when we think of Jane Austen and news, the first person who comes to mind is doubtless Mrs. Bennet: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. . . . The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (PP 5). “News” here means gossip of the kind Mrs. Bennet’s dimmer daughters are addicted to: “Kitty and Lydia were far from envying Miss Lucas, for Mr. Collins was only a clergyman; and it affected them in no other way than as a piece of news to spread at Meryton” (PP 143). Gossip, as numerous critics have noted, is not an unmixed evil in Austen’s world. On the contrary, news is what binds the community together, and while we may, with Mr. Bennet, employ news of our neighbors chiefly to make sport of them, gossip serves the important function of also helping us know who they are. It is how the community recognizes itself, and constitutes itself; it is the medium for knowing others and for testing the judgments we make about them (Spacks). Gossipy news, as with so much else in Austen, is double-edged. Marianne may find the intrusive chattering of Mrs. Jennings purgatorial but is how individuals in a community show they care, whether through kind-hearted bungling (Mrs. Jennings) or settling scores (Lucy Steele).
But what of serious news, the kind of news that gives us the “information” that Mrs. Bennet lacks? Here we must turn to the newspapers, which, along with the navy lists, are the main source of serious information referred to in Austen’s novels. As Henry Tilney tells us—in mid-lecture to poor Catherine Morland—both sources of information have their uses. Could crimes of the Gothic sort “‘be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?’” (NA 203).
In this essay I will explore both kinds of news—gossip and information—as they percolate through Mansfield Park. I also want to ask another question. What is the relationship between Austen’s art and the news? How do her novels relate to the horizon of public information but also to the hubbub of gossip about it, as the news circulates, fashioning the mentality of the period? The question is, I think, deceptively simple. How can one grasp a vanished mentality? Newspapers are windows into the past, but the lens through which we look is both distorting and limited. Still they are an invaluable aid to us if our aim is to develop a picture of Austen’s lost world. My aim in this essay is to provide the reader with a sense of what the Hampshire Chronicle was like while developing a few thoughts on how knowing the news might help us in reading Austen better.
Jane Austen and the newspapers
My first question begs another: did Jane Austen read the Hampshire Chronicle? We don’t know, although some of her more prominent biographers, such as Park Honan and David Nokes, take it as a matter of course that she did. The reasons for thinking so are, first, it was the Austen’s local paper. Two newspapers served the area, the Chronicle, published in Winchester, and the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle, out of Portsmouth. Of the two, Winchester was closer, and more easily reached. Second, Austen casually mentions newspapers being around the place, as if an everyday thing. And finally, the Telegraph is inferior to the Chronicle: its reports tend to be shorter, it does not carry the financial, parliamentary, or political news in anything like the Chronicle’s detail, nor is it so comprehensive in scooping up national stories from the London press (Franta, para. 8).
Better does not mean it was uniformly high toned. While the political reports, financial information, and foreign news (culled from the London papers) might be more extensive than in the Telegraph, it nevertheless belongs to the proud English tradition, in matters of the press, of reporting extensively on the “news of the world,” by which is naturally meant a fairly comprehensive list of elopements, criminal conversations, and other matters relating to the heart; hair-raising burglaries, sordid rapes, infanticides without number; the public lynching of poor wretches done for unmentionable crimes; forgery rings and the inevitable execution of their members; extensive reporting on the Fancy, with its formulaic references to the claret flowing in torrents, and game contestants quickly rendered unrecognizable; duels, in all their sanguinary detail; plus prodigious feats of pedestrianism and gluttony. All of English life is there, in its pulsating, pullulating, vigor.
To date there has been only one article on Austen and the Hampshire Chronicle, by Andrew Franta. Franta provides an apt description of the experience of reading the Chronicle where the high crashes continuously into the low. As he puts it, the paper’s most striking feature (to a modern reader) is its “heterogeneous nature,” its mix of “politics and sensation,” where it lurches from “hard news” to the downright “weird”: “A sow killed lately at Minfield, Sussex, had nine pigs taken from her, one of which was headed like an elephant, and exhibited a trunk, exactly similar to the proboscis of that animal” (Franta, para 9). It’s like having the Sun, the Guardian and the Financial Times all in one paper.
The main arguments against Austen reading the Chronicle are expense and stereotypes about gender. I’ll take expense first. During the period papers were a luxury: the most common way of reading them, if one was an educated member of the middling sorts, was at a coffee house, or similar place, where one read a “borrowed” copy. Personal subscriptions were largely the preserve of gentlemen. Austen is careful to note both aspects of newspaper subscription. In Mansfield Park the plot requires that Lieutenant Price read the news, for it is there that he comes upon a juicy item of criminal conversation concerning the “captivating Mr. C” and the “beautiful Mrs. R” (MP 509), which he reports to Fanny, just as she is beginning to think better of the captivating Mr. C (note the loaded nature of “captivating”). On her return home Fanny finds that her father “was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for. He did not want abilities; but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; . . . he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross” (MP 450). How could such an unprepossessing layabout afford the paper when each issue of the Telegraph—Lieutenant Price’s likely paper—was sixpence halfpenny, or about five per cent of the weekly wage of a skilled artisan (Copeland 320)? Austen anticipates the question, earlier explaining that it was “the accustomary loan of a neighbor” (MP 441).
