Given the general lack of marriage, the splatter patterns of blood and guts, and the number of Native Americans, pirates, and backwoodsmen in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, a reader might well wonder how he ever thought he was modeling his novels on those of Jane Austen. That she was his model is, however, a matter of record.1 Her influence is most obvious in Precaution, which plainly demonstrates his admiration of her playful tactic of turning strong characters loose to chase out their individual agendas, without destroying the plot, undermining the setting, or giving the characters personality transplants. Precaution was a mess, but Cooper did eventually master her technique.
Figure 1. Title Page of Precaution, 1820 edition.
Born on 15 September 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey, he was the twelfth of thirteen children. Raised not only as a younger son but the baby of five brothers, Cooper (who added “Fenimore” to his name in 1826) never assumed that he would inherit the family estate but felt no pressure to achieve. Although obviously bright, he made a very indifferent scholar, whose primary joy was devouring novels and otherwise whiling away his time as a “wayward youth” (qtd. in Franklin 66). This behavior annoyed but did not greatly trouble his father William Cooper, who had built an impressive fortune as a major New York landowner.
Expelled from Yale in 1805 for unseemly hijinks, Fenimore spent a year at home, inhaling novels and fighting with his father, before he was struck with the romantic notion of running away to sea. Secretly signing on board the Stirling out of New York City as an “ordinary” seaman, he left an embarrassed and frightened father to search him out. Locating Fenimore, William Cooper quietly secured him a less-than-scruffy midshipman’s commission in the U.S. Navy, the warrant signed by President Thomas Jefferson. Money was not an object in securing the commission (Franklin 72, 101); perhaps the low rank was his irate father’s punishment of the young sailor. Fenimore’s naval career went no farther, in any case, as he resigned on the eve of the War of 1812 to marry Susan Augusta De Lancey of the famous Tory-colonial De Lanceys.
Conjoined with his loss of a naval career were the deaths of all of Fenimore’s brothers in quick succession, unexpectedly leaving him as the sole heir to the massive Cooper estate. At this point, Cooper discovered that many property titles were in dispute, having been sold simultaneously to multiple purchasers, while the rest was mortgaged to the hilt. Eaten up by debt, with the Cooper estate in ruins—literally burned down, probably by a creditor after the insurance money—the newly responsible Fenimore needed a new source of income, fast (Franklin 390-92, 489, 490).
Enter Jane Austen. Cooper had always been an avid novel reader, and, as his later works showed, he clearly knew all of Austen’s novels. However, perusing popular novels was at the time eschewed as an act of puppyism appropriate only for worthless young men. Needing finally to look sober, the married Cooper disguised his enthusiasm for novels by reading them aloud to his wife, offloading any social scorn onto those little tastes allowable in a woman.
The story of how Cooper took up the pen as his new career was retold thrice by his eldest, adoring daughter, Susan, first in 1865, again in 1883, and finally in 1887 (Pages 19-20, “Small Family Memories” 38-40, “Glance” 201). Susan was aged fifty-two, seventy, and seventy-four, respectively, in speaking of an event that had occurred in 1819, only three months after she had turned seven years old.2 Although the basic story line remained the same, she changed the details each time she recounted this favorite family tale. What follows is a composite of her three renderings of the treasured incident.
According to Susan, Fenimore frequently read aloud to the evening family circle, in a “very fine; deep, clear and expressive” voice that would have enchanted Marianne Dashwood. The monthly “English packets” containing all the new novels, although eagerly awaited, sometimes “brought trash, as well as treasures literary” (Pages 19). This particular afternoon, Fenimore was asked to distract his wife as she lay ailing on the sofa (“Small” 38). Picking up one of the new novels, he saw immediately that the “title and look of the book were not to his taste,” but he forged ahead to please his wife. After a few pages, however, he threw the book “aside in disgust,” declaring, “I can write you a better book than that, myself!” (Pages 19). Taking those liberties allowed in a wife, if not in a sister, Susan De Lancey laughed at the proposition “as the height of absurdity,” for it was common knowledge how much he hated producing the letters that it fell to his lot to write (“Small” 38, “Glance” 201). Pricked in his self-love, of which he possessed more than a little, Fenimore “persisted in his declaration” and, grabbing up his pen by way of demonstration, sat down at his writing desk forthwith to prove her wrong (“Small” 38).
The realities surrounding this story are a bit more stark than in Susan Fenimore’s rosy memory. First, Fenimore’s writing was not defective in composition. The problem with it was his penmanship, a “packed and tricky scrawl” (Franklin 359; also 207, 255, 256). Lifelong, Fenimore was renowned for his nearly indecipherable henscratching, a fact that later turned almost fatal when his correspondents were editors, typesetters, and printer’s devils. “My writing is so bad,” he confessed to his first publisher in 1820, “and I am so very careless with it that unless great care is taken with the printing and orthography—the Book will be badly gotten up” (Beard 1.44).
Unfortunately, care was not taken on his first book, Precaution. Unable to make out his scribble and thus left to their own often illiterate devices, typesetters and printer’s devils transcribed into type passages that were ungrammatical, illogical, and sometimes just plain incomprehensible. This danger he learned of the hard way on Precaution as his increasingly fraught and finally despairing letters on the galley proofs show (Beard 1.54-60). As a chastened Cooper admitted in the Preface to the second, somewhat corrected, edition of Precaution, the original typesetting had (mis)placed periods “in the middle of sentences” while omitting them in necessary spots. The mortifying result was “that entire paragraphs were unintelligible” (40).
Second, it was Cooper more than his wife who scrambled for the English packets, swallowing their novels whole. Here, his Victorian-era daughter defended her beloved father from the imputations of intellectual flimsiness and unmanly behavior that were then associated with novel-reading, consequently seeding the misleading critical attempt, which prospered into the mid-twentieth century, to lay the family’s obsessive novel-reading at the door of Susan De Lancey rather than Fenimore. As Fred Pattee snidely put it in 1925, “this De Lancey wife” was “addicted to novels, sentimental tales of the Mrs. Opie variety” that Fenimore had jokingly dubbed “‘old-fashioned, Lord Mortimer’ romances” (292). Such prissy squeamishness about novel-reading must not be mistaken for Cooper’s, however. As Fenimore repeatedly told his editors, Susan’s judgment was his “tribunal of appeals” on the galleys she helped collect and proof (Beard 1.44; also 46, 53-57).
Taking special “delight” in “heroic romances,” Cooper had attempted his first novel when he was eleven (“Glance” 201) in a manuscript defeated by his inscrutable penmanship (Pages 20). Still “extravagantly fond” of reading novels in young manhood, he tried his hand at ballads (qtd. in Franklin 66; Pages 20-21). This literary hunger continued into adulthood so that he became intimately acquainted with American and British authors of all sorts, spanning the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries (Beard 1.xxi).3 In 1823, he founded the literary “Bread and Cheese Club” in New York, whose lists included the literati of the U. S. (Franklin 367-69). A pocket edition of Shakespeare was his “constant traveling companion” (S. Cooper, “Second Glance” 476).
Thus, a career in literature was not undertaken as the boorish swipe at his wife that so many critics have made it seem. Neither was the decision to undertake it out of the blue. By 1820, casting about for income, he learned through a banking friend just how much Sir Walter Scott was raking in with his pen and felt that he could accomplish as much (Franklin 250). Simultaneously, through a bookseller friend, Cooper knew that Mary Brunton was also earning a healthy living from her pen (Franklin 252). Much as Cooper dissimulated at the time, asserting in the preface to the second edition of Precaution that it could “scarcely be said that the work was commenced with any view to publication” (40), a sentiment suitable to authoresses, his excited letters to his publisher tell a very different tale. He saw publishing as his financial salvation (Beard 1.65-67, 74; Franklin 4, 249-51). I have no documentary evidence to prove it, aside from his eleven-year-old attempt at literature, but I suspect that Cooper had been toying with the idea of writing novels since childhood, so that his financial desperation coupled with the incident of the disgusting novel jumpstarted his literary career.
