Jane Austen made another one of her occasional appearances on the pop culture stage with the following major article in the NY Times Books section:
Schuessler began as follows:
“Jane Austen’s novels may epitomize Regency England, but she didn’t think much of the man for whom the period was named. Like many of her compatriots, Austen loathed the Prince Regent, once railing in an 1813 letter against the man whose gluttony, profligacy and infidelities scandalized the nation. In 1815, when she was strong-armed into dedicating her fourth novel, Emma, to the future George IV, she produced a tribute so strained that a scholar called it “one of the worst sentences she ever committed to print.” But now, in a delicious irony that Austen herself might have appreciated, it turns out that the man who was counted among her most reviled readers might also have been one of her very first….”
END QUOTE FROM SCHUESSLER
Schuessler goes on to recount the tale of the recent, surprising discovery in the Royal Archives of an October 28, 1811 Bill of Sale, evidencing that the buyer of the very first copy sold of Austen’s very first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, was none other than the Prince Regent! The article is well written and entertaining, with quotes from two of the better Austen scholars abroad today, Devoney Looser and Janine Barchas, both JASNA stalwarts.
I’ve found Schuessler’s occasional articles about Austen to be among the best among the steady stream of such pieces that are published online about Austen. However, like the others, Schuessler also consistently and inadvertently presents to cultured readers in the world at large, as facts, elements of what I call the Myth of Jane Austen. That vast audience, most of whom have never read a word of Austen, and many of whom have not even seen any of the film adaptations, rely heavily on such mass media articles about JA to present accurate, cutting edge information about Austen’s life and works, when that is actually far from the case. In this instance, articles similar to Schuessler’s also have appeared in the Guardian (by Alison Flood), and Jezebel (Kelly Faircloth), and none of them diverges in any significant way from the others.
So, while Schuessler does a good job conveying this latest exciting news tidbit about the Prince Regent, the self-styled “First Gentleman of Europe”, also being Austen’s first “customer”, she nevertheless unwittingly propagates misinformation about Austen. She demonstrates popular culture’s stubbornly persistent blind spot about Austen’s literary artistry, which was actually deeply subversive of the omnipresent, overreaching patriarchal power that in Great Britain was epitomized by the Prince. This news about the Prince Regent’s supposed interest in Austen’s writing is no exception.
PART ONE The Prince Regent & Emma:
First, the image of Jane Austen at the top of Schuessler’s article is that same tired, fake, Bowdlerized version commissioned by JA’s nephew for his memoir of his aunt a half century after her death. Once again what is passed over is the authentic 1810 sketch by Austen’s sister, which is in display in the National Portrait Gallery. I’d estimate that 90% of such articles do exactly this, setting the readerly expectation from the start that the Jane Austen described will be the sweet docile creature depicted in the fake portrait, instead of the sharp-edged, stern-featured, arms-crossed country woman drawn by her own talented sister.
Second, Schuessler presents the standard orthodox account of how Emma came to be dedicated to the Prince Regent, in which a deferential Austen is seen as bowing to pressure from Clarke, the Court librarian, and others, to flatter the “great man” with an unctuous over the top Dedication. The reality could not be further from that – and the irrefutable evidence thereof has been out there online for over a decade, without being noticed by Schuessler, or her peers. I refer you to Colleen Sheehan’s amazing discovery, as beautifully laid out in a pair of companion articles in the Winter 2006 edition of the JASNA journal Persuasions Online:
While I urge you to read Sheehan’s brilliant discovery and analysis all the way through, the gist of them is that the two-stanza charade which Mr. Elton delivers to Emma and Harriet Smith has at least one secret answer, in addition to the “courtship” answer that Emma blithely assumes is the only one – and that second, secret answer is “Prince of WHALES”, the savagely satirical moniker given to the corpulent Prince Regent by the essayist Lamb and the caricaturist Cruikshank, and others in the surprisingly scandalous tabloids and caricatures of the day.
Since Sheehan’s two articles were published, I’ve written over a dozen posts in my own blog, extending and fleshing out Sheehan’s brilliant discovery in a variety of directions – the bottom line is that, in a dozen ways beyond Austen’s suspiciously toadyish Dedication to the Prince, Emma is actually Ground Zero of Austen’s career-long mocking skewering of the most powerful man in England, the Prince of W(h)ales!
