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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jane Austen’s Female Literary Network—Including a New Connection to ANOTHER Very Famous Female Author

My last post about Mrs. Pole’s (a/k/a widow of Erasmus Darwin) opinion about Mansfield Park…

…included within it a link to my 2011 post about two other opinions that Jane Austen collected about Mansfield Park

In that earlier post, I ran through my ideas as to the identity of “Lady Gordon” and “Lady Robert Kerr”. 

As a result of my revisiting this topic today, I have now been able, conclusively, to establish the identities of those two other ladies, and their relationship to each other by marriage. But also, more important, I’ve now come upon evidence that establishes the close connection of at least one of them to Mrs. Pole, and of all of them to yet another famous female writer!  

It will be apparent by the end of this post that Jane Austen was in communication regarding Mansfield Park with not one, not two, but three prominent ladies, all of whom were either born or married into the nobility of the British Isles, and all of whom would have known each other very well indeed! And she may well have been in touch with that other famous female writer as well!


Starting with the one of the three great ladies who was already identified by Austen scholars (such as Le Faye) prior to my arrival on the scene, I will tell you a bit about Lady Robert Kerr, who wrote the following opinion re Mansfield Park:

"You may be assured I read every line with the greatest interest & am more delighted with it than my humble pen can express. The excellent delineation of Character, sound sense, Elegant Language & the pure morality with which it abounds, makes it a most desirable as well as useful work, & reflects the highest honour &c. &c. -- Universally admired in Edinburgh, by all the wise ones. -- Indeed, I have not heard a single fault given to it."

As I noted previously, this is lavish and intelligent phrase strikingly similar to the praise bestowed by both Mrs. Pole and Lady Gordon, but dissimilar to all others among JA’s opinion-givers. Here is Le Faye’s Bio Index entry for Lady Robert Kerr:

“Mary Gilbert, of Cornwall; married 1806 Lord Robert Kerr (1780-1843), younger son of 5th Marquis of Lothian, and died 1861. She very much enjoyed P&P and MP.”

Le Faye also notes two references to Lady Robert Kerr in JA’s letters, which comprise, obviously, the praise for P&P mentioned by Le Faye:

Letter 87 to CEA dated 9/15-16/13: “Lady Robert is delighted with P&P and really was so as I understand before she knew who wrote it—for, of course, she knows now.-[Henry Austen] told her with as much satisfaction as if it were my wish. He did not tell me this, but he told Fanny…”

Letter 90 to Frank Austen dated 9/25/13: “Henry heard P&P warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robt Kerr & another Lady; -& what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!—A Thing once set going in that way—one knows how it spreads!-and he, dear Creature, has set it going so much more than once. I know it is all done from affection & partiality—but at the same time, let me here again express to you & Mary my sense of the superior kindness which you have shewn on the occasion, in doing what I wished…”

I think it interesting that JA, writing to Frank, so carefully addresses Henry Austen’s revealing JA’s identity as author of P&P to Lady Robt Kerr, whereas she writes very differently about it to CEA. Ws it (as is part of the standard Austen mythology) really a genuine desire for anonymity on JA’s part that prompted this elaborate explanation to Frank? I don’t think so, I believe that JA did not wish to risk disapproval from Frank (and certain other males in the Austen family and friends circle, i.e., not including CEA),  for wanting her name to be known as author of P&P. And so I infer that JA asked Henry to “accidentally” reveal her identity to non-family, so that JA could disclaim responsibility for the leak, and yet have all the pleasure, satisfaction and benefit of it!  

Some final comments about Lady Robert Kerr. It appears from these passages in these two letters that in late 1813, JA had not yet met Lady Robert Kerr (who was in Scotland) in person, but had heard of her opinion of P&P via brother Henry. How interesting, then, that JA was able to collect the opinion of that same Lady Robert Kerr’s opinion as to Mansfield Park a year later! Was it also relayed second hand by Henry Austen, or had JA, by that time, established direct contact with Lady Robert Kerr? I vote for the latter!