The vignette above did not exhaust Susan Fenimore’s recollections, and therein has lain a rub for the last century-and-a-half. She tacitly identified the discarded novel as one of Austen’s, a fact that I believe has helped bury the Cooper-Austen connection for so long. As presented by Susan Fenimore, this portion of the tale did neither Austen nor Cooper any credit, so that, ever since, critics of both have shied away from the topic. In her triple telling of the family joke, Susan Fenimore directly stated that the “rejected English tale” was “one of Mrs. Opie’s, or one of that school” (“Glance” 201; “Small” 38). Her father determined to outdo the offending novel by writing “an elaborate imitation of it in plot and character,” using the “tone and character of an English tale of the ordinary type” (“Glance” 201; “Small” 38). The direct result, Susan reiterated damagingly in all three tellings, was his first published novel, Precaution (“Glance” 201; Pages 19; “Small” 39). Because Precaution is unequivocally drawn from Austen, the only possible conclusion from Susan’s information is that the novel discarded in disgrace was one of Jane Austen’s. This conclusion is, however, based on
1. half-remembered facts as related by Susan Fenimore, who had just turned seven at the time of the precipitating incident, and
2. half-baked research by later critics who looked no farther than Susan Fenimore before running scared from the topic.
First, there is the contradictory evidence of Cooper’s own pen as to his high regard for Austen. She was in his list, published in 1838, of the most worthy novelists—not female novelists, but novelists. The others, women all, were Maria Edgeworth, Hannah More, Mary Balfour Brunton, and Frances Burney (“Madame D’Arblay”) (J. Cooper, Rev. 363).
Cooper’s praise of Austen and her sisters was not courtly but intelligent, drawn up largely to protest what he saw as overwrought Scott-worship in haute literary circles, which had falsely credited Scott not only with having inspired Cooper’s novels but also with having single-handedly undone sentimental literature. Au contraire, Cooper contended, on both scores. Austen et al. had “supplanted the sentimentalists, before Scott was known, even as a poet.” Moreover, despite the contemporary taste for heroic epics, Cooper argued that Austen’s (and her sisters’) novels were “more true to every-day nature” than anything from Scott (Rev. 363). This clear-eyed assessment could hardly have been born of the contempt for Austen that Susan Fenimore implied.
Second, there is Susan Fenimore’s shaky factual recall. At many points in her family memoirs, “she got some things wrong,” substituting her later assumptions, misperceptions, and prejudices for the actual facts of the matter (Franklin 468). In other instances, the facts had never actually been known to her, her father having deliberately sheltered her from life’s harsh realities (Franklin 364). Thus, Susan Fenimore’s accounts are always questionable and frequently out of line with the documentary record.
In this instance, Susan Fenimore quite erroneously stated that her father’s first published novel, Precaution, was the one begun in May 1819, just moments after he had tossed the denigrated novel aside (Franklin 248). In fact, on 31 May 1820, Cooper himself wrote his publisher that the “English” tale in question was “a moral tale” threatening to “swell to a rather unwieldy size.” At that point, he “destroy’d the manuscript and chang’d it to a novel.” This second effort, the novel, was what grew quickly into Precaution (Beard 1.42).
I believe that the messy manuscript which Cooper destroyed was a dry run at Tales for Fifteen, a set of moral reflections for young, novel-reading Kitties, Catherines, and Lydias. The model for Fifteen, then, which Susan identified as possibly Opie’s work, gives some idea of what might have been in the discarded manuscript. Since neither dates nor subject matter accord with any of Opie’s opus, my money is on Mary Brunton’s Emmeline. Begun in 1818, Emmeline was published posthumously in March 1819 and was on its way to America by April (Garside). Nothing in this bitter, humorless story would have been to Cooper’s taste.
Cooper must have noticed well before 1838 that his list of worthy authors included only women. Ironically, in a century when women sought the disguise of a male pseudonym as the key to success, Cooper chose to go female in his first three attempts at literature. Fifteen was first, lavishly (and over-optimistically) advertised as being from the pen “of a Lady,” and when it finally debuted two years later, the title page attributed the Tales to “Jane Morgan.” It was not until the reprint of this little volume in 1841, after he was too well established to be questioned as a writer, that Cooper confessed his authorship of it.
Figure 2. Original Title Page of Tales for Fifteen by “Jane Morgan.”
Fenimore’s puckish sense of humor was obviously working overtime with his female impersonations. Both as a paean and a sales tactic, by leaving off the name of the author, the 1820 title page of Precaution imputed the text to an unnamed lady while the substance of the tale clearly implied that she must have been an English lady. (See Figure 1.) The paean saluted Austen, whose model was greatly to Cooper’s taste and one that he could successfully copy. The sales tactic slyly traded on Fenimore’s clear business understanding of copyrights and publishing piracy between England and America (Franklin 266-69), as well as on his awareness of the social impropriety of bandying about the names of ladies in public, lest their reputations be sullied as, say, authors of best-selling novels. As an avid reader, he knew that Austen’s own debut novel, Sense and Sensibility, had originally appeared as “by a lady” and that Pride and Prejudice was simply billed as “by the author of Sense and Sensibility.” Anonymity in no wise hurt the sale of either book while the similarities of style, tone, character, and plot between Precaution and Austen’s novels were very deliberate attempts to cash in on Austen’s popularity, just as Tales for Fifteen had attempted to cash in on Brunton’s.
Cooper thoroughly enjoyed the trick that Precaution was playing on the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite his having positively stated in the text of Precaution that “the writer of these pages is a man,” so completely had they caught Jane Austen that many were perfectly convinced that an English lady had written it (142; Pages 21-22). Austen’s name was whispered abroad as a possibility (after all, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey had come out posthumously), but those truly in the know fingered “an English lady, a near connection of Mr. Cooper”—i.e., Susan De Lancey’s English sister, Anne Charlotte De Lancey—as the authoress (Pages 22; “Small” 40). The authorial ruse was maintained for over a year, despite the chattering of “a little girl” who had “been talking.” Cooper meant, of course, his precocious little Susan, a seven-year-old with “long ears and a longer tongue” who, even then, was apt to confuse her facts, for in tattling, she had elided Precaution with Fenimore’s second novel, The Spy (Beard 1.63-64; see also “Small” 39).
It is easy to see how the assumption that Austen was the scorned author of the family story might take hold, for Precaution unabashedly plagiarizes Austen’s novels, all of them. Each page screams her name, in casual allusions, conversations, lifted scenes, plot lines, and character sketches. Although it is true that novels with similar plots and characters were afloat, for anyone acquainted with Austen, the conclusion is inescapable that Cooper must have scanned her lines so often as to have been in a fair way of knowing them by heart. Such close study of a favorite author was not unexampled in Fenimore, for he had also scanned Shakespeare so often as to toss relatively obscure Shakespearean lines into his works (Vandiver 1302-04; Gates 716-31).
Precaution is a drawing-room handbook, set in England, showing how to marry off too many daughters. In a nod at Persuasion, the evocatively titled Precaution features an impecunious baron who has not had the sense to keep himself in the position in which providence has placed him, leaving his daughters precariously undowered at his death (92). The baron’s cousin, in a similar predicament, retrenches (43). An unwilling, romance-altering confidence is forced on a rival suitor (140-41, 149-50). Wicked young officers turn out very wild (224); young women survive the badly driven carriages of suitors (145, 195); and a whole family, the Jarvises, seems to have formed a compact to expose itself at every social gathering (passim). In company following her husband’s purchase of a title, the common Lady Jarvis insists on calling her lackluster husband, Timothy, “Sir Timo” (296, 298, 301), in a formulation reminiscent of Augusta Elton’s “‘caro sposo.’” These off-hand borrowings hardly exhaust the list.
Figure 3. First Page of Precaution, 1820 Edition.
The very first page of Precaution shows its debt to Austen in a conversation establishing that a new neighbor is the rightful property of some one or other of the neighborhood daughters. No attentive reader of Austen could possibly miss the echoes of Pride and Prejudice in this opening (quoted from Cooper’s second, corrected edition):
“I wonder if we are to have a neighbour in the Deanery soon?” inquired Clara Moseley, addressing herself to a small party assembled in her father’s drawing-room, while standing at a window which commanded a distant view of the house in question.
