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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Very like a Whale: Burke’s Leviathan, Lamb’s Prince of Whales, & Austen’s Mr. Knightley in Emma


Today I’ll be riffing off something remarkable I learned at the last of the 3 excellent plenary addresses during the recently concluded JASNA AGM -- something about abbey-owners in Austen’s novels that quite unexpectedly provided fresh validation for my previous understanding of the enigmatic character of Mr. Knightley in Emma. That sounds far out there, I know, to those of you unfamiliar with my “shadow story” theory of Austen’s novels (discussed by me with Kristin Whitman and Maggie Riley, the hosts of the First Impressions podcast (, but I will make a case that the hero who wins Emma’s hand can plausibly be read as being “very like a whale”, in the unflattering Shakespearean, Miltonian, Burkean, and Lambean sense!

The first two plenary speakers, Jocelyn Harris and Janine Barchas, both of whom I had previously heard speak at multiple prior AGMs, delivered their talks with their expected professional blend of wit and erudition. But I had no similar high expectations for the Sunday plenary, by a speaker whom I knew nothing of, Roger E. Moore (or as he was wittily introduced, “Moore, Roger Moore”), a Vanderbilt Prof. However, his talk turned out to be the best of a very excellent bunch.

Here is the AGM blurb for Moore’s talk: ‘Author of Jane Austen & the Reformation: Remembering the Sacred Landscape (2016), which investigates Austen’s attitude toward 16th-century religious reforms by analyzing her representation of medieval abbeys, churches, and chapels. His lecture, “Northanger Before the Tilneys: Austen’s Abbey and the Religious Past,” will speculate on the role of Northanger’s hidden history and why this history was important to Austen. Drawing on descriptions of ecclesiastical buildings in 18th-century fiction, he will investigate whether Austen took a different and more positive view of England’s dissolved religious houses than many of her contemporaries.’

Moore’s lecture was packed with a wealth of excellent factual info, packaged within a convincing, coherent thematic interpretation – all delivered with great wit, at high speed, and yet without ever losing focus or getting confusing – a communication and intellectual triumph!

My post today is about one nugget from among all the factual ore unearthed and delivered so engagingly by Moore. One of his principal theses, as I gathered it, was that the avaricious, mean-spirited General Tilney in Northanger Abbey was Austen’s fictional representation of the coterie of real life abbey-owners in the Regency Era. These owners owed their abbey holdings to the largesse of Henry VIII in favor of their ancestors -- ancestors who had each “done a favor” for the King, sufficient to warrant some staggeringly large royal “quid pro quo”, distributing the windfall of abbeys confiscated from the Catholic Church.

As one example (which came to Moore’s attention after publication of his 2017 book), he told us about the Duke of Bedford (of the Russell family, as in Russell and Bedford Squares in London). The Russells had owned Woburn Abbey in (where else?) Bedfordshire for 250 years. But then, in 1796, a fracas erupted publicly between the Duke of Bedford and the great writer/orator Edmund Burke, high profile enough to make it into the tabloids. As Moore explained, the young Duke, only a few years into his own political career, had questioned the merits of a recent royal gift to Burke, made in recognition of his long career of public service. Burke responded with a vigorous attack in his “Letter to a Noble Lord”. After some background, Burke drew blood with this highly effective rhetoric thrust:

“…The Duke of Bedford conceives, that he is obliged to call the attention of the House of Peers to his Majesty’s grant to me, which he considers as excessive, and out of all bounds. I know not how it has happened, but it really seems, that, whilst his Grace was meditating his well-considered censure upon me, he fell into a sort of sleep. Homer nods; and the Duke of Bedford may dream; and as dreams (even his golden dreams) are apt to be ill-pieced and incongruously put together, his Grace preserved his idea of reproach to me, but took the subject-matter from the Crown grants to his own family. This is “the stuff of which his dreams are made.” In that way of putting things together his Grace is perfectly in the right. The grants to the house of Russell were so enormous, as not only to outrage economy, but even to stagger credibility….”

