How good Mrs West could have written such books and collected such hard words, with all her family cares, is a matter of astonishment (Jane Austen, Letter 145, 8-9 Sept 1816)
Dear friends and readers,
This is a continuation of my blog on Austen’s letter 108, 28 September 1814, where Austen wrote:
-– Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — It is not fair — He has Fame & Profit enough as Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. — I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must. — I am quite determined however not to be pleased with Ms West’s Alicia de Lacy, should I ever meet with it, which I hope I may not. — I think I can be stout against any thing written by Mrs West. – I have made up my mind to like novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own. –
To which I add:
Uncle Henry writes very superior Sermons. — You & I must try to get hold of one or two, & put them in our Novels: — it would be a fine help to a volume; & we could make our Heroine read it aloud of a Sunday Evening, just as well as Isabella Wardour in the [Scott's] Antiquary, is made to read the History of the Hartz Demon in the ruins of St Ruth — Jane Austen, to James-Edward Austen-Leigh, Mon-Tues, 16-17 Dec 1816, Chawton
Austen’s determination not to be pleased with West’s novel in the same paragraph as her mention of reading Scott’s Waverley suggests she is referring to Jane West as imitating Scott. If she must like Scott, or he must write these kinds of best-sellers, she can still be stout against Mrs West. It’s a self-reflexive joke. But how like Scott did West become. Were they feeble imitations. I had read some of A Gossip’s Story and knew it was domestic romance, didactic, obvious (see J. M. S. Tompkins, “Elinor and Marianne: A note on Jane Austen,” Review of English Studies, 16 (1940):33-343).
I searched in my own scholar’s library of handbooks and companions and books on Scott and/or 18th century women writers, and failed to find a plot-summary of West’s Alicia de Lacy, a historical romance. It was published too late to be in ECCO and I’ve no time just now to go over to the Library of Congress to see if they have it. They might not. (Memo to self & reader I’ll go this summer.)
So (the meantime) I read some brief biographies of West (in the ODNB too), summaries in literary histories of other of her novels and (to my surprise) discovered her poetry is reprinted in Lonsdale’s 18th Century Women Poets with a longish potted biography, and in Backscheider and Ingrassia’s enormously fat book of British women poets of the long 18th century. While I was not surprised at the latter (Backscheider & Ingrassia omit satire [!], ironic poems, burlesques, where the most radical voices can be found, prefer the conservative), I was surprised to discover a couple by West were not only readable but somewhat moving and read autobiographically could provide some explanation for this woman’s obsessive once popular texts.
Jane West was a better poet than she was a novel writer because in her poetry she managed to present more of her authentic story. I share two poems here:
Poems to women friends are a sub-genre of women’s poems. They often pour themselves into these, create an alternate world for the two friends This holds true for contemporary poets (like Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich); some of the most famous of 17th and 18th century poems by women (and occasionally by men) are friendship poems. The “matchless” Orinda (Katherine Philips) wrote matchless ones. “To Laura” is not a masterpiece but it is sincere and filled with loss and regret (which is not the common way, the common way is to celebrate, to pretend the two are together); she turns to death, a Christian death, but still a form of oblivion
Elegy III. To Laura
How long, how well, we’ve lov’d; Oh Laura, say!
Bid recollection trace the distant hour
When first we met in life’s delightful May,
And our warm hearts confess’d fair Friendship’s power.
Recall the portrait of the ingenuous mind,
Which from experience no stern precepts drew:
When gay, impetuous, innocent, and kind,
From taste congenial love spontaneous grew.
Deep had we quaff’d the cup of childish joy;
The simple sweet our nicer taste disdain’d.
We thought youth’s promis’d feast would never cloy,
And of the future fairy prospects feign’d.
Time lifts the curtain of expected years;
Eager we rush the imagin’d good to find.
Say, if the blessing, when possess’d, appears
Fair, as the phantom that allur’d thy mind.
