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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Austen’s noteworthy “John Saunders” & “the Famous Saunders”

In the wake of the British Library’s recent announcement of the super-strong prescription on one of the three pairs of spectacles in Jane Austen’s writing desk, and in particular of the BL’s optometric expert’s inference from those spectacles that JA must have suffered from near blindness due to cataracts at the end of her life, I’ve written a series of posts the past week tieing JA’s real life spectacles to my detailed 2013 textual claims that Austen deliberately bestowed her own late-life vision impairment on her last fictional heroine, Anne Elliot, in Persuasion.

Today I add still another post to my current series, this time focused on two references in Austen’s writing to men coincidentally surnamed “Saunders”, one of whom is directly pertinent to my above-described claims, and, upon examination, supports an extension of my ophthalmologic reading to Emma as well:


In Chapter 27 of Emma, we read the following fragment of a typical Miss Bates flood of words which, as usual, seems to be about “nothing” and so is ignored by Emma:

“For my mother had no use of her spectacles—could not put them on. And, by the bye, every body ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so. I meant to take them over to JOHN SAUNDERS the first thing I did, but something or other hindered me all the morning; first one thing, then another, there is no saying what, you know…

In the NY Times article earlier this week about the British Library’s announcement, I first learned the following:

“Dr. [Janine] Barchas has been doing her own intensive study of Austen’s prescription, summed up in a new paper, “Speculations on Spectacles: Jane Austen’s Eyeglasses, Mrs. Bates’s Spectacles, and John Saunders in Emma” to be published in Modern Philology….”

Pending publication of Barchas’s article (and kudos to her for this excellent literary sleuthing), I couldn’t wait till then to know more about the real “John Saunders” whom Barchas spotted, hiding in plain sight in Miss Bates’s speech. Why? Because while, on the surface, this seemed to be Miss Bates tediously quoting “Jane” (her niece) as authority for the universal need for “two pair of spectacles”, I also knew from all my
research that Miss Bates was also speaking for “Jane” (Austen) as authority for the readerly imperative to read with “double vision”, i.e., to learn to see both the overt story and the shadow story of all of Jane (Austen’s) novels. And so I believed there was a good chance that the allusion to John Saunders flagged by Barchas would also function somehow as a clue to the shadow story of Emma.

Now, for starters, here are 2 online bios of John Saunders that together give a pretty good sketch of the essential facts of his career for which he was known:

A General Biographical Dictionary (1851):
“SAUNDERS (John Cunningham), a surgeon, born at Loirstone in Devonshire, in 1773. After serving his apprenticeship at Barnstaple he became a pupil of St Thomas's Hospital where he was made demonstrator of anatomy. He was born at Huish, Devon, England. He founded the London Eye Infirmary "out of compassion for the pitiful state of many soldiers returning from the Egyptian campaign afflicted with military ophthalmoplegia and trachoma infections". Saunders remained the director of Moorfields, a famous teaching institution, from its founding in 1805 until his death. In 1809, he became one of the first people in England to use belladonna for its mydriatic properties to facilitate cataract extraction. The church at Huish in Devon contains a memorial to him. His book; A Treatise on some Practical Points Relating to the Diseases of the Eye was published posthumously in 1811, edited by his colleague John Richard Farre...”

Dictionary of National Biography (1897):
“SAUNDERS, JOHN CUNNINGHAM (1773–1810), ophthalmic surgeon, the youngest son of John Cunningham and Jane Saunders of Lovistone, Devonshire, was born on 10 Oct. 1773. He was sent to school at Tavistock when he was eight years old, and afterwards to South Molton, where he remained until 1790. He was then apprenticed to John Hill, surgeon of Barnstaple. He served his master for the usual term of five years and came to London, where in 1795 he entered the combined hospitals of St. Thomas and Guy in the Borough. He worked at anatomy so assiduously that in 1797 he was appointed demonstrator in that subject at St. Thomas's Hospital. This post he owed to the influence of Astley Cooper, whose house-pupil he was, and to whom he acted as dresser. He resigned his demonstratorship in 1801, and went into the country for a short time; but on his return to London he was reappointed demonstrator, and held the post until his death.
He took a prominent part in founding a charitable institution in Bloomfield Street, Moorfields, for the cure of diseases of the eye and ear in October 1804. This institution was opened for the reception of patients on 25 March 1805, but it was soon found to be necessary to limit its benefits to those who were affected with diseases of the eye. It still flourishes as the premier ophthalmic hospital…”

And, for those desiring more detail, there is also a long biographical preface (by his faithful colleague Dr. Farre) to Saunders’s posthumously published book about eye surgery.

So, the initial takeaway for me from the above, vis a vis Jane Austen, is that John Saunders, who died very young 5 years before JA published Emma, must have been well known to JA by 1815, if not sooner, specifically as a pioneer in the treatment of cataracts. Why? Because, as I said above, I believe JA herself, and also her creation, Anne Elliot, both suffered from cataracts (whether naturally or iatrogenetically caused), and so it is of special interest that JA went so far as to have Miss Bates states this medical pioneer’s full name in connection with her mother’s spectacles.