Gentlemen, on the other hand, frequently read the paper in Austen. When Crawford comes to the Park to visit, he has one in his hand; Mr. Palmer is always hiding behind one; Edmund picks one up in order to feign indifference as he cranes an ear to listen, hopefully, for Fanny honestly explaining a shake of her head Edmund knows to be critical of Crawford, her avowed lover; Mr. Knightley unconsciously snorts his derision at Frank Churchill’s doings over his morning paper; while the Musgrove men are presented to us, sarcastically, as utterly typical: they “had their own game to guard, and to destroy; their own horses, dogs, and newspapers to engage them; and the females were fully occupied in all the other common subjects of house-keeping, neighbours, dress, dancing, and music” (P46).
Did the Austen women have a subscription to the Chronicle at Chawton cottage? Probably not. But you can be certain Edward Knight did at the big house up the hill, which Jane would have been free to borrow. At the same time as Austen derides the Musgroves for being so typically gendered in their household (dogs and newspapers for the men; housekeeping, gossip and fashion for the women), she slips in this little detail: Anne Elliot “had only navy lists and newspapers for her authority, but she could not doubt [Captain Wentworth’s] being rich” (32). As a gentleman’s residence Kellynch Hall obviously takes the papers, and Anne reads them, being a woman of information, just like her authoress.
What Jane Austen did not write about
Before I turn to the kind of information one discovers in the Chronicle that does have a bearing on Austen’s fiction, I want to consider the type that does not. I’m interested in the ambient world of early nineteenth-century news, of public sphere conversation as it surrounded Austen; in what might have interested her, as pertinent to her fiction, as well as what was unsuitable or irrelevant.
My term for the bulk of this material is “melodrama,” although we might prefer Mr. Allen’s “unnatural and overdrawn” from Northanger Abbey (186). An obvious example is infanticide. Reading the papers one realizes there was a lot of it about, and not just nationally. In the Winchester assizes of 5 March 1810, there were three women sentenced to death for infanticide. Unwed mothers, of course, we do get in Austen, most sensationally in Colonel Brandon’s inset story of Eliza, not to mention Willoughby’s seduction of her daughter. George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, does include infanticide and the sentencing to death of Hetty Sorrell (although the sentence is ultimately suspended). Adam Bede may very well be the first English novel ever to feature a woman sentenced to hang for child murder, a not uncommon experience in the period; but whether it is or not, Hetty’s act of infanticide reads as cliché, as melodrama. Austen carefully steers clear of overheated news because it makes for overdrawn novels.
Some of the stories possess great, if also appalling, human interest. Ann Arnold is condemned on 6 September 1813 at the Gloucester assizes for drowning her toddler in order to please her new man, who doesn’t want her bastard. Rebecca Blundell, a travelling woman, aged forty, at the instigation of her black lover, William Johnson, stabs then bashes the head in of her newborn daughter with a brick, occasionally interrupting the dreadful business to smother the poor thing with hugs and kisses. While all agreed it was at the behest of her lover, the poor woman it was who carried the can, while Johnson walked (HC, 12 March 1810).
The story was one of many suggesting the surprisingly multiracial nature of Georgian England, in the press at least. There is of course the famous Molineux, the champion pugilist from Maryland, who, along with his trainer, Bill Richmond, another ex-slave and boxer, contested twice for the world championship with Tom Cribb, losing on both occasions. We read of “An elopement,” which “has, within these few days taken place from the neighborhood of Twickenham, which is at present a topic of conversation of some very respectable families there. The young lady is an only child, and her paramour is a man of colour” (HC, 8 January 1810). Two of the five mutineers on the captured French Brig, the Diana, are black (HC, 9 December 1811). In another account “A negro named Caesar,” in the service of Captain West, is caught for robbery. He escapes, is brought to bay in a stream, clouts and drowns a constable, is shot and then beaten into submission (HC, 9 October 1815).
Rape is another staple of the paper and, of course, doesn’t make it into Austen either. One example of the genre will suffice: the Chronicle of 7 August 1809 reports “a most cruel case.” Susannah Hall was out walking with one Connel, her sweetheart, from the barracks where she was the nursery maid to Captain Buntling. Three soldiers accosted them; Connel said she was a good girl; “Ryan swore he did not care what she was, for he would have her”; two of them forced her away from Connel while Ryan stood guard over him; they “dragged her through a small pond, then threw her down and violated her; afterwards Ryan did the same. This they repeated twice, Ryan the prisoner being the last man.” The victim identifies Ryan through his broken tooth in front.
