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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 7, 2013

Eleanor Jackson: Despite Her Lizzy Bennet Eyes, Jane Austen Saw Her Clearly as a Mrs. Clay, & Saw Brother Henry as a Handsome, Vain, Vulnerable Sir Walter

In Austen L and Janeites, Diana Birchall posted a comprehensive, probing introduction to the subject of Eleanor Jackson, who was the second wife of Jane Austen's brother, Henry…..

…and set the table for a very fruitful discussion of this little Austen biographical mystery, to which I will now add my own contributions, which, as my Subject Line makes clear, are not very sympathetic to Eleanor Jackson (later Austen).

First, four factoids about Eleanor:

ONE: Eleanor was considered sickly by Cassandra for some reason, and yet she lived to the age of 69. Sounds a little like Mrs. Austen!

TWO: When Henry became curate of Chawton in 1816, he assisted Mr. Papillon, who was of course the uncle of Eleanor Jackson! So it turns out that when he became rector of Steventon in 1820 (succeeding brother James), he went back and married his former boss’s niece! And Factoid THREE tells us why Henry had another good reason to wait till 1820 to marry Eleanor.

THREE: Per Ron Dunning’s genealogy, Eleanor was born in 1795, hence she was twenty four years younger than Henry Austen, and (most interesting in light of Factoid FOUR, below), thirty four years younger than Eliza---hell, Eleanor was even two years younger than Henry’s eldest nieces, Anna Austen and Fanny Knight!
So when Eliza died in 1813, Eleanor Jackson was only 18 years old, and Henry was 42. No wonder Le Faye omitted Eleanor’s birth year in the Bio Index and (I believe) in the Family Record, as well. It’s Le Faye’s usual strategic misdirection—you have to realize that Eleanor is the daughter of Sarah Papillon and Henry Jackson, who were married in 1791, and then you can infer her extreme youth when JA was writing Letter 78—a rather significant factoid, wouldn’t you all say? Par for the course with Le Faye.

FOUR: This one is very juicy, and significant, when we consider that Eleanor eventually married Henry: “On the authority of Henry Austen’s second wife, Eleanor Jackson, Fanny Caroline Lefroy records the story that Eliza’s first husband was only the Comte’s valet and also the suspicion that this may have been a further fabrication by a later generation of Feuillides.”—Kathryn Sutherland, JA’s Textual Lives, p. 108

Fanny Caroline speculates that this might have been a fabrication by the Feuillides, and perhaps it was a ruse by them to try to disinherit Eliza after her first husband’s death. According to The Family Record, Henry’s claim against Eliza’s estate did not finally get settled till 1825! But even if that rumor was accurate, the fact that Eleanor Jackson Austen would keep the rumor alive long after that legal issue was moot, sounds pretty suspicious to me. It sounds to me, actually (and I’m guessing Eleanor first floated the story after Henry’s death in 1834) like Eleanor Jackson had a major axe to grind with the memory of Eliza, and did not want to let that unsavory rumor die just because the people involved were dead!  

Isn’t this just the kind of malicious gossip that a really jealous second wife (more than young enough to have been Eliza’s daughter) might (safely) promulgate about a glamorous, charismatic dead first wife, when there was no one around anymore—especially the husband!--to refute it? As if to say, I got sick and tired of hearing the past 15 years from Henry and his family about what a remarkable woman Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen was—especially after Henry wasted 12 years pursuing a legal claim that eventually came to absolutely nothing---so I’ll just remind everyone that Eliza really was a nobody, after all—illegitimate daughter of a former prostitute and a great man, and then wife of a murderous valet to a count, who passed herself off as a cultured, sophisticated lady!

And given JA’s close relationship with Eliza over nearly 30 years, and JA’s sharp eye for manipulative young female operators (think, Lucy Steele and Mrs. Clay), it makes me think JA was not especially favorably inclined toward the young, callow Eleanor Jackson, fine eyes (per Edward Rice, that is, not JA) and all.

