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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 11, 2015

Frank Churchill mad bad & dangerous to know & Harriet’s “precious treasures” (Caro Lamb, Burney & de Genlis)

A week ago, I made a preliminary case for the claim…. ….that Harriet Smith's decision to ritually burn the silly "precious treasures" she’d saved from her ill-fated romantic dealings with Mr. Elton, was Jane Austen’s sly allusion to Lady Caroline Lamb’s much more elaborate late-1812 staging of a multi-media artistic burning in effigy of Lord Byron, and all her assorted trinkets associated with their short, tempestuous romantic trainwreck. I also recalled that this allusion sits alongside Mrs. Elton as a second representation of Caro Lamb, the proverbial woman scorned, venting her rage on Frank Churchill, who jilted her, and on Jane Fairfax, whom Mrs. Elton blames for stealing Frank away.

Two days ago, I received some insightful private comments, which started me down a very enjoyable and enlightening line of further inquiry into that scene of seeming comic-relief in Chapter 40 of Emma, and seeing it as a sophisticated multilayered allusive literary confection, with (at least) two other high-profile literary sources lurking in the recent literary past behind that Caroline Lamb bonfire, and also shedding further light on Frank as a representation of Lord Byron, as I will serve up to you, below.

First, the excellent question was raised as to whether the reader observes, or hears about, Harriet actually burning the "treasures" --I couldn't answer for sure from memory, so that sent me right back to that scene in Chapter 40, which I had to read twice before I realized that JA did indeed show us:

"But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court-plaister?—I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court-plaister might be useful."
"I shall be happier to burn it," replied Harriet. "It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing.—There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! of Mr. Elton."
"And when," thought Emma, "will there be a beginning of Mr. Churchill?"

"There it goes, and there is an end...." If you’re not reading attentively, the fact that Harriet does actually conduct her treasure-burning ritual can slide by unnoticed. That’s one of a thousand subtle little touches like that in JA's fiction in general, but most densely and perfectly executed in Emma. Jane Austen is always showing what is going on, and is rarely telling--and even when she seems to be telling us what is happening, she nearly always simultaneously subverts the certainty of what seems to have been told. In this way, she’s constantly calling into question, but always implicitly and almost in a whisper, the myriad assumptions, large and small, which we all make, every day of our lives, about what we (think we) see, hear, feel, and understand. In real life, we may think we’re registering, and later recalling, what happens, but we learn from the repeated virtual experience of visiting Highbury, and seeing Emma’s world as she sees it, that this sense of firm objective reality is just an illusion, not just for Emma, but also, if we are wise, for us as well, both as readers of Emma, but also in our own lives.

Anyway, this small detail of Harriet actually tossing Mr. Elton’s court plaister into the fire only reinforces my conviction that this scene really was JA's brilliant sendup of Caroline Lamb's similar ceremonial immolation of the tangible symbols of her attachment to Byron. I never realized before that this is probably the first moment in the entire novel (and we met Harriet nearly 40 chapters earlier) when Harriet suddenly reveals her own inner strength and self-directedness. And it’s both very funny and very sad to note how utterly clueless Emma is about Harriet at this crucial juncture. Emma's thoughts are, as they have been from early in their relationship---about how absurd and silly Harriet has been, to have kept this miscellany of Eltonian (call it what it is) crap as "precious treasures".
Emma has already identified Frank as Harriet's next romantic fantasy object, and has again nominated herself to begin to choreograph that new courtship dance for Harriet. Whereas, when we listen to Harriet’s actual words, and attend to her actually tossing that stuff into the fire, Harriet is being clear and rational about a new direction in her romantic life, which Emma would’ve recognized, if she’d been listening to Harriet rather than Emma’s idea of her. Her “little friend” was showing some real flair, and taking firmer control of her own romantic destiny, and a half dozen chapter later, Emma’s world will be rocked to its base when she realized Harriet is aiming for Mr. Knightley.
And that new flair is precisely where Lady Caroline Lamb comes into it --- that sense of the dramatic is what is symbolized most powerfully by Harriet’s Byronic bonfire. Which leads to the other comment I received, which questioned whether Jane Austen would, by the time she completed Emma in late 1815, have known generally about the tempestuous early relationship between Caroline Lamb and Byron in 1812, and would have known specifically about Caroline Lamb’s late 1812 bonfire.
My initial reply was to say that I suspect that the Lamb-Byron fireworks was the talk of the ton in late 1812 London, and that via either the London gossip mill, JA learned of it from one or more real life Nurse Rookes and Mrs. Smiths in JA’s acquaintance, and/or from tabloid reports and caricatures which are not readily accessed via the Internet at present. But then I took a second look at Emma, and realized that JA had left a few other pointed clues pointing to Caro Lamb’s bonfire, and to Byron.