Lady Robert Kerr was the daughter in law of William Kerr, the 5th Marquess of Lothian, age 76 at the time of Letters 87 & 90.  But, more interesting, Lady Robert Kerr was (as I noted in my prior post) married to Charles Lennox, who was (i) the Duke of Richmond, (ii) the nephew on his father’s side of the three very famous Lennox sisters, and (iii) (most relevant to JA’s publication of Mansfield Park) the wife of the first cousin of the husband of Lady Charlotte Gordon.


And that brings us to the second of those three opinions about Mansfield Park.

First, was the “Lady Gordon” who gave the following opinion of MP in 1814…..

"In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A----'s works, & especially in M. P. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident, or conversation, or a person, that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, borne a part in, & been acquainted with."

… one and the same as that “other Lady” in Scotland who had praised P&P to Henry Austen  in 1813? 

Second, was that “Lady Gordon”  one and the same as that first cousin (by marriage) of Lady Robert Kerr?

And third, was that “Lady Gordon” one and the same as the “Duchess of Richmond” as to whom JA wrote the following scathing comments to Fanny Knight in Letter 153 dated 3/13/17?:

“Mat. Hammond and A. M. Shaw are people whom I cannot care for, in themselves, but I enter into their situation, and am glad they are so happy. If I were the Duchess of Richmond, I should be very miserable about my son's choice. What can be expected from a Paget, born and brought up in the centre of conjugal infidelity and divorces? I will not be interested about Lady Caroline [Paget]. I abhor all the race of Pagets."

 As I suggested in my prior post, my answer to all three questions is “YES!”, but now I wish to elaborate on my earlier answer, and tie things together more clearly and succinctly regarding the life and times of Lady Gordon a/k/a Duchess of Richmond (wife of the 4th Duke of Richmond).

In her Bio Index entry for Sir Jemison-William Gordon, Le Faye as much as states that the “Lady Gordon” who opines about MP was his wife, nee Harriet Finch, sister of George Finch-Hatton. But, as I previously posted, the close familial relationship of “Lady Gordon” to “Lady Robert Kerr” makes it clear that it must be the Duchess of Richmond who is the “Lady Gordon” who gives the opinion JA quotes. Le Faye is just wrong.

After all, what are the odds that, among less than a handful of opinions that JA collected from persons outside the intimate circle of family, neighbors and friends (known to all Janeites familiar with JA’s biography), there would just happen to be a “Lady Gordon” other than the first cousin (by marriage) of the “Lady Robert Kerr” who was part of that tiny handful of strangers?  Vanishingly small, especially when, again, we note the strong similarity of the opinions of the two cousins by marriage.  

And then JA's mentioning the Duchess of Gordon so sarcastically in her 1817 letter to boot (and by the way, as I also previously mentioned, Derrick Leigh, in Janeites, was spot on 2 years ago in pointing out that when it suited her purposes, Lady Gordon’s mother, the Duchess of Gordon (wife of the 4th Duke of Gordon) was happy to confide in her future in-law, Lord Cornwallis, that the Duchess’s daughter Louisa was illegitimate (i.e., not sired by the Duke), which is what it (infamously) took to seal the deal for Lord Cornwallis to agree for his son to marry Louisa Gordon!) 

So this tells us, I claim, that the Duchess of Richmond was the “Lady Gordon” who was on JA’s radar screen all along, including the rendering of her praise for MP.

According to Wikipedia, in 1814, the Duke and Duchess, with children in tow, moved to Brussels, and lived there until 1818, when he was appointed Governor General of British North America. So, depending on the actual date in 1814 when they moved to Brussels, there would appear to have been time for the Duchess to read Mansfield Park  before departing for the Continent, probably to discuss it with Lady Robert Kerr, and then write her opinion thereof...and perhaps even to meet JA in London?

Which leads me back to Mrs. Pole, the third and final “opinionated” lady in the triumvirate under examination.


