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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jane Austen’s subversive Juvenilian allusion (in Jack & Alice) to Sarah Fielding’s novella The Governess

In a series of posts six weeks ago (the first one linked to, below)...

...I laid out a smorgasbord of evidence and analysis making an elaborate case for various aspects of the allusions I perceived Jane Austen making to works (by Sarah & Henry Fielding) in a playlet (now lost) which JA wrote and then staged, at Godmersham in 1806, starring a cast composed of various female members of the Austen/Bridges extended family.

In particular, I focused on Sarah Fielding’s short novella, The Governess, as both a key allusive source for JA’s playlet, but also (as Keiko Parker pointed out to me) as a layered allusion, in both Fielding’s novella and in JA’s playlet (and in _Emma_), to Gay’s very famous The Beggar’s Opera with its coterie of prostitutes.

All of this interwoven intertextuality scattered across 18th century English fictional works was tagged by a distinctive set of related character surnames: Gay’s Peachum leading to S. Fielding’s Teachum & H. Fielding’s Thwackum (in Tom Jones) and Achum (in The Virgin Unmask’d), with JA picking up on Teachum in her playlet.

Peachum, Teachum, Achum & Thwackum---- a quartet of names which the Clack Brothers (from NPR’s Car Talk) would have considered ideal for an 18th century law firm, but, at the very least, comprising an _obvious_ lineage of allusion!

In my earlier series of posts, I made the case that The Governess, while superficially a fictionalized primer for conventional conduct book morality designed to keep young women in line, was actually intended by Sarah Fielding as a covert satire and parody of such conventional conduct book “wisdom”, with a covert intent to teach and promote INdependence and autonomy of female thought and action. I’ve previously cited four different scholarly articles which recognize this subversive subtext in The Governess.

Recently, the question arose as to whether I am correct in asserting that Jane Austen detected, and enthusiastically embraced, such a subversive subtext in The Governess when she wrote her little 1806 playlet, or whether JA would instead have taken The Governess at its conventional, superficial level only.

Purely by happenstance yesterday, I was led by another train of inquiry to a definitive answer to that question, written in JA’s own _teenaged_ words—and the answer is “YES!”

I will explain.

I was rereading JA’s early juvenilia farce, “Jack and Alice”---written around 1789 when JA was more or less the same age as niece Fanny Austen was in 1806-- and the unusual combination of the names of the Simpson sisters, “Sukey” and “Lucy” [try saying “Simpson sisters Sukey ‘n Lucy” several times very fast!] leapt off the page at me—as these were the very same names as key characters in The Governess (and also in The Beggar’s Opera) instantly alerted me that “Jack and Alice” itself constituted conclusive written evidence that JA, as a young teenager, had indeed read The Governess in the most subversive light imaginable.

Based on what? Based on Sukey Simpson being perhaps the _most_ transgressive character in all of JA’s very wild juvenilia—she makes Lucy Steele seem mild and unassuming!

But, it might be objected, the name Sukey appears as one of the prostitutes in The Beggar’s Opera, and not merely as one of the young students in The Governess. How do we know that the very youthful Jane Austen is definitely pointing to The Governess? Because of the parallelism of the following two groups of passages on the word/theme of _ENVY_:

First, we have the following passage in The Governess (which I’ve edited for length, without changing the meaning at all):

