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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Jane Austen the cunning connoisseur of “so much beauty” in randy Rochesterian Restoration comedy

 For those who haven’t been reading along here of late, in two of my previous posts this past month, I’ve argued that Jane Austen, in Pride & Prejudice, alluded, respectively, to the Earl of Rochester John Wilmot’s X-rated late-1670s poem “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” and to George Etherege’s RR-rated1676 play The Man of Mode, the hero of which, Dorimant, was a thinly veiled portrait of that same John Wilmot….  .  In particular, I pointed out how Jane Austen had put the phrase “so much beauty” in Sir William Lucas’s mouth, addressing Darcy, as follows….

"My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not DANCING? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to DANCE, I am sure when SO MUCH BEAUTY is before you." And, taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it…

….in order to remind her well-versed readers of Etherege’s portrait of Rochester, the spiritual ringleader of the perpetual Maypole “dance” in St. James’s Park, where Etherege tellingly used that exact same phrase twice.

That was all surprising enough, but today I return to write the third and briefest in what has turned out to be a trilogy of posts by me about Jane Austen’s remarkable focus, in P&P, on the bawdy Restoration Era literature written by and/or alluding to that same Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot. This time, my subject is Aphra Behn’s wildly popular 1677 play, The Rover---still popular enough today to be (as I just learned from Twitter) scheduled to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the summer of 2016.

I promised to make this quick, and so I’ll only present a brief taste of my textual evidence for Jane Austen’s alluding to Behn’s The Rover in P&P. First, I argued back in 2009 that Aphra Behn was part of the elaborate Samuel Morland subtext of Northanger Abbey, which I spoke about at the JASNA AGM in Portland. In particular, I argued that Jane Austen stood on the small, plain brass plaque covering Aphra Behn’s final resting place in Westminster Abbey, and looked up at the twin “awful memorials” erected there by the sixtysomething Samuel Morland for his two very young wives who died in childbirth, elaborate edifices towering above Behn’s humbly interred bones. Then, in August 2012 Anielka Briggs argued in Janeites and Austen-L, and I enthusiastically agreed, that Jane Austen, in Anne Elliot’s stirring advocacy for female authorship in Persuasion, had slyly alluded to the subversively feminist Prologue to Behn’s play The Lucky Chance.

Now I will add to that list Jane Austen’s allusion in P&P to Behn’s The Rover, in which that same Earl of Rochester, who was a prime subject for the leading playwrights of his day, was represented by the hero, Willmore (sounds just like Wilmot). And so it seems likely, from the chronology and similarities in the plots of both plays, that Behn was very well aware of Dorimant as Rochester in Etherege’s The Man of Mode, and meant for her play to be recognized as cut from the same literary cloth.

But even I was not prepared to find, twice, in The Rover, that identical turn of phrase which Etherege had used twice in The Man of Mode, and which Jane Austen had deployed in P&P---“so much beauty”, and both in scenes (as in P&P and The Man of Mode) involving Willmore and his female heroine/verbal sparring partner, Hellena:

Act 3, Scene 1:

HELLENA. Well, I see our Business as well as Humours are alike, yours to cozen as many Maids as will trust you, and I as many Men as have Faith — See if I have not as desperate a lying look, as you can have for the heart of you. [Pulls off her Vizard; he starts.] — How do you like it, Captain?
WILLMORE. Like it! by Heav’n, I never saw SO MUCH BEAUTY. Oh the Charms of those sprightly black Eyes, that strangely fair Face, full of Smiles and Dimples! those soft round melting cherry Lips! and small even white Teeth! not to be exprest, but silently adored! — Oh one Look more, and strike me dumb, or I shall repeat nothing else till I am mad. [He seems to court her to pull off her Vizard: she refuses.]

Act 3, Scene 3:

WILLMORE And hinder your Advantage: should I repay your Bounties so ungratefully?
ANGELICA Come hither, Boy — that I may let you see How much above the Advantages you name I prize one Minute’s Joy with you.
WILLMORE Oh, you destroy me with this Endearment. [Impatient to be gone.] — Death, how shall I get away? — Madam, ’twill not be fit I should be seen with you — besides, it will not be convenient and I’ve a Friend — that’s dangerously sick.
ANGELICA I see you’re impatient — yet you shall stay.
WILLMORE And miss my Assignation with my Gipsy. [Aside, and walks about impatiently.]
HELLENA Madam, [Moretta brings Hellena, who addresses] You’l hardly pardon my Intrusion, (her self to Angelica. When you shall know my Business; And I’m too young to tell my Tale with Art: But there must be a wondrous store of Goodness Where SO MUCH  BEAUTY dwells.
ANGELICA A pretty Advocate, whoever sent thee, — Prithee proceed — Nay, Sir, you shall not go. [To Will. who is stealing off.]
WILLMORE Then shall I lose my dear Gipsy for ever. — Pox on’t, she stays me out of spite. [Aside.]

And so it is clear, that Aphra Behn meant to remind her London audience of Etherege’s big hit
of the previous season, and then, 137 years later, that Jane paid her cunning homage to Behn, Etherege, and above all Wilmot, her Restoration Era heroes of brilliant bawdry.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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