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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The ‘sence & sencibility’ of the Prince Regent’s daughter, his very own ‘Marianne Dashwood’

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:

“Jane Austen’s First Buyer? Probably a Prince She Hated” by Jennifer Schuessler    
JA loathed the Prince Regent, who later became George IV but he might’ve been one of her first readers

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….”

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.

And it’s not just conventional wisdom about Austen’s supposed meek Dedication to the Prince that is mythological. I’ve also written several posts over the years about how she skewered, in a different way appropriate to her different target, that court librarian James Stanier Clarke, mentioned by Schuessler. The piece de resistance  is Austen’s letter dated (NOT coincidentally) on April Fool’s Day, 1816, which is filled from one end to the other with faux flattery of Clarke’s career in service to the Prince; and which just barely conceals JA’s contempt for his hypocritical, Mr. Collins-esque sucking up. Via a veiled allusion to Corinthians, Austen subliminally sends Clarke up as a self-styled man of God who is actually a man of Mammon! Read this for the gory, hilarious, satirical details:

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.

How could anyone who has taken the time to read and understand this incontrovertible scholarship about a Jane Austen capable of such satire of the Prince and his toady, believe for one second the explanation given in Schuessler’s article? And yet, think of how many people have read that article this week, and believe it presents uncontroversial truth about Austen’s life and work.

PART TWO  The Prince Regent and Sense and Sensibility:

Now I come to my final point, one which relates, in very interesting ways, to the recent discovery reported by Schuessler of evidence showing that the Prince Regent bought, apparently at special “pre-sale” perhaps for his sole and private benefit, the very first sold copy of Sense and Sensibility. Strap in for what I think are the most interesting aspects of this discovery, which I seem to be the first Austen scholar to notice.

Schuessler shows almost no interest in the Prince’s purchase of Sense and Sensibility on October 28, 1811, because she rushes past it, in order to get to the long-famous tale of his interest in Emma more than 4 years later (which I have already debunked, above):

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.’

When she wrote that letter to her BFF, I’m pretty sure that the Princess was living in her father the Prince’s household. So, I bet you’re with me already in putting the two facts together – doesn’t it sound like the copy of S&S that the Prince bought was actually not bought for himself at all, as Schuessler’s article suggested, but instead was for his daughter to read!? Read on…..

Next, some quick background on the Princess’s correspondent, Mercer Elphinstone. Her full name was Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, she was the only child of Lord Keith, the admiral, and she was seven years the Princess’s senior, a large age superiority at that stage of life. And, most intriguingly of all, the 1889 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography provided this suggestive tidbit about her:
“[She] was introduced at a young age to the circle of the Princess Charlotte of Wales, 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 Prince Regent.”

It didn’t take me long to seek out some additional detail on this rumored betrayal:
“Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, Princess Charlotte's friend”  Rachel Knowles 05/02/18
“…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.”

Think about that last sentence in Knowles’s excellent speculations. I wonder if she derived them from that very same comment by Princess Charlotte about Marianne Dashwood: “…I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like….”  

Viewed in this context, the Prince’s very early purchase of S&S begins to appear to be the beginning of a scheme of his to give it to his daughter, while at the same time authorizing his “double agent” Mercer Elphinstone, to shape Charlotte’s reaction to Marianne Dashwood. The almost tragic tale of Marianne, with her impulsive and irrational clinging to Willoughby even after he has clearly jilted her, is in the Prince’s eyes, a perfect cautionary tale for his impulsive daughter – and perhaps the loving but overly romantic Mrs. Dashwood was also being suggested to Charlotte as being similar to her own mother Princess Caroline, as being not the best or steadiest parental guide for an impulsive daughter?

But a question may have already occurred to you – how would the Prince have known enough about the story and characters of S&S when he bought that first copy of it in October 1811, to know that Marianne Dashwood would make an ideal Exhibit B for his daughter to learn about the perils of over-sensibility?

