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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Countess of Morley & “The Violent Friendship” of Emma Woodhouse & Harriet Smith

In Janeites & Austen L earlier today, Diana Birchall posted a link to her most recent blog post...

in which she wrote: “I always wondered about the Countess of Morley, who corresponded with Jane Austen, and was suspected of writing her novels.  She turns out to have been quite a well known artist and personality in her day, who flourished at beautiful Saltram in Devonshire, reformed a seriously rakish husband, and was admired by Sydney Smith.  The Dovegreyreader blog's visit to Saltram inspired me, and I was able to find out quite a lot about Lady Morley from ancient issues of the Jane Austen Society reports.”  

Diana, you’re on a roll! During the past few months, every week or two, you seem to roll out yet another topic that I find to be right up my own alley, in terms of what really interests me re JA’s life and writing at this advanced stage of my research, and this is another one. So, first of all, a big thank you to you, and by the time you reach the end of this post, you’ll know exactly why I am thankful! I had last looked in 2008 at the brief Emma-era correspondence of JA with Countess Morley, so it was high time for a revisiting, in light of all I’ve learned since then, and your post was the perfect prompt and inspiration, and it led me to several wonderful additions to my store of knowledge about our favorite author.

But first, I can tell you one tiny but juicy factoid I think you’re not aware of. You quoted from correspondence between Sydney Smith and Countess Morley which you found at that Byron Life & Times website, and that strangely connects to my factoid, which is that, at one point, Augusta Leigh---who of course you know was Byron's half sister, the one with whom he had an incestuous relationship----lived in the house of her friend Theresa Villiers. And perhaps you also are aware that Theresa Villiers was Countess Morley’s sister in law, and, what’s most important, was the recipient of the very same letter in which Countess Morley expressed her opinions about Emma, from which you quoted! So…one can wonder whether Countess Morley’s opinions about Jane Austen were actually communicated by her to Augusta Leigh, or even…Byron himself? (Maybe you (or Nancy, or another Byron-ite) can make something more of that factoid)

But now on to the meat of what I found today:

Diana wrote: "After she wrote to Jane Austen to compliment her on Emma, Jane wrote in her private list of opinions, “Countess of Morley delighted with it.”  Elsewhere, though, Lady Morley wrote less enthusiastically, saying that she did not like Emma as well as Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice. “There is such a total want of story & there is so very little to like in the heroine & so little to interest in the hero, who gives me only the idea of an elderly, sensible, good sort of man…with all the sense & cleverness w’ch Emma is represented to possess it is not natural that she sh’d have formed such a violent friendship with such a vulgar little fool as Harriet – then, surely, her talking characters talk too much…Still their conversations are certainly admirable. Mr. and Mrs. Elton are both charming people. – I have seen fifty such people as her.”

Diana, at the beginning of that mini-review of Emma, the Countess also wrote “Yet I think there is much of it that is admirable. Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates & a few others are delightful….”  and also “The pages filled with Miss Bates & Mrs. Elton wd. make up one of the volumes & that is more than can well be afforded”.

So with that little bit of extra detail, we might be inclined to infer that Countess Morley really liked JA’s writing, but she wanted more story and less Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton. That latter critique seems to suggest that the Countess did not “get” that Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton actually ARE revealing important aspects of the (shadow) story. I.e., the Countess seems to be like Emma and so many readers of the novel who are led down a garden path of passive reading by JA, who don’t understand the many significant veiled meanings hidden in plain sight in the numerous otherwise irritating vocalizations of those two heavy-duty talkers.

But…I strongly resisted the inference of Countess Morley’s cluelessness, because, in 2008, when I last focused on her exchange of brief letters with JA (which you reproduced in your blog post), I was convinced at that time that these letters were completely parodic, a private joke between them, all about Emma. Particularly striking is the faux formality of the Countess’s “I am Madam Yr much obliged F.Morley” being immediately called and raised, so to speak, by JA’s “I am Madam Your Obliged and faithful Servt J. Austen”—and that latter closing salutation is of course a broad wink at the Dedication of Emma to the Prince of Whales (with an h):


As a result of that echoing of the novel Dedication in those two letters, I have been of the opinion since 2008, and I remain so, that the Countess must have been in on the joke about the Dedication being itself totally insincere and parodic, and perhaps also about the Prince of Whales allusion in the charade in Chapter 9 of Emma.

