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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The “History and Antiquities” Hidden in Plain Sight in Jane Austen’s Last Poem

To this day, it remains the conventional wisdom in Austen scholarly circles that Jane Austen’s last poem, “Winchester Races”, was an inconsequential trifle, not worthy of study, other than, perhaps, a poignant relic of Jane Austen’s final days of life.

For convenience, here it is, in toto:

Winchester Races

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham's approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine'd and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.--
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
'Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you're enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, then farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you're debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand--You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o'er July
Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers--'.

Even the minority of scholars who have studied the poem in any depth for the most part do not consider it significant in the overall scheme of Austen studies- a rare exception being the late David Nokes, who (correctly, in my view) identified it as a serious curse by a dying woman.

Outlier that I am, I’ve analyzed the poem on numerous occasions during the past few years, from a variety of outside-the-box perspectives. I’ve argued each time that Jane Austen wrote this poem assuming the persona of St. Swithin, the legendary 9th century holy man, calling down a “rain” of fire and brimstone on those sinners who would seek to stifle her radical feminist voice forever after her death, by representing her to the world as an unthreatening writer of women’s novels, and the dutiful, submissive sister and daughter who gladly did as she was told, because that was the way things were supposed to be.

And so I believed that I had finally milked the poem dry of covert meanings….until two hours ago, when I was researching something else entirely, and then suddenly came upon another entire strand of meaning concealed in plain sight in a single line in the poem, which, not surprisingly to me, bolsters my claim that the poem is a call to arms over wrongs committed against her.  Can you see it?

If you can’t, I won’t tease you this time with hints and winks, I’ll just pluck that line out and put it here:

“And that William of Wykeham's approval was faint.”

Now I hope that reading that line has prompted a question in your mind---to wit, who was William of Wykeham and what’s he doing in Jane Austen’s last poem? And more specifically, what did Jane Austen mean when she wrote that the “good people” of Winchester, in initiating the tradition of annual races in July, had forgotten that William’s “approval was faint”?  Was there something about the historical William of Wykeham (whose name, of course, sounds suspiciously like Wickham from P&P, adding that historical source to the location of the Hellfire Club in West Wycombe) which somehow fit with this idea?

Turns out that William of Wykeham was a very famous fellow who lived in the 14th century---Bishop of Winchester and counselor to Richard II, remembered for founding Winchester College and for a variety of other historically memorable deeds during his lifetime:

So, 14th century William was pretty much just as famous in Winchester as 9th century St. Swithin. Hmm.. But then, isn’t it remarkable that (as far as I could tell today after exhaustive searching on the Internet this afternoon) not a single Austen scholar has ever written a word (that has found its way onto the Internet or any of the common databases) about William of Wykeham’s life, let alone made any attempt to explain what Jane Austen meant when she referred to the good Bishop’s “faint” approval of Winchester Races??!!

Well, I believe I have figured out exactly what Jane Austen meant, and the answer to that little riddle can be found in a very famous book published in 1789, i.e., nearly four centuries after William of Wykeham’s death, and not quite 14 years after Jane Austen’s birth, a book in which William’s disapproval of a whole range of behaviors received very prominent display. Much more those naughty behaviors in a few moments. But first….

…that 1789 book (which is what I was researching when I stumbled upon William of Wykeham and realized it was the guy from Jane Austen’s last poem) is entitled The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a book which per Wikipedia, “has been continuously in print since its first publication” and “was long held--probably apocryphally---to be the fourth-most published book in the English language”.

And here’s the best part of all from the Janeite point of view---the author was Gilbert White of Selbourne! 

Probably a lot of you already know who he was, but if not, I suggest you start by reading about him here….

..and then immediately follow up by reading what our very own Diana Birchall had to say about Gilbert White in the following excellent blog post she wrote a few years about her visit to his home in Hampshire:

Diana, who has been interested in White for years, wrote:  “So it seemed likely enough that the Austens would have known all about [Gilbert White], but confirmation of this came when I read the book of poems by Jane Austen’s brother James, The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest Brother (ed. with intro and notes by David Selwyn), and found this:
Who talks of rational delight
When Selbourne’s hill appears in sight
And does not think of Gilbert White?”  UNQUOTE

Well, once you read the rest of my blog post, below, you will realize that Jane Austen’s last poem is itself an additional, but covert, proof that she was familiar not only with Gilbert White the naturalist, but also Gilbert White the antiquary!

But first, this is finally the time to digress for one moment, and explain how it is that I was looking at Gilbert White’s very famous book in the first place, so that I could learn what it was that Jane Austen learned from White that led her to devote one precious line in her last poem entirely to him.

I received an email earlier today from Terry Townsend, my new English friend who reached out to me last week about Jane Austen and the Bramstons, as I recounted here…

…and Terry wrote as follows:

“Arnie, Do you think (or know... or care) if Jane Austen ever read Gilbert White's 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne'?  White published his work in 1789 when Jane was fourteen and living in Steventon (17 miles away). On August 31st 1811, when Jane was 36, she dined with White's niece (Rebecca Parker Terry) at Hill House in Alton. What do you think? Any ideas? Regards Terry”

Based on my prior experience, my eyes lit up when I saw I had another email from Terry, and I sure wasn’t disappointed this time!  It was in the answering of his first question that I also discovered why Jane Austen included William of Wykeham in her last poem.

