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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 5, 2012

James Stanier Clarke & the Stepford Wives Mrs. Morland & Mrs. Heywood

Earlier this morning, Anielka Briggs wrote the following in Austen-L:

"The fictional Austen mother who holds the record for the most children is Mrs. Heywood in "Sanditon". She has fourteen children.  "They had a very pretty property; enough, had their family been of reasonable limits, to have allowed them a very gentlemanlike share of luxuries and change; enough for them to have indulged in a new carriage and better roads, an occasional month at Tunbridge Wells, and symptoms of the gout and a winter at Bath, But the maintenance, education and fitting out of fourteen children demanded a very quiet, settled, careful course of life, and obliged them to be stationary and healthy at Willingden."
 Austen even jokes that a family of fourteen is not of "reasonable limits" . Not only does Mrs. Heywood have fourteen children but she and her family are so remarkably healthy that they never need a doctor as Austen pointedly remarks on in the text. In fact Charlotte Heywood, she of the thirteen siblings, takes a rather dim view of the childless, Parker sisters imagined ill-health. This is again contrasted against Lady Denham who, also childless and aged 70 is as fit as a fiddle and a range of teenage girls (apparently childless but who knows!!) who are compelled to take sea baths and take patent medicines other than asses' milk."  END QUOTE
I replied as follows:

Yes, Mrs. Heywood is a twin sister, so to speak, of Mrs. Morland, in that both bear a Biblical number of children without the slightest ill effect to themselves. Given JA's known (from her letters) predilection to decry every instance of serial pregnancy she knows of, and in particular to express dismay at the chronic health issues of pregnant English wives of her acquaintance, a wary reader might just suspect JA of a satire, i.e., of meaning precisely the opposite of what at first appears to be a celebration of serial pregnancy.

I.e., I suggest that the Heywood "litter" is like the Morland "litter" in that both of them are JA's satirical Regency Era version of the Stepford Wives----depicting the fantastical but totally imaginary perception of the typical English gentleman as he looked at his wife's life. Whereas, to the more sober eye, this appears instead as an absurdly idealized version of real life, in that a wife who lived as a breeding cow for two decades rarely came out the other end in robust health.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just attend Dr. Cheryl Kinney's talk about health care for women in JA's time (Cheryl is not only an extraordinarily gifted and brilliant public speaker, she is also a practicing OBGYN with a passion for medical history) and you will realize just how rare that sort of pristine maternal health would have been, given all the medical dangers that wives faced in that era. Serial motherhood in JA's time was often a house of horrors, medically speaking.

And so, given this striking parallel between Mrs. Morland and Mrs. Heywood, it's obviously no accident (as in the "accident" that Mr. Parker suffers to his ankle) that both of these rustic mothers of a multitude also share with each other the curious parallel that they both cheerful send an elder daughter from among their respective broods as a companion with a childless couple on an adventure to a watering hole (Bath and Sanditon) where their wide-eyed but clear-headed daughter witnesses all manner of exotic, mysterious human behavior in the wild far from home. How sad to realize that Sanditon, had it been completed, would very likely have been as funny, and as serious, as Northanger Abbey (which by the way was, as we all know, still unpublished at the time JA was writing Sanditon).

And just as I claim we ought to stand Mrs. Morland and Mrs. Heywood on their heads in order to see them as JA really saw them, I assert that exactly the same thing is true of the Parker sisters and their "imagined ill health"--after all, to the extent that the smartest Parker sister is a veiled self portrait of JA herself--and I assert that she is---was it really "imagined ill-health" that caused JA to fall deathly ill in the late Winter of 1817, never having the strength thereafter to carry forward on the writing of Sanditon? I think it was very real ill-health indeed!

And by the way, Anielka, given your own repeatedly expressed strong interest in the personal life of Jane Austen's favorite real-life Mr. Collins, i.e., James Stanier Clarke, I am pretty sure it will interest you to note the following description in a memoir about JSC's younger brother Edward:

"Mr. Clarke left three sons and one daughter, the youngest of the family. Of these, Edward Daniel, the subject of these memoirs, was the second. He was born, as we before stated, at the vicarage-house of WILLINGDON, in SUSSEX, in the short interval which elapsed between his fathers return from Minorca, and the removal of his family to the rectory at Buxted. His elder brother, Dr. James Stanier, who is well known to the literary world by his various publications, was born at Minorca: he has had the honour to be domestic chaplain to his present Majesty, both before and since his accession to the throne, and is now a canon of Windsor, and rector of Tillington in Sussex. The younger, George, was born at WILLINGDON: he was a captain in the navy, and after many years of distinguished service, was unhappily drowned in the Thames, on a party of pleasure, in 1804. His sister Anne, married to Captain Parkinson of the navy, and now living at Ramsgate, was born after the settlement of the family at Buxted."