“Oh, yes,” replied her brother, “the agent has let it to a Mr. Jarvis for a couple of years, and he is to take possession this week.”
“And who is the Mr. Jarvis that is about to become so near a neighbour?” asked Sir Edward Moseley.
“Why, sir, I learn he had been a capital merchant; that he has retired from business with a large fortune; that he has, like yourself, sir, an only hope for his declining years in a son, an officer in the army; and, moreover, that he has a couple of fine daughters; so, sir, he is a man of family in one sense, at least, you see. But,” dropping his voice, “whether he is a man of family in your sense, Jane,” looking at his second sister, “is more than I could discover.” (41)
A veritable feast of Austen continues as the novel progresses. Struggling to provide reasonable dowries for his three unmarried daughters, Sir Edward Moseley draws up plans of economy to recover from his father’s having “much embarrassed the affairs” of the family (43), as have both Sir Walter Elliott and Mr. Henry Dashwood. Like Marianne Dashwood, the romantic middle daughter, Jane Moseley, falls head over heels for the smooth-talking heel, Colonel Henry Egerton, a mixture of John Willoughby and George Wickham. Jane’s “exuberance of fancy” supplies “her lover with all those qualities she most honored herself” (175, 124). Meantime, Egerton manages never to have been “explicit” in his courtship of Jane beyond “eyes” that “confessed the power of her own charm” (143). Egerton departs the neighborhood, having never positively declared himself, leaving her bemused father to contemplate the usefulness of “those old conventional forms of courtship which require a man to speak to be understood, and a woman to answer to be committed” (176).
Cooper definitely exceeded Austen with his comical duels, probably because in his hotheaded youth, he himself had dueled (Franklin 191, 193). Because it could not possibly have been funny, Mr. Bennet’s duel never occurs (P&P 287) while that between Colonel Brandon and John Willoughby is more hinted at than mentioned, for the same reason (S&S 211). In Precaution, dueling manages to be funny, underpinning the extended ballroom comedy, cadged partially from the scene in Northanger Abbey, in which the deeply undesired John Thorpe keeps Catherine Morland from dancing with her preferred suitor, Henry Tilney, by claiming dances in theory that he does not appear for in fact. In Precaution, the deeply declassé Captain Harry Jarvis takes affront when his rival, George Denbigh, claims from Emily Moseley the first two dances at a ball. Jarvis repairs to the men’s lounge to drink himself nearly to a stupor but not before cooking up a challenge to Denbigh (119-23, 127-31, 133-36). As when Elizabeth Bennet refuses William Collins, Jarvis hilariously finds himself trapped between conflicting, yet absolute, orders from his father to apologize to Denbigh and from his mother, not to apologize. Ultimately, Jarvis obeys his father (135-36). He has more to give.
Besides exposing Emily to neighborhood gossip, the duel scene reveals the quick-minded reader in Cooper, who delighted in Austen’s extended, subtextual tracks, such as the interspersed liaison between Mrs. Clay and William Elliot. Although managed less deftly in Precaution than anywhere in Austen, Cooper’s sidelong commentary on the drunken absurdities of dueling showed that he had caught and appreciated Austen’s sly subtexts. Not until a novel or two later was he able to maintain a running, subterranean commentary, as Austen did, but he clearly appreciated her clever device from the start.
Illness installs would-be lovers in homes convenient to the beloved in Precaution, as it does severally in Austen. George Denbigh winds up in the interesting condition in the Moseley home. Louisa Musgrove’s fall at the feet of Captain Wentworth is remembered in the fall of Denbigh right at Emily’s, causing her to faint deader than Henrietta Musgrove. Taken up immediately to the nearby Moseley house, Denbigh is placed on a couch while the whole party “assembled in the room . . . in fearful expectation of the arrival of the surgeons,” expeditiously sent for by Colonel Egerton, who alone keeps his head in the emergency (169-70). Denbigh is thereafter installed in the Moseley home to allow the family to love him the better for having nursed him. Similarly, through the device of a badly sprained ankle that conjures Marianne Dashwood’s, Colonel Egerton is installed in the Jarvis home to flirt with the Jarvis daughters and not too far from the Moseley home to allow him to flirt simultaneously with Jane (50). Although the sexes have been shifting about pretty much among the novels here, there is just enough illness to make one good sort of love story.