Doth the stern world those faultless friends disclose,
Thy guileless candour imag’d to thy soul?
Doth virtue guard thee from insidious blows,
Or sense the shafts of calumny controul?
For me! I thought the golden wreath of fame
Still in my reach, and like a trifler play’d:
But when I turn’d the glorious prize to claim,
My hopes had faded in oblivion’s shade.
The dear associates, we in youth rever’d,
The world’s rude changes from our arms have drove:
Some in the grave’s dark cells, have disappear’d;
Some lost by distance; some estrang’d in love.
Yet there are views, which never will deceive,
In one sure prospect no false colours blend:
Death on our brows will press his cypress wreath,
And all our wishes in the dust will end.
Perchance, ere yet, yon zenith’d sun shall lave
In the salt deep, my conflict will be o’er.
Then, Laura, bending o’er my turf-clad grave,
Shall shed the tear, which I shall feel no more.
Or, if allotted many lengthened years,
We walk consociate through the tedious gloom,
‘Till each lov’d object gradual disappears,
And our dim vision but discerns the tomb:
Still our try’d faith shall shame the fickle herd,
Whose civil forms are cold and unendear’d:
Nor shall a casual flight, or dubious word,
Efface the kindness we have long rever’d.
Friendship’s sweet pleasures bless’d our early hours
With tender fellowship of hopes and fears:
Our ripen’d age shall feel its nobler powers;
Its calm endearments sooth our drooping years.
Then, when the levities of mirth offend,
When passion ceases its tormenting strife;
How sweet in converse with an aged friend,
To trace th’ eventful history of life.
From present sorrow, lassitude, and pains,
To lift the soul to glory’s promis’d sphere:
There may we meet, and where love ever reigns,
Perfect the union which we cherished here.
The second is franker. It’s about some really painful sexual experience she had as a girl. The poetic diction gets in the way as do the disguises, but the core matter can be discerned. He (the young man) behaved very badly to her it seems. In Rochester’s language it seems they had sex and then he had his joke and walked away, and then married someone much richer than she.
Pastoral 1. Celadon.
Oh! Celadon, did not the hours
Appear to glide rapid away,
When with me ‘mid fresh blossoming flowers
You carold the beauties of May.
When spring, with its infantine green,
Lightly ting’d the tall elms of the grove;
Ah! Celadon, sweet was the scene,
Its beauty was heighten’d by love.
Of all you then sang, not a strain
But I still can distinctly repeat;
Ah! youth, but reproaches are vain,
Can you say your behaviour is meet?
Is it just to abandon with scorn
The heart you so hardly subdu’d,
And to leave the poor virgin forlorn,
Whom late you so fervently woo’d?
When you gave me the eglantine wreath,
You embellished the gift with your praise;
You only design’d to deceive,
Yet you spake to the heart in your lays.
My beauty was then all your theme,
In beauty I never took pride;
I thought it procur’d your esteem,
I knew not its value beside.
You promis’d your passion should last
Till by death’s icy rigour represt,
Yet now all your ardour is past,
And you live at that passion to jest.
Was the fetter that bound you too weak;
Oh! why is my Celadon strange?
‘Till sorrow had faded my cheek,
I saw in the fountain no change.
Can you say my behaviour was light,
Was it easy my favour to gain,
When I promis’d your love to requite,
Could others attention obtain?
To a test all my words may be brought,
Let my life by suspicion be try’d;
You, Celadon, knew every thought,
I had none that I studied to hide.
You sure must remember the day
You wounded your hand with the hook;
Again how I fainted away
When you rescu’d my lamb from the brook.
Oh! how my heart flutters; e’en yet
I think of your danger with tears,
Yet Celadon strives to forget,
At once, both my love and my fears.
Fond fool! do I utter my grief
To the man from whose falsehood it sprung;
Shall the nest plunder’d dove seek relief
From the stripling that ravished her young?
Yet shepherds are free from deceit,
Their manners are simple and plain;
From all kind compassion I meet,
And all thy injustice disdain.
