Dear Friends and readers,
In previous years when I’ve sought to commemorate Austen’s birthday, I’ve placed on the blog something she wrote or something written about her novels, usually poems; e.g., the beautiful elegy she wrote in 1808 commemorating the death of her friend, Mrs Lefroy four years ago before; Anne Stevenson’s poem, Re-reading Jane: “To women in contemporary voice and dislocation/she is closely invisible …”
This year I’ve been reading biographies of Tudor women as I watch movies based on what I call “The Tudor Matter.” I have noticed before that Austen’s entries in her parodic History of England include queens and any ladies Austen can find involved in this time frame whom someone included or neglected to include in their history, or female figures in novels of Austen’s era about these Elizabethan women. Her entry on Henry VIII is an extended defense of the two women he beheaded with some remarks correcting a date (so she does care about dates), and a final comment on Henry’s last queen which shows she had read enough about Catherine Parr to know she too came close to being beheaded:
It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey’s telling the father Abbott of Leicester Abbey that “he was come to lay his bones among them,” the reformation in Religion, and the King’s riding through the Streets of London with Anna Bullen. It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour. Tho’ I do not profess giving any dates, yet as I think it proper to give some and shall of course Make choice of those which it is most necessary for the Reader to know, I think it right to inform him that her letter to the King was dated on the 6th of May. The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shewn;) and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous deprecations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive of his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom. His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned Life before her Marriage — Of this however I have many doubts, since she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland’s cause, and who at last fell a victim to it. The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it. He was succeeded by his only son Edward (Cambridge Juvenilia, ed PSabor, 180-82, notes 461-63)
To imitate Austen’s own sweeping confident tone, her manifest numerous errors (such as Henry had no religion, he did have one if a typically wholly subjective one for his own personal justificatory need), absurd characterizations (her pronouncing the brutal sycophantic Norfolk noble), lack of knowledge (alas Catherine Howard did have a lover before her marriage, one she remained entangled with afterward) of which I have now given sufficient proofs are by modern readers of Austen explained away by saying that this is irony, that the very purpose of her book is to show that written history is not possible if your aim is objective truth. Or they point to her intuitive summations which are very much to the point: Henry VIII’s crimes and cruelties; there is no excuse for the savage barbarisms of the man, and here and there she does highlight some significant aspect of the personalities she mentions: Wolsey’s gift for performance and ability to deeply feel and express such feeling.
Austen is a strongly partisan reader and literary critic. If she is on your side, she defends you unqualifiedly, sees whatever happens in ways that redound to your credit. If someone were really to try to write an adequate explication and background for each of her assertions from the literature of the era, it’d be the chapter of a revealing book about her reading, attitudes and the books of the era others read and responded to and how this is part of a tradition we still participate in today, as witness the continuing films and books.
As witness: Claire Foy, Damien Lewis, Mark Rylance, Charity Wakefield as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn in street procession (2015 Wolf Hall, scripted Robert Vaughan out of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy)
Like mine author, I am not in a position to do all that would be necessary. So I will double down on the general attitude of mind in the passage that reflects the attitude of mind of the whole small history and then one sentence towards the end. The attitude of mind is Austen’s form of feminism. She looks out at history from the point of view of the experience of the 50% of humanity often left out: women. Most of the passage is about the women Henry married and then slaughtered or nearly slaughtered. We all remember how Austen wrote of a similar set of accusations about Queen Caroline of Brunswick:
— I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —-
A timely online article from Persuasions On-line worth your perusal is Martha Bailey’s “The Marriage Law in Austen’s Time”
This appears at the end of a letter to her beloved friend, Martha Lloyd 16 February 1813, the one relationship most fans of Austen and scholars too choose not to go into deeply. While Martha Lloyd has been suffering all the miseries of a single woman with no income (having to be a similarly underpaid companion/toady) and Austen mentions that Martha must’ve suffered particularly from the raw cold damp (Martha’s room was not adequately heated), and herself as a prisoner of her mother’s supposed ill-health. Her letter to Martha also includes an allusion to Eliza dying and in great pain, Henry active in his banking business, and three indirect allusions to Mansfield Park (which we surmise Austen was writing at the time): Martha has not been able to answer her friends questions about Northamptonshire, and (a seeming non-sequitor), Austen is so aware of “the tricks of the sea,” and is aware of how Lady Keith’s sister could not have enjoyed herself at a ball because she is “shy and uncomfortable in a crowd of Strangers.” The associative threads here lead us all back to Mansfield Park. The specific allusions of the letter are a melange of details of women’s lives into which Jane and Martha must fit.
Lucy Davis as Charlotte Lucas eyeing the constrained Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet as Charlotte tells Elizabeth she is quite satisfied with her lot, as look at this room she gets to sit in, and most of the time alone (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted by Andrew Davies)
So there is Austen’s form of feminism before us all — she is strongly partisan for the individuals and groups of individuals she feels sympathy for, identifies with — that is how she behaves or feels. She looks out at the world unashamedly from a woman’s perspective; her loving friendship (with lesbian overtones or experience included at times) with Martha gives her the liberty to express her views on Caroline and adultery openly. The same we see in her History of England, written many years later.
So the sentence I mean to parse:
The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.
Austen’s gift for concision has enabled her to say in one sentence what it takes Linda Porter a chapter to discuss adequately in her felicitously written and beautifully informative Katherine the Queen: this is a perceptive book on the phases of Katherine Parr’s life as Katherine moved from child- to girl-hood, through four marriages and finally death in childbirth (her one and only pregnancy, Thomas Seymour the begetter) and the aftermath of her absence in the lives of the others she lived amongst and left remnants of herself to (as well as problems to cope with). Austen knows that Katherine Parr did not just passively or luckily outlive Henry; she had to work to escape arrest and death at least once. Henry’s suspicions were aroused and then worked up to a near estrangement and then fury because of Katherine’s political and religious views – and worse yet, poor woman (as mine author might say) she translated and paraphrased and published (!) three works: Palms or Prayers taken out of Holy Scripture (1544); Prayers or Meditations (1545) and posthumously, The Lamentation of a synner (1548).
So we may assume from the text before us and all we know of Austen’s other texts (novels and letters) that she admired and liked Catherine Parr, took her side as a woman no matter what. Parr’s near catastrophe was the result of her attempt to disseminate information and texts from the evangelical Protestant reform movement and even persuade Henry to alter his hierarchical and Catholic political views (such as work, deeds are necessary for salvation); Austen overlooks, she passes pver that. In this History, Austen is adamant that in these lethal Elizabethan politics she favors the Roman Catholics: thus the lines about Norfolk and her passionate partisanship, she says, for Mary Queen of Scots. I am adamant that much that Austen writes in this early text is written straightforwardly; or, to put this another way, her irony is directed at previous historians, and at human behavior as she catches it on the fly, but not the literal general content of her history, meaning the general outline she presents. A series of victims of a brutal man. She is often pro-Catholic but here what’s at stake is to defend a woman: as she defends the regent’s wife, Caroline so she defends all the women in this particular passages — on the grounds they are women and get a raw rough deal. It’s telling for those who might still assert Austen ignores sex that three of the cases I’ve just mention swirl around adultery; and for those who might still assert (or believe in their hearts that Austen ignores or is not interested in or mum on politics), the fourth is thicket of religious, dynastic and party politics (family clans the parties that mattered then).
I found the most interesting part of Porter’s book the section on Katherine’s writings where I found as I have discovered several (countless) times before that intelligent reading women of this period read evangelical writing, and were deeply taken by it: from Italian (Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara) to French (Jeanne d’Albert and Margaret of Navarre) to English (Anne Boleyn and now the mother-surrogate to Elizabeth Tudor, Katherine Parr). Katherine also like the women of letters of this era used translation as a way of self-expression, some of which by Katherine Parr show closely similar attitudes to that Elizabeth Tudor (I that was to come) in her translation of Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons. There is something in this material sensitive, educated women cannot resist — and communicate to one another through ( I can much better understand women reading Rousseau). Also men close to power but without it (e.g., Anne Boleyn’s brother, George). Anne Seymour, nee Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset, Katharine’s rival, her fourth husband’s brother’s wife (Edward Seymour who became protector when Henry died) is also deeply drawn to this material. I mention Katherine’s sister-in-law because she was one of Parr’s enemies.
Katherine, from the years of her second marriage, to a much older man, John Neville, Lord Latimer who got into serious trouble during the Pilgrimage of Grace (explained lucidly by Porter), with Katherine held hostage for a time — to my mind she looks intelligent and shows fortitude (women in the 18th century wrote novels featuring heroines with fortitude)
It was due to Katherine’s reading, the friends she made (Cranmer who was a strong influence on her religious beliefs, Porter, 203-4, 234-35) and life-long associates, and translating that Henry began to listen to people who wanted to replace Katherine with a candidate of their own. He had had enough of strongly intelligent women in his first and second wives: Katherine of Aragon who fought him successfully and Anne Boleyn who could not (not having the connections her predecessor had.) He had had enough of royal women after Katherine of Aragon. Enough of highly sexual women after Katherine Howard. Parr was beginning to fit into these paradigms. In Porter’s book we see Katherine intelligently deflect these accusations by falling back on her previous entire loyalty to Henry. Lucidly and persuasively Porter analyzes central events of Henry’s reign during Parr’s years as queen from a correctly skeptical point of view. When Henry VIII goes off to one last battle in France he destroys so many people and places, he spends huge amounts of money — and everyone around him, including and especially Katherine are all praise. Parr tells of the intensely affectionate home-coming Parr gave him. Blame her? Well mine author would understand.
So on the occasion of Austen’s birthday, I provide a brief exegesis of a passage in her History of England, and a footnote to one line — remember nowadays people write reams on the smallest phrase Austen utters so I’ve precedent — Linda Porter’s excellent Katherine the Queen supports Austen’s contention.
As to Porter’s book in general in relationship to Austen: Porter writes a biography where the novelistic technique of pretending to be inside the central subject’s mind is used at times (Austen condones this through Eleanor Tilney’s critique of the way men write history), but this is not overdone, and as to factual basis, Porter footnotes all she says and clearly has read all the extensive literature on Henry’s reign and Katherine’s life. Porter is concise, engaging, not cliched in her conclusions, for example, arguing either that Katherine is a person of high integrity and learning, or that she is seeking power, influence for herself sheerly, or that she was passive flotsam and jetsam upon the seas of life. If married to a much younger man with a close family connection when she was in her early teens, and then to a much much older man to obtain money, power and land for her family again, Parr held her own and lived usefully in her second and third marriages. She could not avoid Henry VIII; she may have been mistaken to love Thomas Seymour, something of a boasting lout-rake, who molested her stepdaughter with more than her complicity, but Katherine then paid the ultimate price.
Katherine’s correspondence with Henry’s three children shows a decently considerate step-mother. Parr left letters and paraphrases of reformist texts, a trail of documents because she married so often, was widowed thrice, and attempted to mother other people’s children in two her marriages. The one drawback is Porter doesn’t quote Katharine enough. I’d like to believe Porter’s interpretations of her unqualifiedly, but for her argument about Katherine’s religious politics, the center of the later part of Porter’s book I need more documents. I know publishers discourage close reading, and to ferret out Parr’s individual voice from guarded letters, paraphrases and adaptive translation, micro-analysis on Porter’s part would have been necessary.
What does emerges is how ordinary Katherine Parr was, how the outlines of her life fit the lives of these “elite” women traded (trafficked?) by men in these power- (land, money) hungry families: her life experience feels so typical, even in her death from her (one) pregnancy. No one woman friend emerges (which is common if you are paying attention), but she was fortunate in some of her male friends and mentors. She appears to have loved and been loyal to her brother, William Parr and he reciprocated. Reminding me of Cromwell, Cuthbert Tunstall, diplomat, churchman, found of children, a writer, humane, even approved of by Thomas More, was Katherine’s father’s friend, and constantly there for her in Katherine’s life:
Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559) when young
The relationship with Henry of course is what brings Parr into the terrain of Austen’s history and warrants comment: he was an insecure man, fantastic as it is to say this of this terrifying beheader tyrant, deeply duplicitous man (as so many of these absolute monarchs and today totalitarian leaders become). Porter persuaded me that Parr was still very attractive at what was then middle age (an age that most novels and histories and still movies today do not admit women as having because they will not hire women that age to play women that age) and that Henry wanted her sexually, hoped for children from her, and assumed she would be an obedient (no talk back) woman who would submit and yet be companionable. He didn’t mind a mother for his children as long as she didn’t take their interests over what he deemed his.
Porter succeeds in showing more than Eric Ives on Anne Boleyn that Katharine wanted an image of herself to provide her with enough respect to protect herself with, some power to be able to act individually, and to that end she kept having herself painted with the regalia of her “office” — in abstract patterns too like her stepdaughter for a while would and used ritual successfully.
I don’t know what I am so attracted to this woman (as I take it Austen was to single her out); like Mary Boleyn, Jeanne d’Albret, Katherine Parr’s story compels me. I have next on my TBR pile an excellent biography for d’Albret meant for academic and non-academic readers alike: by Francoise Kermina (in superb French, she too a wonderful stylist). Kermina’s biography of Madame Roland is the best text on her there is in print and some of her brief sketches are equally good. In typology I’d make Mary Boleyn into a Marianne Dashwood type with Katharine Parr Elinor.
In each case of the books I’ve been reading since last fall – began with Anne Boleyn – the woman’s death is by no means the end of the biography. Her life in each case is so interwoven with these men who are powerful and clans and it was these people who in general destroyed and twisted these women – there are occasional winners and outliers and they end these books. Katharine had been and was becoming one again (a winner), but childbirth did her in (as it did so many women) Mary Boleyn was an outlier who survived. She had not sufficiently surfaced in the histories so Jane”s history omits her.
So this is how I honor Austen: her feminism, her intelligence, her understanding of others’ books, her writing. Austen is with Katherine Parr all the way and read whatever was available about her — and the other Elizabethan women and characters she treats of — with care and perception.