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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Newton Priors, Dawlish & Jane Austen’s poignant bequest to literary niece Anna

This morning, I happened to read the opening words of Margaret Doody’s 2015 Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, and it triggered a series of realizations, which I’ve captured in this and also my next post —I hope you’ll enjoy the journey. To begin, here’s what Doody wrote that caught my eye:

"The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!—I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth" (30 November 1814; Letters, 284).  
So Jane Austen wrote in the autumn of 1814 to her niece Anna (daughter of Jane's brother James). Before her wedding to Benjamin Lefroy three weeks earlier, Anna had been writing a novel; now Jane Austen encourages her niece, even after marriage, to continue. Anna's aunt has read a new chunk of manuscript. As a mark of Anna's promise, she singles out her invention of a name. ‘Newton Priors’ strikes Jane Austen as a particularly happy name for an imaginary place.
Presumably Austen appreciates Anna's wit in playing with the real place name "Newton Abbot(s)," combining the common "Newton" (i.e., "new" + tun, settlement or town) with the ecclesiastical, medieval, and important "Priors." A "Prior" is a cut below an "Abbot." Perhaps Anna Austen's characters have been living on the site of a priory but behaving in a manner not consonant with the priory's origins.
Austen is always interested in cultural layers of the past and especially in ecclesiastical foundations. Her own novels display an acute attention to the shimmer of historical significance within names. Austen achieves meaning that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to the land.”

I was intrigued by that clever geographical reality behind Abbot/Priors of which I had no prior (ha ha) glimmering; but, without more evidence, I wasn’t quite convinced that Doody was correct, so I delved a little further. First I looked up “Newton Abbot” in Wikipedia, and verified that it was indeed a real town, in the county of Devon, that had existed for centuries. And since S&S is set in Devon (a relevant fact which Doody did not mention), I always assumed that JA must’ve known Devon pretty well. We all recall the famous advice JA gave to niece Anna in that same series of 1814 letters about only writing about places you actually knew from personal experience. S&S was surely Exhibit A attesting that JA took her own advice in her first published novel!

For those who don’t recall, here are all the mentions of Dawlish in S&S:

Chapter 36:   "You reside in Devonshire, I think,"—was [Robert’s] next observation, "in a cottage near DAWLISH."  Elinor set him right as to its situation; and it seemed rather surprising to him that anybody could live in Devonshire, without living near DAWLISH. He bestowed his hearty approbation however on their species of house. "For my own part," said he, "I am excessively fond of a cottage…. “

Chapter 48:   "Yes," said [Edward], "they were married last week, and are now at DAWLISH."

Chapter 49:  [from Lucy’s letter to Edward]  “…Your brother has gained my affections entirely, and as we could not live without one another, we are just returned from the altar, and are now on our way to DAWLISH for a few weeks, which place your dear brother has great curiosity to see…”

Chapter 50: [Robert] was proud of his conquest, proud of tricking Edward, and very proud of marrying privately without his mother's consent. What immediately followed is known. They passed some months in great happiness at DAWLISH; for she had many relations and old acquaintances to cut—and he drew several plans for magnificent cottages;—and from thence returning to town, procured the forgiveness of Mrs. Ferrars, by the simple expedient of asking it, which, at Lucy's instigation, was adopted….”

And while I’m at it, here are the mentions of Dawlish in JA’s 1814 literary advice letters to Anna:

Letter 104 dated August 10-18, 1814: “I like the name ‘Which is the Heroine?’ very well, & I dare say shall grow to like it very much in time…I am not sensible of any Blunders about DAWLISH. The Library was particularly pitiful & wretched 12 years ago, & not likely to have anybody’s publication….[then later] Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from DAWLISH & would not be talked of there.—I have put Starcross indeed.—If you prefer Exeter, that must be always safe…[and still later] …We are reading the last book.—They must be two days going from DAWLISH to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart.”

Letter 107, dated Sept. 9-18, 1814: “…the more you can find in your heart to curtail between DAWLISH & Newton Priors, the better I think it will be.—One does not care for girls till they are grown up.—Your Aunt C. quite enters into the exquisiteness of that name. Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil. –Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it.—Is not the Cottage taken from Tollard Royal?”…[then later, the part that Doody quoted] The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!—I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth"

Apropos JA and Devon, Maggie Lane’s article, “1802: Jane Austen and her world 200 years ago”, in the 2002 Persuasions, quickly brought me up to speed on a good deal of interesting data and speculations about JA’s real-life familiarity with Devon:  