According to Google Maps, Willingdon is about two miles inland NW of Eastbourne, and while I know I am not the first to point out that the real life Willingdon where the Clarke brothers grew up was in some way a source for JA's fictional Willingden where the Heywoods lived, I am pretty sure I am the first to point out that the vicar of the real life Willingden during JA's childhood was the father of James Stanier Clarke.

Just a coincidence? Surely not, when we look at the chronology.

First, in late March, 1816 James Stanier Clarke suggests to her that JA write a novel extolling the wonders of the "august house of Cobourg".

Second, JA completes the writing of Persuasion a few months later, and not long afterwards, she begins a new novel, Sanditon, in which the action begins in James Stanier Clarke's childhood village.

Third, JA writes her famous "Plan of a Novel" in which we read the following initial paragraph:

SCENE to be in the Country, Heroine the Daughter of a Clergyman, one who after having lived much in the World had retired from it and settled in a Curacy, with a very small fortune of his own. -- He, the most excellent Man that can be imagined, perfect in Character, Temper, and Manners -- without the smallest drawback or peculiarity to prevent his being the most delightful companion to his Daughter from one year's end to the other. -- Heroine a faultless Character herself, -- perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit -- very highly accomplished, understanding modern Languages and (generally speaking) everything that the most accomplished young Women learn but particularly excelling in Music -- her favourite pursuit -- and playing equally well on the PianoForte and Harp -- and singing in the first stile. Her Person quite beautiful - dark eyes and plump cheeks. -- Book to open with the description of Father and Daughter -- who are to converse in long speeches, elegant Language -- and a tone of high serious sentiment. -- The Father to be induced, at his Daughter's earnest request, to relate to her the past events of his Life. This Narrative will reach through the greatest part of the first volume -- as besides all the circumstances of his attachment to her Mother and their Marriage, it will comprehend his going to sea as Chaplain to a distinguished naval character about the Court, his going afterwards to Court himself, which introduced him to a great variety of Characters and involved him in many interesting situations, concluding with his opinions on the Benefits to result from Tithes being done away, and his having buried his own Mother (Heroine's lamented Grandmother) in consequence of the High Priest of the Parish in which she died refusing to pay her Remains the respect due to them. The Father to be of a very literary turn, an Enthusiast in Literature, nobody’s Enemy but his own-- at the same time most zealous in discharge of his Pastoral Duties, the model of an exemplary Parish Priest. -- The heroine's friendship to be sought after by a young woman in the same Neighbourhood, of Talents and Shrewdness, with light eyes and a fair skin, but having a considerable degree of Wit, Heroine shall shrink from the acquaintance.

I am not the first to see the obvious repeated lampooning of Clarke in the above paragraph. However, this lampooning takes on startling new significance when we think about it in light of Sanditon's initial scenes being set in Clarke's home village--what it suggests to me is that perhaps the "novel" for which JA has created this delightfully zany "plan" is none other than Sanditon, the very first novel she began after writing this "Plan of a novel"! Among other things, it makes me realize that there must have been another Mr. Collins-like clergyman in the back of JA's mind as she contemplated Volume 2 of Sanditon, a character who would have had all the deliciously foolish traits of James Stanier Clarke himself.

And finally, is it also a coincidence that there is a confusion between two Willingden's in Sanditon? Does this confusion have anything to do with James Stanier Clarke having been rector of TILLINGTON also in Sussex, which is located only a few miles away from Willingdon? And, as I briefly browsed in the Google Map for Sussex, I noticed also a village named "Lillington" not far from those other two. Given JA's love of wordplay, I cannot help but think that she noticed all these confusingly similar village names in close proximity during a visit to Sussex sometime in her life, or perhaps on a map of Sussex that she studied before beginning to write Sanditon, and she chose to immortalize this confusion in her inimitably droll way, in the lengthy discussion of Mr. Parker's finding himself laid up in the wrong Willingden.

Cheers, ARNIE @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think it was that rare for women to survive having large families and be in good health. Jane Austen's own mother managed it, and long outlived her husband and her daughter. Jane's niece Anna likewise had a large family and liked to a ripe old age.

Mrs Morland seems to be a sensible, busy woman, occupied with the education of her younger children, not a Stepford wife at all.