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

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Russell/Mitford/Austen Husband-Hunting Connection.....and the Real Life Model for Lady Russell

Earlier today, Anielka Briggs wrote in Janeites and Austen L:
"I bought a first edition of "A Memoir of Jane Austen" (J.E. Austen Leigh, Bentley 1870) earlier this year. At the back was a very interesting postscript. Miss Mitford's "prettiest, silliest, husband-hunting butterfly" has always puzzled me as unlikely. Here is James Edward Austen Leigh's version of events which suggest it is an apocryphal second-hand tale....As my history teacher always said "check your primary sources"."

First, here is a link to a single page image in Google Books (which will save opening all of Anielka's jpg images) for JEAL's postscript-----which, curiously, was _omitted_ from the second edition of the Memoir:

Second, and to the substantive point, I would not be so quick to trust JEAL on this point (or a few dozen others in his Memoir, for that matter, as I have written in the past), and maybe there was a compelling reason for his mysteriously omitting that P.S. from his second edition without stating any reason for that deletion. As I will explain, below, I believe he was too clever by half, and stumbled over his own feet in failing to take into account that unintentional ambiguities of temporal reference really can _innocently_ arise out of sloppy syntax.

Here's the key portion of what JEAL wrote, thinking he had found a way to neutralize the Mitford quote, which, when you think about it, threatened to undermine his meticulously Bowdlerized, sanitized (and massively deceitful) account of JA's personality:

"...In point of fact, however, Miss Russell's opportunities of observing Jane Austen must have come to an end still earlier: for upon Dr. Russell's death, in January 1783, his widow and daughter removed from the neighbourhood, so that all intercourse between the families ceased when Jane was little more than seven years old."

And now here is what Mary Russell Mitford (the author) _actually_ wrote:

"A propos to novels, I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mamma knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon—I mean a young lady) with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers..."

The syntactical ambiguity arises out of the word "then" in that last quoted sentence. What period of JA's life does it refer to? JEAL seems to believe that the only plausible referent was "before [Mrs. Mitford's] marriage", i.e., sometime around 1785, when the author's parents got married. But what if "then" was meant to refer to JA's early twenties? Sloppily written, I readily agree, but not implausible to read Mitford's words to mean that her "mamma" was directly personally acquainted with JA when JA was a kid, but also remained _indirectly_ connected to JA for long afterwards.

But you then ask, how could that be, if, as JEAL claimed, "all intercourse ceased" between the two families in 1783, when JA was too young to hunt for husbands!

Well, apparently, JEAL was either unaware of, or eager to conceal, the significance of the following passages in JA's letters, which strongly suggest a longstanding _continuation_, indirect or possibly direct, of that "intercourse" between the Russell/Mitford and Austen families:

Letter 11, 11/17-18/98, to CEA: "[Madam Lefroy] showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs. Russell to his notice at Cambridge)..."

Letter 14, 12/18-19/98, to CEA: "I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there; Lucy [Lefroy] is to go with Mrs. Russell...."

Letter 18, 01/21-23/99, to CEA: "Our ball on Thursday was a very poor one, only eight couple and but twenty three people in the room; but it was not the ball's fault, for we were deprived of two or three families by the sudden illness of Mr. Wither, who was seized that morning at Winchester with a return of his former alarming complaint. An express was sent off from thence to the family; Catherine and Miss Blachford were dining with Mrs. Russell..."

Let's see--from JA's own words, above, we know that there _was_ some woman named Mrs. _Russell_ who was a close enough connection of Madam Lefroy in 1798 for (1) the latter to write a letter of recommendation for a nephew of the former, and also for (2) the former to accompany Madam Lefroy's daughter Lucy to a Hampshire ball attended by (the _twentythree_ year old) JA herself. And, to also reduce the degrees of separation from another angle, Mrs. Russell was close enough to JA's good friend Catherine Bigg to dine with _her_, with Catherine reporting on that dinner to JA! Sounds to me like Mrs. Russell was a particular friend of both Madam Lefroy _and_ Catherine Bigg, and that JA would either have known Mrs. Russell, or at least known of her!

So, could this Mrs. Russell have been the _grandmother_ of Mary Russell Mitford? Alas, no, the historical record is clear that she died in 1785, thirteen years before that "very poor" ball described by JA. So unless she came as a ghost, she cannot be Mrs. Russell.

