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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lady Williams’s Sickness, Bell, Bath & Candle, and Looking for Missed Clues in JA’s Letter 81

 There are no less than _three_ different tasty tidbits lurking in the shadows of Letter 81 dated 2/9/13.

LADY WILLIAMS’S SICKNESS:  First we have this:   “Lady W. has taken to her old tricks of ill-health again, & is sent for a couple of months among her friends. Perhaps she may make THEM sick.”

This Lady Williams was the second wife of Captain (later Admiral) Sir Thomas Williams, whose first wife had been born Jane Cooper. Many Janeites will recall that Jane Cooper was the brave first cousin of JA and CEA who had caused the three of them (including Jane who was very very sick) from illness at age 7 at the boarding school in Southampton, by managing to pass word to her mother about the neglect of the seriousness of the girls’s illnessese there. And then poor Jane Cooper Williams, when not long married, had died in a road accident in 1798, leaving the Captain a widower who eventually married a woman who was perhaps one of JA’s real life models for Mrs. Bennet and Mary Musgrove, her greatest female  hypochondriacs.  

If it appears that I am leaping to a conclusion based on scant evidence, it’s not so. That passage made me curious and a quick check of Le Faye’s index showed me that the second Lady Williams _really_ was not a favorite of  Jane Austen, to put it mildly, over a period of years. The above quoted passage is Exhibit B to that effect, but here are Exhibits A and C, from letters written by JA to CEA before AND after Letter 67:

First Letter 67,  Jan. 30, 1809:  “A letter from Hamstall gives us the history of Sir Tho. Williams’ return-the Admiral, whoever he might be, took a fancy to the Neptune, & having only a worn out 74 to offer in lieu of it, Sir Tho. declined such a command, & is come home Passenger. Lucky Man! to have so fair an opportunity of escape.-I hope his Wife allows herself to be happy on the occasion, & does not give all her thoughts to being nervous.”

And then last, Letter 92, Oct. 15, 1813:  “Lady Williams is living at the Rose at Sittingbourn, they called upon her Yesterday; she cannot live at Sheerness & as soon as she gets to Sittingbourn is quite well.”
Somehow Lady Williams lived till 1824, and perhaps part of her survival strategy was pleading hypochondria?  

BELL, BATH & CANDLE:  Second we have this:
“I have been applied to for information as to the oath taken in former times of Bell, Book, & Candle but have none to give. Perhaps you may be able to learn something of its origin & meaning at Manydown. Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the Breakfast parlour there, must be acquainted with everything in the world.”

Diana commented as to the above:  “Oddly, someone has questioned her about the Oath taken as to  "Bell Book & Candle," i.e., witchcraft; she counters with some pretty strict  Phillipics about the "enormous great stupid thick Quarto Volumes" at Manydown,  which must contain all the boring information in the world.  Not like Capt.  Pasley's
writing; that paragon "condenses his Thoughts into an Octavo,"  and as she's indicated before she admires his lucid and concise prose.  Now why does she vigorously instruct Cassandra, "Kill poor Mrs. Sclater if  you like it, while you are at Manydown."  All we know about this lady is  that Le Faye tells us she was an admirer of Emma.  But of course, that lies  in the future, and the assiduous collector of opinions does not know that  yet.”

Diana, after some enjoyable sleuthing online, I am pretty sure that the business about the Oath is not about witchcraft, although I am pretty sure I know why you made that association. It turns out that “Bell, Book, and Candle” famously referred (and perhaps still refers) to the curse of excommunication under Roman Catholicism! There are famous scenes referring to this term in Shakespeare’s King John (where The Bastard, following the King’s orders, comments that he will risk excommunication for the monetary prize he hopes to earn) and in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. And I found a remarkable publication from 1813 (i.e., close in time to when JA wrote  Letter 81), which reproduced the actual text of a mid 18th century curse of excommunication. The Protestant advocate: or, A review of publications relating to the Roman Catholic Question is the publication and here is the first part of the curse:

The Pope's Curse, by Bell, Book, and Candle, on a Heretic of Hampreston. By  authority of the blessed Virgin Mary, of St. Peter and Paul, and of the Holy Saints, we excommunicate, we utterly curse and banish, commit and deliver to the Devil of Hell, Henry Goldney, of Hampreston, in the county of Dorset, an infamous heretic, that hath, in spite of God and St. Peter (whose church this is), in spite of all holy Saints, and in spite of our holy father, the Pope, (God's vicar here on earth), and of the reverend and worshipful the canons, masters, priests, Jesuits, and clerks of our holy church, committed the heinous crimes of sacrilege1, with the images of our holy Saints, and forsaken our most holy religion, and continues in heresy, blasphemy and corrupt lust; excommunicate be he finally, and delivered over to the Devil as a perpetual malefactor and schismatic; accursed be he, and given soul and body to the Devil, etc. etc [for another half page]…

You made the association to witchcraft, Diana, I believe, because of the famous play and film of that same title, which were very successful and acclaimed, and which was also one of the sources for the TV show Bewitched:   

But…as far as I can tell, there was nothing in particular in JA’s day associated this phrase with witchcraft, so this would appear to be a cryptic witticism of JA’s relative to Catholicism and excommunication, for some reason lost in the mists of time, but which strikes me as purely satirical. I seriously doubt that JA was actually asked that question by someone else, as if the Manydown crowd really had some insight into that arcana. No, that request has the unmistakable scent of one of JA’s little put-ons. And what further corroborates my sense of her joking mood about this are two other passages in Letter 81.

First,  early in Letter 81: “What a day was yesterday! How many impatient grumbling spirits must have been confined!”

While the ostensible reality behind this comment appears to have been some terrible weather that confined people to home the day before, I detect a wickedly playful whiff of the damned in the image of “impatient grumbling spirits” being “confined” in some Dantean purgatory.

And, that same tone of black humor rears its head one last time right after the Bell, Book & Candle reference, when we read “Kill poor Mrs. Sclater if  you like it, while you are at Manydown."

Apparently CEA did not like to kill Mrs. Sclater—maybe she didn’t have the text for excommunication at ready reference at Manydown?--- Le Faye informs us that Mrs. Sclater lived to a ripe old age and died in 1840. But it tells me all I need to know about Mrs. Sclater that she liked _Emma_, so I detect here some fond affection expressed by JA for a clever female friend in JA’s inimitable way. 

LOOKING FOR (MISSED) CLUES:  And finally, fully in keeping with the joking tone of Letter 81, we have some more of JA’s love of puns here:

“Miss Clewes seems the very governess they have been looking for these ten years-longer coming than J. Bond's last shock of corn. If she will but only keep good & amiable & perfect! Clewes is better than Clowes. And is it not a name for Edward to pun on? Is not a clew a nail?”

The idea of looking for “missed clues” for ten years is _very_ droll! And then JA shows her love of multiple meanings when she verifies that a clew is actually a metal artifact—actually, per the dictionary, a metal loop attached to the lower corner of a sail—so  it was a meaning JA heard about long before from one of her sailor brothers, perhaps, as part of childish wordplay. And note how her instinct is also to twist the word by changing the vowel, in order to create a homophone for “close” in the form of “Clows”. Her fertile mind was always turning words in search of quibbles…..

So much material hiding just beneath the surface of an apparently throwaway letter with little content—JA was not content to just write a short letter about not much, so she invested the extra effort to make her sister smile a few times, and I bet CEA did!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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