So far, so good, but, as Moore then pointed out, Burke moved in for the kill, as he segued into a literary allusion that was as learned as it was sharply derisive:  

“The Duke of Bedford is the LEVIATHAN among all the creatures of the Crown. He tumbles about his unwieldy bulk; he plays and frolics in the ocean of the royal bounty. Huge as he is, and whilst “he lies floating many a rood,” he is still a creature. His ribs, his fins, his whalebone, his blubber, the very spiracles through which he spouts a torrent of brine against his origin, and covers me all over with the spray,—everything of him and about him is from the throne. Is it for him to question the dispensation of the royal favour?”

I.e., the Duke was the largest denizen of the British aristocratic deep, thanks to his ancestor’s obscenely bounteous gifts from Henry VIII -so the Duke ought to have been content to live and let live with small fry like Burke. Moore explained that the learned members of the reading public would’ve recognized Burke’s quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the spouting, blubbery ‘leviathan’ was Satan. Or, more precisely, Satan at the moment in Book 1, right after he and his fellow rebel angels have all been cast down into Hell by God and his loyal angel army. Satan, the ‘leviathan’, dazed and confused, ‘lies floating many a rood”.

I read that as Burke suggesting that the Duke was guilty of Satan-sized pride and hypocrisy, begrudging Burke a relatively puny reward for services currently rendered to George III, even as the Duke was living high on the hog of long-ago ill-gotten looting of the abbeys (per Burke in the letter, the first Bedford was a ‘jackal’ who snapped up ‘offal’ left behind by the ‘lion’ Henry VIII).

And, bringing it back to Jane Austen, Moore made his larger point -- that the Duke of Bedford was an egregious example of all the privileged, royally-connected abbey owners in Great Britain, with their monstrous sense of entitlement, who are all jumbled together inside the fictional abbey-“improver” General Tilney. But Moore did not go so far as to suggest that Jane Austen had Burke’s speech, the Duke, and/or Woburn Abbey specifically in mind as she wrote Northanger Abbey.

And that’s all background to my main point today. As I listened to Prof Moore read that excerpt from Burke’s letter about the Duke “floating many a rood”, a historical detail I had previously known nothing about, I instantly recognized that this was a serendipitously strong connection to my own prior research on Emma, as I’ll explain momentarily.

At the end of the presentation, I was ready to add my two cents about Burke and the Duke to Moore and the 800+ other assembled Janeites, but another audience member was recognized first, who asked:  “If Austen was, via General Tilney, painting an unflattering portrait of the avarice and hypocrisy of all the owners of abbeys throughout the British Isles, then what about that one other abbey owner in the Austen canon? What about Mr. Knightley, master of Donwell Abbey, the hero of Emma?” 

To which Moore, after a moment of thought, replied, basically: “Well, that must be an exception to the rule.” I couldn’t have asked for a better set-up to my question/comment to Prof Moore, which went more or less as follows:

“Did you know that the charade that Mr. Elton gives to Emma and Harriet has more than one valid, intended answer, besides ‘courtship’? And your quotation from Burke was absolutely spot-on parallel to one of those other answers! Specifically, the answer revealed by my friend Colleen Sheehan in her 2006 Persuasions Online article, was ‘The Prince of Whales’ with an ‘h’, an 1812 satire on the Prince Regent, who was widely lampooned with that crude, cetacean insult.  That’s why I now suggest to you that Knightley was not an exception to the rule as to avaricious owners of abbeys in Austen’s novels. I have long believed that Austen subtly created Knightley to be disturbingly similar to General Tilney, in ways that Emma is too clueless to notice.”

And that takes me to the end of my discussion of Prof Moore’s very excellent plenary, and the interpretation I’ve made in the days since then, armed with the knowledge of Burke’s “Leviathan” satire of the Duke of Bedford.


I’ll now explain in much greater detail why I was so energized by learning about Burke’s cetacean satire of the Duke of Bedford. I will argue that Jane Austen must indeed have been familiar with Burke’s 1796 skewering of the Duke, and that she particularly hinted at this in various ways in her careful composition of the verbiage of the ‘courtship’ charade in Emma – in order to subtly depict Knightley as another abbey-owning “whale”!

I begin with a brief, but relevant, digression. In Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet, we read this exchange in which Hamlet mocks the bewildered, clueless Polonius:

LORD POLONIUS My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET. Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS. By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET.  Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS. It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET.  Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS. Very like a whale.
HAMLET Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.

