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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Jane Austen’s dark cynical epistolary humor about “the way of the world”…. marriagewise for women

As I was reading Congreve’s The Way of the World today, I happened unawares upon the following passage in Act 1, Scene 1 that stopped me in my tracks:

MRS. MARWOOD.  Oh, then it seems you are one of his favourable enemies.  Methinks you look a little pale, and now you flush again.
MRS. FAIN.  Do I?  I think I am a little sick o’ the sudden.
MRS. MAR.  What ails you?
MRS. FAIN.  My husband.  Don’t you see him?  He turned short upon me unawares, and has almost overcome me.

Given that we will shortly learn as the play unfolds that Mrs. Fain feels “a little sick o’ the sudden’ because she has recently, reluctantly, and abruptly married the odious Mr. Fain, seeking a solution to the crisis of having recently been impregnated by the hero-rake of the play, Mirabell, I was immediately reminded of one of JA’s most infamous epistolary bon mots, in Letter 10, to Cassandra, dated 10/27-8/1798 (i.e., written when JA was not quite two-and-twenty, and therefore was practically the same age as the witty, irreverent Elizabeth Bennet during the action of P&P):

“Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright. –I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

Think about the full extent of the non-obvious parallelism. It’s not just the very similar epigrammatic phraseology, or that identical and unusual word “unawares” (a word which JA used only that one single time in all of her surviving 154 letters, and only 4 times altogether in her 6 novels combined), it’s the uncanny parallel of situation. I.e., the darkly ironic conceit in both Congreve’s play and Austen’s letter is that a pregnant but unhappily married wife may be sickened merely by happening unawares to suddenly look at her husband. This is not coincidence!

But I do not stop there. I wonder whether JA, who clearly was familiar enough with The Way of the World to channel it in one of her letters, probably expecting Cassandra to get the reference as well, I go one step further, and wonder whether JA was thereby hinting to Cassandra that Mrs. Hall’s stillborn child had been conceived out of wedlock, and that the pregnancy had been the trigger of a shotgun marriage to a respectable husband?

I did some Googling, and it turns out that I am not the first to look for an actual historical backstory behind JA’s shocking wit.

Constance Pilgrim, in This is Illyria, Lady, an eccentric, short 1991 biography of JA I read some time ago, speculated very broadly about JA’s possible romantic interlude with Captain John Wordsworth, younger brother of the famous poet. Pilgrim had briefly summarized her sleuthing five years earlier in a 1986 Persuasions article you can read here:

Anyway, here’s what Pilgrim wrote in her 1991 biography about JA’s reflections on Mrs. Hall’s stillbirth:

But if we look a little closer, we may find that [JA] is not really laughing; no, she is bitter, but then, should she have a feeling of bitterness about an apparently unknown Mr. Hall?
The truth is, she probably knew of him only too well. He was the Revd. Dr. Henry Hall, Vicar of Monk Sherborne, Hampshire (near Basingstoke), and formerly of the Queen’s College, Oxford, who were also the patrons of the living at Sherborne. It was usual for the college to put Cumberland or Westmorland men into their vacant benefices in Hampshire. In this case, the vacancy occurred by the death in 1793 of the Revd. Thomas Monkhouse, a son of William Monkhouse of Longlands, Cumberland, and also of the Queen’s College, Oxford.
The Revd. Henry Hall was the son of Richard Hall, of Penrith, Cumberland. When John Wordsworth, the poet’s younger brother, wrote to his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, in 1800 and told her: “I think Penrith is the most scandalous place I was ever in – everything one says and does is known to the whole town…,” was it possible because his business dealings in connection with his trade as an officer of the East India Company, were gossiped about in the little town? Might he have tried to interest Mr. Richard Hall in venturing to invest some capital in his ship? And possibly also his son, the Vicar of Monk Sherborne? Because John Wordsworth was still young at this time, perhaps the Halls of Penrith had little faith in his business acumen and would not risk their money at all. Certainly his grandparents of Penrith, the Cooksons, would not have encouraged an investment with him. The Halls were inter-married with the Monkhouse family, and were thus distant kinsmen of the Wordsworths. Thomas Monkhouse, 'Wordsworth’s noble-hearted kinsman’, as Charles Lamb called him, was a guest at the 'Immortal Dinner’ [when Keats, Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, and a few others met at the house of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon on 28 December 1817, to introduce young John Keats to senior poet William Wordsworth)]…”

Pilgrim does not take note of a bit of wordplay that would have supported her claim that Captain Wentworth is a veiled portrait of Captain Wordsworth---- Captain Wentworth’s brother the vicar does hold the living at “MONKford”!

Without more evidence, I am (as I am sure most of you reading this also are) highly skeptical of Pilgrim’s claims of Captain John Wordsworth as secret lover of Jane Austen. In particular, given my belief that JA’s sexuality was not strictly heterosexual, I therefore do not ascribe to speculations that she sought out heterosexual marriage, quite the contrary.

Therefore, notwithstanding Pilgrim’s ingenious arguments, I remain inclined to take JA’s veiled but unmistakable allusion to Congreve’s bon mot about a very unhappy fictional shotgun marriage as a marker of JA’s feminist anger about what I am guessing JA believed to be a very unhappy marriage for poor Mrs. Hall, who may have been pressured into it by exigent circumstances (i.e., pregnancy out of wedlock).

If that speculation of mine is accurate, then JA would have looked very askance at the pressures placed on a young pregnant single woman who married an older man (from LeFaye’s scant bio info, she outlived her husband by nearly 20 years) out of desperation. And, JA would also not have failed to register the dark irony that it ultimately turned out that she needn’t have married him after all, because her child did not survive. If JA knew Mrs. Hall before her marriage, I can well imagine the anger JA would have felt on behalf of the poor woman.

And by the way, speaking of JA’s picking up on feminist humor in The Way of the World and recycling it in her letters, check out this passage in Act 3, Scene 2, of Congreve’s famous play:

LADY WISHFORT: I’m as pale and as faint, I look like Mrs. Qualmsick, the curate’s wife, that’s always breeding.  Wench, come, come, wench, what art thou doing?  Sipping?  Tasting?  Save thee, dost thou not know the bottle?

It is a running joke of Congreve’s throughout the play that the menopausal-aged Lady Wishfort spends the play “wishing for it”, meaning wishing to get pregnant. So I see JA drawing upon this speech in two ways in her letters:

ONE: The several places in JA’s letters where she refers to married gentlewomen as “always breeding”, like domesticated farm animals –and the most poignant of those references is to her own beloved literary niece, Anna Lefroy, the “poor animal” who was pregnant twice within the first two years of her marriage.

TWO: As for a dark joke about an older woman getting pregnant, of course we have the epigrammatic wit that JEAL felt the need to edit out in his 1870 Memoir reproduction of Letter 32 to Cassandra dated 1/21-22/1801:

“I am happy to hear of Mrs Knight's amendment, whatever might be her complaint. I cannot think so ill of her however inspite of your insinuations as to suspect her of having lain-in.—I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an Accident at most.”

I’ve previously written about the outrageous impropriety of that humor, which of course is exactly why JEAL gave it the axe, as it did not fit with the sanitized, Bowdlerized portrait of his Aunt Jane that he peddled so successfully and dishonestly to the world.

And now recognizing that these examples of dark wit in JA’s letters were at least in part inspired by the bawdy, frank literature of the Restoration adds yet another level of visibility of the true Jane Austen, who was in real life the diametric opposite of her nephew’s portrait.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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