So….how to then reconcile that sort of inside knowledge with the Countess’s apparent failure, as reflected in her letter to her sister in law, to understand the deeper structure of Emma?

That apparent paradox led me to turn to my most reliable workhorse for resolving such questions, which is to focus on unusual verbiage in the Countess’s letter, and see if it might be a clue to a concealed allusion of some kind. And boy, did that turn out to be a bull’s eye this time!

The verbiage in Countess Morley’s opinions about Emma which really caught my eye was the Gothic-tinged phrase “violent friendship” in the following sentence:  “with all the sense & cleverness w’ch Emma is represented to possess it is not natural that she sh’d have formed such a violent friendship with such a vulgar little fool as Harriet” 

When I searched Google Books for usages prior to 1815 of the phrase “ violent friendship”, there were only a very small number (one of them by Swift), and from that tiny sample, I found not one, but TWO of them had Jane Austen’s fingerprints all over them!

First, there was this passage from the letter written by the imaginary Elizabeth Homespun, in the parodic piece in The Mirror that Mrs. Morland gives to Catherine to read out of concern that Catherine (like Harriet Smith) has gotten a big head as a result of her extended visit among higher class people:

“I am not so silly, Mr. Mirror, but I can understand the meaning of all this. My Lady, it seems, is contented to have some humble friends in the country, whom she does not think worthy of her notice in town; but I am determined to shew her, that I have a prouder spirit than she imagines, and shall not go near her, either in town or country. What is more, my father shan't vote for her friend at next election, if I can help it. What vexes me beyond every thing else is, that I had been often telling my aunt and her daughters of the intimate footing I was on with Lady, and what a VIOLENT FRIENDSHIP we had for each other; and so, from envy, perhaps, they used to nick-name me THE COUNTESS, and Lady Leonora….”

I will return to that “hit” near the end of this post, but first I want to focus on the second, and (in my opinion, much more significant) usage I found in a work of fiction which was published a number of times during the late 18th century, while JA was growing up, which confirmed my original faith that the Countess was not clueless at all. And what was most confirming was that it was in the very same sentence in her capsule review of Emma when she appears to criticize JA’s novel most strongly, that the Countess also gives what I immediately identified as an unmistakable hint that she understood one very subtle aspect of JA’s writing in Emma. See what you think.

So, before I show you that famous passage, first please reread the following famous & familiar two passages of expositional narration early in Emma:

Chapter 1: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.
Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse's family, less as a governess than a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.
The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
Sorrow came—a gentle sorrow—but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness.—Miss Taylor married…. "Dear Emma bears every thing so well," said her father. "But, Mr. Knightley, she is really very sorry to lose poor Miss Taylor, and I am sure she will miss her more than she thinks for."  Emma turned away her head, divided between tears and smiles.”

Chapter 4: “As she sat one morning, looking forward to exactly such a close of the present day, a note was brought from Mrs. Goddard, requesting, in most respectful terms, to be allowed to bring Miss Smith with her; a most welcome request: for Miss Smith was a girl of seventeen, whom Emma knew very well by sight, and had long felt an interest in, on account of her beauty. A very gracious invitation was returned, and the evening no longer dreaded by the fair mistress of the mansion.
Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history. She had no visible friends but what had been acquired at Highbury, and was now just returned from a long visit in the country to some young ladies who had been at school there with her.
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith's conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connexions. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her…. “

Okay, now, keeping those two passages from Emma firmly in mind, along with Countess Morley’s brief comments about Emma, now read the following brief passage from Stephanie de Genlis’s Adelaide & Theodore, in the beginning of the inset story entitled “The History of the Duchess of C--, written by herself”, and in the exact words of the 1788 English translation which JA would have read: 

