We would like to thank Rosemont College for inviting us to speak about the genesis of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter and the current state of Austen paraliterature, at a lovely afternoon tea held in the Main Building on Rosemont’s campus. Particular thanks go to Professor Mary Ann Macartney and President Sharon Hirsh for making us so welcome, and to the “clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation” who attended the event.
Archive for April, 2012
“The Play, on Saturday, is, I hope, to conclude our Gaities here….” Wrote Jane Austen from Bath in June, 1799. The play referred to was a comic melodrama by the popular playwright Augustus von Kotzebue, The Birthday, also known under the titles The Reconciliation (Die Versöhnung), Fraternal Discord, and The Veteran Tars, the title varying with the translator.
The plot of The Birthday/The Reconciliation/Fraternal Discord/The Veteran Tars concerns the invalid Mr. Philip Bertram, his devoted daughter Charlotte, his estranged twin brother Captain Bertram, and the kind-hearted doctor, Bloomfield. Charlotte has vowed never to abandon her invalid father for a husband, unless, as Bloomfleid proposes, “But suppose there was a man willing and able to…make a third in the circle of domestic felicity, who would dwell under your roof…”- the same proposal Mr. Knightley makes to Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. The play concludes with a reconciliation between the brothers being effected by Charlotte and Bloomfield. Mr. Bertram throws off his crutches, the brothers embrace, and Charlotte, presumably, is released from her pledge.
Austen’s situation in life did not permit her to be a regular theatre-goer, but it would have been unusual for even an occasional patron to avoid seeing a play by Kotzebue, who, critics notwithstanding (Sir Walter Scott declared that Kotzebue’s work displayed “…an affectation of attributing noble and virtuous sentiments to the persons least qualified by habit or education to entertain them”) was among the most prolific and widely produced playwrights of the latter 18th and early 19th century. If Austen did not catch one of his plays while at Bath, she might have seen one in London; Kotzebue’s plays were frequently to be seen at Covent Garden, The Haymarket and the Drury Lane. His plays were produced everywhere, from Russia to the United States. Of the six new German plays produced for the 1798-1799 New York season, four were Kotzebue works; twenty years later, of the seven German works produced for the New York stage, five were Kotzebue works.
It was a Kotzebue play, in fact, that Austen selected to work into the plot of Mansfield Park. When the young people gather at the Bertram household to put up a play, they immediately reject Shakespeare, the popular tragedies The Gamester and Douglas – though Tom Bertram was familiar with the latter, as his “I am sure my name was Norval-“ (the main character in Douglas) “- every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.” They reject several comedies, though Tom Bertram, who has his eye on two of the choice roles, suggests The Heir at Law five times. At last they settle upon Lover’s Vows, aka A Child of Love, and The Natural Son. This adaptation of Kotzebue’s play was the work of the actress/playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, who is sometimes credited as the writer, though hers was only one of three English translations that appeared in the same year. It is likely that the Bertrams and their friends decided upon the Inchbald translation, over the more faithful ones by Stephen Porter and Anne Plumptre because it re-formed the work to exclude the elements of illegitimacy, which may have been tolerable on the London stage, but would not have been tolerated by Edmund Bertram.
“We have got Fitz-Albini; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed.“ So wrote Jane Austen to Cassandra in late 1798. Despite her reservations, she did add that, “That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe.” Austen goes on to write that she is less disappointed in the work than her father because “I expected nothing better” and writes several more lines about her reservations regarding the work
So what is this minor work that is an affront to the “private wishes” and “feelings” of young (just shy of age 23) Jane Austen, but which she will read nonetheless?
Arthur Fitz-Albini(1798) is the title character of a novel by Samuel Egerton Brydges (later Sir Samuel; he was made a baronet in 1814), genealogist, editor, bibliophile, poet and novelist. It can be inferred from biographical information, that Egerton Brydges was a person whose ambition exceeded his abilities – not that his abilities were negligible, but his conduct suggested an inflated sense of worth. At the time of Arthur Fitz-Albini’s publication, Egerton Brydges was in the thick of a costly thirteen-year legal battle to claim a barony. His claim was eventually rejected, and it was strongly suggested, even in the obituary published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, that he had “tampered…with the documentary evidence” to support his “favorite illusion”.
Though Arthur Fitz-Albini was published when Egerton Brydges was a mature thirty-six, it was less a novel than a thinly-disguised and somewhat intemperate airing of his real, or perceived, disenchantments, grievances and injuries by way of his title character/alter ego. Young Arthur’s ambition is to seek out “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate [his] character”, a character that Egerton Brydges describes as having the eloquence of a senator, the independence of a country gentleman, and the spirit but not the tyranny of a feudal chief. Arthur’s parliamentary ambitions are thwarted by his father, and his refined sensibilities are offended in equal measure by the vanities of Londoners and the ignorance of country-folk. There are flashes of insight, if not self-diagnosis in the author’s description of Arthur/himself. He describes “an inequality of temper and mind” and displays of “indignation and haughtiness…which seem by fits to possess him.”
What we now know about certain forms of mental and emotional illness would make an interesting diagnosis of the author. Egerton Brydges approached his education with an attitude that fluctuated between intense focus and indifference, he studied law without having any apparent enthusiasm for it. From his first marriage, at age 24, he lived in the country, then in town, then purchased a country estate into which he poured thousands of pounds. Following a second marriage, he secured a seat in Parliament for six years, and afterward left England, eventually settling in Geneva. In the foreword to the reprint of his 1819 novel, Sir Ralph Willoughby: An Historical Tale of the Sixteenth Century, it is noted that the author lived his last years in virtual seclusion and “…has scarcely quitted his bed” and “During the latter part of his life, he never shaved and his white beard and hair gave him a most venerable and patriarchal appearance” to go with the manners described as “eccentric”. This brief biographical note is followed by the author’s fifteen-page introduction that fluctuates from high-flown to humble.
What is it about Fitz-Albini that set off Jane Austen to such a degree? She writes of the novel’s “many characters” and “very little story…told in a strange, unconnected way”; yet, it is hard to believe that Austen, who enjoyed novels such as the burlesque The Heroine, or the convoluted Margiana, or Widdrington Tower would object to a number of characters or a meandering plot. Her sense of his family’s shame, with such thinly disguised characters that Austen could recognize some of them (“We have not been able to recognize any of them hitherto – i.e., so far – except Dr. and Mrs. Hay and Mr. Oxenden”) was so off-putting that she refers to the author as ”Egerton”, omitting the “Brydges” that was the maiden name of her much-admired neighbor and confidante Anne Lefroy.
It is possible that Austen’s feelings had another source of dissatisfaction. Mrs. Lefroy was the aunt (by marriage) of Tom Lefroy, and despite the two years that had elapsed since Jane’s flirtation with Tom when he visited his relations, she has not forgotten him. Only a week before the Fitz-Albini letter, Jane had written to Cassandra of a visit from Mrs. Lefroy, and her (Jane’s) attempts to get her father and brother out of the way in the hope that Mrs. Lefroy might confide something of Tom. But “…of her nephew, she said nothing at all” until Jane’s father enquired about him. Perhaps Austen’s dormant “private wishes” had been stirred up by the portrait of the young, ambitious Fitz-Albini. Perhaps, unlike Mr. Collins, Jane cannot “reflect with augmented satisfaction” upon the proposal which never materialized, and an acceptance that might have involved her in the Brydges/Lefroy “sorrow and disgrace” incurred by Egerton Brydges’ fictionalized tell-all.
We will be guests and featured speakers at a Jane Austen High Tea on Sunday, April 22 at 2 PM, given by Rosemont College, 1400 Montgomery Avenue, Rosemont, PA. The public is invited; however, you must submit the RSVP form that you will find by clicking on the link below, so that the organizers may have a head count.
The event will be hosted by Professor Mary Ann Macartney, to whom Lady Vernon and Her Daughter was dedicated.
“Tomorrow, I shall be just like Camilla in Mr. Dubster’s summer-house; for my Lionel will have taken away the ladder by which I came here, or at least by which I intended to get away and here I must stay till his return.” So wrote Jane Austen to Cassandra in 1796, when her return to Steventon was delayed because none of her brothers were able to escort her. She describes her predicament by alluding to one of the most popular novels of the day, Fanny Burney’s Camilla. In one chapter, the title character and her sister climb a ladder to examine an elevated summer-house; the ladder is removed by their mischievous brother, Lionel, who rides off and leaves them stranded.
Exclusive of Austen’s reference to Camilla, it may be inferred that Austen was a reader of Burney. Fanny Burney’s first three novels – Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796)– were “coming of age” novels, which usually involved the heroine’s departure from home and her introduction to a to a society that requires her to make romantic and moral choices. You see this influence in Austen; in all of her novels, save for Emma, significant episodes occur when the heroine leaves the family home. (And, in the case of Emma, this is true of Jane Fairfax). The two authors’ works share a common element: that the vanity, ignorance, prejudices, but also the morality, which had incubated in the family circle are tested against the failings and merits of a broader environment and a new set of acquaintances.
When Austen wrote her earliest complete works – the work later titled Lady Susan, and Elinor and Marianne, which became Sense and Sensibility - they were written in the epistolary fashion of Evelina . Moreover, when the Reverend Mr. Austen attempted to interest Burney’s publisher in his daughter’s early work (most reports state that the work was First Impressions; an auction notice offering the signed portion of Mr. Austen’s letter suggests that it was Sense and Sensibility), he makes a comparison, in length, to Evelina.
Austen followed up Elinor and Marianne with First Impressions; however, by the time of its publication, there was already a popular novel titled First Impressions, or The Portrait (by Mrs. Margaret Holford), so Austen drew upon the final chapter of Cecilia for her Plan B title, Pride and Prejudice. Cecilia’s plot revolves around a conditional bequest, wherein a young lady’s inheritance depends upon her suitor’s consent to assume her family surname. (Derived, perhaps, from the actual situation of real-life heiress Mary Eleanor Bowes). In bringing the complications to conclusion, the summation, given by the character Lyster, states: “The whole of this unfortunate business has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE…if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.” (Yes, it is rendered in upper case in the printing).
However, one might wonder whether Austen drew upon the work of another Burney in crafting some of her characters. In 1807, she writes of re-reading the novel Clarentine (1796) by Sarah Burney (Fanny’s step-sister): “We are reading Clarentine and are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a second reading than the first, and it does not bear a third at all.” And yet, there is something very Marianne Dashwood about Clarentine’s assertion that, “It is equally impossible for me to forget, or not to feel”, and something quite Darcy-like in Sir Edgar’s “…reserve, which frequently cast a gloom over his features…appeared to denote an unsocial and contemptuous disposition in himself [which] had often displeased her extremely and led her, very naturally, to suspect him of a degree of arrogance and pride.”
If Austen’s assessment of Sarah Burney’s contrived plotting is that it is “full of unnatural conduct and forced difficulties, without striking merits of any kind”, she is good-natured enough to take such criticism to task as well in Northanger Abbey, by citing embarrassed novel-readers who confess that, “’It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’, or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed.”