(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Edward Austen Knight’s Disturbingly 'Un-Wealdy' Wollstonecraftian Harem

My topic today is the strong, pervasive influence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on passages contained in three letters written by Jane Austen between April, 1811, and February 1813, during which time period JA finally was able to complete and publish both S&S and P&P. I’ve long claimed that Austen’s fiction takes Wollstonecraft’s protofeminist message as a starting point, and extends it significantly further, especially in Austen’s shadow stories. So it should hardly surprise that today I found evidence hiding in plain sight which reflects that same influence in contemporary letters Austen wrote, while in the full flush of her triumph in overcoming institutional (and perhaps also familial) resistance to females holding the pen of authorship.

It’s well known in Austen scholarly circles that on Feb 16, 1813, in the thick of the huge public scandal that engulfed the Royal Family, Jane Austen wrote Letter 82 to Martha Lloyd. In it, JA wrote took off the gloves and wrote perhaps the fiercest feminist words that we find in her surviving letters. JA forgave Princess Caroline for her scandalous marital indiscretions, because of extenuating circumstances – being the Prince Regent’s unceasingly abominable treatment of his wife, which explained why the Princess was driven to act out inappropriately. “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she IS a woman, and because I hate her husband” is Jane Austen’s unvarnished, unambiguous indictment of the “first gentleman of Europe”, whom she later covertly skewered as the ‘Prince of Whales’, the alternative answer to Mr. Elton’s “courtship” charade in Emma.

I’ve oft noted that JA wrote her most uncensored, edgy comments to Martha Lloyd, evidently because JA wasn’t worried that such letters might be read by the wrong eyes; but also because JA had a very intimate, honest relationship with Martha. a kindred feminist spirit to which JA could safely express sharp criticism of male authority figures.

With that background, I next point you to comments I made in 2012, during our Janeites groupread of JA’s letters, on a brief passage in Letter 77, also to Martha, written a mere 2 ½ months before JA wrote of her hatred for the Prince Regent, the horrible husband:

“[Jane Austen] is…being even more sarcastic about her brother Edward, not once but twice:
‘We have been quite alone, except Miss Benn, since 12 o'clock on wednesday, when Edward & his Harem drove from the door.....We have reason to suppose the change of name has taken place, as we have to forward a Letter to Edward Knight, Esqre from the Lawyer who has the management of the business. I must learn to make a better K.’
Edward the pasha, Edward the man who took on a new name and, with it, great wealth and privilege.”

Apropos the reference to “Edward & his Harem” in Letter 77, I just came across what I now recognize as a key source for further decoding JA’s sarcastic reference to brother Edward “Harem” – it turns out not to have sprung solely from JA’s own imagination, but instead is an allusion, and a very fitting one, to a passage in Chapter 4 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the title of such chapter being  “Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes”:

“Most of the evils of life arise from a desire of present enjoyment that outruns itself. The obedience required of women in the marriage state, comes under this description; the mind, naturally weakened by depending on authority, never exerts its own powers, and the obedient wife is thus rendered a weak indolent mother. Or, supposing that this is not always the consequence, a future state of existence is scarcely taken into the reckoning when only negative virtues are cultivated. For in treating of morals, particularly when women are alluded to, writers have too often considered virtue in a very limited sense, and made the foundation of it solely worldly utility; nay, a still more fragile base has been given to this stupendous fabric, and the wayward fluctuating feelings of men have been made the standard of virtue. Yes, virtue as well as religion, has been subjected to the decisions of taste.
It would almost provoke a smile of contempt, if the vain absurdities of man did not strike us on all sides, to observe, how eager men are to degrade the sex from whom they pretend to receive the chief pleasure of life; and I have frequently, with full conviction, retorted Pope's sarcasm on them; or, to speak explicitly, it has appeared to me applicable to the whole human race. A love of pleasure or sway seems to divide mankind, and THE HUSBAND WHO LORDS IT IN HIS LITTLE HAREM, THINKS ONLY OF HIS PLEASURE OR HIS CONVENIENCE. To such lengths, indeed, does an intemperate love of pleasure carry some prudent men, or worn out libertines, who marry to have a safe companion, that they seduce their own wives. Hymen banishes modesty, and chaste love takes its flight….”

Isn’t it obvious that JA was especially focused on that short passage in Wollstonecraft’s great work, as JA wrote both Letter 77 and also Letter 82? In both of those passages written to trusted confidante, Martha Lloyd, JA takes to task the kind of husband who lords it in his little harem, and thinks only of his pleasure or their convenience? Whether at the Royal Court, or at Godmersham, the same principles seem to apply.

