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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Jane Austen & Elizabeth Fry, the two Englishwomen on Pound Notes: Two Sides of the Same “Coin”: Austen’s Covert & Heretofore Unrecognized Allusion in Emma to the Quaker reformer Fry!

Around 1790, the 14-year old Jane Austen, in her seemingly frivolous, over-the-top burlesque, Love and Freindship [in Volume the First], demonstrated, in passing, what might seem a surprisingly serious reference to the horrible conditions in England’s infamous Newgate prison in London:

“Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement — my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the recital of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.”

The youthful Jane Austen, perhaps having the Bastille in the back of her interconnective mind, wrote the above words to amuse, shock, and perhaps edify her family. At that moment, Elizabeth Fry (nee Gurney), the future famous crusader for prison reform (who has since 2001 been an honored depictee on the English 5-pound banknote) was a mere 10 years old.  Betsy, as then known, grew up in a progressive Quaker home that included, for a few crucial years, future novelist, Amelia Opie, who must have been an extra mentor and inspiration to the much-younger Betsy. Surely the lifelong activism of Fry was in part shaped by Opie’s socially conscious idealism, as reflected in particular in Opie’s 1804 novel about the evils of slavery and sexism, Adeline Mowbray.

In a 1998 article by Carol Howard, we read the following about the influence of the Gurney family on Opie, an influence which Opie paid homage to in her novel:  “…[In Adeline Mowbray,] the most sage and charitable gentlewoman of all, however, is Mrs. Rachel Pemberton, a Quaker who becomes an idealized, if often absent, mother figure for Adeline. Rachel Pemberton's presence in the text recalls Opie's own youthful circumstances. When the fifteen-year-old Opie's mother died [in 1784], Opie turned to the Quaker Gurney family for community and guidance; she became a constant companion to the young sisters Rachel and Betsy, the latter of whom would in marriage become the celebrated reformer Elizabeth Fry….Opie's nostalgic vision is typified by the manner in which [the former slave] Savanna acknowledges her ongoing gratitude for Adeline's philanthropy.” END QUOTE

Perhaps at this moment you are thinking that Jane Austen referred to Newgate over a decade before Elizabeth Fry began to make waves in the English prison system—and so where’s the covert allusion to Fry’s good works which I described in my Subject Line?

Well, the  allusion is in one of Jane Austen’s novels, but it connects directly to that same passage in Love & Freindship, and the best way to make it pop out at you is to show you two passages, one after the other, written nearly a quarter century apart by the same author, Jane Austen, which display a remarkable parallelism. Then you’ll see it yourself.

The first is the quotation from Love & Friendship, above….

“Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement — my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the recital of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.”

….and the second one is from Emma, Chapter 21 (the parallelism starts in the second half, but you need to read the first half for full context):

"I hope every body had a pleasant evening," said Mr. Woodhouse, in his quiet way. "I had. Once, I felt the fire rather too much; but then I moved back my chair a little, a very little, and it did not disturb me. Miss Bates was very chatty and good-humoured, as she always is, though she speaks rather too quick. However, she is very agreeable, and Mrs. Bates too, in a different way. I like old friends; and Miss Jane Fairfax is a very pretty sort of young lady, a very pretty and a very well-behaved young lady indeed. She must have found the evening agreeable, Mr. Knightley, because she had Emma."
"True, sir; and Emma, because she had Miss Fairfax."
Emma saw his anxiety, and wishing to appease it, at least for the present, said, and with a sincerity which no one could question— "She is a sort of elegant creature that one cannot keep one's eyes from. I am always watching her to admire; and I do pity her from my heart."

And now comes the parallel…

Mr. Knightley looked as if he were more gratified than he cared to express; and before he could make any reply, Mr. Woodhouse, whose thoughts were on the Bates's, said----"It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confined! a great pity indeed! and I have often wished--but it is so little one can venture to do--small, trifling presents, of any thing uncommon--Now we have killed a porker, and Emma thinks of sending them a loin or a leg; it is very small and delicate-- Hartfield pork is not like any other pork--but still it is pork--and, my dear Emma, unless one could be sure of their making it into steaks, nicely fried, as our's are fried, without the smallest grease, and not roast it, for no stomach can bear roast pork -- I think we had better send the leg -- do not you think so, my dear?"

Sophia’s lament for the “cruel confinement” of her beloved Augustus in an actual prison is distinctly echoed by Mr. Woodhouse’s sympathy for the Bates family who live in a virtual prison of neediness and lack of control over their lives. But whereas JA portrays Sophia’s hypocrisy in immediately finding an reason not  to visit her lover, what to make of Mr.Woodhouse’s charitable impulse, when it sounds suspiciously like the real life Elizabeth Fry, as described in this 1858 account of her good deeds in The Ladies Repository…

…in which we learn in great detail of (in the words of John Simkin) how “Elizabeth Fry began to visit the women of Newgate Prison on a regular basis. She supplied them with clothes and established a school and a chapel in the prison. Later she introduced a system of supervision that was administered by matrons and monitors….”

In Emma, the imprisonment is metaphorical. The confined (in all senses of that word) circumstances of all three women in the Bates residence is a central theme of the novel, and the metaphor of a prison closely resonates with the other metaphor—slavery--which Jane Fairfax famously articulated in her stirring “fling” at the intrusive Mrs. Elton, who works so relentlessly to “imprison” Jane chez Smallridge:

"Excuse me, ma'am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect."
"Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition."
"I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade," replied Jane; "governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do."  END QUOTE

But…if you’ve been paying attention, you may now fairly say, “That’s fine, but where’s the covert allusion to Elizabeth Fry in that passage from Emma? What do you see that tells you that Jane Austen specifically had Elizabeth Fry in mind? “

And I reply---look again, and see what has been hiding in plain sight in Mr. Woodhouse’s carefully chosen words:

“…and, my dear Emma, unless one could be sure of their making it into steaks, nicely FRIED, as our's are FRIED, without the smallest grease, and not roast it, for no stomach can bear roast pork -- I think we had better send the leg -- do not you think so, my dear?"

Mr. Woodhouse, “whose thoughts were on the Bates's”, repeats the word “fried” (the only time this word ever appears in an Austen novel!), in describing the food being donated to the Bateses, in order to point specifically (and punnily) to Elizabeth Fry! Just as Elizabeth Fry famously brought necessities like clothing into Newgate prison, in order to make the lives of the captives there tolerable, so, too, Mr. Woodhouse very clearly seeks to appear to emulate Fry’s philanthropy in his own idiosyncratic efforts to ameliorate the lives of the Bateses.

But… perhaps Jane Austen is also telling us that Mr. Woodhouse’s generosity has a perverse impulse behind it. I say this because he turns out, like Sir Walter Elliot vis a vis the admiralty….

….to be surprisingly well-versed in history and current events. There’s one other historical detail to mention, which goes a long way, I suggest, in explaining why Mr. Woodhouse chooses to make a “porker”, rather than some other item, the specific charitable gift he donates with such exquisite specifications:

In Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830, Frank Felsenstein writes:  “…In innumerable pamphlets, ballads, and caricatures, [Lord George] Gordon is depicted in all his outlandish eccentricity as a spoof of the popular perception of what constitutes a Jew. In the print, Moses Chusing His Cook (1788)...we see a bearded Lord George IN NEWGATE GAOL surrounded by a minyan...of devout Ashkenazi Jews...[who] indignantly chase away the prison cook who has brought a platter CONTAINING A SUCKLING PIG."

I mentioned Lord Gordon’s famous imprisonment in a series of posts way back in 2008 in Austen L and in Janeites, as evidence of a covert Jewish-themed subtext in Emma, but now see how neatly that Jewish subtext is connected to Jane Austen’s covert allusion to the worthy Quakerish good works of Elizabeth Fry. Lord Gordon was one of the most famous inmates of Newgate Prison during Jane Austen’s lifetime.

I suggest to you that Jane Austen, by giving Mrs. Elton’s sister the name “Suckling”, manages to bring Lord Gordon into the allusive subtext of Mr. Woodhouse’s Byzantine imagination! But I suspect, given Lord Gordon’s unhappiness with the suckling pig offered to him and his fellow Jewish inmates, that Jane Austen is suggesting to us that Mr. Woodhouse’s generosity, however well intentioned, is not  necessarily what the Bateses really need, but is more of a “bandaid” than a cure.

I close by presenting further evidence of Jane Austen’s strong interest in prison conditions, which is found in JA’s letter to sister CEA dated Nov. 3, 1813, i.e., right after the action of Emma begins:

“Edward & I had a delightful morng for our drive there [Canterbury], I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the Day turned off before we were ready, & we came home in some rain & the apprehension of a great deal. It has not done us any harm, however.–He went to inspect the Gaol, as a visiting Magistrate, & took me with him.–I was gratified–& went through all the feelings which People must go through, I think in visiting such a building.”

I don’t know what brother Edward Austen Knight felt, but I feel quite confident that the feelings Jane Austen “went through” in visiting a “gaol” included, in significant part, pity and outrage over the mistreatment and abuse of many poor folk, especially women, imprisoned there by an uncaring, sexist, capricious, and utterly UNChristian system of INjustice.

Mistreatment of women, mistreatment of poor prisoners, mistreatment of Jews, and mistreatment of slaves—there’s a common thread here, showing Jane Austen’s deep moral sympathy with  the fight for social justice, a fight carried on openly by the likes of Elizabeth Fry. JA, not having had the luxury of being born into a progressive Quaker family of means, which enabled Fry to act and speak out openly and without fear, saw her own job as the “poet” celebrating, covertly but unmistakably, the crusade for social justice which was slowly gathering steam in England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, but did not come to full fruition until long afterwards.

So, to all those who have been complaining that Jane Austen was not worthy to replace Elizabeth Fry as the sole female representative on Bank of England notes, I say—these two Regency Era women, while in the public perception from very different worlds and points of view, were actually two sides of the same socially conscious “coin”, as Jane Austen herself  recognized, and celebrated!

The Bank should not only stick to its promise to put Jane Austen on the 10 –pound note, and do it right….

…it should also immediately make plans to honor another worthy woman in similar fashion in the near future. As with the U.S. Supreme Court, things won’t be right till there is true equality of representation in every position of honor in a truly just society. 

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: The sympathetic character of Savanna the fugitive slave in Opie’s Adeline Mowbray may just be an additional source for a covert, punning allusion in Jane Austen’s poem dedicated to her niece Anna, which I recently discussed here…..

…and which begins as follows:

In measured verse I'll now rehearse
   The charms of lovely Anna:
And, first, her mind is unconfined
   Like any vast savannah.

Specifically, the word “savannah” makes me wonder whether Anna was at the time of the writing of this poem “with child”. Why? Because JA, in another letter to her sister, famously referred to Anna, who was by 1815 already in the midst of her second pregnancy in 3 years, as a “poor Animal”, i.e., a kind of enslaved childbearing beast of burden, which would have rendered her “vast” but still, until  she gave birth, “unconfined”. So it would be a fitting pun for JA to refer to Anna as being like the heroic fugitive slave in Opie’s novel.

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