Extreme misfortunes of love are another staple of the press we do not find in Austen (with the possible exception of Sense and Sensibility). A beautiful seventeen-year-old French girl, residing in London and educated there, kills herself with opium, having become frantic with despair, believing herself slighted by the handsome English officer she had become smitten with (HC, 8 January 1810). Saturday’s post, from Monday 27 August 1810, includes a duel (near Violet Hill, Newry) between a Captain V and Lieut. ——; Captain V was wounded in the groin and died immediately. The same paper reports that the landlord of the Shakespeare tavern at Halifax jumped out his window sleepwalking and died; a servant maid at Stourbridge drowned herself in the Stour on being sacked; a young man named Holles, son of a gentleman farmer, near Lothbury, Darkin, fatally cut his throat with a clasp knife in front of Miss Waterhouse, in a jealous fit, as she walked to church with his rival. All of this news is riveting stuff, but none of it is suitable for Austen’s art.
There is much else that is self-evidently ineligible for an Austen novel, such as the regular reports of truly stupefying feats of ingestion essayed for a wager. On 2 September, 1811, we hear that “A few evenings since, a man well known by the name of Hungry Joe, undertook for a trifling wager to eat two bullocks’ hearts, weighing together twelve pounds and a half, a half quartern loaf, and to drink half a gallon of porter, and half a pint of brandy, in the short space of an hour.” Admission was six pence. Alas, Hungry Joe faltered; with just a quarter pound of heart to go he was taken “extremely ill” (HC, 2 September 1811). Then there is this gem from 18 March 1811: “A Blacksmith, at Bury, undertook on Monday, for a bet of 2 guineas, to swallow 1000 oysters within an hour. He succeeded in getting down 650 in half the time when a sharp fragment of shell lodged in his throat, and he fell down senseless. A neighboring surgeon speedily gave him relief, but neither time nor inclination would admit of his resuming the undertaking.”
Although the rough and tumble, impossibly crude world of Georgian England, reported so vividly in the Chronicle, does not directly intrude into Austen’s novels, it does crowd around the edges. Perhaps the best example of such crowding is Mr. Woodhouse’s fear of housebreakers. Spend some time reading the Chronicle, and you’ll soon come to sympathize with the poor man. The burglars, footpads, and common thieves of the period did not use half measures. A couple of stories, also from 1811, will make the point. Under the strap line of “Horrid Murder and Robbery,” we read the tale of two young women, both servants, who walk together towards the house near St. Albans where one of them serves. They part halfway there. One friend stops in a public house for refreshments when two laborers come in, one with a bundle belonging to the woman’s friend. Two gentlemen accost the laborers; they search them, discovering two severed ears, with the earrings attached. A search is made, and the body of the young woman is found, beheaded and earless (HC, 4 November 1811). On the other hand the Cork assizes of September 11 inform us of the extraordinary case of Sir John Purcell, who, with only a knife, defended himself against nine armed intruders, killing two and wounding three before putting them all to flight (HC, 16 September 1811).
The newspapers in Jane Austen
But what of more direct connections? The Chronicle of 19 February 1810 reports the story of Captain Willoughby, who gallantly leads a shore patrol of one hundred men, who disable some French batteries. Is Austen making a sly comparison between the heroic Captain and his sneaking, seducing, romantic-seeming but really unheroic namesake? In Persuasion Frederick Wentworth tells the company, “‘Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me’” (P 59).
Such small paragraphs cover both naval disaster and triumph. Take the story of the Cumberland, a merchantman returning from Canada much damaged from storms off Newfoundland, with Captain Barratt at the helm. Between Dover and Folkstone the Cumberland was assailed by four French privateers with approximately 270 desperadoes on board. The first privateer rakes them with musket fire, but Barratt has ordered his men below with pikes. As the French board, he sheers off, the English sailors rush aloft and pike the French to death, those anyway who don’t jump overboard. This happens several more times before the Cumberland rakes the enemy with canon fire in return, doing much damage, taking several prisoners in the process while suffering a minimal loss of life. They are lauded as heroes, for mounting “the most gallant defense made by any merchant ship during the war.” What was the reward of the gallant merchant sailors? “The Lords of the Admiralty have, as a mark of their satisfaction, expressed their intention to grant to each of the crew of the Cumberland, a protection from the impress for the space of three years” (HC, 21 January 1811). So speaks a grateful nation.
Newspapers figure more centrally in Mansfield Park than in any other novel of Austen’s: there are thirteen mentions, whereas Persuasion has five, Northanger Abbey three, and the rest one each. Perhaps unsurprisingly Mansfield Park is especially rich in direct links to the news. When the conflicted Edmund eavesdrops on Henry and Fanny, he reads the paper, “earnestly trying to bury every sound of the business from himself in murmurs of his own, over the various advertisements of ‘a most desirable estate in South Wales’―‘To Parents and Guardians’—and a ‘Capital season’d Hunter’” (395).