But I am also prompted to connect the dots from the above discussion of Wollstonecraft as a source for passages in two Austen letters containing plain-spoken feminist critiques of bad husbands, to a third letter JA wrote. In a post I wrote in Janeites in 2015, I discussed a short passage in Letter 72, written by JA on April 30, 1811 (and so, only 7 months before she wrote Letter 77 to Martha) to sister Cassandra, who was at Godmersham i.e., Edward’s Kentish estate, at the time. As you read, keep in mind that any criticism, especially sharp criticism, of brother Edward, therefore had to be in code, because Cassandra would have had to pass Jane’s letter around to Edward and/or his eldest daughter Fanny:

I congratulate Edward on the Weald of Kent Canal Bill being put off till another Session, as I have just had the pleasure of reading. There is always something to be hoped from delay.
Between Session and Session 
The first Prepossession 
May rouse up the Nation, 
And the villanous Bill 
May be forced to lie still 
Against wicked men's will.
-There is poetry for Edward and his daughter.“ END QUOTE FROM LETTER 72
 …I quoted the poem here because Jane Austen’s apparent metaphor of a legislative Bill as a woman being “forced to lie still” by an aroused Nation, which will then foil “wicked men’s will” by causing the Bill to be “put off till another Session”, is pretty disturbing, even if the metaphor is a little wobbly in its poetic execution. It’s even more disturbing when we consider Jane Austen’s conclusory comment: “There is poetry for Edward and his daughter”. Just think about Edward, widowed only 2 ½ years earlier by the death in childbirth of his wife, Elizabeth, after bearing him 11 children in 15 years. It seems to me that Jane Austen by this poem, was recalling that Elizabeth Austen Knight had been “forced to lie still” by Edward one too many times, when she might have survived Edward’s “wicked will” had someone---her family or friends---roused themselves in her defense and “put” her insistent husband “off till another Session”?  
 Recall also in that specific regard the infamous passage from the 12-year old Fanny Knight’s diary entry for August 5, 1805, or three years before her mother’s death:  
“I slept half with Mama & half with Sackree [the family nurse], for Papa came home late in the evening & I was obliged to be pulled out of bed. “
 So, it does seem to me that Jane Austen is hinting at the prospective building of a major canal in the Weald as being equivalent to Edward Austen Knight, as husband, having insisted on his conjugal right to launch 11 voyages of “cargo” down his wife’s birth canal!
And if you think I’m overreaching for that point, take another look at the last four lines of Jane Austen’s poem. Without changing any letters, I’ve moved the letters of the first word in each of those lines, so as to bring into obvious view the familial name that daughter Fanny Knight would have used in addressing her mother:
M    May rouse up the Nation, 
A     And the villanous Bill 
M   May be forced to lie still 
A    Against wicked men's will.
 Fanny indeed lost her dear “Mama” as a result of her wicked father’s wilful actions!”

As I revisit my 2015 post, I’m even more strongly struck by how dangerously close JA came to crossing the line from implicit to explicit in her subversive, sexualized subtext. If the poem were really only about Edward’s legislative struggles, why in the world (or Weald) would  JA write a poem, which uses a metaphor for oppressive governmental action sounding dangerously close to rape, and then call it “poetry for Edward AND HIS DAUGHTER”?

In early 1811, that daughter could only be Edward’s eldest daughter, Fanny, then just turned 18, but who already had served, for 2 ½ years, as mistress of Godmersham in place of her late mother. Is this possibly a “dangerous opening”, a hint at incest? And that disturbing speculation brings to mind Mr. Woodhouse struggling to recall the second stanza of another short ‘poem”, Garrick’s Riddle, in which, as Jill Heydt-Stevenson first pointed out 20 years ago, the barely concealed subtext is that of a mn with syphilis having sex with a virgin (named Fanny) as a “cure”.

As I said, this all could not be more disturbing, and yet, because it’s in code, no other Austen scholar has ever suggested a darker meaning to JA’s poem about the ways of ‘the Weald” (which, as I pointed out in 2015, was pronounced like ‘world’). To repeat the final words of that passage from Wollstonecraft:

“THE HUSBAND WHO LORDS IT IN HIS LITTLE HAREM, THINKS ONLY OF HIS PLEASURE OR HIS CONVENIENCE. To such lengths, indeed, does an intemperate love of pleasure carry some prudent men, or worn out libertines, who marry to have a safe companion, that they seduce their own wives. Hymen banishes modesty, and chaste love takes its flight….”

So now you see the full context of my discovery today of a Wollstonecraft undergirding of Austen’s letters. It is clear to me from the above quotations from JA’s letters, that as JA was revising and publishing S&S and P&P, she was feeling angrily critical of the unbridled power of husbands in England. In overt terms writing to Martha, and covertly while writing to Cassandra, JA repeatedly took savagely satirical aim at both the most powerful man in her own family, and also at the most powerful man in England; and then kept them in her sights continuously thereafter, at least through her publication of Emma 3 years after she wrote Letter 82.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: