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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 1, 2014

“He has but three children instead of ten” & “A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number”: The broad hint at Catherine Morland’s illegitimacy

Right after the passage (in JA’s May 1801 letter from Bath to CEA in Kintbury) about (Revd.) Mr. Pickford, the so-called “disciple of Godwin” (whom I’ve asserted was the son of the famous architect Joseph Pickford, a longtime close associate of the politically “radical” Lunar Society luminaries), we read the following closing lines of such letter:

“We drink tea to-night with Mrs. Busby. I scandalized her nephew cruelly; he has but three children instead of ten.  Best love to everybody.”

In Janeites & Austen L, Diane Reynolds has just made a brilliant outside-the-box interpretation of the above passage:

“I thought that meant JA was afraid the man thought she might be implying he had had seven children out of wedlock.”

That is so spot-on, Diane, of course you must be right!  And it also fits with the train of wickedly satirical thought that JA was on as she wrote that, because if Revd. Pickford was a disciple of Godwin, then that name Godwin would immediately bring to mind Godwin’s even more famous late wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who had scandalized the conservatives and anti-Jacobins of England in 1794 by bearing an illegitimate child.  

So, after first subtly invoking the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft, JA cannot resist a followup with an absurdist echo, drawing the unfortunate nephew of Mrs. Busby into her web of subversively “raffish” jest about illegitimacy.

And….the bonus of your brilliant catch, Diane, is that you in turn caused me to free associate to the one other place in JA’s writing I know of where she made reference to ‘ten children’--- of  course the following famous passage in Northanger Abbey

“[Catherine’s] mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any.”

This passage has caused a multitude of Janeites to chuckle imagining the absurd and somewhat grotesquely Gothic conceit of tallying body parts---heads, arms and legs-- as a yardstick for measuring the number of children in a fine family. But….what I only just realized today, after reading Diane’s catch about Mrs. Busby’s nephew’s head count for children as a hint at illegitimacy, was that, in that same passage in NA, the narrator  never actually says that Catherine was the biological daughter of Mrs. Morland!!

I.e., in the midst of the account of Mrs. Morland’s miraculous survival of the gauntlet of bearing a very large number of children, we hear first about three born to her prior to Catherine, and then six born to her after Catherine’s birth---but the negative implication of the intervening connective statement (“before Catherine was born”) is that there is probable cause to wonder whether Catherine herself was born to Mrs. Morland, or was born to some other mother, and then quietly  given to the sturdy Mrs. Morland after birth---just like Anna Weston born to Jane Fairfax and quietly given to Mrs. Weston, in Emma.

And why I find that interpretation so exciting is that I have, since 2009---for reasons having nothing to do with the narrator leaving Catherine out of the category of children clearly born to Mrs. Morland in that passage---speculated about Catherine as a “transplanted olive branch”, i.e., as being illegitimate—and, more specifically, as being the illegitimate daughter of the late Mrs. Tilney!

So, how devilishly clever JA was, then, to hide this hint at Catherine’s  illegitimacy in plain sight in that passage.  It’s yet another example of how JA played fair with her readers, by forcing the reader to be very “nice” (in the sense of very careful and discriminating) in parsing JA’s writing, and in resisting  the urge to read too quickly and leap into taking things at face value, such as assuming that the narrator told you that Catherine was legitimate, when, in punctilious  fact, that was not the case.  Every family has secrets, as the narrator of Emma alerts us, and this is one of those secrets.

And finally, also, how characteristic of JA to hide a hint at this novelistic legerdemain in a parallel passage in one of her letters, and tagging the hint with keywords—in this case “ten children” described in a joking passage—so I will just add this example to the long list I’ve accumulated during our long group read of JA’s letters.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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