My mother has often times read,
While I reel’d off my spindle at night,
That lions and tygers have bled;
All vanquish’d by shepherds in fight.
‘Tis right for such deeds to exult,
For virtue and courage they prove;
But,oh! it is base to insult
The girl you have injur’d in love.
Your bride she is lovely, I fear,
I’ve heard she is richer than me;
The lot of the poor is severe,
Ev’n lovers from poverty flee.
Yet my father, I’ve often been told,
Had once a large portion of sheep,
But the winter flood broke down his fold,
And buried them all in the deep.
My mother, alas! she is dead; .
My sorrow she now cannot feel;
To earn her a morsel of bread
I work’d very hard at my wheel.
She said, for my duty and love,
A blessing I surely should know;
I trust I shall find it above,
For grief is my portion below.
I have heard our good curate oft tell
Many things about Angels of light,
That in virtue and truth they excel;
Such Celadon seem’d in my sight.
Oh! break thou too credulous heart,
I am sick of thy passionate strife;
The victim of Celadon’s art
I s weary of him and of life.
Yet the curses of vengeance to frame
Is a sin that I dare not commit;
This heart, which still throbs at his name,
Will never the outrage permit.
My wrongs, oh! they all are forgiven,
And my last dying wish it shall be;
May he never be question’d by heaven,
For vows he has broken to me.
Go fetch home thy new wedded fair,
Thy joys I will never molest;
I have found out a cure for despair;
My heart shall be quickly at rest.
No more shall the night’s peaceful air
Be vex’d by my clamorous breath
I have found out a cure for despair,
‘Tis silence-the silence of death.
A third very long poem done in the Miltonic-Thompson style fashionable then, but few will like now — so I won’t bother reprint it (as I doubt anyone at all who comes even to read one of my blogs will even try it), — is a rich seasonal Spring: An Ode, but it shows an intense originality of imagery, rich and wildly strange in particulars. Another pindaric poem, Independence, shows how much she yearned for liberty despite herself.
These are not Scott-like at all, but neither are they feeble or strident didacticism. They represent phases of a young woman growing up.
I invite my reader to piece together a biography by reading Lonsdale’s life (or quickly here the wikipedia article which is accurate enough), the briefer life in Backscheider, Jane Spencer’s (alas too) few valuable words in The Rise of the Woman Novelist (pp. 145-6). West’s Advantages of Education is re-told to bring out the mentor (say Mr Knightley) and faulty heroine (say Emma) with the girl’s teacher (say Mrs Weston) taking a more central dominant role to enable the heroine to reject an attractive but unworthy and cruel rake.
These come down to (what we remember)
Self-educated, as the persona Prudentia Homespun she wrote when she was early left a farmer’s widow with 3 sons. She did support herself by networking from there her overt Tory and anti-romanticism agenda; naturally her books found distributors. So here we have a professional woman of letters (which say Anne Finch was not). What some today are calling career risks (her children) became the cause of her career. Her works did speak to women’s experiences, and she found out what was fashionable or this year’s agenda now and again and imitated it. What I would call an enemy of promise (an experience that shatters us, dulls us, turns us into another issuing a warning lesson) turned out to provide the bread for the table, the pewter to eat off of. That’s what I suspect Alicia de Lacy represents. I too could be stout against it.
We make a mistake to pay attention to outward outlines: underneath lie individual stories and Jane West’s was different from Austen’s who seems to have rather had yearnings for the women rather than the men. Marilyn Butler, JA and War of Ideas gives several plot-summaries (but not Alicia) but her analysis is rigidly contained in her political polemics and goes not near the living core of the conservative books — as she does for some of the radical ones (not her relative, Maria Edgeworth’s whose ripe lesbianism she deliberately ignores).
For references and plainness the best is the biography in British Women Writers: A critical reference guide, ed Todd, but the writer of that two-page life (Nicola Watson) has not realized the poetry tells the tale we need to hear …