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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jane Austen’s Persuasion as a Biblical Vision of England as Egypt vis a vis the 1815 Corn Law & the 1816 Volcanic Eruption

This post will fill in the fourth dimension of the allusion by Jane Austen in Persuasion to the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, with thin and full ears of corn, in Genesis, and I will do this, for a change, almost entirely by quotations from other scholars, which, I claim, take on startling added significance when viewed through the lens of that Biblical allusion.

First, per Wikipedia: “In 1813, a House of Commons Committee recommended excluding foreign-grown corn until domestically grown corn reached £4 per quarter. Malthus believed this to be a fair price, and that it would be dangerous for Britain to rely on imported corn as lower prices would reduce labourers' wages, and manufacturers would lose out due to the fall in purchasing power of landlords and farmers. However Ricardo believed in free trade so Britain could use its capital and population to her comparative advantage. With the advent of peace in 1814, corn prices dropped, and the Tory government passed the 1815 Corn Law. This led to serious rioting in London.”

And here is an expanded view of the above-described events, courtesy of Sheryl Craig’s Vol. 22 Persuasions Online article:

“…Between 1790 and 1814, wholesale prices doubled…, a particularly distressing occurrence to household budgets based on fixed yearly incomes, such as the Austen family’s. At the same time, taxes soared; for example, the window tax on houses quadrupled…, and, even without the increase, taxes in general were outrageous. Not only were people taxed on land, houses, and income, taxes were affixed to obvious luxury items such as horses, carriages, and silk and to less ostentatious non-necessities such as male servants and dogs. Middle-class items—glass, hats, newspapers, coffee, sugar, paper, and playing cards—were taxed. Neither could the poor escape the tax burden as taxes were levied on the most common and mundane items, such as candles, beer, malt, bricks, stone, salt, tea, soap, and coal… Perversely, wages for agricultural laborers plummeted from around 15 shillings a week to 6, slightly more than one-third of their former pay. A series of bad harvests and a 60% drop in agricultural prices preceded the passing of the Corn Law in 1815, but it was too little, too late for hundreds of bankrupt farmers and their employees… Faye Weldon reminds us this was also the time of enclosure: “The rural population saw its common land vanishing as farmers and landowners claimed it for their own, and enclosed it with hedges, and was powerless to prevent it, and grew hungrier and hungrier” (92-93). In 1816, as Emma was being distributed, conditions were so bad that food riots broke out in Sussex and Yorkshire. The desperation of the rural poor probably explains the presence of begging gypsies and poultry thieves in Emma. Many banks were forced to close, including the bank managed by Jane Austen’s brother Henry.” END QUOTE

Nancy’s mantra over the past decade has been that JA did _not_ write about national or global events in her novels, and she always has included the Corn Law among those events. Well, I beg to differ.

A few years ago, Derrick took this promising step: “…Messrs Knightley and Martin would have supported the Corn Laws, which were discussed in Commons Committee in 1813 after pressure and lobbying from landowners and farmers. Wheat and spring corn were definitely on the agenda at Donwell.”

But it’s much more even than that. I claim that the allusion to the Joseph of Genesis in Persuasion, centered around his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams of lean and full years in the corn crop, did not hold merely personal meaning for JA. She _also_ wove it, in Persuasion, into a subliminal vision of England as a latter day Egypt, a great empire in the throes of crisis, facing disastrous climate changes, famine, taxation, and social upheaval.

With this background, I invite you to read the following excerpt from the introduction to the 2006 edition of Persuasion edited by Todd and Blank, at p. xxxii, and think, as you go, about how their insightful comments take on treble significance when filtered through the lens of the Biblical Joseph allusion, which Todd and Blank seem at times almost on the verge of realizing themselves:

“…in Persuasion, the snobbishness of Sir Walter Elliot is more corrosive, combined with contempt for the poor and unconcern for the conduct of a war that touched almost everyone in the nation. Although the French Terror had frightened the majority from desiring revolution, there was much unrest in England during the 1810s; taking the threat seriously, the government retaliated with harsh measures…Austen’s vision of prosperous Abbey Mill Farm in Emma epitomized the agricultural flourishing of landowners and richer tenants in the war’s final years, when Napoleon’s Continental System barred countries under French control from trading with England and when internal prices and rents were kept high. After 1815, as inflated prices fell rapidly, the British government appeased worried landowners by bringing in The Corn Law Act, banning imports until the grain price reached L4 a quarter. This measure caused considerable hardship for the poor and made clear to many that the landed gentry did not regard themselves as heading and defending communities, but as looking after their class interest. The legislation was immediately opposed but not repealed until the potato famine in Ireland in 1846. Sir Walter’s failure in Persuasion to manage his estate properly in the ‘good’ years and his lack of concern for his tenants when he abandons Kellynch-hall need to be read against this background.
…Austen must have felt the added gloom of 1816 as she was writing Persuasion. This was the year in which the eruption of the Indonesian Mount Tamboro caused so much atmospheric dust that northern countries experienced an intensely wet cold spring and summer….The oppressiveness and desolation may have crept into her writing, perhaps in her description of the heroine’s autumnal walk to Winthrop. Thinking of human life, Anne Elliot assumes there is only one season of blooming while the farmer of crops means ‘to have spring again’…In hindsight, his intention has an ironic ring; as the first readers knew of the impending battle, they also knew of the dismal spring and disastrous harvest that followed. About the time when Austen was concluding Persuasion, Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Fanny Imlay, described the results of the economic decline and ‘melancholy season’; in late July, the corn was still ‘perfectly green’, there were ’26 thousand men out of employment’ in Staffordshire and Shropshire alone, and ‘millions’ of ‘fellow countrymen left to starve.’ The ‘tax of quick alarm’ in Persuasion’s final sentence…would also have been suggestive to initial readers, signaling the crippling war debt which had to be paid off in peacetime….” END QUOTE
I wondered after assembling all of the above, whether any contemporary of Jane Austen might also have perceived the tumultuous world events occurring in 1815-16 through a Biblical lens, and I found at least one, in _A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels_, edited by the Scottish antiquarian/historian/writer John Pinkerton (and friend of Horace Walpole) in 1814. In the Introduction, after a recapitulation of the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, Pinkerton writes:

“The reader will hence perceive, that the exquisite history of Joseph includes, not only the first formal mention of commerce, but the slave trade, the bribery of a minister, the dreams of a monarch, the corn laws, the property tax, and the principles of monopoly.”

Indeed, JA had precisely the sort of synthetic vision of the reader Pinkerton imagined would read his book!

In conclusion, I suggest that if you read my four posts about JA’s allusion to Joseph in sequence, you get a four-dimensional perspective on the incredible synthetic genius of Jane Austen, whose limitless metaphorical imagination could find, in a small handful of Biblical verses, clay that she could mold into such radically different shapes, so as to depict her own life as both a woman and a writer, the lives of all other English gentlewomen, and also her entire nation in its global context, and all of it hidden in plain sight-----a staggering example of literary economy and genius.

Cheers, ARNIE

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