And by the way, apropos the question raised by Ellen the other day about Eliza’s final illness, I checked in Le Faye’s bio of Eliza, and there was no detail there as to the nature of that final illness, beyond what has already been mentioned here. But…..I also read a very important fact re JA’s relationship with Eliza- on the good authority of Fanny Knight’s diary, which I had not previously taken note of. I.e. it was JA who was specifically called to London to nurse Eliza during the final weeks of Eliza’s illness, and, no doubt, to also attend to Henry at that moment, who was, I would guess, just not up to that difficult task.

So, all the more reason for JA, writing Letter 78, and shortly to travel to London to fulfill that sad mission, to look askance at a very young woman whom JA perhaps had already spotted as having tipped her cap at Henry.

The Big Question is, did Henry initially “reject” Eleanor’s discreet “addresses”, or was he (like Sir Walter vis a vis Mrs. Clay) dangerously receptive? As my Subject Line reveals, my conclusion is that Mrs. Clay with Sir Walter was a not-very-flattering portrait of Eleanor Jackson and Henry Austen.  

And now I see JA’s comments later just a little later in 1813 after Eliza’s death about Henry not seeming to grieve too much are a very discreet allusion pointing to that same conclusion. If Eleanor was on such a campaign, we also know she was very patient, as it apparently took 7 years for such “addresses” to be accepted.

So as to the very interesting question of whether JA was saying, in Letter 78, that Eleanor Jackson was a kindred spirit or not, vis a vis the Rejected Addresses, I believe that this was the “cover story” of that reference, the safe interpretation that JA sought to hide her true feelings under. Mrs. Clay is not stupid, not by a long stretch, and so it would make sense that a scheming young woman would be sharp enough to grasp the satires of the Smith brothers.


In contrast, a lack of sense, and sense of humor,  was precisely what JA was pretty overtly mocking in the clueless Mrs. Digweed (who was the butt of JA’s satire on other occasions as well, including, I’d suggest, the character of Isabella Knightley —and I’m dimly remembering now another passage in one of the novels when one of the characters is similarly clueless about some witty statement, and desperately finds humor in the wrong words, and laughs in the wrong place—is it in S&S or Persuasion? Does that ring a bell with anyone?).

So, to better understand the ‘safe’ interpretation of JA’s sentence about Eleanor Jackson, we need to look at the full context of Letter 78, written by JA near the beginning of a new epoch in JA’s life, when she was able to spend a lot of time chez Henry in London, go to plays, painting exhibits, meeting all sorts of sophisticated urban company.

Note again that P&P has just been published, and JA is already knee deep in the writing of Mansfield Park, hence the question about Gibraltar and the allusion to the scene in Chapter 12 when Tom B. ducks the card game. So that’s why, in this very same letter, JA writes “We quite run over with books.” She’s reading Carr & Pasley, and talking about Clarkson and Buchanan, as she informs herself about the English empire from a variety of angles. And she mentions in that paragraph “even the two Smiths of the City” who are of course the editors/authors of Rejected Addresses.

And then JA mentions a party she just attended at which she met “Mr. W. [who ]was a useful addition, being an easy, talking, pleasantish young man—a very young man, hardly twenty, perhaps. He is of St. John's, Cambridge, and spoke very highly of H. Walter as a scholar. He said he was considered as the best classic in the University. How such a report would have interested my father!”

And…even after JA mentions Eleanor Jackson, JA returns immediately to her feelings of being in a kind of intellectual nirvana for the first time in her life, when she mentions (as I noted above) how she herself (exactly like Tom Bertram, as she explicitly notes!) avoids a whist game with Mrs. Austen—which tells us that Mrs. Norris at that moment in MP is a representation of JA’s own mother--Ouch!

And there’s one more such passage about intellectual community in Letter 78:

“The Miss Sibleys want to establish a Book Society in their side of the country like ours. What can be a stronger proof of that superiority in ours over the Manydown and Steventon society, which I have always foreseen and felt? No emulation of the kind was ever inspired by their proceedings; no such wish of the Miss Sibleys was ever heard in the course of the many years of that Society's existence. And what are their Biglands and their Barrows, their Macartneys and Mackenzies to Captain Pasley's Essay on the Military Police of the British Empire and the Rejected Addresses?”