As an example of an advert for a “most desirable estate” we might take this one for Bursledon House, Pleasure Ground and Land (now a children’s hospital near the University of Southampton):
An elegant, modern mansion, delightfully situated near the banks of the beautiful river Hamble, at a pleasant distance from the Sea, five miles from Southampton, 14 from Winchester, and 11 from Portsmouth and Gosport. . . . The house forms a handsome elevation, commanding a noble picturesque view of the Isle of Wight, the Sound, and rich adjacent country; has been recently finished in a style of superior taste, and contains spacious elegant drawing-rooms of fine proportions, boudoir, music room, morning room, and library, numerous bedchambers, servants’ apartments, and excellent attached offices of every description; detached are stabling for seven horses, a double coach-house, harness room, bakehouse, dairy, and other offices, poultry yard and houses, bailiff’s house, farm yard, barn, granary, stabling, cow-houses, piggery, and outbuildings. The house is nearly encircled by a handsome lawn, ornamented with timber and forest trees an elegant Greenhouse, spacious productive Kitchen Garden with lofty walls, melon ground, and valuable orchards; cottage, and a quantity of excellent arable and meadow land adjoining, and containing altogether about 26 acres. In addition a 50 acre leasehold farm. (HC, 21August 1809)
What interests me about the real estate market is that it makes clear just how fluid Georgian society was, with its boom-bust economics, inflation, speculative fever, looming credit crunch, winners and losers (Copeland). We all know better than to believe that Austen’s world—the one she actually depicts, not the one filmmakers think she does—is one of timeless country homes, with a gentry settled since Noah landed the ark. Sometimes that timelessness is indeed the case, as in Emma, where Donwell Abbey has been there since the dissolution of the monasteries. But if so, Austen is careful also to mention the obviously awful Maple Grove, outside Bristol, owned by one of Mrs. Elton’s repulsive relatives, which, we can surmise from the name, is impossibly vulgar. The adverts for desirable residences such as Bursledon House fascinate because they provide a vivid instance of how the market was turning the old order topsy-turvy: big houses embedded in the life of the country since time immemorial were actually rarer than one might think.
Big country houses were increasingly a commodity available to the highest bidder. With a cumulative inflation rate of 60% since 1797 when the Bank of England suspended cash payments (Ferguson), and with a booming agricultural sector, there were many high bidders. Mansfield Park is just such a “modern” pile. The house is new, and its adjacent farming land is frequently referred to as a “plantation” (223, 254, 500, 517), perhaps an allusion to the Bertrams’ West Indian wealth. Interestingly, in Emma, the word is used only once, when Mrs. Elton boasts that Maple Grove is surrounded by “‘an immense plantation’” (332); here again, Austen may be using the word to point up the slaving associations of Mrs. Elton’s relatives (Birchall). The sobriquet of “Park,” as much as “Grove,” suggests something suspiciously nouveau, signs that this house was just such a pile as one heard complaints of, springing up like carbuncles on the landscape, as vulgarians with large new-minted fortunes invaded the countryside armed with architectural plans. Sir Thomas is obviously not vulgar; he is, after all, a Baronet; but the clues are there to let us know that this is not Donwell Abbey, or anything like it. This is not old money dabbling in West Indian speculation; more like new West Indian money “realizing” the Home Counties dream by cashing in, just as we observe the Westons and Coles doing in Emma (Miles 74-75).
Tom’s doings remind us of the ton, and the doings of the ton frequently make a splash in the Chronicle, generally short articles featuring financial ruin. For instance we read: “One of the Four-in-Hand Club finds himself unable any longer to bang up, by unfortunately having broke down. The coachmanship of this young whip, who still is but a fifth rate, has cost him 120,000l” (HC, 28 May 1810). Catastrophic gambling losses make the papers, although not the less drastic kind that deprive Edmund of the Mansfield Park living.
When Lieutenant Price discovers that the latest “news of the world” concerns the Bertrams, the narrator provides the clipping:
“[I]t was with infinite concern the newspaper had to announce to the world, a matrimonial fracas in the family of Mr. R. of Wimpole Street; the beautiful Mrs. R. whose name had not long been enrolled in the lists of hymen, and who had promised to become so brilliant a leader in the fashionable world, having quitted her husband’s roof in company with the well known and captivating Mr. C. the intimate friend and associate of Mr. R. and it was not known, even to the editor of the newspaper, whither they were gone.” (509)
Such paragraphs are very common indeed in the Chronicle although not with quite so much helpful information. The hypocritical concern, however, is de rigeur: “Extraordinary elopement: a young lady, possessed of a very handsome fortune, and about 26 years of age, lately eloped with her uncle, who is about 60, and who deserted a wife and two children, whom he lived with at Bath, to cohabit with his niece” somewhere in London. It is, opines the Chronicle, a “disgraceful connexion” (HC, 8 January 1810). Some of the reports are quite extensive. One story relates a tale of infidelity in a “family moving in the first circles.” Mysterious notes are found accusing the lady of the house of criminal conversation. The husband investigates; the waiting maid is revealed as the letter writer. She collaborates with the husband and a trap is set. The wife and lover are discovered. It’s the footman! He is horsewhipped senseless, thrown into a cart, and bundled north, along with the disgraced wife (HC, 23 December 1811).
