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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Blazing Fires of Harriet Smith and Lady Caroline Lamb

It’s been years since (1) I first saw Mrs. Elton as the proverbial woman scorned, who, in the shadow story of Emma that I’ve decoded, seeks revenge against Jane Fairfax, whom Mrs. Elton blames for stealing Frank Churchill away from her, and (2) I also first saw Mrs. Elton as a representation of the real life Lady Caroline Lamb, who, during the same time period Jane Austen was composing Emma, made herself notorious as the furious spurned lover of Lord Byron (represented by Frank Churchill).  Here is a very brief summary of my argument for this claim:

In 2005, Colleen Sheehan discovered not only that the "courtship" charade in Chapter 9 had more than one correct answer, but also that this particular charade was a double anagram acrostic on the word---or name---"LAMB”.  Later in 2005, I realized that Frank's much-discussed trip to London for a haircut, ultimately explained as a trip to buy a pianoforte for Jane, served a different purpose in the shadow story, i.e., to jilt the young woman Frank had been courting seriously up till that time---Miss Augusta Hawkins of Bristol! That explains Mrs. Elton's acting so much like a woman seeking revenge when she arrives in Highbury as Mr. E’s wife--most of all in her creepily excessive, supposedly altruistic, concern for Jane, and attempts to control everything in Jane's already constricted life.

I then recognized that Frank himself must be that "abominable puppy" whom Miss Hawkins speaks of so bitingly as having given her an acrostic on her name. I searched in vain in the text of Emma for the text of that "acrostic", until a few years later, when the obvious explanation hit me---i.e. that Mrs. Elton's acrostic was actually hidden in the plainest sight possible, because it was that very same "courtship" charade—and Mrs. Elton’s “name” (metaphorically speaking) was Lady Caroline LAMB!

In short: Frank Churchill was BOTH the puppy who gave that “acrostic” to Miss Hawkins, AND ALSO the unnamed friend of Mr. Elton who gave him that “charade” to deliver to Emma! This is a two-edged Occam's Razor---two tangled mysteries tidily “shaved” by one answer. And more important, the plot implications of this discovery shed crucial light on the shadow story of Emma, especially the concealed pregnancy of the shadow heroine of the novel, Jane Fairfax:

I mention the above only as background for a further, related claim I’m making today, about a second erstwhile romantic couple in Emma. I.e, I claim that Jane Austen ALSO winked at Lady Caroline Lamb in the character of Harriet Smith---and this time with Mr. Elton, not Frank, representing Lord Byron. And the key clue is also hidden in plain sight---in the scene in Chapter 40 when Harriet burns the “precious treasures” she has collected and kept from Mr. Elton—a scene which would’ve had very special meaning for a contemporary reader of Emma who also read the tabloids, as you will shortly see. 

Please first read the following excerpts from Ch. 40 as if Caro Lamb were narrating to a confidante why she was burning her Byronic keepsakes. Then keep reading, and find a factual account of the real life Nov. 1812 bonfire into which Caroline Lamb very publicly (and poetically) tossed her Byronic treasures!

“…Harriet came one morning to Emma with a small parcel in her hand, and after sitting down and hesitating, thus began:  "Miss Woodhouse—if you are at leisure—I have something that I should like to tell you—a sort of confession to make—and then, you know, it will be over."
Emma was a good deal surprized; but begged her to speak. There was a seriousness in Harriet's manner which prepared her, quite as much as her words, for something more than ordinary.
"It is my duty, and I am sure it is my wish," she continued, "to have no reserves with you on this subject. As I am happily quite an altered creature in one respect, it is very fit that you should have the satisfaction of knowing it. I do not want to say more than is necessary—I am too much ashamed of having given way as I have done, and I dare say you understand me."
"Yes," said Emma, "I hope I do."
"How I could so long a time be fancying myself!..." cried Harriet, warmly. "It seems like madness! I can see nothing at all extraordinary in him now.—I do not care whether I meet him or not—except that of the two I had rather not see him—and indeed I would go any distance round to avoid him—but I do not envy his wife in the least; I neither admire her nor envy her, as I have done: she is very charming, I dare say, and all that, but I think her very ill-tempered and disagreeable—I shall never forget her look the other night!—However, I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, I wish her no evil.—No, let them be ever so happy together, it will not give me another moment's pang: and to convince you that I have been speaking truth, I am now going to destroy—what I ought to have destroyed long ago—what I ought never to have kept—I know that very well (blushing as she spoke).—However, now I will destroy it all—and it is my particular wish to do it in your presence, that you may see how rational I am grown. Cannot you guess what this parcel holds?" said she, with a conscious look.
"Not the least in the world.—Did he ever give you any thing?"
"No—I cannot call them gifts; but they are things that I have valued very much."
She held the parcel towards her, and Emma read the words Most precious treasures on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel, and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened: it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister….
"And so you actually put this piece of court-plaister by for his sake!" said Emma, recovering from her state of shame and feeling divided between wonder and amusement. And secretly she added to herself, "Lord bless me! when should I ever have thought of putting by in cotton a piece of court-plaister that Frank Churchill had been pulling about! I never was equal to this."
"Here," resumed Harriet, turning to her box again, "here is something still more valuable, I mean that has been more valuable, because this is what did really once belong to him, which the court-plaister never did."
Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil,—the part without any lead.
…"Oh! that's all. I have nothing more to shew you, or to say—except that I am now going to throw them both behind the fire, and I wish you to see me do it."
"My poor dear Harriet! and have you actually found happiness in treasuring up these things?"
"Yes, simpleton as I was!—but I am quite ashamed of it now, and wish I could forget as easily as I can burn them. It was very wrong of me, you know, to keep any remembrances, after he was married. I knew it was—but had not resolution enough to part with them."
"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?"   END QUOTE

And now the following---first, from an 1898 book, Caro Lamb’s poem comparing Byron to Guy Fawkes:

“The following are the lines written by Lady Caroline when she burned Byron in effigy at Brocket Hall (endorsed, in Mrs. Leigh's handwriting, " December, 1812"):
"address Spoken By The Page At Brocket Hall, Before The Bonfire.
"Is this Guy Faux you burn in effigy?
Why bring the Traitor here? What is Guy Faux to me?
Guy Faux betrayed his country, and his laws.
England revenged the wrong; his was a public cause.
But I have private cause to raise this flame.
Burn also those, and be their fate the same.
[Puts the Basket in the fire under the figure.]
See here are locks and braids of coloured hair
Worn oft by me, to make the people stare;
Rouge, feathers, flowers, and all those tawdry things,
Besides those Pictures, letters, chains, and rings—
All made to lure the mind and please the eye,
And fill the heart with pride and vanity—
Burn, fire, burn; these glittering toys destroy.
While thus we hail the blaze with throats of joy.
Burn, fire, burn, while wondering Boys exclaim,
And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.
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!"    END QUOTE FROM 1898 BOOK

And now, to complete the picture, read the following excellent summary I took from Paul Douglass’s "What Lord Byron Learned from Lady Caroline Lamb" European Romantic Review16.3 (2005): 273-81:

“Perhaps the quintessential moment in the career of that notorious erotomaniac known as Lady Caroline Lamb is her famous bonfire scene.  After Byron ended their affair in November 1812, she wrote:  “You have told me how foreign women revenge; I will show you how an Englishwoman can.” Gratified as much as annoyed, Byron wrote to Caroline’s mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, that he thought “perhaps in the year 1820 your little Medea may relapse into a milder tone.” He knew better. Revenge came shortly before Christmas when Caroline organized a bonfire ritual in the village of Welwyn, not far from Brocket Hall, her favorite place in the world. She arranged for village girls to dance while she set Byron’s effigy ablaze. As they danced, they tossed onto the flames copies of Byron’s letters and gifts to Caroline.  For the occasion, Lady Caroline composed a poem [see the above]…Caroline had fallen in love with Byron’s Childe Harold the previous March.  The poem’s picture of a youth “sore sick at heart,” had seduced Caroline, and she had tried to comfort the young author who professed (through Harold) that “none did love him.” Byron had almost eloped with her in July.  But in the fall he had told her their affair was over, and now she had realized that Harold spoke true when he said that “maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,” and “[l]ove has no gift so grateful as his wings.” Now she had realized that Childe Harold was a trap. The female figures of the poem are erotic fantasies. They inspire Harold with their beauty, but never disrupt the hero’s narcissism.
In “To Inez,” a poem within the poem of Childe Harold, the speaker says he is “curst” with memory, “And all my solace is to know, / What e’er betides, I’ve  known the worst.”  Inez gets no speaking lines as Harold continues, What is the worst?  Nay do not ask--    In pity from the search forebear: Smile on--nor venture to unmask    Man’s heart, and view the Hell that’s there.
Women of exotic lands are lovely to Harold, so long as they just keep smiling. They are to live in harems, and their voices are “never heard.” They are, in short, “Tam’d to [their] cage[s].” Harold’s women get explicit directions for their behavior: “I love the fair face of the maid in her youth, / Her caresses shall lull me, her music shall sooth.” Caroline had bought this, but now she revolted against the poet who had inspired her passion.  In honor of the ritual burning, Caroline’s pages & footmen sported buttons on their livery imprinted with a satire of Byron’s family motto:  “Ne Crede Biron.” In escaping one trap, however, she tumbled into another.  Burning her lover in effigy publicly in the Christmas cold, she spoke the line, ‘Shake not your heads, nor say the lady’s mad.’ Naturally she feared being labeled an erotomaniac—the bereaved and deserted woman who falls into insanity—, an established role, certainly, as Caroline knew.  One of her letters to John Murray, is signed, “Ophelia.” But more apropos is the version of Monk Lewis in a popular street ballad titled  “Crazy Jane”: 
Gladly that young heart received him    
Which never has loved but one!
He seemed true, and I believed him;  
He was false, and I undone.
Since that hour has reason never  
Held her empire in my brain:
Henry fled: with him for ever   
Fled the wits of Crazy Jane! 
Despite her exertions to avoid the role, Caroline became “Crazy Jane” from this moment on. When Byron heard about the bonfire, he pronounced her a victim of “the foul fiend Flibertigibbet.” His friend John Cam Hobhouse responded satisfactorily: “Your tale of the Brocket bonfire is almost incredible--well may you say with Horace, ‘Me Phryne macerat’ [Phryne (a whore or procuress) torments me.] adding at the same time ‘nec uno contenta’ [Not content with one man].” Thus Hobhouse painted Caroline as Byron’s ball and chain, a personification of female lust and jealousy.
Though Byron had ended their affair, he did not cut off all communication with Caroline. He continued to correspond with and even to see her occasionally during this period. When Caroline later got mixed up in the separation proceedings between wife and husband, she had to lie about when she had last seen Byron, because the date’s proximity to his wedding (which took place January 2nd, 1815), was unseemly.  But as the opportunities to talk and correspond diminished, Lady Caroline began a literary dialogue with Byron. She had started a novel [Glenarvon] around the time she had burned him in effigy. In it, she capitalized upon Byron’s poetry, especially the lyrics interspersed in Childe Harold…..” END QUOTE