Well might Emily Moseley shake her head over her sister Jane’s undisguised passion for Colonel Henry Egerton. Jane, like Marianne Dashwood, is an elevated version of Catherine Morland. All three have formed their ideas of romantic love from literature. Jane’s “indiscriminate reading” has left her a fool for love (202). Poetry is to Jane Moseley, as to Marianne (and apparently Mr. Darcy too), “the food she lived on” (76). To Jane’s unguarded delight, she quickly determines that Colonel Egerton shares her reading tastes, their first interview turning into an “animated discussion of the merits of their favourite authors,” with Egerton amazingly agreeing with Jane in all but one point, which they deliciously debate (76). The “handsome colonel” Egerton is a crowd-pleaser, with manners so good that no inquiry is made into his character (54, 49-50, 451).
Although Egerton never writes to Jane, she keeps track of his movements through the newspaper, much as Anne Elliot keeps track of Captain Wentworth; like Marianne, she judges “from her own feelings,” which leave her “not in the least doubt he would be as punctual as love could make him” in coming to her (204). Egerton proposes to Jane during her first unchaperoned walk (220)—more than Willoughby ever did for Marianne—but within two days of the proposal, he elopes with “Polly” Jarvis to Scotland (230). This was just a little less than Wickham had done with Lydia, for Egerton actually marries Miss Jarvis of his own accord, her ample dowry proving persuasive.
For her part, Polly Jarvis plays Maria Rushworth to Egerton’s Henry Crawford, for Egerton (also a “Henry”) has flirted shamelessly with both the Jarvis daughters, playing the eldest, Polly, off against Jane (and, presumably, her sister), even as Crawford has played Fanny off against Maria, and Maria, against Julia (81-82, 221). Like Marianne Dashwood and Jane Bennet, Jane Moseley is exposed to the derision of the world for disappointed hopes while, like Henry Crawford and George Wickham, Egerton is found out to have been a “very bad young man” (224). Egerton’s gallantries, like Wickham’s, are revealed as his grasping at any eligible dowry in an attempt to forfend his imminent exposure as a gamester (229-30, 232). In the end, Egerton himself, like Willoughby in a forgiveness-seeking mode, confesses not to Jane or Emily but to Denbigh, stating that proposing false marriage was just his usual first step in initiating physical intimacies (450-55).
The rakish character of Egerton unfolds in parallel with the exposure of William Walter Elliot in Persuasion, largely through a mournful tale and the letter cache of Julia Fitzgerald, like Mrs. Smith a widow living on the edge (239-40). Julia’s tale connects more firmly with George Denbigh than does Mrs. Smith’s with Captain Wentworth, but permanent good turns flow from both gentlemen to both widows. Mr. Elliot might have owed most of his misconduct to greed and pride, but Egerton is made of flimsier stuff. Like Wickham and Willoughby, he is eaten up with debts and thus on the prowl for the most lucrative match he can make. Worse, he physically seduces any unprotected woman, going so far as to attempt the rape of Mrs. Fitzgerald twice (238, 245, 428, 453-54). If less amusingly than Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the laissez-faire Moseley parents discover they are sport for their neighbors (243) and come to feel how much they have been to blame although they are not overpowered by an impression that passes away soon enough (269).
The lead ingénue, Emily Moseley, has touches of the angelic, if priggish, Fanny Price. She is a church mouse, whose mother has “submitted this child entirely to the control of the aunt,” the widowed Charlotte Wilson, who lives with the wealthy Moseleys (45). Although not overtly cruel like Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Wilson is a determined killjoy, intent on exercising control and thus always ready to censure non-crimes, such as Emily’s oblique critique of her sister Jane’s public passion for Egerton (124) or her own natural sorrow at being parted from Denbigh (350-51). Like Lady Russell of Persuasion, Mrs. Wilson has talked the malleable Emily into rejecting the man she loved, albeit for somewhat better-seeming reasons than Lady Russell’s.
