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Saturday, January 19, 2013

George Crabbe & The Prince Regent: Different yet Similar

In Jane Austen's Letter 93 dated in late 1813, we read the following famous passage, which pertains to George Crabbe, the then famous English author/poet who today is largely unknown:

"No; I have never seen the death of Mrs Crabbe.' I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It is almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any."

It just occurred to me as I read the above passage in Letter 93, that it was strikingly, indeed unmistakably parallel to another passage in a letter Jane Austen wrote barely nine months earlier to close friend Martha Lloyd, in which JA referred to another, even more famous man and his wife: 

"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate'' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"

This striking parallelism of verbiage and sentence structure (just read them both a couple of times each) shows us first that JA enjoyed writing in mock high rhetoric when the subject was famous people, almost as if she were writing an op/ed piece in a modern newspaper.

But that striking parallelism of structure is vividly contrasted in tone. Whereas the passage about the Prince and Princess is remarkably irony-free, the passage about Crabbe and his wife has the unmistakably scent of heavy absurdist irony, with a distinct shade of gallows humor. It's as though the later passage was a conscious parody of the earlier passage.

I suggest that absurdist irony is the shade of tone that JA invariably turned to in her letters, when the veiled subtext was death in childbirth and serial pregnancy, and I believe that was the case in the Crabbe passage in Letter 93.

From what I've read about the Crabbe marriage, there were at least a half dozen pregnancies, probably more (with miscarriages), and poor Mrs Crabbe went mad in the last half dozen years of her life, and George Crabbe took good care of her.

From that set of facts, of which JA may well have been fully aware despite her disclaimer of background knowledge at the beginning of that passage, I infer that her long-standing anger about English wives as breeding cows was activated by the recent death of mad Mrs. Crabbe, apparently during a last visit to London.

And that's the key point in the comparison between the the above two quoted passages. It was a no-brainer that Jane Austen considered the brazenly dissolute prince as a marital villain. 

But the deeper more important story is that JA even had complicated negative feelings about good ordinary English husbands like George Crabbe, who surely  never cheated on his wife and provided for her to the best of his ability all of their married life.

Even in his case, Jane Austen attributed some of the fault for Mrs. Crabbe's breakdown to the cumulative stress of overloaded motherhood over several decades. And if the very moral and clever Mr. Crabbe had been more careful about the number of pregnancies he caused his wife to endure, JA apparently believed, with good cause I say, his wife might've lived a longer and saner life.

If you look back through the letters, the passages which have been considered most shocking for their apparent callous mockery, are pretty much all about the pregnancy and/or death of wives.

This one is right on that same strike zone. This is not, as some have claimed, JA's callous indifference to suffering of others. Rather it is the opposite – it is JA's righteous, bitter anger over Injustice cluelessly perpetrated on innocent English wives by their "innocent" English husbands.

So, once again, we see that Henry Crawford's famous rant in Northanger Abbey was meant by Jane Austen to be understood ironically:

 "If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" 

The answer is, Jane Austen herself had been admitting such ideas for a very long time before she wrote Letter 93!

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