I have since 2005 held to two related interpretations of the above passage:

First, I believe Hamlet, who recognizes immediately that Claudius has sent Polonius to probe his state of mind, toys with the royal toady, by instantly constructing a kind of Socratic syllogism, in which the cloud is Claudius (“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?....The great cannon to the clouds shall tell”), and Hamlet’s final unstated but strongly implied conclusion, is that Claudius is a whale.

But what does Hamlet mean by this? Karl P. Wentersdorf in his 1983 article “Animal Symbolism in Shakespeare's "Hamlet": The Imagery of Sex Nausea”, did not realize that the “whale” was Claudius when he nonetheless gave this excellent explanation:     

The next image in the "cloud" passage in Hamlet, the whale, has traditionally been a symbol for voracity and (in the eyes of medieval moralists) for sinful lusts. The Old English and Middle English bestiaries tell how a floating whale is sometimes mistaken by sailors for an island; after they have anchored, landed on its back, and built a fire, it drags them to the bottom and thus symbolizes the destructive power of Satan. The same bestiaries describe the whale's breath as so sweet that it attracts great quantities of fish into its jaws; thus the creature is also a symbol of sinful desires, which seem pleasant but lure men into hell.
…It may have been some such accounts of the whale which prompted Donne to introduce the creature into his satirical poem Metempsychosis or The Progresse of the Soule: he traces the transmigration of a soul from the apple plucked in the Garden of Eden to a mandrake (supposedly an aphrodisiac), and then through a whole series of creatures with sexual connotations - including a sparrow, a "wantoning" whale (11. 301-32), a mouse, a dog, and an ape - into a lustful daughter of Adam.”

So, I suggest that Hamlet is saying to Polonius, via his cryptic syllogism, that Claudius is a voracious whale who lusts sinfully after Polonius’s own daughter Ophelia (and Hamlet thereby can be seen to be continuing the same warning vein of cryptic hints that he began, when he spoke to Polonius in Act 2, Scene 2 about “Jephthah’s daughter”, also implying the sacrifice of Jephthah).

That brief analysis regarding Hamlet is directly relevant to my second interpretation, in which I connect that passage to the following dialog in Chapter 9 of Emma when Harriet makes guesses as to the possible answer to Mr. Elton’s charade:

“[Emma] was obliged to break off from these very pleasant observations, which were otherwise of a sort to run into great length, by the eagerness of Harriet's wondering questions.
“What can it be, Miss Woodhouse?—what can it be? I have not an idea—I cannot guess it in the least. What can it possibly be? Do try to find it out, Miss Woodhouse. Do help me. I never saw any thing so hard. Is it kingdom? I wonder who the friend was—and who could be the young lady. Do you think it is a good one? Can it be woman?
      And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Can it be Neptune?
      Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
Or a trident? or a mermaid? or a shark? Oh, no! shark is only one syllable. It must be very clever, or he would not have brought it. Oh! Miss Woodhouse, do you think we shall ever find it out?”
“Mermaids and sharks! Nonsense! My dear Harriet, what are you thinking of? Where would be the use of his bringing us a charade made by a friend upon a mermaid or a shark? Give me the paper and listen.”

So, aside from being also being about things we find in the sea, what does that dialog about mermaids, sharks, and Neptune have to do with Hamlet’s characterizing Claudius as a sinful, lustful whale who has targeted Ophelia? Only everything, as you will now see!

I start with the link to that 2006 Colleen Sheehan article that I mentioned to Prof Moore during the Q&A:   While I recommend you read Colleen’s excellent, shortish article, and then return here for the continuation of my argument, I’ll summarize the key parts for those who don’t do so. Sheehan provides convincing proof that the very disrespectful “Prince of Whales” answer to Mr. Elton’s charade really was intended by Jane Austen.