One of the perennial questions in the scholarship of Mansfield Park is just what Mary Crawford means by “‘Rears and Vices’” (71)? Does she simply mean vice-prone Rear-Admirals, such as her uncle, who lives openly with his mistress (Southam), or does Mary really mean sodomy (Heydt-Stevenson 138-39)? Does the pun she asks not to be suspected of (71) refer to the vices of Vice-Admirals alone, or is “rears” also a pun, meaning both a kind of admiral and sexually available posteriors, presumably of the same sex? We find it hard to believe that Mary did not intend the latter; or rather, that Austen did not mean for Mary to blurt out her off-color joke about the crime that dared not speak its name. I think the strongest argument against Mary’s meaning sodomy is that it is hard to imagine the character of Edmund being at all consistent, and for Edmund to exhibit no more disapprobation of Mary than a “grave” demeanour (71). Edmund is enough of a prig, I would have said, to have cut Mary then and there. The sort of person who would jib at playing Anhalt would turn downwind, pronto, from a woman making jokes about sodomy in polite company.
On the other hand, the notion that Austen would not have been familiar with sodomy as a common vice does not hold water, to judge by the Chronicle. It regularly features sodomy although never mentioned as such. The code, rather, is an epithet along the lines of “abominable” or “detestable.” Thus, on 22 Jan 1810, “John Carey Cole, the schoolmaster, at Dorney-Green, Bucks, charged with an abominable offense with some of his pupils, was examined at Eton, before Sir Charles Palmer, Bart., and fully committed to Aylesbury gaol, upon three capital charges.” A year later the Chronicle reports: “Saturday morning four detestable miscreants, . . . convicted at the last London sessions, were placed in the pillory at the head of the Old Bailey. An immense concourse of people attended the exhibition, and the delinquents were plentifully saluted with garbage from Gleet-market, mud, rotten eggs, and other savouries” (HC, 28 January 1811). Also from 1811 we read:
On Saturday morning, a detestable wretch, lately a butler in a gentleman’s family in the neighborhood of Wimpole Street, and who was found guilty at the last Middlesex sessions of attempting an unnatural crime, under very aggravated circumstances, stood on the pillory opposite Orchard Street. He was brought in an open cart from Coldbath fields, surrounded by an immense concourse of spectators, who testified their disgust by pelting him with rotten eggs and filth, till he was completely disfigured, and appeared almost lifeless. (HC, 18 March 1811)
Perhaps the most suggestive story comes out of Portsmouth, the end of January, 1810, just prior to Austen beginning Mansfield Park.
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Nehemiah Taylor, surgeon of his majesty’s ship Jamaica, was executed at the yard arm . . . for a detestable offense. This unfortunate gentleman was about 37 years of age. . . . His crime he confessed, with sincere repentance and contrition.” Taylor confesses to Mr. Howell, the chaplain of the ship: “Now, sir, I am willing to make a disclosure of all my sins. . . . I will tell you with whom I have been concerned in this hateful crime, which I have practiced so long and so often, and who are the persons” that brought me “into this baneful practice. Sir, this crime is more general than you are aware of—there is a society for the practice of it!—and, belonging to it, are some men whom the public look up to.”
Horrified, Howell begs Taylor not to spill the beans, lest he load his conscience with yet more sin.
In London, in France, and in the Mediterranean, he had seen the act committed, and it was not considered a crime; that having taken up the vile and baneful opinion, that he had a right to do with himself as he pleased, and was not accountable to God, he had frequently committed it; and so powerful was the influence of the vice over him, that when objects did not present themselves to him, he sought them. He now loathed himself, he saw its detestable nature, and, he hoped, and believed, that, through Christ, he should obtain it. (HC, 8 January 1810).
But to say that sodomy was a staple news item in the press is not the same as concluding we are meant to understand Mary making a seriously impolite joke. You will notice that those convicted of these “detestable acts,” as they were called, were either hanged or pilloried (often a worse fate, being no more than a slow lynching by an incensed mob armed with unspeakable “savouries”). The vice of prodding rears was not something to make light of, certainly not by a genteel woman in polite company looking to impress a prudish suitor (Southam 26-29). A joke of the kind many modern critics suspect Mary Crawford to be making would have been (I believe) certain social death. Edmund’s mild censure is not the sort of consistent reaction one would expect from a novelist for whom narrative consistency was everything.