So JA is now exulting, only half-joking, about the success of her Book Society at Chawton, which has become “famous” enough to be exported to another county! Do we not here have the exact satirical voice of Elizabeth Bennet when she mocks those who she feels are beneath her in their ability to express deep sentiments and insights?:

"Oh, my dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."

So all of the above tells me that JA on Jan. 24, 1813 (and still five days later when she writes her famous “Dull elves” statement  in Letter 79, which is really just an extension of the above examples from Letter 78) is immersed in scholarly, literary goings-on, she’s feeling exultant personal pride, the kind of pride that Darcy was thinking of when he said “where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation". And clearly JA’s loving every second of it!

And so after dissing Mrs. Digweed, it’s in that full context that JA turns to Eleanor Jackson, in passing:

“The P[apillons].'s have now got [Rejected Addresses], and like it very much; their niece Eleanor has recommended it most warmly to them—She looks like a rejected addresser.”

I believe this to be a multi-layered pun, with JA’s usual blurring of the line between praise and mockery, so that she can have it both ways. 

The title of Rejected Addresses is itself a clever pun, as it can refer either to (1) short literary writings meant to be spoken aloud, which are so “out there” in alarming satirical, even scandalous, meanings, that they would be rejected by respectable publications, or (2) rejection of wooing. The parallel has a lot of weight to it. To a writer, the rejection of his or her writing by a desirable publication does often hurt in a similar way that a rejection of a romantic advance feels to a wooer—they’re both rejections that feel very personal.

And so I think JA with her sharp sense of, and gift for, ironic wordplay, noticed the irony (personal to her) of the coincidence that at the moment she herself was no longer rejected by the literary world, it was Rejected Addresses which was the publication on the tongue of the wits of London—which is why even the ignorant Mrs. Digweed—who must have been like Mr. Hurst, who finds it “singular” that anyone would prefer reading to cards-- is feeling some pressure to express an opinion about writing that is clearly way over her head.

But there’s still more P&P resonance in regard to JA’s cryptic comment about Eleanor Jackson (who, as has already been noted, Edward Rice saw as having, in effect, Lizzy Bennet Eyes) when JA used those very words from the Smiths’ title to describe Elizabeth’s rejection of the romantic addresses of both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy:

Ch. 19: "I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to REJECT THE ADDRESSES of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."

Ch. 44:   As for Elizabeth, her thoughts were at Pemberley this evening more than the last; and the evening…above all, above respect and esteem, there was a motive within her of goodwill which could not be overlooked. It was gratitude -- gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in REJECTING him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her REJECTION….She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on THE RENEWAL OF HIS ADDRESS.”

So, bottom line, what did JA mean about Eleanor Jackson as a “Rejected Addresser””? I think, JA wanted to make it sound, to those who might read Letter 78 besides Cassandra, especially Henry, that JA respected young Eleanor Jackson’s intelligence. But beneath that safe meaning, I believe JA was already seeing Eleanor as a Mrs. Clay. In that regard, now I wonder whether she had freckles and buck teeth?


Nancy Mayer wrote: “I have to agree that I think Austen liked the Rejected Addresses. They would probably have tickled her sense of humor and satire. She probably approved of Eleanor as sharing a sense of humor-- at least in some things. Austen must have often even despaired of Cassandra understanding her.  I think she sometimes felt alone and separate because no one really understood her sense of humor.”

That last sentence is very perceptive, Nancy, and it still applies today—we see daily evidence in our own discussions where there is sharp disagreement as to whether Jane Austen wrote something jokingly or seriously.  I obviously am almost always in the former camp, not the latter.

As to JA’s feeling alone, yes, I mostly agree, I am 100% convinced that she was starving for the company of kindred spirits, with whom she could joke around, and not have to explain anything, and vice versa. But I do think that during the time she spent in London, JA found her “karass” (as Vonnegut put it), i.e., the kind of readers who violently disagreed with Samuel Johnson’s humorless complaint that Shakespeare put too many quibbles (puns) in his plays. For JA, and for the people she liked to hang out with, I think there was no such thing as too many puns.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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