Another breakout session I really looked forward to with interest, and then attended, at the JASNA AGM just completed, was “Censure in Common Use: Jane Austen’s Satires on the Royal Family” by Jocelyn Harris.
I’ve written about Harris’s Austen scholarship with praise in many dozens of posts over the past decade, ever since I first came across her groundbreaking and extremely influential book Jane Austen’s Art of Memory (1985) ten years ago when I first started reading the Austen scholarly literature. It is still mandatory reading for any Janeite wishing to begin to understand the depths of JA’s allusive mastery.
Harris’s session blurb was intriguingly vague:
“Jane Austen is usually regarded as an ironist rather than a satirist. In her younger years, she attacked former kings and queens in The History of England, and as a mature writer, she critiqued current members of the royal family, whose fitness to rule she questions from the juvenilia to Sanditon.”
Surely, I thought, she had to already know about Colleen Sheehan’s brilliant discovery in 2006 of the “Prince of Whales” secret answer to the “courtship” charade in Emma….
…so she had to be bringing something else to the lectern in her talk on Saturday—and sure enough, she did.
Harris’s principal claim was that John Thorpe in NA was a representation of the Prince Regent, and she gave a number of textual examples. She also suggested that there were a couple of distinct textual winks at the PR’s exploits in P&P as well. Harris’s Persuasions article-to-come will surely set out all the particulars of her argument in her usual readable and thorough fashion, so suffice it for me to say today that I found her argument very persuasive. That was particular so, because her catches do not stand alone, far from it. They must be taken in combination with at least three other prior claims in this regard:
Sheehan’s above-linked discovery (which, surprisingly, Harris never mentioned, which is why I did so during the Q&A);
Peter Knox-Shaw’s argument in 2004 that the PR is represented by Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park; and
JA’s very famous, very explicit expression of hatred for the PR in her Feb. 1813 letter to Martha Lloyd….
"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman. I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband."
…which only survived, I believe, because it was not written to Cassandra!
And I will now briefly take all of the above, including Harris’s fresh contribution to the mix, still one step further. It seems 100% clear to me that the PR was on JA’s radar screen as a repeated satirical target at a minimum from 1812 through her death. So much for the absurd notion that JA was apolitical. And so much for the absurd suggestion that she was sincere in expressing humility toward and awe of the Prince in her famous letters to James Stanier Clarke about her Dedication of Emma to the Prince. her writing a toadyish followup novel, and her visiting Carlton House.
To JA, the Prince Regent was not only the “Prince of Whales” as depicted in her charade, Lamb’s satirical poem, and in Cruikshank’s satirical caricature. He was also one of the “whales” described in two well known sources that Jane Austen read:
First, the wise First Fisherman in Act 2, Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s Pericles, (which I’ve demonstrated repeatedly was a major source for Emma), answering his friend’s question about how fishes live in the sea:
"Why, as men do a-land; THE GREAT ONES EAT UP THE LITTLE ONES: I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a WHALE; a' plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales have I heard on o' the land, who never leave gaping till THEY’VE SWALLOWED THE WHOLE PARISH, CHURCH, STEEPLE, BELLS, AND ALL."
And second, Baretti (the Italian author and friend of Samuel Johnson) whom JA specifically mentioned with at least partial approval in one of her letters to CEA, in his Journey from London to Genoa (1770):
“Now, ye Englishmen, said I to myself , BEHOLD! Here as well as elsewhere, THE WHALE SWALLOWS UP THE SMALL FISHES, whatever you may say of your laws, which you think so antidotal against all sorts of tyranny. Your laws you say, are an adamantine shield that covers your whole island. No oppression is here of any kind, no not the least shadow of it. But go to mine hostess gentlemen, and you will hear another story. You will hear that it is in your country as in all others, I mean that no such laws can be thought on by mortal legislators, as perfectly to screen the weak against the strong, or the poor against the rich, especially when the subject of complaint is not so great as to draw the public attention, which is generally the case in THOSE MANY OPPRESSIONS THAT THE LITTLE ENDURE FROM THE GREAT.”
Jane Austen took direct aim at all the “whales” of her world—which takes us back to Mr. Woodhouse’s porker and Mrs. Jennings’s mutton—the “little ones” (i.e., the women, the slaves, and the poor) upon whom the “great ones” feasted.
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