But to the unlikely rescue of my argument thereupon comes Le Faye, who provides this index entry for JA's epistolary Mrs. Russell:

"Probably the widow 1794 of Francis Russell of Basingstoke, and therefore probably a connection by marriage of Revd. Dr. Richard Russell (1695-1783), vicar of Overton 1719-71 and rector of Ashe 1729-83. This Dr. Russell, predecessor at Ashe of the Lefroy family, was the grandfather of Mary Russell Mitford, authoress, best known for her Our Village essays." Le Faye--who is the last person in the world to want to validate the unsavory idea of JA as a husband hunting butterfly----thinks it plausible that there was a cousin by marriage of the author Mary Russell Mitford and her "mamma", who was personally connected to both Catherine Bigg and also to Madam Lefroy. And we can readily imagine how the connection to Madam Lefroy first arose---i.e., via the connection of each lady to the Russells of Ashe--Madam Lefroy's husband having been the _successor_ to the Ashe living, which had been held (as Le Faye notes, above) by the author Mary's grandfather Revd. _Richard_ Russell for _fiftyfour_ years! A long window of opportunity for friendship to arise!

As usual with Le Faye, having provided the reader with some potentially significant data, she is absolutely silent on that significance, i.e., not a word about Mary Russell Mitford (the author) having written about JA as "a husband hunting butterfly"! So you have to be an obsessive, like myself, to first connect the dots, before benefiting from Le Faye's index entry.

Having done so, it seems highly likely to me that if the mysterious "Mrs. Russell" came back from time to time to Ashe, why would she not have been accompanied at times by the "mama" of the author Mary Russell Mitford, who after all had grown up at Ashe! Or at the very least, she would have corresponded with her cousin by marriage, whom she would have known very well grew up at Ashe and knew everyone there, and reported back in 1798, among other gossip, that JA had behaved like a "husband hunting butterfly" at that very ball! And that juicy tidbit of gossip apparently survived in the mind of the elder Mary Russell Mitford for 17 years, such that, in 1815, when the future author Mary Russell Mitford---who was only 11 in 1798---had attained the age of 28, she would have heard from her own mamma about JA's wild behaviour, probably prompted by Mary's enthusiasm for the novels of "our great favourite, Miss Austen", whose identity as author of three novels was by then spreading through Hampshire like wildfire! Perhaps her "mamma" was suggesting that JA was in some ways represented by Lydia Bennet in P&P, who has the following memorable exchange about "husband hunting" with her elder sister, Lizzy:

[Lydia] "And then when you go away, you may leave one or two of my sisters behind you; and I dare say I shall get husbands for them before the winter is over." "I thank you for my share of the favour," said Elizabeth; "but I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands...."

Now......this does not in any way prove that Mrs. Russell was correct in her assessment of JA's character. Perhaps Mrs. Russell herself was a very proper lady, who was put off by JA's laughing a bit too loud at the young men at that ball? Maybe she took JA as a "Lydia" when she ought to have seen her as a "Lizzy"? Perhaps a fine distinction at a noisy crowded ball?

And therefore perhaps it is also not a coincidence that there is a Lady surnamed "Russell" who is known to _all_ Janeites as the literary poster child for "Foolishly meddling older woman who throws a monkey wrench into a prospective marriage between two young lovers".

Was JA aware of Mrs. Russell's disapproval of her, either by direct observation at that ball, or perhaps by report via Madam Lefroy? Either way, perhaps part of JEAL's motivation in trying to deep-six the Mitford connection to JA was in order to better conceal some romance between Jane Austen and a man she actually did wish to marry--whether Tom Lefroy or some other local suitor? Perhaps JEAL feared that Mitford's famous (by 1869) bon mot about JA would lead someone to search more actively for details of such a thwarted romance? And might that trail lead to Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh and William Austen-Leigh, in 1913, in _JA, Her Life and Letters_ (later expanded by Le Faye into A Family Record), discussing the hasty decision of Rev. and Mrs. Austen to relocate to Bath in early 1801:

" So hasty, indeed, did Mr. Austen's decision appear to the Perrots that l they suspected the reason to be a growing attachment between Jane and one of the three Digweed brothers. There is not the slightest evidence of this very improbable supposition in Jane's letters, though she /does/ occasionally suggest that James Digweed must be in love with Cassandra, especially when he gallantly supposed that the two elms had fallen from grief at her absence."

Notwithstanding RAAL's dismissal of that rumor, that is food for thought when considered in light of all I have written, above, about what we might call the "Russell/Mitford/Austen Husband-Hunting Connection".

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: