was a disturbing allusion, because, upon closer examination, and read against the grain, the “Knightley” character, Sempronius, was, shall we say, a less than exemplary figure.

I also noted the following additional allusion in Emma to The Governess:

“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.”

That is my brief setup for today’s post, but if you first wish to first refresh your memory as to any or all the many details in my series of posts about The Governess, feel free to begin here…

…and, if you stick with it, end here…

OK, now you’re ready for the very cool and very explosive new thing that arose yesterday. I received an email from one of my private correspondents, Keiko Parker, scholar & longtime JASNA member, who became a friend over 4 years ago prior to the Vancouver AGM (about Emma). Here is the relevant text of Keiko’s email sent to me the other day, which she was happy to have me reproduce here:

[Keiko] “It seems to me that if Jane Austen owes to Sarah Fielding for various portrayals including that of Mistress Teachum in her "The Governess" (first pub'd in 1749), then Sarah Fielding herself owes to John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" (first performed in London in 1728). Just take a look at the characters:
PEACHUM (coming from the word "impeach." He is an underworld "fence" and thief-taker. )
POLLY PEACHUM - his daughter. LUCY LOCKIT - daughter of LOCKIT, Newgate jailor in league with Peachum. See my point? “

And indeed I _did_ see Keiko’ point, and much more that it opened the door to!

First, I took a quick look online, and although I found several scholars who saw the influence of Gay on _Henry_ Fielding (both in Fielding's first play, and also in his novel Jonathan Wild), it seems as though only one other scholar has come close to seeing _Sarah_ Fielding as also having alluded to Gay's The Beggar's Opera. That was Dianne Dugaw, who in 2001, in her book, "Deep play": John Gay and the invention of modernity, wrote at p. 38:

“In The [Beggars] Opera, Gay’s mock-heroic becomes a grim anti-heroism that condemns bourgeois values and rule without qualification…the moralizing tendencies of Gay’s smug Peachum that had already received the notice of some eighteenth century readers. (For example, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess…of 1749 identifies the starched governess of her girls academy ‘in the Northern Parts’ as “Mrs. Teachum’.)” END QUOTE

But Keiko had actually gone _much_ further than Dugaw! She’d made it clear that Sarah Fielding covertly alluded to not one but _three_ _major_ characters in The Beggar's Opera with _four_ of her own characters:

Mrs. Teachum <----Mr. Peachum
Lucy Sly & Patty Lockit <---- Lucy Lockit
Polly Suckling ---- Polly Peachum

However, using Keiko’s wonderful discovery as a springboard, I immediately took it a _quantum_ leap further forward, when I quickly discerned that Sarah Fielding had _also_ used the names of _five_ _more_ of Gay's characters in The Governess----and (here’s the explosive part) _ALL_ of them are prostitutes_!

Molly Bradly (cousin of Patty Lockit) <----- Molly Brazen
Betty Ford <------ Betty Doxy
Dolly Friendly <-----Dolly Trull
Sukey Jennett <-------Sukey Tawdrey
Jenny Peace <----- Jenny Diver

Even those who are fond of claiming that my interpretations are based on coincidences will have a hard time explaining all of the above _eight_ name parallels as “coincidence”! Plus....guess how many times the word "beg" or variants of same, appears in The Governess? (twenty nine times!)

So….that all made it abundantly clear to me that Sarah Fielding was playing a very _very_ sly game in The Governess in 1749, much slyer than I, or anyone else, had previous suspected. I.e., any reader who is aware of this veiled allusion to The Beggar’s Opera must explain why Sarah Fielding would want to generate a subliminal but elaborate metaphor of Mrs. Teachum’s Little Female Academy as a London brothel?

A great deal could be written on that topic, but I will limit myself, for now, to the following brief precis-I am pretty certain that at the heart of her didactic enterprise, Sarah Fielding was suggesting that courtship and marriage in England was something disturbingly similar to the choosing of a suitable female prostitute in a brothel by the male clientele. And that girls and young women needed to be alerted to this dangerous and appalling situation, the better to find some way to protect themselves from abuse.

And that theme of the corruption of love into exploitative sex is one that does not merely resonate with The Beggar’s Opera and its sequel, Polly, which are both very cynical takes by Gay on English society in the early 18th century. It also resonates _strongly_ with Jane Austen’s novels, most notably Mansfield Park—as I have written on numerous occasions about Sir Thomas Bertram and his view of the females under his charge as metaphorical slaves on his English “plantation”, Mansfield Park, counterparts to the actual slaves on his Antigua plantation.

But…. speaking of prostitution and slavery, that should bring to mind _another_ Austen novel where these themes intersect—in Emma!

First, in my talk about Jane Fairfax (which I have given so often during the past 18 months), I always point out the well recognized slang meaning of "governess" in JA's day was _”prostitute”_ (a slang meaning connected to Emma no less than 20 years ago)! And so I argue that Jane Fairfax, in code, was passionately proclaiming her resistance to being forced into prostitution by the “friend” who wished to place her there—Mrs. Elton!

But second, and in a very similar vein, in Emma we also have Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school. As I have noted in the past, in 2006, a blogger named Mayank Soofi posted the first published suggestion I know of that in some way JA intended to convey the idea that Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school was code for a brothel:

And since that time, Anielka has posted publicly and persuasively with a couple of her own colorful elaborations of that idea, and I too have my own interpretation of that allusion, which I too believe is intentional on JA’s part.

So, between Jane Fairfax not wanting to be a prostitute, and Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school as brothel, the idea was already out there, prior to my post today, that JA intended to suggest an aura of prostitution beneath the glittering small town innocence of Emma.

But now think about the impact of this latest discovery by Keiko, as expanded by me----I suggest that it is impossible to escape the inference that JA, in her reading of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, was 100% aware of the allusion by Fielding to prostitution in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and mimicked it in Emma! And so that must raise the identical questions in the minds of Janeites as I posed, above, re Sarah Fielding:

First, why would Jane Austen choose The Governess (and the Virgin Unmasked), both with very risqué meanings, as sources for a playlet enacted at Godmersham in 1806, involving the ladies of Godmersham, including the 13 year old Fanny Knight?

And second, why would JA return to The Governess in writing Emma, ten years later, and, what’s more, do so in a way that unmistakably echoes the veiled sexual connotations of The Governess?

Again, both of those questions call for lengthy answers, but for now I will just say that it makes it great deal clearer that Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith were much much more complicated characters than have ever been previously understood.

So, in conclusion, I say it is not a coincidence that The Governess uses names for its young female characters which are the same as the whores in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and it’s not a coincidence that Jane Austen draws on the theme of governesses and all female boarding schools to evoke the world of prostitution.

Thank you, Keiko Parker, for opening this door into the mysteries of Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE


Diane said...

This certainly supports Harriet as less "innocent" than normally understood.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Indeed it does!