Still, the Taylor story gives one pause. Taylor implies that sodomy is endemic in the navy and popular in higher circles, and he refers to it not as a crime but as a “vice.” While the newspaper reporting cannot settle the issue for us, it sketches the horizon of contemporary attitudes, and that horizon includes a sense that sodomy was as much a part of the everyday world of Georgian life as prodigious feats of ingestion or pedestrianism, duels, footpads, rape, and murder. If the papers were squeamish about naming the act, they were positively loquacious on its punishments. While Taylor, as a learned professional man, is allowed to swing in peace, many other detestable wretches endure, in the pillory, not just the literal ordure hurled their way but, should they survive, the figurative kind that came with having one’s name and address published in the press along with an exhaustive account of the indignities one was made to suffer.
The West Indies frequently figured in the news, seldom in a positive fashion. Apart from adjusting to the effects of the British ban on slave trading that came into effect in 1807 (but not, of course, slave-owning), West Indian planters also had to contend with a glut of sugar during the period, owing to over-production and to the depressed nature of trade with Britain. In 1810 we hear of public credit expanding, feeding economic activity in the South of England, while the North languished (to this day, familiar English economic news). The North declines “from the want of foreign markets to receive” their manufactured goods: “The late imports from the West Indies of colonial produce, came to a very flat market here, for the same reason that export to the continent of Europe is completely done away.” In other words, there were numerous reasons reported in the press for why Sir Thomas might need to visit his property in Antigua.
Perhaps more interesting is the reputation of West Indian planters, which was not good. One of the more notorious cases to hit the news was the execution of A. W. Hodge, reported 15 July 1811. Hodge was a rare case of a plantation owner executed for murdering his slaves. He flogged to death a slave named, with grim irony, “Prospero.” In another instance he poured boiling water down the throat of his cook, Margaret. There were six other counts “on similar charges.” Hodge acknowledged that he had been a cruel master; that he had repeatedly flogged his slaves; that they had then run away, when, by their own neglect, and the consequent exposure of their wounds, the death of some of them had possibly ensued. He denied all intention of causing the death of anyone, and pleaded the unruly and insubordinate dispositions of his whole gang, as the motive for his severity. He claimed to be a civilized man, a Gentleman Commoner, of Oriel College, Oxford.
He went some years ago to visit his property at Tortola, which is not among the most civilized of our colonies. He felt the superiority of his attainments over those with whom he associated, and indulged himself in satirical verses and lampoons at their expense. Those whom his satires did not reach, he averted from him by his habitual and fatal indulgence in most ungovernable paroxysms of anger and passion. Thus he lived in a community where he scarcely had a friend or an associate. He was a man of great accomplishments and of elegant manners, at the time of his death about 50 years of age. (HC, 15 July 1811)
One concludes that he was hanged, less for dispatching his slaves and more for irritating his neighbors. The Bertrams’ estate in Antigua is just down the archipelago from Tortola, and while there is no suggestion whatever that Sir Thomas has a whiff of Hodge about him, this kind of story would have been in the back of the mind of Austen’s readers, crowding round the edges.
The Berkeley peerage affair
One of the things I did not expect to find when reading the Hampshire Chronicle was a possible source for one of Austen’s novels. I was looking to gain a feel for the horizon of information against which Austen worked. If one was a regular reader of the news, what could one take for granted, and what might seem strange, outré, or disturbing? I did not expect to encounter one of Austen’s novels, in embryo, as it were. But that, possibly, is what I found. In the summer of 1811 the big “news” item—certainly in Mrs. Bennet’s preferred sense—was the Berkeley peerage affair. The story hit the papers just as Austen was beginning to think about her next novel—Mansfield Park (Le Faye 197). While allusive, the connection is also highly suggestive.
The story concerns the Countess of Berkeley, whose troubles were widely reported in the press, including in the 8 July 1811 edition of the Hampshire Chronicle. The story was irresistibly juicy, concerning, as it did, one of the first families in England. Their dirty laundry was comprehensively aired: it included illegitimacy, seduction, a false marriage, love across class lines, and a failed bid to enter the House of Lords.
For those regarding the aristocracy with some distaste, such as Austen, there was much to interest one. Not only was the recently deceased Earl of Berkeley a useless, drunken rake—a contemporary and confederate of the Prince Regent—but so was his eldest son, recently defenestrated from the House of Lords. On the death of his father, in 1810, the new Earl tried to take up his seat in the upper chamber, having been already elected to the lower. But with the inconclusive results of the 1799 commission on the legality of the previous Earl’s 1785 marriage to the Countess, Mary Cole, fresh in its mind, the Lords took upon itself the defense of the rights of the fifth son, born in October, 1796, and therefore a minor, but born also after the spring of the same year, when, indubitably, there had been a marriage between the Earl and Mary. The ensuing House of Lords enquiry, of 1811, was extensively covered in the press. The details were sensational, to say the least. While the Countess of Berkeley reluctantly gave evidence in support of the claims of her eldest son, a different story emerged from the accounts of former friends, servants, and confidants. The papers focused on this filtered story. The most damaging testimony came from the Reverend Chapeau. His vignette of the life choices facing the young Mary Cole formed the core of the story reported by the press.
