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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The OTHER (huge) Mansfield Park Subtext in Letter 56 that Le Faye DIDN’T Mention

“I have got a Husband for each of the Miss Maitlands;-Colonel Powlett & his Brother have taken Argyle's inner House, & the consequence is so natural that I have no ingenuity in planning it. If the Brother should luckily be a little sillier than the Colonel, what a treasure for Eliza.”

Le Faye provides no footnote to explain the above curious passage near the beginning of Jane Austen's Letter 56, but the Index in the 3rd edition (I don’t know yet about the new 4th edition) reflects Le Faye’s belief that Colonel Powlett is the same guy as the Colonel _Thomas_ Powlett, whose wife cheated on him nearly four months earlier--- as JA, with exquisite veiled sarcasm, commented in Letter 53:

“This is a sad story about Mrs. Powlett. I should not have suspected her of such a thing.-She staid the Sacrament I remember, the last time that you & I did.-A hint of it, with Initials, was in yesterday's Courier; and Mr. Moore guessed it to be Ld sackville, beleiving there was no other Viscount S. in the peerage, & so it proved-Ld viscount Seymour not being there.”

Sarcasm, because there is no way that JA’s suspicions of possible infidelity by Mrs. Powlett were in one iota affected by that lady’s having taken the sacrament—JA was, as Auden famously suggested, not born yesterday, and she was one of history’s greatest cataloguers of hypocrisy.

Anyway, Valerie Grosvenor Myer gives a particularly detailed account of that elopement in her JA bio, and I am not the first person to see the obvious Mansfield Park subtext in that “shocking” matrimonial fracas, with the part of Mrs.Powlett “played” by Maria Bertram, the 2nd Viscount Sackville (later the 5th Duke of Dorset) by Henry Crawford, and the unfortunate Colonel Powlett by the equally unfortunate Mr. Rushworth.

So, although she doesn’t want to say it explicitly, Le Faye must believe, if she really believes JA was referring to Colonel Thomas Powlett in Letter 56, that JA is having a droll little joke in that little Emmaesque fantasy gone mad--- imagining a double wedding between two brothers (at least one of whom we know to be married!) and two sisters. And perhaps part of why Le Faye does not wish to be explicit is that the two sisters were (in case you don’t recall the name “Maitland”) the two younger daughters of Mrs. Maitland (who was the identical twin of James Austen’s first wife). The two girls were last mentioned in Letter 27, along with their elder sister, Mrs. Warren, as I recounted here:

And there would be some sense in the joke, in that JA could have been imagining a bigamous revenge of Colonel Thomas Powlett against his adulterous wife, by immediately marrying another woman without divorcing her! But…..(you knew I had a “but” coming somewhere)… here’s where things get really interesting, because it turns out that Le Faye has no entry in any of her indices for a brother of Colonel Thomas Powlett, the cuckolded husband.

But…by strange coincidence, she does have the following entry in her Biographical Index for _another_ Colonel Powlett, who _does_ have a brother (also listed therein), but, strangely, neither brother, according to Le Faye, makes any appearance in JA’s letters:

“Charles, 3rd Duke of Bolton, had three sons by his mistress Lavinia Beswick or Fenton (an actress who was the original “Polly Peachum” in The Beggar’s Opera): Charles (1728-1809), Percy (c.1734), and Lt-Colonel Horatio-Armand...”

And, apparently neither Charles or Horatio-Armand Powlett, who were 80 and about 75, respectively, in 1808, had ever married, so they were both bachelors, albeit perhaps not the most eligible ones on the planet. But then, JA’s droll little joke makes more sense with them as the Powlett brothers instead of their cousins, because then we have the match of two very elderly men to two very young girls—an absurdist exaggeration of the sort of March-November match that occurred all too often in JA’s day—often after the husband’s previous wife (or wives) had died in childbirth bearing him litters of children!

Not convinced yet? Then take a closer look at all the words in JA’s joke, which I claim carries the characteristic telling details of all of JA’s writing:

“…the consequence is so _natural_ that I have no ingenuity in planning it.”

The key word there, as I suggest with my underlining, is “natural”. Why? Because Le Faye has already told us, by implication, the most relevant fact of all about those silver foxes Charles and Horatio-Armand Powlett---which is that, being the children of the 3rd Duke’s mistress (whom he married two decades after their birth), they are his _natural_, i.e., _illegitimate_ children! And for that matter,there's also a pun on "consequence", which at first seems to mean only "result", but then, when we see the pun on "natural", we can also interpret "consequence" as "prestige" or "power", precious intangible commodities which the illegitimate sons of a Duke conspicuously _lacked_!

And that fact could not be more relevant to their eligibility as bachelors. Because, being the illegitimate sons of a Duke, they could not succeed him as Duke when he died. So when the 3rd Duke, Charles Powlett, did die, he was succeeded by _his_ younger brother, Harry Powlett (whose line of descent, by the way, eventually wound itself down, in 1797, to _his_ illegitimate granddaughter, Jean Mary Browne-Powlett---who married Thomas Orde, who took the name Lord Bolton, a man whose interest in pigs was immortalized by JA!)

But back to that passage in Letter 56 as I have argued it should be read, instead of how Le Faye has presented it (did she correct this error in the 4th edition? My guess is that she didn’t) What is very interesting is that the three illegitimate sons of the 3rd Duke were _not_ cast out into the wilderness, but they were actually raised at Hackwood Park, the ancestral Bolton estate, and therefore grew up, as far as I can detect, alongside their legitimate cousins.

And if that real life menagerie of children at a great country estate happens to remind you of a _fictional_ menagerie of children at a great country estate, then I’m with you that Mansfield Park is a representation not only of the elopement of a junior branch of the family of the Dukes of Bolton, but also of its _illegitimate_ branch as well! And let us not forget Lavinia Fenton (or Beswick), the famous actress who mothered those three sons before marrying their father. Surely JA—who, I have recently demonstrated, was quite interested in The Beggar’s Opera….

My sense is that JA had the theatrical icon Lavinia Fenton firmly in mind, too, as she wrote Mansfield Park, her novel _most_ deeply involved with all things theatrical.

All of which explains, I think, why Le Faye exhibited such discreet charm in including those illegitimates sons of a duke in her Biographical Index, but mysteriously overlooking their presence in JA’s Letter 56!

As for illegitimacies at Mansfield Park, further extrapolations are at your own discretion & risk. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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