There’s no way this is a coincidence. This is an unmistakable hint that JA wanted her savvy readers in town (many of whom, by 1816, would have read or at least heard about John Saunders, whether via his influential books or the prominent London eye infirmary he founded and ran) to take it as a clue. To what end? I suggest, to think about someone in Emma who might also have suffered from cataracts without realizing it, and who, just as I’ve been saying about Anne Elliot, was nearly blind both physically and epistemologically.

Who might it be? Maybe it was the very person Miss Bates was speaking to, the person Miss Bates was actually warning to be more observant…..such as Emma Woodhouse??? After all, this was not the first time in the novel that Miss Bates chose to speak to Emma about spectacles, she had done so earlier in Chapter 19 as well:

“And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her—every word of it—I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though my mother's eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still, thank God! with the help of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother's are really very good indeed. Jane often says, when she is here, 'I am sure, grandmama, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do—and so much fine work as you have done too!—I only wish my eyes may last me as well.' ”

And those very vague hints of Miss Bates about meaning to take the spectacles to John Saunders but being hindered from doing so? Back in the fall of 2013, I had looked into that possibility of Emma having a vision impairment like Anne Elliot’s, but had dropped it at the time for lack of finding any good textual evidence. But now I believe I need to revisit it, since it appears that JA’s special focus (ha ha) on vision impairment did not begin in Persuasion, but was already very much in play in Emma.


As a serendipitous byproduct of my above brief research on John Saunders, I refocused on a passage that we in Janeites & Austen-L had looked at in very swift passing several years ago during our group read of all 154 of Jane Austen’s surviving letters. The passage appears in Letter 44 dated April 21-23, 1805, when JA was still living in Bath:

“I wonder whether Mr. Hampson’s friend Mr. Saunders is any relation to the famous Saunders whose letters have been lately published!”  

At first it seemed that this must be the same eye doctor John Saunders whom Barchas had identified, as he had already started his Eye Infirmary by that time. However, after I digested all the biographical facts about John Saunders more thoroughly, I saw that he was not even 30 years old when JA wrote Letter 44, and that none of John Saunders’s letters had been published by that early stage of his career --- and he had also only founded the London Eye Infirmary a year or two before then, so it wasn’t likely after all that he had suddenly become famous. It couldn’t be him—but then who was “the famous Saunders”?

I decided to go back to Google Books and see if I couldn’t sleuth out another “famous Saunders” whose letters had recently been published in April 1805. Lucky me, I quickly struck gold in the 1805 edition of the Naval Chronicle (which some of you may recognize as the publication which James Stanier Clarke started in 1799, and which ran through a number of editions over 20 years), at p. 111. That is where I read the following letter from an unnamed retired Royal Navy officer, who was forwarding to the Naval Chronicle letters written by a famous man who just happened to be named….Saunders!:

“As the following letters form a valuable addition to your memoirs of the late Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, I doubt not but you will deem them worthy of a place in your valuable publication. Gazette letters relative to important events ought to be preserved, as the safest documents from which an historian can gather fats. The first letter is particularly curious, as it sets forth in a succinct and precise manner the difficulties which regarded the conquest of Quebec, and the very serious apprehensions the Admiral entertained of being obliged to abandon the expedition.  1 am, &c.   
Southampton, August 9, 1802. AN OLD OFFICER.”

I immediately found the Admiral’s substantial Wikipedia page, which shows that he remains relatively famous 212 years after JA referred to him as such. As you can see there, he had a prominent and illustrious naval career:

So it is clear (and also makes perfect sense given that JA had two sailor brothers, and we know from her letters that she therefore followed events in the British Navy very closely) that “the famous Saunders” is none other than the late Admiral Sir Charles Saunders. I hope this discovery will assist in finally  determining the answer to JA’s question, albeit 212 years later, as to whether the “Mr. Saunders” with whom JA’s relatives (the Hampsons and her brother Edward) were socially connected, was indeed a relation of the late Admiral.

In that regard, I may have found another clue. Google Books also showed me that in 1797 the long dead Admiral Saunders’ granddaughter married Robert Dundas, son of Henry Dundas. I recognized the surname, because there are several references to members of the Dundas family of Barton Court in JA’s letters. So there seems to have been yet another possible interfamily connection of the Austen family to the Saunders family via the Dundases, which may have played a role in exciting JA’s interest in Admiral Saunders’ letters.

This is another example of how curious and persistent JA was herself as an amateur sleuth who kept an eye and ear out for possible familial connections, and then took steps to find out if they were actual.


So, it turns out that both references in JA’s writing to men named Saunders help to fill in a few more pieces of the related puzzles of JA’s fiction and JA’s biography.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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