In my previous two posts, I began to explore Harriet Beecher Stowe’s surprising and intriguing coded textual hints, which convey Stowe’s savvy recognition of Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I speculated that Stowe, in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, quoted from one specific passage in Gibbon which contained the phrase “pride and prejudice”, in order to alert her sharp readers that Jane Austen had, in her most popular novel, deliberately pointed to Gibbon’s discussion of slavery in the Roman Empire, as part of Austen’s own theme of women in England as being subjected to pernicious forms of unofficial or metaphorical slavery.
I’ve given some further thought to the significance of Jane Austen’s allusion to Gibbon’s History in P&P, and Stowe’s recognition of same, and now I see that both Stowe and Austen had another major purpose, which was to address the eternal question in any quest for truth--- what constitutes knowledge and impartiality in writing the history of any events, whether they be events on a global scale, such as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire or the institution of slavery in America, both over a period of centuries; or on a tiny human scale, re the seemingly less weighty questions about character and marriageability in Regency Era England which are enacted so tellingly in P&P and JA’s other novels.
History is history, and it turns out that in P&P JA provides exactly the sort of imaginative history that the sophisticated and wise Eleanor Tilney enjoyed reading:
"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made—and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great."
Jane Austen was actually up to her ears in history from a young age. In her parodic absurdist 1791 History of England, the 15 year old Jane Austen playfully referred to herself as “a PARTIAL, PREJUDICED, & IGNORANT Historian.” In Northanger Abbey, as I noted just above, Jane Austen includes the famous discussion of the pros and cons of history among Henry Tilney, Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland. But, to the best of my knowledge, Pride & Prejudice has NOT been considered in the same light, even though Jane Austen hid an allusion to her youthful History in plain sight in P&P, when Elizabeth Bennet, in the process of a radical reversal of opinion about Darcy and Wickham, thinks to herself:
“She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, PARTIAL, PREJUDICED, absurd. "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and IGNORANCE, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."
It turns out, upon examination, that the theme of partiality and prejudice in history has been hidden in several places in P&P, as the following passages demonstrate:
Ch. 16: “Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told—the HISTORY of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy…."I have no right to give my opinion," said Wickham, "as to his being agreeable or otherwise. I am not qualified to form one. I have known him too long and too well to be a fair judge. It is impossible for me to be IMPARTIAL. But I believe your opinion of him would in general astonish—and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else. Here you are in your own family."
Ch. 17: "I can much more easily believe Mr. Bingley's being imposed on, than that Mr. Wickham should invent such a HISTORY of himself as he gave me last night; names, facts, everything mentioned without ceremony. If it be not so, let Mr. Darcy contradict it. Besides, there was TRUTH in his looks."
Ch. 18: "No," replied Jane, "I have not forgotten him; but I have nothing satisfactory to tell you. Mr. Bingley does not know the whole of his HISTORY, and is quite IGNORANT of the circumstances which have principally offended Mr. Darcy…”
…"Both," replied Elizabeth archly; "for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."
"This is NO VERY STRIKING RESEMBLANCE of your own character, I am sure," said he. "How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly."
Ch. 21: “…My brother admires her greatly already; he will have frequent opportunity now of seeing her on the most intimate footing; her relations all wish the connection as much as his own; and a sister's PARTIALITY is not misleading me, I think, when I call Charles most capable of engaging any woman's heart. With all these circumstances to favour an attachment, and nothing to prevent it, am I wrong, my dearest Jane, in indulging the hope of an event which will secure the happiness of so many?"
Ch. 36: But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham—when she read with somewhat clearer attention a relation of events which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own HISTORY of himself—her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, "This must be FALSE! This cannot be! This must be the grossest FALSEHOOD!"—and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again…..She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be IMPARTIALITY--deliberated on the probability of each statement—but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion….She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, PARTIAL, PREJUDICED, absurd….
And now, when we turn to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we find that Stowe is concerned with exactly the same question that so engrossed Jane Austen. How to demonstrate that she has not been a “blind, partial, prejudiced, and absurd historian”, when all the Southern states had risen up as one to denounce her novel as (in Lizzy’s words) “the grossest falsehood”. So, it’s no accident that Stowe should obliquely refer to P&P (with its central concern about the truthfulness of personal history) via Gibbon in her Key, because Stowe makes her stated purpose in writing the Key quite clear and right upfront in Chapter 1 thereof:
“At different times, doubt has been expressed whether the scenes and characters pourtrayed in “Uncle Tom's Cabin” convey a fair representation of slavery as it at present exists. This work, more, perhaps, than any other work of fiction that ever was written, has been a collection and arrangement of real incidents, of actions really performed, of words and expressions really uttered, grouped together with reference to a general result, in the same manner that the mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture. His is a mosaic of gems—this is a mosaic of facts.