But Terry’s subsequent comments about one degree of personal separation between Jane Austen and Gilbert White were equally informative to me, as I had been completely unaware of it before Terry pointed it out. Sure enough, per an entry in Mary Lloyd Austen’s diary, Jane Austen and her sister in law dined with the niece of her (by then two decades deceased) famous uncle.

How was it I had never heard of this? Well, I fear I must point another finger at Deirdre Le Faye, who has, I now see, committed the following additional editorial sins:

She has never seen fit to include anything at all about Jane Austen dining with Gilbert White’s niece in either the 3rd or the 4th edition of the JA Letters, not even in Le Faye’s specific entry for “Hill House” in the Geographical Index! But, you say, what if Le Faye did not know that Rebecca Parker Terry was White’s niece? Well, Le Faye actually does have an entry in her massive Jane Austen Chronology for August 31, 1811, for JA and Mary Lloyd Austen having dinner with Mrs. Terry at Hill House in Alton.

So, at the very least, she failed to connect those dots for her readers, so that someone other than Terry Townsend, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the personal connections in Hampshire during JA’s lifetime, might have figured out what was what.

But enough of that, let’s land the plane about William of Wykeham and his “faint approval”. In the antiquities section of his very famous book, here’s what Gilbert White wrote about William of Wykeham, who got an entire section devoted just to him, as you will now read:

"In the year 1373 [William of] Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, held a visitation of his whole diocese; not only of the secular clergy through the several deaneries, but also of the monasteries, and religious houses of all sorts, which he visited in person. The next year he sent his commissioners with power to correct and reform the several irregularities and abuses which he had discovered in the course of his visitation."
"Some years afterward, the bishop having visited three several times all the religious houses throughout his diocese, and being well informed of the state and condition of each, and of the particular abuses which required correction and reformation, besides the orders which he had already given, and the remedies which he had occasionally applied by his commissioners, now issued his injunctions to each of them. They were accommodated to their several exigencies, and intended to correct the abuses introduced, and to recall them all to a strict observation of the rules of their respective orders. Many of these injunctions are still extant, and are evident monuments of the care and attention with which he discharged this part of his episcopal duty."
Some of these injunctions I shall here produce; and they are such as will not fail, I think, to give satisfaction to the antiquary, both as never having been published before, and as they are a curious picture of monastic irregularities at that time. The documents that I allude to are contained in the Notabilis Visitatio de Seleburne, held at the Priory of that place, by Wykeham in person, in the year 1387.” END QUOTE

So, White is telling us that he himself went right to the documentary source, the ancient manuscript held at the Priory in Selbourne, and dug up the verbiage which I am saying to you was Jane Austen’s inspiration for that line in her last poem. Here is a link to the full text of what White wrote, all 25 items (just start at p. 470, Letter 14th)…

…and here is Wikipedia’s excellent summary of Letter 14:

“Letter 14 describes the visit of bishop William of Wykeham in 1373, to correct the scandalous "particular abuses" in the religious houses in the parish. He orders the canons of Selborne priory (Item 5th) "to take care that the doors of their church and priory be so attended to that no suspected and disorderly females, suspectae at aliae inhonestae, pass through their choir and cloiser in the dark"; (Item 10th) to cease "living dissolutely after the flesh, and not after the spirit" as it has been proven that some of the canons "sleep naked in their beds without their breeches and shirts"; (Item 11th) to stop "keeping hounds, and publicly attending hunting-matches" and "noisy tumultuous huntings"; (Item 17th) to properly maintain their houses and the convent itself, since they have allowed "through neglect, notorious dilapidations to take place"; (Item 29th) to stop wearing "foppish ornaments, and the affectation of appearing like beaux with garments edged with costly furs, with fringed gloves, and silken girdles trimmed with gold and silver." Richard Mabey describes White's reaction to the "Priory saga" as "grave disapproval of the monks' 'sensuality and ... general delinquency'". “  END QUOTE

Did you notice Item 11th, about “publicly attending hunting-matches”?  Of course, that is what JA transmuted into the horse races of Winchester!  And I am also certain that JA would have been split between derisive laughter and serious outrage when she saw that William of Wykeham was actually the kind of sexually-obsessed misogynist who would be extra vigilant and punitive against “disorderly females” who were “ living dissolutely after the flesh”.  But, she used him nonetheless as a symbol of zealous, righteous anger.

So…in conclusion, I believe that Jane Austen very consciously alluded to William of Wykeham in order to reinforce the idea of herself as a kind of avenging angel who would leave no stone unturned in enforcing her curse on certain of her surviving family members in “Winchester Races”, and---given that brother James seemed to be particular fan of Gilbert White---I believe that JA probably specifically intended that James Austen would recognize the “Gilbert White” veiled allusion in that line from her poem when he read it, and realize he was her primary target.

All of which adds even more force to…

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!

That means you especially, James Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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