I think it clear from all of the above that the parallels between the treasure-consuming fires of Harriet Smith and Caro Lamb would have been detected by alert contemporary readers of Emma, and must now be even clearer to readers today whom I’ve alerted to the parallel allusion to Caro Lamb via Mrs. Elton.

I conclude by picking up on Harriet’s cryptic hint:  “As I am happily quite an altered creature in one respect, it is very fit that you should have the satisfaction of knowing it. I do not want to say more than is necessary—I am too much ashamed of having given way as I have done, and I dare say you understand me."

I suggest to you the following interpretation of Harriet’s shame in having “given way” to Mr. Elton: I’ve long believed that Elton and Harriet are both fortune hunters, who do not scruple to have zipless sex with each other while waiting to reel in their respective “catches”! I.e., Elton is after Emma, and Harriet is after Knightley, from Day One.

But now I realize how that sexual dalliance eventually plays out, as it turns out not to have been zipless after all. I.e., in Chapter 40, Harriet is telling Emma (in code that Harriet mistakenly believes Emma will understand) that Harriet is “an altered creature” (i.e., pregnant with Elton’s baby, despite his “leadless” “pencil”!), and that Harriet has decided to abort the fetus (which, if it was conceived around Valentine’s Day when Elton gave Emma the charade, would be at the end of the first trimester in Chapter 40).  I.e., the bonfire of “precious treasures” given to Harriet by Mr. Elton is symbolic of the abortion Harriet is about to obtain—she will destroy Elton’s “gifts”, both the one inside and the ones outside her body. After all, we eventually learn in Chapter 47 that  Harriet believes she has gotten very close to landing a much bigger “whale” than Elton—Mr. Knightley!

And finally, I leave you with a last question--does this also mean that Jane Austen suspected that Byron had knocked Caroline Lamb up?  Put that “’precious treasure” in your pipe and smoke it!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Regencyresearcher said...

We know about Lady Caroline Lamb's bonfire now but it wasn't public knowledge at the time.
How did Jane Austen know it?

Arnie Perlstein said...

This is not the first time she has seemed to be aware of literary gossip - she had her informants

Paul Douglass said...

I am convinced by posts like this that Jane Austen was much more aware of and informed about life in London and Great Britain than I ever realized.

It is certainly possible that the verses for Guy Fawkes Day were published somewhere at the time (circa 1812-13), but I am not able to find them in any newspapers or journals. The source is a document in the John Murray Archives now in the National Library of Scotland. But unless Austen had access to the text, a close reading based on her awareness of its specific vocabulary and phraseology is improbable, and the echoes are therefore coincidental. Lady Caroline's episode might have been known to JA, but I'm dubious she ever saw the verses we now know so well.

We have a tendency to read retrospectively and leap to tempting conclusions. For example, as William Torrens notes in his early biography of Lord Melbourne from the late 19th c., the phrase "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," is first recorded in the account that Lady Morgan gives in her memoirs of 1862 (Lady Morgan is the source of a number of popular anecdotes and red herrings in LCL's biography, many of them the product of Lady Caroline's own re-imagining of her life). Lady Morgan REPORTS that Lady Caroline SAYS she went home after meeting Byron and wrote the phrase ("mad, bad...") in her diary. In other words, that phrase is nowhere on the record until 1862. Byron in 1812 was probably nothing like his bad-boy public image after 1816. Yet everyone assumes that the phrase was commonly applied to Byron and even to Lady Caroline herself during their lifetimes. This is creative reading that leads us into "finding" connections that cannot possibly have existed. [See Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan. _Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries, and Correspondence_. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: William H. Allen & Co., 1863. vol. 2, page 200.
At the same time, there is undoubtedly something tantalizingly solid about Jane Austen's canny knowledge of her contemporaries, and something very convincing about the thesis that her work adapts and alludes to many well-known personages and their peccadilloes. Thanks for this interesting post.