There are many touches of Fanny Price in Emily Moseley. Like Fanny (or Catherine Morland, for that matter), Emily has “no taste” or “talent” for music. At eighteen, Emily is the equal of Fanny, having “never read a book that contained a sentiment or inculcated an opinion improper for her sex or dangerous to her morals” (125, 203). Fanny might have a larger library at her disposal, but she clearly stays within the bounds dictated by Wilsonian notions of propriety. If the girls’ reading material is controlled by social propriety, so is their address. Their heavily schooled behavior prevents them from showing the slightest “disinclination” to any gentleman (140). If this tactic to prevent female preferences from being obvious turns out badly for Fanny, by displacing Edmund in favor of Crawford, it also wrenchingly allows Denbigh to recede in favor of Emily’s forward but unwanted suitor, Lord Chatterton (140-41, 426).
One of the several times that Jane flees company to weep alone in her room, Emily tries to interrupt her cry, “but as Emily endeavored to take her hand she drew back coldly,” accuses Emily of being too happy “for the society of an humbled wretch” like herself, and bursts into another flood of tears, “overcome with the violence of her emotions.” At that, Emily sets Jane to rights: “Oh, little do you know my sufferings, or you would never speak so cruelly!” In the éclaircissement that follows, Jane comes to understand how much Emily has suffered in silence, but Jane still believes that she herself has endured the worse fate, having thrown her “affections away on a wretch—a mere impostor” to become “miserable forever.” The scene closes with Jane’s wishing to leave Bath immediately and Emily’s pressing the value of perspective on her (316-18). Cooper’s indebtedness in this scene to the éclaircissement between Marianne and Elinor Dashwood could not be more obvious.
Allusions also abound to matchmaking of the Mrs. Bennet and Emma Woodhouse variety. If Mrs. Bennet maneuvers mightily to leave Jane and Bingley alone, Lady Chatterton does as much for her eldest daughter, Catherine (102, 268), although the result is even worse than Emma’s attempt with Harriet Smith and Philip Elton (284, 296-97, 442). Ultimately, Catherine’s marriage rubs badly until, like Maria Rushworth, she is disgracefully divorced (319, 325, 441). Meantime, even as Mrs. Bennet’s loud, ill-timed assumptions help drive off Bingley, Lady Chatterton almost undoes the impending engagement of her worthy daughter, Grace, by speaking of it freely as a done deal (159-62) although, as with Jane and Bingley, the real affection of the divided young couple wins out in the end (300).
Cooper was a white-heat writer who often was working on no fewer than three manuscripts simultaneously. He tended to work on one of them until he hit a wall, then switch to another tale, returning to the first only after hitting another wall on the second (or third). In later novels, he became skillful enough to maintain his original storylines, even under such pressures, but his little vacation to dash off The Spy all but disassembled the denouement of Precaution, one of the reasons that the work was not a megahit on the order of The Spy (1821), The Pioneers (1823), or The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which together launched him into the American literary stratosphere. In his later, better-known novels, Cooper’s debt to Austen continued, but nowhere was the debt as obvious as in the riotous copybook plagiarisms of his first novel, Precaution.
1. For early works on the Austen’s influence, see Pattee, Scudder, and Hastings. See also latter-day assumptions of Austen’s influence in Walker (12, 22), Spiller (73, 260), House (19-21, 281), and Wallace (“Cultivating” 40, Early Cooper 67-70). My recent work on the Austen-Cooper connection—a paper at the 2007 American Literature Conference and “Aunt Jane and Father Fenimore”—seeks to lift the veil from this topic.
2. Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper was born on 17 April 1813 and died on 31 December 1894.
3. Beard cuts off his timeline with the eighteenth century, but Cooper clearly continued his reading through the nineteenth century, till his death in 1851.
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