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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Proposed Extension of Devoney Looser’s Discovery re Mary Russell Mitford &Jane Austen

Thanks to the alert from my good friend Diana Birchall in her Facebook page, I have now read Devoney Looser’s recent piece in the TLS describing her remarkable discovery (which I don’t recall her mentioning in her plenary address at the JASNA AGM 2 months ago):

 “A long-overlooked mock letter to the editor in The Lady’s Magazine demonstrates that a curiosity to know what Jane Austen looked like emerged among readers almost immediately after her death in 1817. This piece, published in 1823, also shifts our accounts of the origins of Austen-inspired fan fiction, previously believed to have started in 1913. The Lady’s Magazine piece now takes its place as the earliest known piece of fiction to feature Austen as a character.
Who wrote this letter, dated April 1, 1823, signed with the pseudonym “Jane Fisher”? In an essay in the TLS (December 13, 2019), I present evidence that suggests it may have been written by the author Mary Russell Mitford, whose mother knew the Austen family and whose close friend visited Jane Austen during the years in which she was publishing novels.”  [End Quote from Looser Article]

Having myself been intrigued for the past decade by the famous, incisive comments by Mitford about JA in an 1815 letter, I read the 1823 mock letter discovered by Looser with great interest.

In the first part of this post, I’ll present various textual points I’ve detected, which bolster Looser’s already strong case for ID’ing Mitford as the author of the mock letter. In addition, I’ll argue that the 1823 piece, for all its superficial appearance of frivolity, reveals Mitford to have been a close reader and subtle, knowledgeable interpreter of Austen’s fiction.

Then, in the second section, below, I’ll present 3 additional points, which collectively strongly suggest to me that Mitford, in the aftermath of JA’s death and publication of NA, was likely in direct contact with Cassandra Austen, who must have given her blessing and encouragement to Mitford to write the mock letter.

CHATTER:  Looser notes the clever pun in the Little Chatterton town name:  

“Fisher says she lives in the village of Little Chatterton. Although there was a Chatterton in Lancashire, there was no such place as Little Chatterton; the name is a mischievous dig at gossiping women.”

Indeed it is such a dig, but this pun also adds to the evidence that the author is really Mitford, because of what she wrote about Austen in the famous excerpt from the 1815 letter which we know Mitford wrote:

Most writers are good-humoured CHATTERERSneither very wise nor very witty; but nine times out of ten (at least in the few that I have known) unaffected and pleasant, and quite removing by their conversation any fear that may have been excited by their works. But a wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!”

Indeed, the fictional Intellectual Club of Little Chatterton is composed of just such women with literary aspirations, who aspire to wisdom and wit. And don’t forget, apropos the “Little” in the place name, that Jane Austen, both in her letters, and in the covertly autobiographical character of Miss Bates, slyly and subversively referred to herself as focused on small things (or, if you will, “little chatter”)!

And, by the way, Austen used the word “chatter” only 5 times in total in her 6 novels combined, with one of them in NA. Interestingly, in the 1823 mock letter that focuses so much on something having nothing to do with the quality of Jane Austen’s writing --what Jane Austen looks like -- the relevant passage in NA has to do with Isabella speculating about what Catherine’s intriguing beau Henry looks like -- and teasing James into a bit of jealousy for good measure, after Catherine points Eleanor out to Isabella:

“Look at that young lady with the white beads round her head,” whispered Catherine, detaching her friend from James. “It is Mr. Tilney's sister.”
“Oh! Heavens! You don't say so! Let me look at her this moment. What a delightful girl! I never saw anything half so beautiful! But where is her all-conquering brother? Is he in the room? Point him out to me this instant, if he is. I die to see him. Mr. Morland, you are not to listen. We are not talking about you.”
“But what is all this whispering about? What is going on?”
“There now, I knew how it would be. You men have such restless curiosity! Talk of the curiosity of women, indeed! 'Tis nothing. But be satisfied, for you are not to know anything at all of the matter.”
“And is that likely to satisfy me, do you think?”
“Well, I declare I never knew anything like you. What can it signify to you, what we are talking of. Perhaps we are talking about you; therefore I would advise you not to listen, or you may happen to hear something not very agreeable.”
In this commonplace CHATTER, which lasted some time, the original subject seemed entirely forgotten; and though Catherine was very well pleased to have it dropped for a while, she could not avoid a little suspicion at the total suspension of all Isabella's impatient desire to see Mr. Tilney.” 

So, again, tote that point up as significant additional evidence in support of Looser’s identification.

ENIGMA:  Curiously, “Miss Jane Fisher” earns her initial entry into the Intellectual Club via an enigma:

“It may be interesting to you, sir, to know that I gained my ticket of admission by the success of a prize enigma, which I ventured to write for the last year,--which procured me the agreeable and honorable testimony of four new red morocco pocket-books, and which I had the proud pleasure of distributing amongst my younger friends, whose emulation I thought might be excited by seeing absolutely in print, what they had often read, and (if I may say so) admired, in manuscript. This, I believe, Mr. Editor, is the only species of publication, which, hiding its head in obscurity, lies below the level of critical notice. “
… It was, however, with inconceivable heart-beatings that I awaited the issue of my first essay; and I cannot describe to you the emotions which agitated me when I received the welcome intelligence that my enigma was deemed the best of those that had entered the lists, and that my poetical effort had entitled me to a dividend of pocket-books in the ensuing season.”

Mitford had to have known of JA’s focus on charades, having surely read Emma. So at a minimum, Mitford is playing with misdirection by what I think is a mock depreciation of enigmas (“below the level of critical notice”). Instead, by this reference, I believe she signals that she recognizes the significance of Mr. Elton’s charade in Emma, even if she did not decode the entire satire. See below for more in regard to that charade.

DROPPING AN INSTRUMENT WHILE LISTENING IN RAPT ATTENTION: At the precise moment when Mitford makes her first explicit allusion to Austen’s writing, we read “Miss Jane Fisher” enacting a famous moment from not one but two Austen novels:

The last book that has been perused by the committee of safety was that charming novel, called Northanger Abbey, which our lady president has decreed may be read entire by the whole society. Prefixed to this work is a life of the amiable and extraordinary authoress. Oh how was I delighted when I first heard Miss Piper read the annals of such an eminent character! What virtues! what talents! what singular excellence did she not possess!
My needle (for we take our work to the reading-room) fell from my hand as I listened.”

Of course, what comes to mind first is the uber-romantic moment when Wentworth drops his pen while overhearing Anne and Harville at the White Hart Inn:

"We shall never agree upon this question," Captain Harville was beginning to say, when a slight noise called their attention to Captain Wentworth's hitherto perfectly quiet division of the room. It was nothing more than that his pen had fallen down; but Anne was startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed, and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught.

But even more on point, and revealing of Mitford’s great familiarity with all of Austen’s fiction, we have the scene in MP when Fanny falls under Henry’s spell, as he reads Wolsey’s speech from Henry VIII, and thereby reveals her vulnerability to his considerable charms:

“Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford—fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford's upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever…”

Mitford, in 1823, has clearly made a very detailed study of Austen’s writing, which of course fits with the following note by Looser:

“It’s a fact that Mitford once contemplated writing about Austen. In March 1821, she wrote a private letter to a friend, asking him to return her letters, because she wanted to mine them for a planned “essay on Miss Austen”. That essay has long been considered an abandoned project.”

Indeed, it does seem like the mock letter wound up being Mitford’s backdoor, Austenian sort of “essay”!

DREAMING OF THE GHOST OF A DECEASED FEMALE ICON:  “I only sighed in answer; and having thus unburthened my mind, I slept again, and dreamed of the gentle spirit of Miss Austen, which seemed to hover over me, and touched my lips with something which shone like fire—but did not burn…“

While we hear often in NA of Catherine’s sleeping, and sleeplessness, while at the Abbey, it is only implied that she dreams of Mrs. Tilney; but of course the ghost of that deceased lady in a very real sense haunts Catherine for most of the Abbey episode in NA, in a way that Mitford delicately alludes to.

This also makes me wonder whether Mitford had any sense that behind the fictional Mrs. Tilney, there lurked (as I have claimed for the past decade) the ghost of a giant of English womanhood of that era, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth just as I have claimed Mrs. Tilney did.

POKER: And by the way, the shining object (see below) with which Jane Austen’s ghost touches the writer’s lips in Mitford’s mock letter, which glitters but does not burn, reminds me in a dark way of this other part of Mitford’s famous dicta about JA in her 1815 letter:

“…she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed…she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills the corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now: she is still a poker—but a poker of whom every one is afraid.”

The fear that Mitford attributes to those around JA after she was published, is that of a poker that may touch their lips and burn them with her words – and that raises the specter of a very real ghost from English history – thinking about what infamously, horrifically occurred to the most famous victim in English history of a red-hot poker – Edward II.

SINGLE BLESSEDNESS: Speaking of Mitford’s 1815 reference to JA’s “single blessedness”, the most famous usage of that poetic phrase, which surely is Mitford’s source, is this speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Either to die the death or to abjure
Forever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires.
Know of your youth. Examine well your blood—
Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessèd they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage.
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in SINGLE BLESSEDNESS.

Even 9 years before writing the mock letter, Mitford was reporting her unnamed friend's image of JA as not merely a spinster, but as JA "chanting hymns to the cold, fruitless moon"--a very striking image of JA writing her novels--and also with more than a trace of irony, given that Mitford herself never married, but instead "chanted" her own "hymns" until her own less-premature death in her fifties!

And it is well recognized that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the Shakespeare plays of greatest allusive significance in Austen’s novels. Again, Mitford does not boast about her own literary erudition – but, like Austen, she lays it out there subtly, to be appreciated by others in the know.

That brings me to the end of my first section. The above data points collectively bolster Looser’s case that Mitford was indeed the author of the 1823 mock letter. Now I turn to the evidence I see for a further leap, also based on the verbiage in it, which we may plausibly make about Mitford’s knowledge about Jane Austen’s life beyond the pages of her letters, or what she might have heard about JA while JA was alive.

APRIL FOOL’S DAY:  Looser: “The letter is signed, “JANE FISHER. Little Chatterton, April 1, 1823”. Then as now, that date was known as April-Fool day.”