First, read the last 10 lines of Caroline Lamb’s poem, which she read aloud at the bonfire:

Ah! look not thus on me, so grave, so sad;
Shake not your heads, nor say the Lady's MAD.
Judge not of others, for there is but one
To whom the heart and feelings can be known.
Upon my youthful faults few censures cast.
Look to the future—and forgive the past.
London, farewell; vain world, vain life, adieu!
Take the last tears I e'er shall shed for you.
Young tho' I seem, I leave the world for ever,
NEVER to enter it again—no, NEVER—NEVER!"

Now take a look at the sentiments expressed by Harriet Smith in the scene that occurs about 10 days after Harriet’s fire ritual, but which immediately follows it in the text of Emma:

“[Emma] had soon afterwards reason to believe that the beginning was already made, and could not but hope that the gipsy, though she had told no fortune, might be proved to have made Harriet's.—About a fortnight after the alarm, they came to a sufficient explanation, and quite undesignedly. Emma was not thinking of it at the moment, which made the information she received more valuable. She merely said, in the course of some trivial chat, "Well, Harriet, whenever you marry I would advise you to do so and so"—and thought no more of it, till after a minute's silence she heard Harriet say in a very serious tone, "I shall NEVER MARRY."
Emma then looked up, and immediately saw how it was; and after a moment's debate, as to whether it should pass unnoticed or not, replied,
"NEVER MARRY!—This is a new resolution."
"It is one that I SHALL NEVER CHANGE, however."
After another short hesitation, "I hope it does not proceed from—I hope it is not in compliment to Mr. Elton?"
"Mr. Elton indeed!" cried Harriet indignantly.—"Oh! no"—and Emma could just catch the words, "so superior to Mr. Elton!"

I claim that Harriet, like Caro Lamb, isn’t merely swearing off a particularly bad lover, she’s taking a vow of self-restraint, and rethinking her heretofore assumed goal of marriage, emphasized by emphatic repetition of “Never!”—or at least, never with one notable exception—Mr. Knightley.  But Emma isn’t listening, and ponders whether to say anything to Harriet about Frank, whom Emma assumes Harriet is talking about. Harriet then responds:

"Oh! Miss Woodhouse, believe me I have not the presumption to suppose— Indeed I am not so MAD.—But it is a pleasure to me to admire him at a distance—and to think of his infinite superiority to all the rest of the world, with the gratitude, wonder, and veneration, which are so proper, in me especially."

I put the word “MAD” in all caps there, as I did in Lamb’s bonfire poem, because I realized that Jane Austen was winking at the most famous sentence ever written about the Byron-Lamb fatal attraction--- Caroline Lamb’s blunt assessment of Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

On top of the bonfire parallels, and Harriet’s mirroring Caro Lamb’s poetic vow never to return to the London social whirl where she became obsessed with Byron, it is no coincidence that Harriet denies being “mad”, and then, in Frank Churchill’s long letter of explanation to his stepmother, which Mrs. Weston gives to Emma to read and which is set forth in full in Chapter 50, just happens to include the word “MAD’ FIVE times, and the word “INSANE” once, all used by Frank to describe himself in relation to his concealed relationship with Jane Fairfax!:

"…I dared not address her openly; my difficulties in the then state of Enscombe must be too well known to require definition; and I was fortunate enough to prevail, before we parted at Weymouth, and to induce the most upright female mind in the creation to stoop in charity to a secret engagement.—Had she refused, I should have gone MAD….”
…I want to have your opinion of her looks. I know you will soon call on her; she is living in dread of the visit. Perhaps it is paid already. Let me hear from you without delay; I am impatient for a thousand particulars. Remember how few minutes I was at Randalls, and in how bewildered, how MAD a state: and I am not much better yet; still INSANE either from happiness or misery. When I think of the kindness and favour I have met with, of her excellence and patience, and my uncle's generosity, I am MAD with joy: but when I recollect all the uneasiness I occasioned her, and how little I deserve to be forgiven, I am MAD with anger. If I could but see her again!—But I must not propose it yet.… While I, to blind the world to our engagement, was behaving one hour with objectionable particularity to another woman, was she to be consenting the next to a proposal which might have made every previous caution useless?—Had we been met walking together between Donwell and Highbury, the truth must have been suspected. —I was MAD enough, however, to resent.—I doubted her affection.…”

And here’s the crowning touch---can it be accidental that Knightley, while reading Frank’s letter and commenting aloud while talking to Emma in the very next chapter, says the following, as he reaches the exact point in the letter where Frank repeatedly refers to himself as “mad”?:

"Very BAD—though it might have been worse.—Playing a most DANGEROUS game….”

In short, JA is tracking each of the keywords of that famous Caro Lamb aphorism--- Frank is “mad” and “bad” and “dangerous”! And how fitting it is that Knightley is the one who puts the icing on that particular cake!

By the way, in case you were wondering, the earliest published reference I can find in Google Books to that famous sentence is from the Feb. 1878 issue of The Living Age, in an article about Caro’s patient husband,  Lord Melbourne, in the section discussing Lady Caroline and Byron:   “She met Byron when he had just flashed into fame, under circumstances which she thus described to Lady Morgan:  “Lady Westmoreland knew him in Italy. She took on her to present him. The women suffocated him. I heard nothing of him, til one day Rogers (for he, Moore, and Spencer were all my lovers, and wrote me up to the skies — I was in the clouds) -- Rogers said, "You should know the new poet," and be offered me the MS. of "Childe Harold "to read. I read it, and that was enough. Rogers said, "He has a club foot, and bites his nails." I said, "If he was ugly as Aesop I must know him. I was one night at Lady Westmoreland's; the women were all throwing their heads at him. Lady Westmoreland led me up to him. I looked earnestly at him, and turned on my heel. My opinion, in my journal, was, "Mad — bad — and dangerous to know." A day or two passed; I was sitting with Lord and Lady Holland, when he was announced. Lady Holland said, "I must present Lord Byron to you." Lord Byron said, "That offer was made to you before ; may I ask why you rejected it? He begged permission to come and see me. He did so the next day. Rogers and Moore were standing by me: I was on the sofa. I had just come in from riding. I was filthy and heated. When Lord Byron was announced, I flew out of the room to wash myself. When I returned, Rogers said, "Lord Byron, you are a happy man. Lady Caroline has been sitting here in all her dirt with us, but when you were announced, she flew to beautify herself." Lord Byron wished to come and see me at eight o'clock, when I was alone; that was my dinner-hour. I said he might. From that moment, for more than nine months, he almost lived at Melbourne House. It was then the centre of all gaiety, at least in appearance.”
Lady Caroline was a wild talker, and Lady Morgan was not the most reliable a diarists. Lord Byron's first manner was not of a nature to make a new acquaintance set him down as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," or to justify Madame Stael’s warning when she told Lady Caroline that he was a demon; although to think a man dangerous, or be told that he was a demon, was the likeliest of all ways to make a woman of ill-regulated fancy and sensibility, craving for excitement, fall in love with him. Their passion, or rather fever-fit of gratified vanity, has become historical. It was short-lived, and was converted, at least on one side, into the exact opposite-into something bordering on hate, with exceptional rapidity. “ END QUOTE

So, if it is really true (which I don’t think is the case) that Lady Caroline’s bon mot was never published prior to the end of 1815, it can only mean that Jane Austen, via one or more gossip sources, was aware of it, too, just like the bonfire. There’s WAY too much smoke here for there not to have been an actual source who informed JA of all these fiery details.