“Upon which Miss _Sukey_ Jennett said, 'that though she could not promise them such an agreeable story as Miss Dolly's; yet she would read them a letter she had received the evening before from her Cousin Peggy Smith, who lived at York; in which there was a story that she thought very strange and remarkable. They were all very desirous of it, when Miss Sukey read as follows: 'Dear cousin,—I promised, you know, to write to you when I had anything to tell you; and as I think the following story very extraordinary, I was willing to keep my word. Some time ago there came to settle in this city, a lady, whose name was _Dison_. We all visited her: but she had so deep a melancholy, arising, as it appeared, from a settled state of ill health, that nothing we could do could afford her the least relief, or make her cheerful. In this condition she languished amongst us five years, still continuing to grow worse and worse. We all grieved at her fate….When, at last, she one day called her most intimate friends to her bedside, and, as well as she could, spoke to the following purpose: "I know you all pity me; but, alas! I am not so much the object of your pity, as your contempt; for all my misery is of my own seeking, and owing to the wickedness of my own mind. I had two sisters, WITH WHOM I WAS BRED UP; and I have all my lifetime been unhappy, for no other cause but for their success in the world. When we were young, I could neither eat nor sleep in peace, when they had either praise or pleasure. When we grew up to be women, they were both soon married much to their advantage and satisfaction. This galled me to the heart; and, though I had several good offers, yet as I did not think them in all respects equal to my sisters, I would not accept them; and yet was inwardly vexed to refuse them, for fear I would get no better. I generally deliberated so long that I lost my lovers, and then I pined for that loss. I never wanted for anything; and was in a situation in which I might have been happy, if I pleased. My sisters loved me very well, for I concealed as much as possible from them my odious ENVY; and yet never did any poor wretch lead so miserable a life as I have done; for every blessing they enjoyed was as so many daggers to my heart. 'Tis this ENVY that has caused all my ill health, has preyed upon my very vitals, and will now bring me to my Grave." 'In a few days after this confession she died; and her words and death made such a strong impression on my mind, that I could not help sending you this relation; and begging you, my dear Sukey, to remember how careful we ought to be to curb in our minds the very first risings of a passion so detestable, and so fatal, as this proved to poor Mrs. Dison. I know I have no particular reason for giving you this caution; for I never saw anything in you, but what deserved the love and esteem of 'Your very affectionate cousin, 'M. SMITH.'

As soon as Miss Sukey had finished her letter, Miss Patty Lockit rose up, and, flying to Miss Jenny Peace, embraced her, and said, 'What thanks can I give you, my dear friend, for having put me into a way of examining my heart, and reflecting on my own actions; by which you have saved me, perhaps, from a life as miserable as that of the poor woman in Miss Sukey's letter!' Miss Jenny did not thoroughly understand her meaning; but imagining it might be something relating to her past life, desired her to explain herself; which she said she would do, telling now, in her turn, all that had hitherto happened to her.... I lived, till I was six years old, in a very large family; for I had four sisters, all older than myself, and three brothers. We played together, and passed our time much in the common way: sometimes we quarrelled, and sometimes agreed, just as accident would have it. Our parents had no partiality to any of us; so we had no cause to ENVY one another on that account; and we lived tolerably well together. ….I lived in this manner three years, fretting and vexing myself that I did not know so much, nor was not so much liked, as my Cousin Molly, and yet resolving not to learn anything she could teach me; when my grandmamma was advised to send me to school; but, as soon as I came here, the case was much worse; for, instead of one person to ENVY, I found many; for all my schoolfellows had learned more than I; and, instead of endeavouring to get knowledge, I began to hate all those who knew more than myself; and this, I am now convinced, was owing to that odious ENVY, which, if not cured, would always have made me as miserable as Mrs. Dison was and which constantly tormented me, till we came to live in that general peace and good-humour we have lately enjoyed: and as I hope this wicked spirit was not natural to me, but only blown up by that vile Betty's instigations, I don't doubt but I shall now grow very happy, and learn something every day, and be pleased with being instructed, and that I shall always love those who are so good as to instruct me.' Here Miss Patty Lockit ceased; and the dinner-bell called them from their arbour.”