Artistically considered, it might not be best to point out in which quarry and from which region each fragment of the mosaic picture had its origin; and it is equally unartistic to disentangle the glittering web of fiction, and show out of what real warp and woof it is woven, and with what real colouring dyed. But the book had a purpose entirely transcending the artistic one, and accordingly encounters at the hands of the public demands not usually made on fictitious works. It is treated as a reality—sifted, tried, and tested, as a reality; and therefore as a reality it may be proper that it should be defended.
The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason—that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read; and all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.”
And…I have saved the best for last---it turns out that both Stowe and Austen had Gibbon on their respective radar screens, in part because they both knew that Gibbon’s own monumental History had itself been subjected to a fierce attack by critics who claimed that Gibbon himself had been a PARTIAL historian about certain topics.
Check out the following passage in a letter written by George Travis, Archdeacon of Chester, to Gibbon, which mainly excoriated Gibbon for supposedly betraying a deist/pagan anti Christian prejudice in his History. I’ve put in ALL CAPS the excerpts which make it clear that Jane Austen was very much interested in Gibbon’s coming under such fierce attack—you tell me what the odds are that in one page of one letter in a book published in England several times when Jane Austen was a girl and teenager, we should find the phrases “impartial historian”, “truths universally acknowledged” and “pride and prejudice” in such very close proximity?
I’ll you the odds—a zillion to one! It’s obvious that Jane Austen meant to point to this specific letter when she wrote P&P:
“Let me in the next place, Sir, but still more briefly, remark on these extracts, that they convey NO VERY FAVORABLE IDEA of YOUR IMPARTIALITY AS A HISTORIAN. You have in them brought forward Mr. Emlyn on the subject of this verse, because he is your fellow-advocate. And you have consigned even the name of Mr. Martin, his respectable antagonist, to deep silence— no friendly Note to tell where his work lies—because his opinions were directly adverse to yours, and because he has overthrown many of Emlyn's misrepresentations. But, Sir, is this the part of an IMPARTIAL HISTORIAN? To state authorities, and to urge arguments, on one side of a question alone, is but barely tolerable in a hired advocate. A HISTORIAN who acts in this manner is----- but his description will be best give in your own words. “Whatever subject he has chosen, whatever persons he introduces, be owes to himself, to the present age, and to posterity, a just and perfect delineation of all that may be praised, of all that may be excused, and of all that must be censured. If he fails in the discharge of his important office, he PARTIALLY violates the sacred obligations of truth."
But, Sir, this is not all. Let me in the third, and last place remark, that the extracts in question supply the most palpable proof of your PARTIALITY AND PREJUDICE, in respect to the great question of the authenticity of this verse of St. John. They shew you to be capable even of forging authorities in a matter which bears no more than a collateral, or rather an implied relation to it. You have wilfully (for your reference is too exact to allow you shelter under any supposed inadvertence) misrepresented both Petavius and Gennadius, in the last of those extracts.
[Latin quotation, then] May it not be suspected, Sir, from this quotation, that, by fondly studying Dr. Benson you have imbibed no small portion of his spirit? You have, in your HISTORY, confidently placed this assertion, as to the expressions of Gennadius among CERTAIN TRUTHS WHICH YOU AFFIRM TO BE NOW UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED. Let me beseech you to compare the real expressions of Gennadius with your own account of them, and then to inform the world, whether you mean to repeat the assertion. Is it not practicable for you to utter truth, even whilst you have its sacred name in your mouth? Surely, Sir, "this seemeth to argue a bad cause, or a bad conscience, or both." Is there any physical, or moral impossibility for those who deny the authenticity of this verse to quote fairly, to argue candidly, and to speak truly? Is there any reason in nature for such hard hearts? Those reasons, such as they are, can only be found (but they may be there plentifully found) in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. If a false tenet, or opinion is to be defended at all events, to what auxiliaries must it look for assistance? Not to truth;-—for she is all fair and artless, uniform and consistent, simple and sincere.
….In fine---The defence of this text of the three (heavenly) Witnesses, which you affirm to have been profanely introduced into the scriptures by rash and sacrilegious hands, hath been thus attempted with, at least, upright intentions, and a serious persuasion of its originality, the result of much patient, and, as I believe, IMPARTIAL investigation. This defence, fixing its foundation upon the impeachments alledged against the text in a part of your HISTORY, hath, almost necessarily, produced a counter-charge against yourself. This general defence on the one hand, and this particular accusation on the other, are now both laid before the tribunal of an IMPARTIAL and discerning Public…..” END QUOTE
And so ends my history of the covert allusion by Jane Austen to Edward Gibbon’s great History, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s covert allusion to Austen alluding to Gibbon!
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