If you want superb writing and amazing delineations of character, you can't top Jane Austen. If you want a female author of the Regency period who discusses slavery, the status of women, race and class, there are plenty of writers who were more explicit on these issues. Trying to re-imagine Austen into being someone she's not makes no sense to me.
It used to be the conventional wisdom that Jane Austen didn't express political opinions in her novels—that if you read Austen, you'd barely notice there was a war going on. Now, modern scholars argue that she does express political opinions, but they are oblique and subversive.
Austen had to be covert, they explain, because opinions were dangerous in general and opinions from women were not acceptable. In Austen's time, you could get sent to prison for writing or publishing anything deemed too critical of the King or the government, as I've mentioned before. Some scholars have pointed to this fact when suggesting that Austen's novels contained veiled allusions to the events of her day—veiled, that is, because she had to protect herself from reprisals.
The unhappy Royal marriage became a politicized issue. At the time of Ryley's novel, the princess had survived an official enquiry (called the "delicate investigation") into a rumour that she had had an illegitimate son (this at a time when King George’s four sons had dozens of illegitimate children). Ryley puts her opinions in the mouth of her character Mrs. Bloomfield, whom we met in the previous post.
Mrs. Bloomfield declares “There is, at this moment, but one topic of conversation from Hyde Park-corner to Tower-wharf... I tell you [the princess] has everything to dread from a cabal headed by __________ but I won’t call names, though my tongue can scarcely be kept within bounds.” (In keeping with the conventions of the day, when Mrs. Bloomfield mentions a politician or a Royal personage, the name is blanked out. This provided a legal fig leaf against being sued for libel.)
“The investigation has certainly acquitted the [Princess] of criminality,” said Lady Ann [the heroine's mother]; “but imprudence must attach to her.”
“Define what imprudence is, my dear lady,” replied the Widow, “before you attack her with it.”
“A want of decorum, —the improper admission of male visitors—"
“This is imprudence in England, but it bears another interpretation on the continent. A want of decorum here is the height of decorum in other countries; and, it would be cruel indeed, situated as she is, to limit the number or sex of her visitors. Listen, my dear Madam, to a short history….”
Then Mrs. Bloomfield gives a lengthy recap of Caroline of Brunswick’s history and the cruel way she was treated by the Prince Regent, concluding with “Every virtuous heart burns with indignation at her wrongs, and curses the foul faction that oppress injured and exalted worth.”
This lengthy editorial has nothing to do with the plot of the story. Ryley chose to announce her allegiance to #TeamCaroline, which pits her against the supporters of the Regent. But wait, there's more!
“After discussing many fashionable topics [at Fanny’s birthday party], Mrs. Bloomfield descanted upon what she pleased to call the faults of the Regent. No one choosing, however, to controvert, or second her, we suppose the company thought the time or place ill suited for such discussion. But the widow consulted neither, when the foibles or follies of the great appeared to deserve reprehension; in such case no delicacy appalled her--no punctilio restrained the license of her speech—she dashed through thick and thin, and the more elevated her object, the more spirited were her philippics.”
Mrs. Bloomfield also drops a chatty mention of an “unaccountable [political] transaction” into her correspondence with Lady Anne: "How do the Devon politicians relish the re-appointment of a R___l D___e to the situation his enlightened countrymen thought him unworthy to occupy? … what then are we to think of an appointment which runs counter to the wishes of the people; an appointment neither sanctioned by judgment or policy, but that it betrays weakness or depravity; and, in either case, reduces the rising sun to a mere rush-light.”
For R___l D___e, read “Royal Duke.” I believe Mrs. Bloomfield is referencing Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the second son of King George III, who had recently been re-appointed to his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. I think the “rising sun” must be a reference to the Regent but I'm not certain. Perhaps Mrs. Bloomfield is suggesting that if younger brother Frederick is at the head of the army during a time of global conflict against Napoleon, he will outshine the Regent, who is busy overseeing the decorations of his pavilion at Brighton or something.
Ryley throws some shade at another Royal Prince when Lord Moseley escorts the ladies to the Opera. During the interval, “Lord Moseley entertained his young friends by pointing out different characters of celebrity in the fashionable and political world. Amongst the former, he drew their attention to the wealthy Miss T___y L____g, who preferring love and a commoner to ambition and a R_____l D____e, had set her sex an example worthy of imitation.”
“And has your Lordship,” asked Lady Ann, “so poor an opinion of the sex as to suppose this a rare instance of humility? For my own part, I cannot see the excessive merit in such a refusal; the wonder to me would have been that any female in her situation could have acted otherwise. Youth, health, splendour, and the man of her choice, when contrasted with the comparative age, dissipation, debt, and indifference—and to add the greatest objection of all, the father of ten [illegitimate] children… I say, when the two characters are considered, the female must not only want delicacy, but be absolutely depraved, to barter the affections of her heart even for the high sounding title of a R____l Duchess.”
The characters are speaking of the real-life heiress Catherine Tylney Long, who turned down a proposal of marriage from Prince William, the third son of George III, who was deeply in debt and already had a mistress and a family. Sadly, Miss Tylney Long's chosen husband turned out to be a useless wastrel and a profligate and their marriage was miserable. If the heiress had married William, she would have become Queen Catherine, because William briefly held the throne after his older brother died.
In any case, Ryley's support of Princess Caroline and Catherine Tylney Long appears to reflect the maxim that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
It is said that Austen did not write all-male dialogues. There are some brief dialogues in Austen's novels, but Ryley includes entire scenes at gentlemen’s clubs and dinners where the men discourse on politics. During one of these, she goes after a “stubborn and inflexible politician, whose only merit was consistency, and the lustre of that was diminished, by his constant support of a weak cause.” He is described as being very flexible “in private life,” because he was always agreeing to do something and causing “bitter disappointment... for those, whose petitions or requests are forgotten the moment his word is passed to assist or relieve them.”
"Much more discourse, generally, to S_____n’s disadvantage, resulted from this observation…”
I don't know who S_____n is and I hope somebody can tell me.
In another conversation, young Lord Moseley talks about his dislike of faction and party. His cynical father Lord Mountcastle always represents the interests of the aristocracy and the landed gentry. Moseley admires “one independent member” of Parliament “who will never act against what he thinks the rule of right, or barter self approbation for pecuniary or honourary rewards.”
His father replies, “The person you allude to is as great as enthusiast as you are, and not less a martyr to popular opinion…. The Baronet, to whom you seem so partial, is rich and independent; but, see him reduced to comparative poverty, and there will be an end of his vaunted patriotism.”
I think they are speaking of the reform politician Sir Francis Burdett, who married an heiress to the Coutts banking fortune. The word "enthusiast" is not a compliment.
Again, Ann Ryley is letting her freak flag fly. Sir Francis was extremely popular with the people, not with the establishment. In 1810, he was arrested for publishing a blistering editorial against the government. There were riots in the street in his support. He spent some time in the Tower of London but then returned to his parliamentary duties.
It's clear that Ann Ryley was very interested in politics and current events and had no qualms about sharing her opinions. Fanny Fitz-York poses a bit of a challenge to the assertion that women could not be outspoken in Austen's time. Aha, but maybe that's why Fanny Fitz York did not get reviewed when it came out.
Perhaps, but a lot of novels never got reviewed. We can only speculate. I think if Ryley's novel had been considered truly outrageous, someone would have commented on it. Also, the Dictionary of National Biography (in the entry about her husband) said the novel was "successful," an assessment which must have been based on some kind of evidence.
One data point does not a refutation make, but there is certainly a striking contrast between Ryley and Austen.