But you get absolutely no sense from Schuessler’s article that Austen’s subservient Dedication of Emma to the Prince might actually be a massive and audacious put-on—a brave “charade” which might well have had dire consequences for Austen personally had it been discovered when it was first published, before fate intervened less than two years later and illness claimed her life.
So….how could the same author who did what Sheehan and I have detailed, be the doe-like creature of the nephew’s fake portrait, and Schuessler’s tale of submission? No, Austen wass actually one and the same as the writer of the famous private expression of undisguised hatred for the Prince that Schuessler did quote. And it’s crucial to understand that such hatred was expressed not to sister Cassandra, to whom Jane rarely expressed an uncharitable remark about other people, but to the confidante of Austen’s most subversive feelings- Martha Lloyd, the co-habitor (and perhaps more) of Chawton Cottage during most of the time JA lived there.
To fevered Janeites (and perhaps Hollywood screenwriters), the discovery of the Prince Regent’s early interest might be the seed of a fanciful historical romantic comedy in which the rakish royal book-stalks the tart-tongued, independent-minded (and never-married) commoner. But the real-life connection between the Prince Regent and Austen is delectably awkward social comedy enough. When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, Austen was a nobody, identified on the title page only as “A Lady.” She wasn’t publicly named as the author of her books until after her death, but as her reputation grew, her identity circulated in some circles.” END QUOTE FROM SCHUESSLER
What Schuessler (and, apparently, all the folks at the Royal Archives) were not familiar with, because it is known only to mostly hardcore Austen scholars, is the following excerpt (which first appeared in print, as least as early as 1949, and perhaps much earlier) from a letter written by the then-16 year old Princess Charlotte on January 22, 1812 (i.e., less than 3 months after her father, the Prince Regent, purchased that first sold copy of S&S), to her bosom friend Miss Mercer Elphinstone:
“Sence and Sencibility I have just finished reading; it certainly is interesting, & you feel quite one of the company. I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like. I must say it interested me much.’
“[She] was introduced at a young age to the circle of the , to whom she became attached and a close confidante; and this position raised a rumour against her (which, however, she was able entirely to refute) that she betrayed the princess's secrets to the .”
“…Margaret, often referred to as Miss Mercer in contemporary documents, became a close and influential companion of Charlotte, Princess of Wales. According to Princess Charlotte’s lady companion, Cornelia Knight, the Princess ‘constantly communicated’ with Margaret. Princess Charlotte’s biographer Coote agreed, stating: “The amiable Miss Elphinstone enjoyed her particular confidence and was continually employed by her to execute her several benevolent commissions.”
Princess Charlotte’s relationship with Margaret was probably encouraged by her father. In 1813, some of the details of the supposedly secret 'Delicate Investigation' into the alleged adultery of Princess Charlotte’s mother, Princess Caroline of Wales, became common knowledge. Princess Charlotte was inclined to take her mother’s part against her father, as did most of the public.
Some people believed that Margaret was being used by the PR to turn Princess Charlotte against her mother. Cornelia Knight wrote: “About this time Miss Mercer Elphinstone came to Town, and Princess Charlotte wrote to ask the Regent’s permission for seeing her; which was granted. It was evident that this had been arranged beforehand, and that the conditions were that Miss Mercer, who had more influence than any one with Princess Charlotte, should open her eyes to her mother’s imprudence, and break the confidential intimacy between them.”
I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like….”
and in the end she made a perfectly suitable marriage to an unexceptionable Prince, who was both devoted to her and highly successful in managing her impossible family. " I can only say this," she wrote of her marriage a week after it had taken place, " that the foundation is very reasonable, and therefore there is less chance of its ever being otherwise than with most others; indeed, on the contrary, I am more inclined to think it will improve. I do not see how it can fail to go on well, tho' sometimes I believe it is best not to analyse one's feelings too much or probe them too deeply or nearly." So, surely, might Marianne have written a few days after becoming Mrs. Brandon.” END QUOTE
“We read of the Pyramus being returned into Port, with interest-& fear Mrs [Dean-Dundas]. will be regretting that she came away so soon. —There is no being up to the tricks of the Sea. — Your friend has her little Boys about her I imagine. I hope their Sister enjoyed the Ball at Lady Keith-tho’ I do not know that I do much hope it, for it might be quite as well to have her shy & uncomfortable in such a croud of Strangers.”
[Added 07/26/18: Here is the link to my followup post:
"Marianne’s “sensibility…without bounds”: Why the Prince Regent bought Sense & Sensibility"