We know this, Sheehan proves, primarily because of all the hints provided by the “wrong” answers offered by Harriet and dismissed by Emma, which actually point to the verbiage of the doggerel poem published anonymously in March 1812 by (we know now) Charles “Elia” Lamb, entitled “The Triumph of the Whale”, which begins as follows…

Io! Paean! Io! Sing
To the funny people’s King.
Not a mightier whale than this
In the vast Atlantic is;
Not a fatter fish than he
Flounders round the polar sea.
See his blubbers—at his gills
What a world of drink he swills,
From his trunk, as from a spout,
Which next moment he pours out,

…and ends as follows:

Had it been the fortune of it
To have swallowed that old Prophet,
Three days there he’d not have dwell’d,
But in one have been expell’d.
Hapless mariners are they,
Who beguil’d (as seamen say),
Deeming him some rock or island,
Footing sure, safe spot, and dry land,
Anchor in his scaly rind;
Soon the difference they find;
Sudden plumb, he sinks beneath them;
Does to ruthless seas bequeath them.

Name or title what has he?
Is he Regent of the Sea?
From this difficulty free us,
Buffon, Banks or sage Linnaeus.
With his wondrous attributes
Say what appellation suits.
By his bulk, and by his size,
By his oily qualities,
This (or else my eyesight fails),
This should be the PRINCE OF WHALES.  

But it isn’t just the powerful British man satirized as a whale, with all that parallel verbiage, that Lamb’s poem had in common with Burke’s letter – it’s also the caricature that appeared in print in March 1812, barely a month after Lamb’s poem was published. The colorful drawing was by the great caricaturist Cruikshank, and I was the first, in 2006, to find and connect it to Lamb’s poem.

I did that right after Colleen first told me privately about her remarkable “Prince of Whales” discovery and Lamb’s poem, and that’s why she graciously included a footnote shout-out to me in her linked article. And, as you read this post, if you scroll all the way up, you will see an image of Cruikshank’s caricature, “The Fisherman at Anchor”, which I adopted as my blog masthead image in 2007 when I first created this blog! So I already considered Mr. Elton’s charade to be a kind of Rosetta Stone for interpretation of Emma the novel.

But back to Burke’s letter -- Sheehan’s article also includes the following highly significant footnote:

“Both Lamb’s poem and Cruikshank’s print were inspired by Milton’s description in Book I of Paradise Lost of the mariners casting anchor on the scaly rind of the enormous Leviathan. I am indebted to Susan Allen Ford for directing me to this passage about the “Arch-Fiend,” which Lamb was clearly referencing in his poem (Milton 1.194-209). The original printing of the Cruikshank caricature of “The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor” in the Scourge included a reference to Milton’s description in Paradise Lost….”

So now you know why I was so excited during Moore’s plenary to hear about Burke’s 1796 satire of the Duke of Bedford. I knew instantly, from all the above prior knowledge, that Burke’s vivid image of Leviathan in his strong satire of the Duke had undoubtedly been the model and inspiration for Lamb’s 1812 satire of the Prince of Whales. Whereupon, only a couple of years later, in 1814-5, Austen artfully worded Mr. Elton’s charade so as to point to both Lamb’s poem and Cruikshank’s caricature.

But now you may well ask, if Austen used Lamb’s 1812 satire in her charade in Emma, did she also know about, and use, Burke’s satire of the Duke? My best guess is “Yes!” based on two pieces of evidence.

First, in 2009, Anielka Briggs revealed in both the Janeites and Austen-L online discussion groups that she had brilliantly sleuthed out a third answer to Mr. Elton’s charade: LEVIATHAN! And that is the very name Burke assigned to the Duke of Bedford in his Letter depicted him as a voracious whale!

Second, it took me a short time after Moore’s presentation, to do some quick sleuthing online regarding the background of Burke’s Letter, and lo and behold, I came upon…. another caricature!:

I believe it is obvious (and Vic Gattrell actually noted this in 2007) that Cruikshank, in 1812, closely modeled his caricature of the Prince of Whales on Gillray’s  aforementioned 1796 caricature of the Duke of Bedford. And then I in turn deduce that Austen knew both caricatures as well.

