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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 16, 2019

Happy Birthday Jane Austen (244th) & Mary Russell Mitford (232nd)! (and Jane Fisher’s sister Kitty)

[NOTE: Since I first wrote my first post yesterday [ ] about Mary Russell Mitford’s 1823 mock letter about Jane Austen, I've listened to Devoney Looser's recent appearance on the TLS podcast. In it, Looser said that only after she had written her TLS piece detailing her discovery, did she then learn that Jennie Batchelor had spoken at Chawton House back in 2017 about that same Mitford 1823 mock letter. Looser has thus very properly acknowledged the earlier work of Batchelor, who apparently has taken a different tack, and has a book chapter in process that focuses on how Mitford's letter relates to the famous Defence of the Novel in Northanger Abbey.]

Also since I wrote my first post, I’ve dug up some more goodies, which make the Mitford allusion to Austen that much more interesting, remarkable, and personal.


It is serendipitous that this second post of mine on this topic of Austen and Mitford is “born” on December 16, which is the birthday of both of these literary English gentlewomen! As my Subject Line indicates, Mitford was 12 years younger than Austen, and so she was only 26 when she read P&P, and wrote this “pert” and “worldly” review of P&P in a late 1814 letter:

“The want of elegance is almost the only want in Miss Austen […] It is impossible not to feel in every line of P&P, in every word of Elizabeth, the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! They were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. He is of all the admirable characters the best designed and the best sustained.”

It’s interesting to wonder about what might have changed for Mitford in her assessment of JA between then and 1823 – or was it just that the character of Elizabeth struck her the wrong way –and how interesting that she used the same word, ‘pert’, to describe Elizabeth, as Sir Walter Scott used in his 1816 review of Austen’s writing.

Perhaps the following comment in a June 1819 letter gives a clue to a possible evolution in Mitford’s literary taste: '[T]he greatest pleasure in reading is to be critical & fastidious, & laugh at, & pull to pieces.'

If any writing would meet the test of that sort of intense close reading, it would be Jane Austen’s, and it certainly seems that reading the last 4 published Austen novels, which I believe she did, by 1823, did not disappoint Mitford, and apparently turned her into a hardcore proto-Janeite.


In her TLS article Looser wrote:  
If we believe that Jane Fisher is the creation of Mitford, and if we conclude that the letter’s contents are based on Mitford’s poking fun at her own author-envy, then it’s only a small leap to conclude that Miss Hinton’s reports stand behind the mock-letter, too. Hinton could be the real-life inspiration for Kitty Fisher’s fictional, portrait-making friend, the one who portrays Austen’s plump face, genius nose, and hair and chin resembling — Jane Fisher’s. (Or Mitford’s? Where do fact and fiction meet?)”

What Looser did not catch, is that any contemporary reader of Mitford’s mock letter who realized that Jane Fisher’s unmarried sister was therefore Kitty Fisher, would immediately think of one of the most notorious English courtesans of the 18th century!:

Perhaps you wonder if this is just a coincidence, in an England which had more than a few Kitty Fishers in it. Well, if you want some evidence that Mitford knew exactly who the historical Kitty Fisher was, let me take you to an excerpt from a short story called “Cobus Yerks” written by Mitford in 1832 (9 years after she wrote the mock letter) as part of an anthology entitled  Lights and Shadows of American Life.

As you read it, please take note not only of the two references to “butterflies” (as in Mitford’s famous quotation of her mother’s harsh judgment on the young Jane Austen), but also the reference not only to “the renowned Kitty Fisher”, but also to Constantia Phillips. She was another famous real life courtesan from the mid-18th century, whose memoir was woven into a complex intertextuality with Richardson’s Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, having to do with the plight of a single woman after she is raped (which was the cruel fate suffered by the very young real life Constantia Phillips):

“Silent was the sonorous harmony of the big spinning-wheel, silent the village song, and silent the fiddle of Master Timothy Carty, who passed his livelong time in playing tuneful measures, and catching beetles and BUTTERFLIES.
I must say something of Tim, before I go on with my tale. Master Timothy was first seen in the village one foggy morning, after a drizzling warm showery night, when he was detected in a garret, at the extremity of the suburbs, and it was the general supposition that he had rained down in company with a store of little toads, that were seen hopping about, as is usual after a shower. Around his garret were disposed a number of unframed pictures, painted on glass as in the olden time, representing the four seasons, the old King of Prussia, and Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, in their sharp-pointed cocked hats, the fat, bald-pated Marquis of Granby, the beautiful Constantia Phillips, and divers others, NOT FORGETTING THE RENOWNED KITTY FISHER, who, I honestly confess, was my favourite among them all.
The whole village poured into the garret to gaze at these chef d'oeuvres, and it is my confirmed opinion, which I shall carry to the grave, that neither the gallery of Florence, Dresden, nor the Louvre, was ever visited by so many real amateurs. Besides the pictures, there were a great many curiosities to the simple villagers, who were always sure of being welcomed by Master Tim with a jest and a tune. Master Tim, as they came to call him when they got to be a little acquainted, was a rare fellow, such as seldom rains down any where, much less on a country village. He was of “merry England,” as they call it—lucus a non lucendo — at least so he said and I believe, although he belied his nativity by being the merriest rogue in the world, even when the fog was at the thickest. In truth he was ever in good humour, unless it might be when a rare beetle or gorgeous BUTTERFLY, that he had followed through thick and thin, escaped his net at last. Then, to be sure, he was apt to call the recreant all the “d-d vagabonds” he could think of.”

And note also that the ‘garret’ of “Master Tim” sounds suspiciously like Fanny Price’s attic, in the idiosyncratic gallery of pictures hanging on its walls!

So what does this mean about the “Kitty Fisher” in Mitford’s mock letter in 1823? Does it inject a subliminal aura of rape and prostitution? And if so, does that have anything to with Mitford’s mother having described the young Jane Austen as a “husband-hunting butterfly”, which is very much the way the unchaste Lydia Bennet could be described in P&P? If Mitford thought Elizabeth Bennet too “pert” and “worldly” for Darcy, then what about Lydia? And then, what about the young Jane Austen?


The title of the TLS podcast interview of Devoney Looser was called “Haunted By Jane Austen” – this was surely based on the central theme in Mitford’s mock letter of Jane Austen coming to “Jane Fisher” as a ghost. But guess what, this turns out to be additional evidence that Mary Russel Mitford wrote the 1823 mock letter, because of what Mitford wrote nearly 3 decades later:

Recollections of a literary life  (1852)
“…A place full of associations is Bath. When we had fairly done with the real people, there were great fictions to fall back upon; and I am not sure, true and living human beings as Horace Walpole and Madame dArblay have shown themselves in their letters and journals—full of that great characteristic of our human nature, inconsistency, of strength and weakness, of wisdom and folly, of virtues and faults; I am not sure, eminently human as these worthies shine forth in their writings, that those who never lived except in the writings of other people—the heroes and heroines of Miss Austen, for example—are not the more real of the two.
Her exquisite story of PERSUASION ABSOLUTELY HAUNTED ME. Whenever it rained (and it did rain every day that I stayed in Bath, except one), I thought of Anne Elliott meeting Captain Wentworth, when driven by a shower to take refuge in a shoeshop. Whenever I got out of breath in climbing up-hill (which, considering that one dear friend lived in Lansdown Crescent, and another on Beechen Cliff, happened also pretty often), I thought of that same charming Anne Elliott, and of that ascent from the lower town to the upper, during which all her tribulations ceased. And when at last, by dint of trotting up one street and down another, I incurred the unromantic calamity of a blister on the heel, even that grievance became classical by the recollection of the similar catastrophe, which, in consequence of her peregrinations with the Admiral, had befallen dear Mrs. Croft. I doubt if any one, even Scott himself, have left such perfect impressions of character and place as Jane Austen.”

In a nutshell, Mitford sees “ghosts” of Persuasion’s heroine, Anne, and her eventual sister in law, Mrs. Croft, when Mitford walks the streets of Bath! And I, in turn, now find myself strangely haunted by the realization that Mary Russell Mitford was a much sharper elf than I ever dreamt of– did you know, e.g., that Mitford, at age 24, published a proto-feminist poem, “Christina, the Maid of the South Seas” about the aftermath on Pitcairn Island of The Mutiny on the Bounty, with the biracial daughter of Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian lover as the unlikely heroine – a poem that may well have influenced Byron’s 1823 "The Island"? [For more about that, read “Romancing the Pacific Isles before Byron: Music, Sex, and Death in Mitford's Christina” ELH, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Summer, 2009), pp. 277-308, authored by my new Tweep, Elisa E. Beshero-Bondar, who also happens to run the Digital Mitford Project!]

And so, one last time before I go – Happy Birthday Jane and Mary!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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