Even if Mrs. Pole were not remembered today as the second wife (and poetic muse) of Erasmus Darwin, and step grandmother of Charles Darwin, she would have been known to students of the peerage as Elizabeth Colyear, illegitimate daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore (and also a descendant of Charles I, just like Lord Robert Kerr!), a Scottish nobleman also known as “Beau Colyear”.   

But this morning I stumbled across a piece of evidence which demonstrates a close connection between Mrs. Pole and…..the Duchess of Richmond aka Jane Austen’s “Lady Gordon”!!!!!

Check out this passage from a letter written on Sept. 19, 1818, from Lowood (the seat of the Marquis of Lansdowne):

“Lady Bathurst is remarkably obliging to me: we have many subjects in common—her brother, the Duke of Richmond, and all Ireland; her aunt, Lady Louisa Connolly, and Miss Emily Napier, and all the Pakenhams, and the Duchess of Wellington. The Duke lately said to Mrs. Pole, “After all, home is what we must look to at last….”

Lady Bathurst was born Georgiana Lennox, and was the sister of the Duke of Richmond, and therefore sister in law of “Lady Gordon” the Duchess. But surely your eyes widened as mine did when you read the quotation of the bon mot spoken by the Duke to “Mrs. Pole”!?

It tells us that the Duke of Richmond (and therefore, by strong implication, his wife as well) was a good enough friend of Mrs. Pole to be chatting about the big picture of life with her not long before then. Which also suggests the likelihood that they were also acquainted a scant 4 years earlier, when Mrs. Pole gave her opinion (so similar to Lady Gordon’s opinion) of MP!

But I saved the best for last—would you like to know the identity of the author of that 1818 letter? It was in fact one of the two most famous living female authors in Great Britain—Maria Edgeworth!

So we now see a female social network tapped into directly by Jane Austen, which includes not only Lady Gordon and Lady Robert Kerr, but also Mrs. Pole and Maria Edgeworth!

And in that regard, those familiar with the biographies of Erasmus Darwin and Richard Edgeworth (father of Maria) could tell you that these two men were very close friends—indeed, that Erasmus Darwin died while in the process of writing a letter to his dear friend Edgeworth when he suddenly died.

So it would only make perfect sense that Mrs. Pole, surely also a good friend of Richard Edgeworth, would have also known his daughter, Maria, very well.


I will leave you to soak in the full import of all of the above connections----it turns out that the opinions that Jane Austen collected from these three ladies, Lady Robert Kerr, Lady Gordon, and Mrs. Pole, turn out to provide a rabbit hole leading to the possible existence of a female literary network in existence between 1814 and Jane Austen’s death, a network which included, but probably was not limited to, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, Mrs. Pole, Lady Gordon and Lady Robert Kerr!

And I for one would love to know who where those “wise ones” in Scotland that Lady Robert Kerr referred to so tantalizingly! I bet they were other ladies from a circle of intellectually oriented women who were busy spreading the word among the literati that Jane Austen was the one to watch!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I may as well drop one more literary name while I am at it. The elderly Duchess of Gordon—the one whom Derrick mentioned as outing her own adultery in her relentless Mrs. Bennet-like zeal for better matchmaking for her daughter Louisa---had died in 1812 before MP was written. However, it is worth noting that it was the Duke of Gordon, her husband, who had been named godfather for his new cousin, George Byron (whom we now know simply as Lord Byron!) back in 1788, which suggests that the Duchess remained in contact with the young genius as he grew up and became famous.

So…what are the chances that “Lady Gordon”, the Duchess of Richmond and the daughter of that audacious grande-dame, might have thought it a jolly good idea, in 1814, to bring Jane Austen—author of that novel she so lavishly praised---into direct contact with her 26-year old (and by then very famous) cousin, Lord Byron? The mind reels at the possibilities!

P.P.S: Oh, wondering about that silhouette at the top of this post?—that was Mrs. Pole with her dog!

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