And the most delightful touch of all – did you notice the toad and the frog in the front bottom front of Gillray’s caricature, next to the alligator? Can you guess the identity of the toad? For the answer, I refer you to  Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s by Felicity James:

“On 9 July 1798, the 36th and last issue of The Anti-Jacobin carried a long poem, New Morality, a lively, vehement condemnation of ‘Jacobin’ attitudes and associates, which targeted Whig politicians and radical writers alike. Parodying the ‘Theo-Philanthropic sect’ of revolutionary sympathisers, French and English, it attacked their ‘mawkish’ sensibilities and ‘blasphemous’ sedition, and was illustrated the following month by the ruthless cartoonist James Gillray. 
To feature in one of his cartoons -- albeit distorted and undignified -- was to have arrived on the political scene, and his bestiary of revolutionaries, capering around a deconsecrated St. Paul’s, clearly showed who were the main ‘Jacobin’ targets of the government in the late 1790s. The Duke of Bedford dominates the image, a monstrous whale whose inspiration, as the poem shows, comes from Edmund Burke’s Letter to a Noble Lord.
…Astride him are Charles James Fox and other Whig politicians, while William Godwin, a little donkey, and Thomas Holcroft, a snapping crocodile, scamper around….It is a reworking of Spenser’s monster of Error, whose ‘vomit full of bookes and papers was,/With loathly frogs and toades’.”

And now the punch line, vis a vis the “Prince of Whales” satire that Austen drew upon: 

“And indeed, in the very middle of the cartoon, just at the foot of the cornucopia, sit a toad and a frog, croaking in glee as they clutch their own work, Blank Verse (1798). Charles Lloyd and CHARLES LAMB are right at the heart of this panorama of dangerous radicals.”

Yes, the same Charles Lamb who wrote “Triumph of the Whale” with its “Prince of Whales”!


Although it will require an entire blog post of its own, I want to briefly preview what I consider the
greatest interpretive payoffs for me from the above serendipitous linkage of both Burke’s Leviathan and Lamb’s Prince of Whales to Austen’s charade in Emma.

First, as I suggested at the very start of this post, in my comment to Prof Moore during the Q&A of his plenary talk, I said to him that I already viewed Mr. Knightley as similar to General Tilney, for many reasons I’ve previously written about – in effect, the “whale” of Emma. So to now know that there was another real life “whale” – the Duke of Bedford – who, unlike the Prince Regent, but very much like Mr. Knightley, was actually the owner of an abbey – only solidifies my sense of Knightley in that negative light.

Another point of great value to me in the Burke/Gillray satire of the Duke of Bedford is that, like Lamb/Cruikshank, it openly boasts its Miltonian origins—so this adds to my growing sense over the past several years that Paradise Lost was a crucial allusive source for Jane Austen in writing Emma in multiple ways:

First, in drawing on the notion of Knightley as a Satan with the hubris to seek to control everyone in his world, especially the women;

Second, I draw on Jocelyn Harris’s 2009 Persuasions article, in which she persuasively argued for the presence of a protofeminist allusion to Wolllstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Emma. What Harris did not note in her article, however, was that Wollstonecraft herself was deeply in dialog, both positively and negatively, with Paradise Lost – in particular, Wollstonecraft’s appropriation of Milton’s Eve, and in effect turning her into a feminist rebel-heroine (see in particular the following excellent and thorough discussion of that notion by Steven Blakemore: "Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft's Subversion of Paradise Lost," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34:4 (1992) 451-80)

As I’ve written hundreds of times over the past 15 years, I believe Austen did indeed have a strong even radical feminist orientation in all her fiction from her teen years onward, but was perhaps most significantly engaged with Wollstonecraft in Emma. So it hardly comes as a surprise to me that Mr. Elton’s charade proves to have not one but two Milton-inspired satires (Burke’s and Lamb’s) in its origins. Jane Austen knew all about this.

This particularly fits with my sense since 2005 of Jane Fairfax as the shadow heroine of Emma --- my very recent post (  updated my interpretation of the Romeo and Juliet subtext of Paradise Lost, relying on Milton’s own First Folio marginalia with its greatest concentration on that early Shakespeare tragedy.  

And I’ve posted in recent years about the pervasive Romeo and Juliet subtext of both Emma and Northanger Abbey, which shows me that Austen understood a great deal of Milton’s engagement with Shakespeare. In particular, I believe she understood, and showed it in her usual sly way, that Milton’s depiction of Satan as a beached whale in Hell owed its origins in no small part to Hamlet’s “whale” syllogism as he taunted the hapless Polonius.
And there I will stop, with the promise to return with a more complete unpacking of this last section when I can pull it together.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter