A great satisfaction of the past 2 years of my 14-year AustenQuest has been the accelerating interconnection of different discoveries which I previously had no idea were connected. It’s like the last stage of solving a diabolical crossword puzzle, when the entire pattern becomes clear, and I can’t write fast enough to fill the rest in, after the initial square by square struggle. This post is a great example of this rewarding late-stage process.
Way back on 11/23/10, I posted about one of Jane Austen’s multiple veiled allusions to the religious/folk idea behind the Eve of St. Agnes, in relevant part, as follows:
“Per Wikipedia, “Saint Agnes is the patron saint of young girls; folk custom called for them to practice rituals on Saint Agnes' Eve (20–21 January) with a view to discovering their future husbands.” These rituals include getting into bed naked and dreaming about their future husbands….Marianne Dashwood in London gets her really good night’s sleep on the Eve of St. Agnes, even though Elinor drinks the wine that Mrs. Jennings brought for Marianne—because, you see, Mrs. Jennings wants Marianne to dream about a future husband to REPLACE Willoughby! And that’s why she sounds a LOT like John Thorpe the wooer when she invokes another proverb: “One shoulder of mutton drives down another”, although, when you think about that proverb as a metaphor for “Marianne will find another man to marry”, it’s a pretty darned vulgar turn of phrase-but that’s ol’ Mrs. Jennings for ya!…” END QUOTE
In that post 5 1/2 years ago, I pointed out that Jane Austen had, with Marianne D. (as well as Catherine M. and Fanny P.) repeatedly alluded to both John Gay’s The Wife of Bath and Samuel Foote’s later The Maid of Bath, both of which turn on that same Eve of St. Agnes theme. And I thought that was the full extent of that allusion.
It was only yesterday that I recognized another clue alluding to the Eve of St. Agnes theme, hidden in plain sight in S&S — and, as you’ll see, below, it’s like the tape on the doors left after the Watergate break-in; i.e., it leads everywhere in a multilayered literary layer cake—-a benign literary “conspiracy” over centuries, involving not only Austen, Gay, and Foote, but also Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton & Keats!
Before I cut to the chase, let me first give you one more key clue to keep in mind, also courtesy of Wikipedia, about the details of the Eve of St. Agnes ritual: “[The young virgin] would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.”
So…in my 2010 post, I quoted the passage in Chapter 30 of S&S when Mrs. Jennings, on the Eve of St. Agnes (according to JA’s implicit calendar for S&S), brings the broken-hearted Marianne a bottle of wine to help her sleep; and then (as inferred by the reader aware of the Eve) hopefully to dream about a lover to replace Willoughby in her heart.
Now, here are the relevant portions of the passage in Chapter 12 of S&S, which I finally “got” the full significance of the other day (pay special attention to the words in ALL CAPS):
“As Elinor and Marianne were walking together the next morning the latter communicated a piece of news to her sister, which in spite of all that she knew before of Marianne's imprudence and want of thought, surprised her by its extravagant testimony of both. Marianne told her, with the greatest delight, that Willoughby had given her a HORSE, one that he had bred himself on his estate in Somersetshire, and which was exactly calculated to CARRY A WOMAN. Without considering that it was not in her mother's plan to keep any horse, that if she were to alter her resolution in favour of this gift, she must buy another for the servant, and keep a servant to ride it, and after all, build a stable to receive them, she had accepted the present without hesitation, and told her sister of it in raptures.
"He intends to send his groom into Somersetshire immediately for it," she added, "and when it arrives we will ride every day. You shall share its use with me. Imagine to yourself, my dear Elinor, the delight of a GALLOP on some of these downs."
Most unwilling was she to AWAKEN FROM SUCH A DREAM OF FELICITY to comprehend all the unhappy truths which attended the affair; and for some time she refused to submit to them…I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others. I should hold myself guilty of greater impropriety in accepting a horse from my brother, than from Willoughby. Of John I know very little, though we have lived together for years; but of Willoughby my judgment has long been formed."
…when Willoughby called at the cottage, the same day, Elinor heard her express her disappointment to him in a low voice, on being obliged to forego the acceptance of his present. The reasons for this alteration were at the same time related, and they were such as to make further entreaty on his side impossible. His concern however was very apparent; and after expressing it with earnestness, he added, in the same low voice,—"But, Marianne, the horse is still yours, though YOU CANNOT USE IT NOW. I shall keep it only till you can claim it. When you leave Barton to form your own establishment in a more lasting home, QUEEN MAB SHALL RECEIVE YOU."
This was all overheard by Miss Dashwood; and in the whole of the sentence, in his manner of pronouncing it, and in his addressing her sister by her Christian name alone, she instantly saw an intimacy so decided, a meaning so direct, as marked a perfect agreement between them. From that moment she doubted not of their being engaged to each other; and the belief of it created no other surprise than that she, or any of their friends, should be left by tempers so frank, to discover it by accident.”
A hundred Austen scholars, academic and amateur alike, have noted that Willoughby’s naming the gift horse (ala the Trojan Horse as well) “Queen Mab” was an allusion to Mercurio’s famous speech to Romeo just before he meets Juliet. Here’s the relevant exchange, in which Mercurio spins his Queen Mab fantasy in response to Romeo’s report of having just dreamt a significant dream:
ROMEO I dream'd a dream to-night.
MERCUTIO And so did I.
ROMEO Well, what was yours?
MERCUTIO That dreamers often lie.
ROMEO In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.
O, then, I see QUEEN MAB HATH BEEN WITH YOU.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on court'sies straight,
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O'er ladies ' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
This is the hag, WHEN MAIDS LIE ON THEIR BACKS,
That PRESSES THEM AND LEARNS THEM FIRST TO BEAR,
Making them women of good carriage…
It’s a sign of the threadbare thinness of so much existing Austen scholarship that the Queen Mab R&J allusion in S&S has been noted so often, yet in almost all of them, the allusion receives minimal or no explanation of its meaning - as if Jane Austen were a literary poseur who showed off that she had read Shakespeare by an obvious quotation. But there have been a few welcome exceptions.
To start, Anielka Briggs has at various times in the past several years referred to Willoughby’s Queen Mab as referencing several possible subtexts, including Shelley's 1813 [date corrected 12/29/2016] poem of that title.
A number of years ago, John Dussinger, in his 1990 article “Madness and Lust in the Age of Sensibility”, speculated as follows about Willoughby’s mare as JA’s allusion to Fuseli’s famous 1782 painting “The Nightmare”:
“Other than folklore and traditional religious accounts of dreams, rational explanations in the classical period show little interest in what Fuseli so vividly reveals about the mind—its demonic cravings and humiliations that appear uninvited in the darkness…Medical literature stressed simply the bad effects of sleeping on one’s back; according to Dr. John Bond, in one of the first English works on the nightmare, the condition ‘general seizes people sleeping on their backs…” …In this context, Robert Anthony Bromley ridiculed “The Nightmare” as offering instruction to young people about how to lie in their beds: “Don’t lie on your back, my dear, and no harm will come to you.”…Although both sexes are subject to dreams and nightmares, folk legends tended to emphasize the woman’s susceptibility, as in Mercutio’s speech in R&J…Willoughby, in JA’s S&S, alludes to this legend after the Dashwoods decline his gift….As if associating Queen Mab and the gift horse with Fuseli’s traumatic scene, Elinor quite properly believes that Willoughby’s sexual innuendoes must indicate a secret engagement to her sister. Erasmus Darwin, Fuseli’s friend, included an engraving of The Nightmare in The Loves of the Plants …and interpreted its significance in doggerel verse…. “ END QUOTE
Then, in her 2006 book Unbecoming Conjunctions, Jill Heydt-Stevenson presented this excellent, detailed analysis:
“Willoughby's desire to give Marianne a horse named Queen Mab provides a prime example of the risks she faces and the careful ways Austen uses Shakespeare to establish Willoughby's motives and complicate the seeming idyll of their short courtship ... The Queen Mab allusion from Romeo and Juliet is well known… In this scene Mercutio chides Romeo for thinking he is in love… and concludes that Queen Mab has visited his sleeping friend. Queen Mab, a mischievous spirit that provides a dream of fulfillment of one's less noble longings… gallops over “ladies's lips, who straight on kisses dream”… So for Mercutio, rather like Willoughby, love has less to do with an intimate connection, a position both Romeo and Maryanne share, that with the immediate fulfillment of "vain fantasy". Stephen Derry cites this allusion to indicate that "Marianne's hopes of future happiness with Willoughby will have all the substances of dreams, and then they will come to nothing". Recalling Mercutio's admission that "dreamers often lie" Derry insists that "dream lovers like Willoughby… can lie."
I agree with Derry that the reference accentuates Willoughby’s deceit but go further in noting the clear parallels established respectively between Willoughby and Mercutio and Romeo and Marianne. Further the allusion implicates Willoughby's baser motives insofar as it insinuates that this midwife to the fairies, this ‘hag’, will teach a class in sex education to Marianne since she is the one who "when maids lie on their backs"... John Dussinger’s idea that Elinor might have "associated Queen Mab and the gift horse with… the traumatic scene [in Fuseli’s The Nightmare]” is tantalizing, but he does not develop the disturbing implications of such an association, only concluding that it leads Elinor "quite properly to believe that Willoughby’s sexual innuendos must indicate a secret engagement to her sister". If such a link could be forged, it would (contrary to Dussinger’s argument) diminish the possibility of an engagement and amplify the potential for seduction and ruin; further, it incriminates Marianne, who as possessor of the animal, plays Queen Mab, delighting in the fantasy of "a gallop on some of these Downs". Marianne metonymically becomes the seductress who incites Willoughby to dream of love as "she gallops night by night through lovers brains". In giving her Queen Mab, Willoughby links Marianne with the seduced Eliza Williams, whom he describes as reproachable for her excess and lack; a woman of "violent passions and weak understanding".
Again, a look at the slang is revealing. The name “Mab" was standard English for a “slattern, a loose moral’d woman” … Unlike Eliza, Marianne declines the "horse", though Willoughby promises her that “Queen Mab will receive you.”
Is this the Queen Mab who, angry that the ladies “breathes with sweetmeats tainted are”, “blisters” their lips? Here one bawdy novelist alludes to a bawdy playwright. As this discloses, Shakespeare's Queen Mab passage is quite vulgar, since sweetmeat referred to the male member and to “a mere girl who is a kept Mistress”. Perhaps since Austen conjoins Marianne with Eliza and the mother who becomes a prostitute she suggests that the Queen Mab who “receives” Marianne would potentially also blister her lips – that is, see that she contracts venereal disease.… Austen’s allusion to the scene from Romeo and Juliet still allows her to foreshadow the novels conclusion, reinforce the ubiquity of such seductions, express how vulnerable Marianne is to fantasies of erotic fulfillment, and establish the danger to Marianne's physical and emotional body. Finally the fact that Shakespeare’s Queen Mab is a miniature… reinforces how in the novel Austen has "draw a team of little atomies" that allow her to enact several roles at once. First she is a kind of Queen Mab herself, fiction’s “midwife”, bringing dreams to life for her characters and playing with cultural fantasies of true love. Her performance as Queen Mab thus undercuts her position as potential didact. Moreover, the high literary allusion which in itself embeds a rich trove of indelicate images) and the low slang surrounding the word Mab intimate that if Austin plays pedagogue here, her lesson plan devolves from the desire to alert her readers to the hazards and dangerous of male seducers rather than to correct feeling. I do not think that Austen concentrates on correcting rather than liberating this anarchic energy.… I want to stress that Austen promulgates an open and liberal (and, so ironic) “conduct book” of female sexuality.” END QUOTE
I do not suggest that any of the above speculations or analyses are wrong, today I bring forward a deeper allusion which readily includes these other earlier interpretations within its wide ambit. Specifically, none of Anielka, Dussinger, nor Heydt-Stevenson was aware of the key that unlocks the primary meaning of Queen Mab in S&S, which is the Eve of St Agnes when single girls literally follow Mercurio’s prescription, and lie on their backs in order to (metaphorically) feast with their future husband. Willoughby’s gift mare is a living breathing symbol of that dream, and so its name is a perfect fit.
And therefore we can now see Mrs Jennings's attempt to nurse Marianne's broken heart via the Eve of St. Agnes Method as the ironic bookend to the earlier Eve of St Agnes-infused romance with Willoughby which turned into romantic nightmare for Marianne.
In a nutshell (or, to channel Mercutio, an atomie), that is the main reason why JA had Willoughby name the gift mare Queen Mab. But that only fulfills half of the discoveries promised by my Subject Line. Aside from the above Austen subtexts, there’s much more allusive ore to be mined, in regard to the Eve of St. Agnes/Queen Mab meme.
It is now obvious to me that it wasn't just Austen (and Gay and Foote) who had embedded the religious/folk significance of the Eve of St.Agnes in their storytelling. For starters, when Mercutio speaks about the maids on their backs, this is, in no small part, Shakespeare's way of confirming that Mercutio has that exact same subtext in mind as he counsels Romeo. I.e., that allusion to the folk/religious tradition is reinforced by the final example Mercutio gives of Queen Mab’s varied subversions. In effect, Mercutio is telling Romeo that he is about to meet a young virgin who has been dreaming about him!
I will leave for another day the unpacking of the significance of the Eve of St. Agnes subtext of Romeo & Juliet, and quickly move on chronologically to the next famous author who has alluded to the Eve of St. Agnes —only a few years after Shakespeare—Ben Jonson. Please now read the following excerpt I found online, in which some modern scholar (I cannot find a name) quoted from Ben Jonson’s 1603 Satyr—-please note the final speech by the Satyr, which explicitly connects the Eve of St. Agnes to Queen Mab vis a vis bringing dreams to virgins seeking a husband or lover:
“The next poet, in point of time, who employs the Fairies, is worthy, long-slandered, and maligned Ben Jonson. His beautiful entertainment of the Satyr was presented in 1603, to Anne, queen of James I. and prince Henry, at Althorpe, the seat of Lord Spenser, on their way from Edinburgh to London. As the queen and prince entered the park, a Satyr came forth from a "little spinet" or copse, and having gazed the "Queen and the Prince in the face" with admiration, again retired into the thicket; then "there came tripping up the lawn a bevy of Fairies attending on Mab, their queen, who, falling into an artificial ring, began to dance a round while their mistress spake as followeth:"
Hail and welcome, worthiest queen!
Joy had never perfect been,
To the nymphs that haunt this green,
Had they not this evening seen.
Now they print it on the ground
With their feet, in figures round;
Marks that will be ever found
To remember this glad stound.
She can start our Franklin's daughters
In her sleep with shouts and laughters;
And ON SWEET ST. ANNA’S NIGHT
Feed them with a promised sight
Some of HUSBAND, some of LOVERS,
WHICH AN EMPTY DREAM DISCOVERS.
That scholar also noted: “Whalley was certainly right in proposing to road Agnes. This ceremony is, we believe, still practised in the north of England on St. Agnes' night. See Brand, i. 34.”
But there’s still more. To find out if any other Shakespeare scholars had ever noticed Shakespeare’s allusion to the Eve of St. Agnes, when I Googled "Eve of Saint Agnes" and "Romeo and Juliet", I was shocked to find that the only hits that came up, and there were many, were all pointing to the poem written in 1821 by John Keats entitled (fittingly) “The Eve of Saint Agnes”!
It would take me a great deal of virtual ink to unpack the manifold significances of the Eve of Saint Agnes ritual, and Romeo & Juliet, in Keats’s poem, but I wish to end this long post shortly, so I must move on to the final link in the chain, which is John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In another nutshell:
It has often been noted by literary scholars that Keats’s poem draws heavily on the dreaming motif in Paradise Lost. And I have shown last year that Paradise Lost draws heavily on Romeo & Juliet, that extensive borrowing epitomized in the SATAN acrostics in both.
But no one has ever noted that all of the above cited literary works — by Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Gay, Foote, Austen, and Keats—- are all united by a common grounding in the Eve of St. Agnes religious/folk tradition of virgins sleeping naked on their backs in order to dream about their future husband.
So, when I referred to the literary layer cake of the Eve of Saint Agnes, you can now taste all its rich flavors!
[Added later on May 24]
....which stated the following:
"The second [custom] is Scottish in origin. It states that for a young woman to see her future husband she must leave the house at midnight the night before St Agnes’s feast day, go into a field and scatter grain while reciting the following incantation: ‘Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, hither, hither, now repair; Bonny Agnes, let me see the lad who is to marry me.’ Her future husband would then appear to her."
Although Marianne and Margaret don't go out in the Devon countryside at midnight, doesn't it sound like JA is winking at the above-described variant on Eve of St. Agnes customs, when Marianne is rescued by Willoughby in the rain during her walk?
It first perfectly with what I realized a few years ago, which is that while Willoughby is indeed stalking Marianne, she already has noticed this, and that is precisely why she puts herself in the position to be rescued by "her future husband"!
Only one small problem from the Eve of St. Agnes angle---I don't believe Marianne is still a virgin when this occurs......