I have no solid answer at present, but can speculate about it. Perhaps Jane Austen and/or her publisher Egerton wished for the Prince Regent to have some advance inside info about S&S, so as to tempt him to buy it, as he did? If so, how would either of them have managed to get that inside info communicated to the Prince? Egerton had accepted S&S for publication a year before it was actually published, so there was time during which some summary of S&S might have somehow reached the Prince?

The article (by Lettice Fowler in the November 4 1949 issue of The Spectator ) which was the first to quote from the Princess’s comments about S&S, as part of a review of a new edition of Princess Charlotte’s letters, went on as follows:
“In this observation the Princess showed one of her periodic flashes of perspicacity. For, like Marianne Dashwood, she was destined to be a heroine. She possessed all a heroine’s capacity for entanglement in hopeless love affairs; she devoured the works of Lord Byron; her health was delicate and often gave way; she was consistently misunderstood and occasionally persecuted; she had a confidante to whom she could pour out, in long and almost daily letters, the latest developments in her own affections and in her relations’ plots (Miss Elphinstone indeed, was not unlike Elinor; sensible, calm, urging patience and restraint) 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

So, that makes me wonder, wandering further outside the box: Was Marianne Dashwood herself actually a veiled portrait of the young Princess, and Elinor one of Mercer Elphinstone? We know that Jane Austen took a very strong, longstanding interest in the goings on in the Royal Family, and the whole English nation took a very strong interest in the marital “war” waged by the Prince against his wife over a period of years – it is not far-fetched to speculate that Jane Austen knew enough to have woven Princess Charlotte into Marianne Dashwood’s character, such that the Princess’s comments about “Maryann” would actually have been looking in a “mirror” without knowing it!

In that regard, there’s still one last data point to try to fit into this matrix. Let’s go back to that February 1813 letter in which Jane Austen avowed, to her trusted friend Martha Lloyd, her implacable hatred for the Prince, because of his horrid treatment of his wife. That comment was in response to the huge ongoing public scandal and uproar triggered by the Prince’s outrageous and hypocritical denying his wife, Princess Caroline, access to their daughter Charlotte. The Prince’s smear campaign against his estranged wife was based on trumped up charges relating to her unfitness as a mother, for ‘scandalous’ behavior that paled in comparison to his own!

And, it just so happens, that a few sentences earlier in that same February1813 letter, Jane Austen mentioned, of all people, Mercer Elphinstone’s mother, Lady Keith, albeit seemingly only in passing:

“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.”

I can’t find that Le Faye or any other Austen scholar has ever claimed to know the identity of Martha Lloyd’s unnamed friend, who had a young unmarried daughter who attended Lady Keith’s ball. It couldn’t be Mrs. Dean-Dundas, named in the prior sentence, because I checked, and Mrs Dundas was under 30 and so could not have had a teenaged daughter attending a ball! But what this passage shows is that Jane Austen’s close friend Martha Lloyd had a married friend, who had a daughter who attended Lady Keith’s ball, and therefore Martha’s friend moved in the same social circle as Lord and Lady Keith, and by extension, Mercer Elphinstone as well! Might this be a possible chain of connection?

All speculative, I freely acknowledge, but at least it suggests a possible personal channel, via a few steps, between Jane Austen and the Prince.  At the very least, this line of speculation should suffice to initiate a scholarly search for the best explanation for the Prince’s early purchase of S&S, other than an uncritical, unfounded assertion of his love of the writing of an author he supposedly had never heard of. There’s more going on here than at first meets the eye.

And so, please keep in mind the next time you read a mainstream pop culture article about Jane Austen, that you will probably be reading some aspect or another of The Myth of Jane Austen. But if you follow my blog, and I’ve also gotten wind of that article, I will do my best to debunk any such mythology, and help you get closer to the elusive truth.

[Added 07/26/18: Here is the link to my followup post: 
"Marianne’s “sensibility…without bounds”: Why the Prince Regent bought Sense & Sensibility"

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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