That was where I initially thought this post was going to end, but now I’ll add the following brief and related section, which I may expand upon in a future post. When I checked to see what other Austen scholars have written about Harriet’s burning those ‘precious treasures’, I found not one, but two additional allusive literary sources, which I’ll briefly summarize, in chronological order:

The first is Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782). Beginning with Walter Herries Pollock in1892, and then picked up on much later by E.E. Duncan-Jones (1951) and John McAleer (1991), it’s been noted that the relationship of Cecilia and her less well off friend Henrietta Belfield is a clear model for Emma and Harriet. And cutting to the chase, Pollock notes in particular as follows:

“Cecilia’s conversation with Henrietta…runs in one passage thus (Cecilia begins the conversation):
‘And did [Mortimer, the hero that both Cecilia and Henrietta aspire to marry] stay with you long?’
‘No, ma’am: a very short time, indeed. But I asked him questions all the while, and kept him as long as I could, that I might hear all he had to say about my brother.’
‘Have you never seen him since?’
‘No, ma’am, not once! I suppose he does not know my brother has come back to us. Perhaps, when he does, he will call.’
‘Do you wish him to call? ’
‘Me?’ cried she, blushing; ‘a little—sometimes I do, for my brother’s sake.’
‘For your brother’s sake ? Pah, my dear Henrietta! but tell me—or don’t tell me if you had rather not—did I not once see you kissing a letter? Perhaps it was from this same noble friend?’
‘It was not a letter, madam,’ said she, looking down. ‘ It was only the cover of one to my brother.’
‘The cover of a letter only, and that to your brother! Is it possible you could so much value it?’
‘Ah, madam ! You, who are always used to the good and the wise, who see no other sort of people but those in high life—you can have no notion how they strike those that they are new to! But I, who see them seldom, and who live with people so very unlike them—oh ! you cannot guess how sweet to me is everything that belongs to them ! Whatever has but once been touched by their hands I should like to lock up and keep for ever! though if I was used to them, as you are, perhaps I might think less of them.’

Pollock actually is too reticent in his claim that this might be a passage that Austen had in mind—if you read the scene that immediately follows the above scene, it is obvious that JA alluded to it in Emma. And no one in the world is going to suggest that JA did not know Cecilia very well indeed!

And then, thanks to Susan Allen Ford, in her 1999 Persuasions article, we learn that Jane Austen also alluded in that same scene in Emma to de Genlis’s Letters on Education (1784), as follows:

“…the Baron and Baroness d’Almane arrange marriages to bond families and ensure virtuous and worthy partners for children too young to make such decisions for themselves. Matchmaking here is an anti-romantic activity. Adelaide too is as anxious as her mother could wish to display such a rational approach: “I should like better to marry an amiable man of 37, than a young man of three-and-twenty”, she tells her mother. Choosing M. de Retel, that amiable man of 37, would ensure her of a husband with “experience and consideration” and simultaneously show her good sense so that “I should deserve his affection and the esteem of the Public”. The young man of 23 is, she supposes, only a random example. In order to ensure that she does not become attached to the only young man of 23 she knows, Charles de Valmont, she gives up the box of precious stones and pebbles he has given her. Indeed, Adelaide cedes all power of choice to her mother…But Austen also has her joke at the expense of Mme. de Genlis’s claims for the triumph of rationality in her heroine. Adelaide’s surrender of the pebbles Charles gave her is, of course, parodied by Harriet’s surrender of her “Most precious treasures,” a tired piece of court plaister and the end of an old pencil, destroyed in Emma’s presence “‘that you may see how rational I am grown’”.

I checked both the referenced passages in de Genlis, and it’s clear that Ford is spot-on. But note what’s missing in both the Burney and de Genlis source scenes: the ritual burning of the cherished objects---for that final dramatic/comic piece of the picture in Emma, Jane Austen drew upon the real life Caroline Lamb’s bonfire and poem. When I can, I’ll dig a little deeper, and look for interconnections among the Burney, the de Genlis, and the Lamb, and I won’t be surprised if I find that de Genlis pointed to Burney, whose Cecilia was the talk of the literary world as de Genlis was writing her magnum opus, and that Caro Lamb, who was quite literary, drew inspiration for her bonfire ritual from both Burney and de Genlis.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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