“I was born at Rome, SOLE HEIRESS OF AN IMMENSE FORTUNE, and of one of the most illustrious families in Italy. I received an excellent education; brought up by the best of mothers, CHERISHED BY A TENDER FATHER, and a family, of which I was the only hope; fortune and nature appeared UNITED in my favour; I attained my fifteenth year, WITHOUT HAVING EXPERIENCED A SINGLE SORROW, WITHOUT HAVING BEEN ONCE ILL, WITHOUT HAVING SHED ANY TEARS BUT THOSE OF TENDERNESS OR JOY. I loved to recall the past, I enjoyed with transport the present, and I only saw in the future as bright and happy a condition. I had had for A COMPANION, in my infancy, A YOUNG LADY, the daughter of a friend of my mother’s. I contracted for her a VIOLENT FRIENDSHIP. She was INGENUOUS, had sensibility, but NO EXPERIENCE; she could neither advise nor direct me; yet I had an unlimited confidence in her. I loved and respected my mother; but I did not look upon her as a friend, because she had permitted me to take another; she was even pleased at my forming so dangerous a connection. That imprudence cost me dear, and was the principal cause of all my misfortunes…”

First, I think you’ll agree it’s beyond question that the description of Emma in Chapter 1, and of her meeting Harriet in Chapters 4, are both strongly patterned after the early life of the Duchess of C—in the above, short expository passage. My ALL CAPS are the direct echoes I see, but I could write a whole blog post about all the indirect echoes in Emma of the Duchess’s story in A&T.  For those who’ve not read Adelaide & Theodore, here’s a brief summary courtesy of Mary Trouille, in 2010:

“A Gothic tale embedded in Genlis's 1782 novel Adèle et Théodore, the Histoire de la duchesse de C tells the story of an Italian duchess secretly imprisoned by her husband for nine years in a dungeon under his palace after he drugs her, simulates her death, and buries a waxen figure in her place. In a footnote to the 1804 edition of the novel, Genlis explains that the story is based on the experiences of the Italian Duchess of Cerifalco, whom Genlis met in Rome in 1776. The duchess’s tale quickly became so popular that Genlis published it in a separate edition in 1783; as Genlis’s fame as a writer and educator spread, both the novella and the novel from which it was drawn were reprinted numerous times and published in translation in England where they enjoyed considerable success as well. The Histoire de la Duchesse de C is a masterful blend of the sentimental and the Gothic genres and, as such, provides students with an excellent introduction to both literary traditions. Genlis's subtle analysis of the power relations between husband and wife shows keen psychological insight and constitutes the most compelling aspect of the duchess's story.” 

I could go on much longer, but I will conclude merely by pointing out that even though scholars like Susan Allen Ford and Gillian Dow have generally argued that the explicit allusion to Adelaide & Theodore in Emma points Austen readers to the Gothic subtexts underlying both Emma and Northanger Abbey, neither Dow nor Ford, nor any other Austen scholar I can detect (including Ellen Moody, who has herself written about the Duchess inset story), has understood that Jane Austen very specifically alluded to it in the beginning of Emma as I showed, above.

I further note that when one reads that Duchess inset story in relation to Emma, it strongly supports my case for a very subversive reading of the relationship of Emma and Knightley—i.e., that in the marriage of Emma and Knightley after the novel is over, JA is unmistakably suggesting that Emma, like the unfortunate Duchess, has married an older, powerful man who will in a variety of ways “imprison” Emma in his “castle”, i.e., Donwell Abbey, for a very long time, and it won’t be fun.

And so, coming full circle back to my initial quotations from Diana’s post, I am highly confident that Countess Morley, in her letter to her sister in law, was showing that she understood some or all of what I wrote in the preceding paragraphs, and that was why she referred to Emma’s “violent friendship” with the “vulgar fool” Harriet Smith! And perhaps this all also goes a ways toward explaining how the rumor started that Countess Morley was the author of JA’s first published novels—I am guessing that part of the private understanding between Jane Austen & the Countess, which leaks through their surviving correspondence, was that the Countess was free (and even desired by JA) to wink at the secret innards of JA’s novels in her communications with the literati of London. And the culmination of all that sly rumor-mongering was…the Dedication of Emma to the Prince of Whales!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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