And now here are three passages in “Jack & Alice” which are all about the _envious_ Sukey Simpson:

“Her second sister Sukey was ENVIOUS, Spitefull, & Malicious. Her person was short, fat & disagreable...The Company now advanced to a Gaming Table where sat 3 Dominos (each with a bottle in their hand) deeply engaged; but a female in the character of Virtue fled with hasty footsteps from the shocking scene, whilst a little fat woman, representing ENVY, sat alternately on the foreheads of the 3 Gamesters. Charles Adams was still as bright as ever; he soon discovered the party at play to be the 3 Johnsons, ENVY to be Sukey Simpson & Virtue to be Lady Williams. ….it will be necessary to inform [the reader] that the Miss Simpsons were defended from his Power by Ambition, ENVY, & Self-admiration. Every wish of Caroline was centered in a titled Husband; whilst in Sukey such superior excellence could only raise her ENVY not her Love, & Cecilia was too tenderly attached to herself to be pleased with any one besides….”

.... Miss Simpson is indeed (setting aside ambition) very amiable, but her 2d. Sister, the ENVIOUS & malvolent Sukey, is too disagreable to live with. I have reason to think that the admiration I have met with in the circles of the Great at this Place, has raised her Hatred & ENVY; for often has she threatened, & sometimes endeavoured to cut my throat. -- Your Ladyship will therefore allow that I am not wrong in wishing to leave Bath, & in wishing to have a home to receive me, when I do. I shall expect with impatience your advice concerning the Duke & am your most obliged &c. Lucy."….. What might have been the effect of her Ladyship's advice, had it ever been received by Lucy, is uncertain, as it reached Bath a few Hours after she had breathed her last. She fell a sacrifice to the ENVY & Malice of Sukey, who jealous of her superior charms, took her by poison from an admiring World at the age of seventeen.”

And…those who read my series of posts about JA’s multiple allusions to The Governess may recall that I argued in a couple of them that there was a disturbing allusive resonance between the character of Mr. Knightley in _Emma_ and the character of Sempronius in one of the tales told in The Governess:

(and later posts following up to same)

Well, now I wish to point out _another_ allusion to The Governess, which I missed the first time around, but which I detected today, in Sukey’s two references to Mrs. _Dison_, who dies of envy of her sisters. Here is the passage in _Emma_ which suggests that Emma herself has read The Governess, and has imaginatively made a connection from Fielding’s Sukey and JA’s own Sukey:

“ "Certainly—very strong it was; to own the truth, a great deal stronger than, if I had been Miss Campbell, would have been at all agreeable to me. I could not excuse a man's having more music than love—more ear than eye—a more acute sensibility to fine sounds than to my feelings. How did Miss Campbell appear to like it?" "It was her very particular friend, you know."
"Poor comfort!" said Emma, laughing. "One would rather have a stranger preferred than one's very particular friend—with a stranger it might not recur again—but the misery of having a very particular friend always at hand, to do every thing better than one does oneself!—Poor Mrs. _Dixon_! Well, I am glad she is gone to settle in Ireland." "You are right. It was not very flattering to Miss Campbell; but she really did not seem to feel it."
"So much the better—or so much the worse:—I do not know which. But be it sweetness or be it stupidity in her—quickness of friendship, or dulness of feeling—there was one person, I think, who must have felt it: Miss Fairfax herself. She must have felt the improper and dangerous distinction." "As to that—I do not—"
"Oh! do not imagine that I expect an account of Miss Fairfax's sensations from you, or from any body else. They are known to no human being, I guess, but herself. But if she continued to play whenever she was asked by Mr. Dixon, one may guess what one chuses." "There appeared such a perfectly good understanding among them all—" he began rather quickly, but checking himself, added, "however, it is impossible for me to say on what terms they really were—how it might all be behind the scenes. I can only say that there was smoothness outwardly. “

In other words, Emma imagines Mrs. Dixon as being overpowered by feelings of jealousy and _envy_ toward Jane Fairfax!

And so, in closing, I claim that all of the above shows that JA did indeed hold to a subversive interpretation of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess , both when JA was 14 writing “Jack & Alice”, and she still held to it when she was 40 writing _Emma_!

Cheers, ARNIE

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