Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. I’ve also been blogging about now-obscure authors of the long 18th century. For more, click "Authoresses" on the menu at right. Click here for the first in the series.
I previously wrote about Elizabeth Helme in this blog post. She was a hard-working author who enjoyed considerable popular success although she died in illness and poverty.
I would not say that Helme was an "influence" on Austen in the sense that Austen emulated her. I would not compare Helme to Samuel Johnson, Cowper, or Fanny Burney--all writers whom Austen particularly admired. However, I think the evidence is clear that Austen read Helme's novels and made use of some of her dialogue, characters, and plot contrivances.
In this case, the novel I'm speaking of is called Albert, or, The Wilds of Strathnavern. It contains a character named Colonel O'Bryen, who I argue is the prototype of Admiral Croft.
Albert also makes use of private theatricals for plot purposes. Some Austen scholars have pointed to other contemporary novels which mention private theatricals as the possible source for Austen's use of Lover's Vows in Mansfield Park, but in Albert, the private theatricals are--as with Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford--used for the purposes of seduction....
The New London Review said: "There is some ingenuity in the construction of this novel, and an agreeable diversity in the dramatis personae, that entitles its author to be ranked, though not in the first, yet not below the second class of novelists. Her language, however, is frequently incorrect, and sometimes, we think unnecessarily debased by colloquial expletives and barbarisms." (This is a reference to Colonel O'Bryen's dialogue. He says "Zounds" and "What the Pie" a lot.)
Colonel O'Bryen is a rich uncle who gives his fortune to his niece and nephew. The convenient rich uncle was a common plot device of the time, as I've noted in this blog post.
I won't recap my entire article here, but I will add that an alternate or additional source of inspiration for Admiral Croft's sanguine attitude to matrimony might be that sailors apparently had the reputation for quick courtships in general. In an 1817 novel, Elizabeth, Her Lover and Husband, Captain Beverly marries in haste: “With the proverbial carelessness of a sailor, he married a widow lady, after having seen her three times at a place of public amusement…. This union was productive of but little happiness-contracted without any knowledge on his side of her character, habits, or pursuits, and on hers from pecuniary, or, as they are sometimes called, prudential considerations.”
Of course, Admiral and Mrs. Croft's marriage worked out very well.
I had known that sailors had the reputation of spending their money quickly once they reached port, and some kept "a girl in every port," but perhaps they also had a reputation for hasty marriages. If there is a specific proverb about sailors and carelessness, I don't know about it.
| || |
Breaking a Head and Giving a Plaster
Speaking of proverbs, Admiral Croft uses the expression: "breaking a head and giving a plaster," meaning to give someone an injury and then offer them a remedy for the injury. Plasters, plaisters, or poultices were called "emplastrums" by doctors and apothecaries. These were topical salves which could be prepared at home and applied to various parts of the body, held on with paper or cloth. The best-known example is the mustard plaster for chest colds and coughs. In the TV series Tales from the Green Valley, domestic historian Ruth Goodman prepares a mustard plaster for her colleague Alex Langlands (at 20:00). She adds that most home remedies were merely placebos. "Mind you," she says, "one shouldn't underestimate the power of a placebo."
The on-going joke in Persuasion is that Admiral Croft thinks that getting married simply consists of proposing to the nearest pretty girl. There are also several notable occasions when Admiral Croft makes candid comments about finding a wife for Frederic Wentworth. The reader shares Anne's consciousness of her love for Wentworth and the pain that the admiral's remarks cause her. When he is giving Anne a ride back to her sister's house, he remarks to Mrs. Croft: "He certainly means to have one or other of those two [Musgrove] girls, Sophy, but there is no saying which. He has been running after them, too, long enough, one would think, to make up his mind."
Later, when he encounters Anne on the sidewalks to Bath, he remarks: "I think we must get him to Bath. Sophy must write, and beg him to come to Bath. Here are pretty girls enough, I am sure."
I differ with scholar James Heldman's speculation that Admiral and Mrs. Croft's remarks about the Musgrove girls are knowing and conniving hints designed to spur the lovers back together again. I did not get into this question in my JASNA article, but I might as well discuss it here. In the first place, if these are in fact knowing hints, they are cruel -- taunting a woman who loves Captain Wentworth with the assurance that he is going to marry one of the Musgrove girls.
Austen tells us that "Mrs. Croft always met [Anne] with a kindness which gave her the pleasure of fancying herself a favourite." Sure, it is quite possible that Mrs. Croft would think to herself, "Now, here is a lovely and intelligent lady. Why doesn't Frederic try for her?" But it would be indelicate, vulgar, and pointless for her to hint anything of the sort of Anne directly. If she thought they would make a good match, she would say so to her brother.
And given the Admiral's bluntness, if he DID suspect an attachment, he would also say as much to his brother-in-law. He would ask him, why haven't you popped the question to Anne Elliot? Why are you flirting with the Musgrove girls right in front of her? Austen gives us no conversations between Admiral Croft and Frederic Wentworth, or between the Crofts, separate from those conversations which take place with Anne.
And what is Anne supposed to do about it? How would teasing her accomplish anything? Under the conventions of the time, she could not declare her love to Captain Wentworth.
Finally, if the Crofts had a secret agenda which helped to bring about the denouement, Austen would tell us so at the end--she'd have a speech where the Admiral crows: "Aha, Miss Anne! My secret plan to get Frederic to propose to you by telling you he was planning to marry just about anybody else, has worked!" And there is no such speech.
Austen describes Admiral Croft as having "goodness of heart" and "simplicity of character." He is not conniving, sly, or manipulative. I think Austen's authorial intent is clear--the reader is supposed to understand that Admiral Croft is completely unsuspecting of an attachment between Frederic and Anne.
I chiefly embarked on a study of 18th century novels to investigate whether Austen was as radical in her social views as some modern critics claim. I swiftly found many authors who were more outspoken than Austen, and Helme is one of them. In her novel The Farmer of Inglewood Forest, for example, Helme condemns slavery.
In Albert, or the Wilds of Strathnarven, there is a lot of push-back against class barriers. Most of the bad people are the ones who are high up on the social scale. Villagers and servants are portrayed as being morally impeccable and devout. Two virtuous women reject the class system, marry the men they love, and are ostracized by their families. The novel celebrates self-reliance and the rising merchant class. Several landowners are portrayed as selfish and heartless toward their tenants. A man marries a girl who was seduced by the villain, that is, he does not blame her for being a "fallen woman." Even the Presbyterian church in Scotland comes in for some harsh criticism. Taken together, It's a far stronger critique of English society than anything Austen ever wrote.
Next post: The first in a new series about Mansfield Park and the theme of education
Heldman, James. "The Crofts and the Art of Suggestion in Persuasion: A Speculation," Persuasions #15, 1993, 46-52.