Mary Cole was one of three daughters of a butcher living in Gloucester. All three girls were renowned for their beauty. Anne was the eldest and first married. Susan was the most headstrong, and Mary, the youngest, by all accounts the best looking. To say their father was a butcher is misleading. Rather he was an Innkeeper and purveyor of meats on a commercial scale. He was upwardly mobile; the girls, apparently, had airs. The Reverend Chapeau’s deposition begins in media res. It seems that in a weak moment the true story of her “marriage” tumbled out of Mary Cole, as she then still was. Chapeau picks up Mary’s narrative with Susan living in Berkeley Square in fine circumstances. Anne was married to a man named Ferren, who was frequently away. Mary reported to Chapeau that she had visited Anne, finding her home in a state of squalor, with her children half-famished, and Anne herself suffering from a sore breast. Mary helped put the house in order, as best she could, but tiring of the squalor decamped for London. Recalling that her mother warned her against ever visiting her sister Susan, Mary repented her decision, resolving to return to Anne’s, only to change her mind again and head for London on recollecting the condition of the Ferren home. Arriving in Berkeley Square, Mary discovered her sister living in luxury, tricked out in finery. Delighted to welcome her sister, Susan made much of Mary, dressing her expensively in black lace and taking her to the theatre where her beauty was sure to be admired. About a month passed, during which time Mary was introduced to Susan’s circle of fast friends, when suddenly four ruffians burst into their Berkeley Square apartment as the sisters were sitting down to dine. The villains grabbed Susan, threatening to drag her off to a “sponging house,” or debtor’s prison, unless £100 was immediately paid. Mysteriously, at that very moment, the Earl of Berkeley emerged out of the shadows, money to hand.
It seems the Earl had not been an infrequent visitor to the Cole sisters. Mary was not attracted to him, being drawn instead to a young barrister, who was a member of her sister’s set. The Earl had other ideas. Indeed, it seems that the Earl had contracted a passion for Mary ever since seeing her in Gloucester. It is possible that Susan was in on the plot as the threatened abduction was obviously a contrivance. Appealing to the Earl for help, Mary promised she would do whatever he pleased if he saved Susan, a promise she faithfully kept. Proving by her vocabulary that she was very much her father’s daughter, Mary reported to the Reverend Chapeau that she had been “sold” as much as any “lamb at the shambles.”
Mary was clearly made of sterner stuff than her sister Susan, who seemed interested in not much else beyond the moment and living in high style. While sold, Mary exacted a price: marriage. This duly happened in 1785, witnessed by her brother, William, and a Richard Barnes, who afterwards was never traced despite the best efforts of the House of Lords. The ceremony was a sham. Whether it ever fooled Mary seems an open question. Following the ceremony, Mary quickly gave birth to a prodigious quantity of sons. She also took control of Berkeley castle, transforming it from the half-ruinous condition her feckless partner had left it in, becoming the estate’s best ever steward, if the opinion of the county is to believed—the opinion, that is, of the tradesmen and farmers who depended on the estate for their livelihood (Costley-White). For these people Mary Cole was a savior. For the quality, she was not fit for decent company. The frequent visits of the Prince of Wales and his hangers-on did not improve Mary’s position with the wives of the local gentry. As he aged, the Earl settled into family life and was soon tormented by the thoughts of his sons’ illegitimacy. The couple married for real in 1796, but this marriage only created more problems, for in the 1796 marriage documents the Earl and his “new” wife were listed as “bachelor” and “spinster.” Worse, the oldest four sons were still illegitimate.
The Earl hit upon a solution: assisted by Mary he forged documents to authenticate the first, sham, marriage. During the Lords 1799 inquiry, conducted by a Committee of Privileges, it was the flimsiness of these mysteriously discovered documents that leaked water, sinking the Earl’s case, despite the best efforts of the Prince of Wales to keep it afloat. As long as the Earl himself lingered, the House of Lords was content to let the matter drift, badly listing. It was a different matter altogether when the new Earl attempted to get his boat into harbor. His reputation as yet another drunken Regency buck didn’t help his cause, and neither did the support of the Prince of Wales, now Prince Regent. In fact, it may have been what finally sunk him.
Why am I interested in this story? Because here we find the essential structure of Mansfield Park splashed across the press during the novel’s period of gestation, along with many of the novel’s principal names and themes. Consider the following similarities: apart from the Reverend Chapeau, the other principal witness cited by the reports was the governess, Mrs. Price; instead of the three beautiful Ward sisters, we have the three Coles, each of markedly different fortune; one sister is named Susan while the only brother is William; a young girl is caught between a slovenly proletarian home, however honest, and a glamorous upper-class one that is obviously compromised, forcing her to make a choice; marriage is presented as a cruel market in which brides are bought and sold, lambs taken to the shambles; there is the entirely novelistic feel of the reported stories told against the wishes of the protagonist, a circumstance creating an analogue to Austen’s famous irony (in these filtered stories, what can we believe?); and finally, there is the feckless upper class in desperate need of reform, together with the reforming, lower class-agent, who through her own integrity, renews the estate.
The last resemblance is the most compelling point of contact between the two stories, the one that makes the similarity worth contemplating, as it gives us the central theme of Mansfield Park—the renovation of the estate, where renovation is contrasted with, is in fact set against, “improvement.” As Asa Briggs puts it, the Georgian period was in its own estimation an “age of improvement.” As Austen’s critics have been reminding us for some time, on country estates “improvement” meant landscape design (Duckworth). There was a mania for it, one satirized in Mansfield Park by the modish vaporizing on the topic by two worthless young men, one imbecilic, the other flash but shallow. Whether one adopted a traditionalist approach, preserving avenues and poor prospects, holding onto an enlivening, je-ne-sais-quoi spirit, despite the “disputable” taste, as the narrator ironically qualifies it in Emma (315), or whether one went all in on the Humphry Repton treatment, the fact remained that in discussing landscape one was speaking the language of fashion, of “consumerism,” as we now say (Duckworth xviii-xxiii).
Renovation, by contrast, is a “root and branch” notion. To “renew” was also to recur, was to make a return to the original validating principle. It was to make new again. Renovation has civic humanist overtones as well as religious ones, as renewal was, in the Aristotelian-Christian tradition, the work of grace (Pocock 107). And that is what Fanny Price does. She renovates the estate, recurring to the original virtues that justify the hierarchal tissue of obligations and privileges that bind and support the social structure. Just so Mary Cole, who did not, by all accounts, improve Berkeley Castle—decking out the grounds in the latest fashion—but instead renovated and repaired it, turning it back to a functioning estate, a “big house” once more fulfilling its proper function in a well-connected community.
It is just this aspect of Mary Cole’s story—her role as the savior of Berkeley Castle—that is not covered in the press. So while the renovation theme is the most compelling resemblance between the two stories, it is also the most puzzling. You have to research the story to discover this aspect of it. Would Austen have known about Mary Cole’s reputation as the woman who renewed the Earl’s dilapidated estate? It is hard to say, but the answer, I believe, is almost certainly yes, if Hope Costley-White is correct in asserting that Mary’s virtues were legendary in the country. The point is not that Berkshire isn’t overly distant from Hampshire but that the gentry were a very small circle, deeply interconnected, and the aristocracy, of course, even more so; and that among these small circles, reputations, stories, and scandals (in short, gossip) circulate with ease and rapidity. There was, moreover, a direct connection between the Austens and the Berkeleys: Jane’s Great Uncle Francis Austen had been a lawyer for the family. Did the Berkeley peerage affair infiltrate Austen’s imagination as she sat down to write Mansfield Park? As regards the novel’s central theme, the renovation of the estate, the similarities between it and the Countess Berkeley narrative depend on circumstantial evidence. We have to conjecture that in the case of such a scandalous story, the news travelled fast, and that gossip did its proper job of turning the story so that all its aspects, negative and positive, were momentarily revealed. That may be a hurdle, but once over it, we find a narrative course laid out in the contours of the Berkeley case that duplicates the one discoverable in Mansfield Park.
I am not suggesting that this story is the true source of Austen’s novel. For a start I do not believe novels have neat origins. But I do think it possible that it is part of the stream of contemporary information feeding into Mansfield Park. It is part of Austen’s cultural horizon; in the unconscious way of such things, it may have infiltrated Austen’s novel-writing process. Mansfield Park has several features that are not shared with the rest of her novels. One is the contrast between a plebian home and a country estate. Another is the renovation of that estate by a lower class agent. The closest we get to the latter is Northanger Abbey, but Catherine Morland carries none of the thematic baggage Fanny does as a character who models the integrity that is lacking in the big house. Catherine certainly cuts an advantageous figure in comparison to the General, but that is largely limited to naiveté, candor, and innate good nature, which shine in contrast to the General’s depressive boorishness. By contrast, Fanny actively asserts the virtues that have been missing from Mansfield Park, so that by novel’s end her example—admired by the chastened Sir Thomas—transforms the shell of the house into something more substantial than a mere theater set.
In the rest of Austen’s completed fiction the “big house” at the center of the love story has been transformed already (Delaford, Pemberley), needs no transforming (Donwell Abbey), or is beyond help (Kellynch Hall). Nor is there, in any of Austen’s other novels, a sustained moment of contrast between a plebian household, chaotic and noisy, and a calm stately home holding out the promise of some kind of intellectual and moral peace. As critics have long argued, Mansfield Park is something of an anomaly among Austen’s works. If we are to wade through the tide of contemporary information for possible sources that would help us understand better why Austen takes this unexpected jog in her novel writing, the Berkeley peerage case is where I would begin to look.
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