Indeed we must infer that a mock letter dated April 1 was intended to be taken as a satire. In that regard, perhaps some of you are not aware that, as I first noted in 2006, Jane Austen also wrote, in 1809 and then again in 1816, letters dated April 1. And both of those letters are famous today among Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike, because they are, to my mind clearly, also mock letters!

If anyone has any doubt that Jane Austen was entirely conscious of playing an April Fool’s joke on the cosmically foolish James Stanier Clarke in her April 1, 1816 letter about her own supposed authorial abilities, and even more so about his boss, the Prince Regent, whom Austen skewers on multiple levels in Emma (in the ‘Prince of Whales’ secret answer to Mr. Elton’s charade), then consider her April 1, 1809 letter from “Mrs. Ashton Dennis” (Miss Austen Denies?), in which JA demands that Crosby – who perhaps was involved in some sort of “catch and kill” scheme? --- publish NA, and further offers to produce another copy of same if somehow Crosby had mislaid the original submitted in 1798.

And note in particular that the 1809 letter had to do with publication of Northanger Abbey, which is at the center of Mitford’s mock letter.

And finally, from Joan Klingel Ray’s 2007 article, I note that the date of the “single blessedness” letter by Mitford was April 3, 1815, only two days after April Fool’s Day that year.

But how would Mitford have known about either of those mock letters written by Jane Austen, which would not be published until long after Mitford’s death?

Read on….

THE LOITERER:  The tone of Mitford’s mock letter very much reminds me of the Sophia Sentiment letter in The Loiterer from 1789, as to which I am of the party who believes it was written by the 14 year old Jane Austen.

But how would Mitford have known about the Sophia Sentiment letter (likely) written by Jane Austen?

Read on….

LETTERS OF GOLD IN PERSUASION: Continuing the quote from the 1823 Lady’s Magazine piece about the shining non-burning object in “Miss Jane Fishers”’s dream:

“…and as [the ghost of JA] removed it from me, I perceived it was a highly gilt and ornamented edition of Persuasion, another of the works of that authoress I so much admired. I started as the gold letters met my eye, and, when I awoke, I communicated the vision to Kitty, who declared the omen not only good, but infallible, and excited my already raised ambition to tread in the steps of the amiable person whom I proposed to myself as a model.”

It seems to me far beyond coincidence, that Mitford’s reference to “the gold letters” of the glittering edition of Persuasion corresponds so uncannily closely to Cassandra’s marginalia in her personal copy of one particular Austen novel --- Persuasion --- which CEA placed next to the following passage:

“How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

What did Cassandra write in the margin?: 
‘Dear dear Jane! This deserves to be written in LETTERS OF GOLD.


To me the most plausible inference to be made from the last three points in particular, but also all the prior points, is that Mitford, as she began, in 1822, to work to produce a suitable essay about Jane Austen’s writing, would have taken the very natural step of reaching out to Cassandra Austen! If Mitford had access to JA’s two April Fool’s letters (which CEA still had possession of), Issue #9 of The Loiterer (CEA would have kept a copy of any of those pieces written by JA), and most tellingly of all, CEA’s own copy of Persuasion with JA’s marginalia, this can only have happened if CEA has provided that access! And for good measure, perhaps CEA would also have shared with Mitford some of the Austen family charades, including those written by JA herself.

After all, we know from JA’s surviving letters that the Russells were no strangers to the Austens:

Letter 11, 11/17-18/98, to CEA: "[Madam Lefroy] showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs. Russell to his notice at Cambridge)..."

Letter 14, 12/18-19/98, to CEA: "I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there; Lucy [Lefroy] is to go with Mrs. Russell...."

Letter 18, 01/21-23/99, to CEA: "Our ball on Thursday was a very poor one, only eight couple and but twenty three people in the room; but it was not the ball's fault, for we were deprived of two or three families by the sudden illness of Mr. Wither, who was seized that morning at Winchester with a return of his former alarming complaint. An express was sent off from thence to the family; Catherine and Miss Blachford were dining with Mrs. Russell..."

Le Faye’s index entry for JA's epistolary Mrs. Russell:

"Probably the widow 1794 of Francis Russell of Basingstoke, and therefore probably a connection by marriage of Revd. Dr. Richard Russell (1695-1783), vicar of Overton 1719-71 and rector of Ashe 1729-83. This Dr. Russell, predecessor at Ashe of the Lefroy family, was the grandfather of Mary Russell Mitford, authoress, best known for her Our Village essays."

It is hardly a great leap to put all of the above evidence together, and allow the possibility that Cassandra actually gave her blessing and encouragement, including loan of documentation, to Mary Russell Mitford to create such a lovely homage of Jane Austen, better than any dry essay of facts or literary analysis, but instead a piece written “in letters of gold” embodying the satirical, witty spirit of the late original. NA in particular among JA’s novels, with its satirical tone and overt literariness, would be the perfect focal point of such a loving, sly, erudite satire.

And with those letters of electrons, I will now end this post, and hope that I have not offended the ghost of either Jane Austen or Mary Russell Mitford.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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