“In 1802 [the Austens’] thoughts turned to the coastline of South Devon west of the River Exe--the area round Dawlish, which they had been talking of visiting even before they retired--and who can forget that Dawlish is the only place in Devon that Robert Ferrars in S&S has heard of. Unfortunately for us though happily for each other, the sisters were not separated this year, so we have to piece together their movements as best we can. The family must have set off for Devon much earlier in the summer than had happened the previous year--we know this because they had left Devon before the middle of August, and they are unlikely to have stayed less than 6 weeks. Perhaps they couldn't wait to depart Bath...’They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart,’ Jane Austen wrote in 1814 to her niece Anna who was writing a novel set partly in Dawlish (10 August). So the Austens evidently were two days on the road, breaking their journey, I would guess, at an inn on the Somerset/ Devon border. From Exeter their road would then have led them along the west bank of the River Exe, past Powderham Castle, home of the Earl of Devon, through the village of Starcross, which Jane mentions in her letter to Anna, and thus to Dawlish, on the sea coast. 
"The Library was particularly pitiful & wretched 12 years ago," Jane Austen wrote in the same letter to Anna in 1814. This is our only positive proof that the Austens did visit Dawlish in 1802, but it is enough, and it suggests too that as a fashionable resort, Dawlish was very much in its infancy….What does this shifting of the village towards the seashore, and the attempt at up-to-the-minute naming remind you of but Sanditon? Though the fictional Sanditon is on the coast of Sussex, Jane Austen was always careful to obscure her sources, and I am convinced that this 1802 visit to Dawlish played a major part in the creation of her seaside resort…”  END QUOTE FROM LANE

So, it was indeed clear from JA’s critique of the Dawlish library, that JA had been in Dawlish in 1802, and also that, as Lane argued persuasively, Dawlish remained on JA’s literary mind from first novel (S&S) to last (Sanditon). When Google Maps also showed me that Newton Abbot was actually only 7 miles (as the crow flies) from Dawlish, that was the final proof that Doody was spot-on in her Newton Abbot/Priors catch.  

But what Doody seemed unaware of, and Lane, for all her thorough gathering of relevant information, also seems to have slid right by, were two hugely significant implications thereof. First, the 21-year old niece Anna, in 1814, chose to set her first attempt at a novel in Devon, only 3 years after her beloved aunt set her first (published) novel in Devon. It sure sounds like Anna consciously chose to walk in her aunt JA’s literary and geographical footsteps! Second, if Maggie Lane is correct that JA’s inspiration for the fictional seaside town of Sanditon also drew heavily upon Dawlish, then that makes Jane Austen’s decision to set Sanditon in a version of Dawlish a special invitation and encouragement to Anna….to finish it for JA!

Follow me on this, and think about the extraordinarily poignant irony as I lay out each succeeding point. In early 1817, JA must have foreseen the end of her own life looming just up ahead; but she must have also been heartbroken by the sad parallel of the abrupt termination of her own literary career with the contemporaneous heartbreak of her literary niece. Anna’s literary efforts, in the 2 ½ years since the ebullience coaching provided by JA to Anna in Letters 104-107, had clearly been waylaid by the rapid succession of two childbirths---the powerlessness of Anna to escape the drudgery of physical maternity in order to “give birth”, if you will, to her literary child as well.

I never thought about it before, but I see now that it’s no coincidence that JA had recently been forced to stop working on Sanditon (never to return to it) at the very moment when, in Letter 155 dated March 23-25, 1817, to niece Caroline (of course half sister to Anna), JA wrote these oft-noted despairing words:

“Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to so long a walk; she must come in her Donkey Carriage.—Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her…”

While, as I made clear in my 2010 JASNA AGM talk about death in childbirth as the shadow story of Northanger Abbey, JA made numerous negative comments over two decades about various English wives trapped in a never ending cycle of pregnancies, with death looming over every one, I believe there was an extra layer of despair, beyond feminist outrage, in JA’s despairing March 1817 comment about Anna. JA was surely feeling in her own heart the bitter disappointment Anna had endured at having her first literary pregnancy miscarry due to the demands of actual childbirth and motherhood. It was a bitter loss as to which we have additional, independent evidence, in the form of the published recall of one of Anna’s own daughters, a half century later, reporting that Anna tossed the not quite finished manuscript of Which is the Heroine? into the fire “in a fit of despondency”.

Jane Austen, I now see, fully grasped her niece’s despondency. And so, I suggest, she labored on the manuscript of Sanditon as long as she could, and then, like Mozart telling his faithful student how to finish his Requiem, shared additional verbal hints with Anna as JA lay dying, all as Jane Austen’s literary bequest to Anna.

It was nothing less than an attempt by JA to give her niece (who was as much as a daughter) a replacement for the novel Anna had not long before burnt in despair-- a second chance, the kind Anne Elliot received in Persuasion—not for romantic love, but for artistic fulfillment, the legacy JA so desperately wished to leave to Anna, to carry on. This must give Anna’s further partial completion of Sanditon that much more poignancy – to know that she was not able to fulfill her aunt’s final artistic wish.  And with that I’ll stop for today, and mine some more gold tomorrow from Jane Austen’s pregnant musings in Letter 107 to Anna.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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