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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blurting out unseemly 'truths' then and now: From the Mouth of Babes

Christy Somer in Austen L:

"I also do not have a problem with what I speculated and wrote of letter 29’s -Coulson Wallop: “He also seems to have been unfortunately afflicted as his older brother, John-Charles Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth. I can imagine Mr. Wallop provided many a 'wallop' of a private chuckle during the Austen sisters attendance to several of their 'Balls'. An individual afflicted by this kind of simple-mindedness might often blurt out unseemly 'truths' -for lack of any real impulse control. After all, 'in for it' is just another way of depicting a future of frequent 'laying ins'.” My source for this little conjectured moment regarding his ‘simple-mindedness’ was ‘Wikipedia’."

Well done on that factoid, Christy, it did not occur to me to check to see if Coulson Wallop had a Wikipedia entry (the reach of Wikipedia really has become staggering). I checked its footnote, and found that it is based on the following apparently reliable source:

Here is the Biography of Coulson Wallop provided there: "As soon as he was of age, Wallop was returned for Andover on his father’s interest. He was not present at his election and made no mark in the House. As expected of him, he supported Pitt’s administration, voting for the assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. But like his eldest brother, who became 3rd Earl in 1797, he was fatally flawed: John King reported to Pitt, 5 Aug. 1800, that Wallop was "little better than an idiot, in addition to which he has spent all his money, and his mother does not think him a proper person to continue to represent [Andover]. At the same time she is anxious to obtain some provision for him (to the extent of about £400 per annum) and provided I can be the means of effecting this, I am to be considered as the family Member." King left this matter to Pitt’s determination and it appears that Pitt decided against, as Wallop remained in the House until the dissolution, when he was replaced by his brother Newton. Wallop proceeded to France in 1802 and became one of Buonaparte’s /détenus/. He died a captive at Verdun, 31 Aug. 1807.PRO, Dacres Adams mss 3/58; /Gent. Mag./ (1807), ii. 980. "

But Coulson Wallop did not live entirely for naught, thanks to Jane Austen! And I much prefer the spin that this factoid puts on our discussion of Coulson Wallop's famous bon mot, which is indicated by my revised Subject Line, and which leads to a remarkable conclusion which I will reach very shortly, if you read to the end of this post!

At first, it seems too good to be true, i.e., the irony that the only adult male in all of England during Jane Austen's lifetime who would openly tell it like it was, in terms of the dangers faced by pregnant Englishwomen, was a man who had the mind of a child. It seems as if it belongs instead in a fairy tale---as in Hans C. Andersen's story of the Emperor's New Clothes, in which only a child would blare out unseemly (and horrid) truths, because only a child is free from the rationalizations, societal pressures, moral cowardice, and hypocrisies that disable the vision and conscience of all the adults in the room.

Christy: "Also, I did not mean to intimate that Mr. Wallop was jesting specifically about Lady Bridges -more likely, this may have been a habit of his when the subject came up conversation. "

But then, as I was preparing to answer your above comment, Christy, I had a small epiphany, and suddenly realized that Wallop's comment _was_ too good to be true! I.e., I suddenly flashed on the fact that I had seen JA doing this before! I realized that JA, as she so often did in her letters, had deliberately ascribed to a person a statement which that person had not actually made, or if it had been made, it had not been made in the particular context JA was using!

Nearly two years ago, I wrote the following in precisely that same vein, without any conscious awareness of a connection to Coulson Wallop:

"What I have found repeatedly to be the case is that JA, in her letters, used her mother (or Martha Lloyd or some other close female acquaintance) as a kind of "straw woman" for put-on messages--here are two instances where JA used the phrase "My mother wants to know...." which I find quite suspicious:
P. 31: "My mother wants to know whether Edward has ever made the Hen House which they planned together"
P. 35: "Pray mention the name of Maria Montresor's Lover when you write next, my Mother wants to know it, & I have not courage to look back into your letters to find it out."
I am skeptical that JA's mother really wanted to know either or both of those facts, partly because they seem rather silly, but partly also because JA gave us all a clue to this sort of playful practice, when, in P&P, she put the following words into Darcy's mouth, describing her favorite heroine Elizabeth Bennet's delight in put-ons:
"....I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own...."
What I am claiming is that JA herself found equal enjoyment in occasionally ATTRIBUTING to others opinions which in fact WERE her own!
So, back to the above passage in Letter 57, I see this reference to her mother's mourning clothes in exactly the same put-on light. I also start from the opinion I have sincerely held for some time, based on all the facts we know about the Austen family history, which is that after the 1805 death of Revd. Austen, the Austen women were condemned to live in a kind of limbo of totally inadequate housing--and the one person who was in the best position to take them from limbo to paradise was Edward Austen Knight-yet he failed to provide them with the keys to Chawton Cottage for FOUR LONG YEARS. " END QUOTE

Now I realize that even though Coulson Wallop perhaps was very fond of proclaiming, at the drop of a hat, that people around him were "in for it now", I now am virtually certain that he never uttered those words in referring to a pregnant woman--I believe that contextualization was _entirely_ JA's invention!

In other words, I now claim that JA, in writing Letter 35, was intentionally invoking the same old folk tale that Hans C. Andersen tapped into in his famous 1837 story, and was deliberately quoting Coulson Wallop _out_ of context of the usual prompts that led him to respond with his "trademark phrase", so as to say to CEA, in code, "Lady Bridges is in for _it_ (it being serious illness or death), as even a mentally challenged person like poor Coulson Wallop could tell you!"

It is in exactly the same spirit as my topsy-turvy, ironic reading of Henry Tilney's rant which reduces Catherine to tears, by asking her how it could be that the very best of English civilization--its courts, its government, its clergy, its devoted husbands--could tolerate horrid abuse of English wives. In Letter 35, JA is sketching the other side of that parodic coin---yes, all those respected institutions _could_ fail to spot a holocaust of abuse of English wives, but Coulson Wallop could see it all, and tell it like it was!

So Coulson Wallop came to JA's mind as she was writing Letter 35, as the perfect person to ascribe such a quotation to vis a vis poor Lady Bridges, for exactly the reasons I have just described.

And the tragic irony of JA's choice of Coulson Wallop as unwitting prophet of Lady Bridges's death in childbirth, is that both Coulson and Lady Bridges died in their thirties within a year of each other, each after 5-6 years of continuous "confinement"----Wallop by the French, and Lady Bridges by serial pregnancies! And JA lived to learn of both of their deaths in this way, before any of her novels, but especially Northanger Abbey, were published--which is one of many reasons why this theme was so important to her.

And there is also the further final chilling irony that at least a million women must have died or become seriously ill as a result of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in Europe between 1600-1850, whereas during only ten months in 1916, close to a million young French and German soldiers died in Verdun, the very place where poor Coulson Wallop died in captivity over a century earlier. Both of them horrid holocausts of avoidable injury and death, one in slow motion, one in a rush.

So thanks again, Christy, however inadvertently, you've made my argument so much stronger and compelling than I initially made it myself! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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