Dear friends and readers,
We are now into a section of Jane Austen’s letters just prior to, and directly after the publication of Emma (21, 22, 23 December 1815). These some 25 letters differ from those we’ve had before by including letters from people other than Austen, and unusual for this volume, letters by people outside Austen’s family, business associates (Murray), networking contacts (Stanier Clarke), hired professionals (Charles Haden, apothecary tending on Henry Austen), and even a fan, however in reality somewhat ambivalent: such was Francis Talbot, Countess of Morley.
Diana Birchall, one of our team-mates in this journey through the letters whose work has been appearing regularly here on the letters this week jumped ahead to the Countess because Diana found the Countess’s life dulce et utile, and she has written a pleasurable blog on Austen Authors about the Countess, based partly on a previous Dove Reader’s blog and 2 articles: William A. W. Jarvis, “Jane Austen and the Countess of Morley,” Collected Reports of the JA Society, 1986, pp 6-13; Chris Viveash, “Countess of Morley and ‘Baron so bold,’ Persuasions 14 (1992):53-56. I here fast forward too, and will then return to Jane and James Stanier Clarke who we recall simply chortled with blissful joy over Miss Austen’s first three productions. I am here heavily indebted to her, Viveash, but more especially Jarvis for the Morley-Villiers letters.
Francis Talbot, Countess of Morley, wrote to her sister-in-law and close friend, Theresa Villiers, some of the earliest detailed criticism of Emma: however much Clarke may have liked Austen’s novels, he was not able to articulate what was valuable in them and to some extent Francis Talbot can. She is also not a courtier, & is much franker: her much less compromised life allowed her outside her letters to Austen present an unhappily common reaction of ordinary readers at the time to Emma: although she was what I’d call a strong fan (as we shall see), Emma was just not exciting enough, oh yes with utterly believable characters, but too drawn out, strained.
First to Austen, who sent her one of her 12 copies of Emma, possibly urged thereto by Henry who would have found these super-rich aristocrats useful contacts, the Countess conveys only admiration and pleasure:
Letter 134(A). From the Countess of Morley, Wednesday 27 December 1815 Saltram, to Jane Austen, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire
Dear Madam —
I have been most anxiously waiting for an introduction to Emma, & am infinitely obliged to you for your kind recollection of me, which will procure me the pleasure of her acquaintance some days sooner than I should otherwise have had it — I am already become intimate m the Woodhouse family, & feel that they will not amuse & interest me less than the Bennetts, Bertrams, Norrises & all their admirable predecessors — I can give them no higher praise —
I am, Madam,
Your much obliged
134(D). To the Countess of Morley, Sunday 31 December 1815
Accept my Thanks for the honour of your note & for your kind Disposition in favour of Emma. In my present State of Doubt as to her reception in the World, it is particularly gratifying to me to receive so early an assurance of your Ladyship’s approbation.-It encourages me to depend on the same share of general good opinion which Emma’s Predecessors have experienced, & to beleive that I have not yet — as almost every Writer of Fancy does sooner or later-overwritten myself. —
I am Madam, Your obliged & faithful Servant.
Austen confesses to this woman she fears she’s written out. Let’s pause over this. It suggests far more openness to outsiders than we usually think she had. Would you tell someone who wrote to you about your book that you feared it showed you were out of new ideas? Perhaps then when Austen told James Stanier Clarke she feared she was written out there was nothing special in her saying that. Or it could be that she felt in the Countess she had another perceptive reader? The Countess in her turn registers how Austen offers intimate experiences of characters, and her awareness here can remind us that she did write and edited novels.
Dacre: A Novel (1834), attributed to Lady Theresa Lewis (a pseudonym for a Mrs Lister, daughter of Theresa Villiers, sister-in-law and correspondent to Francis Talbot, Countess of Morley, who is said to have “edited” the book)
Nonetheless, the text of Dacre suggests that after all the Countess’s taste did not necessarily lead her to distinguish the really fine masterpiece (Emma say) from mediocre third rate, stilted pastiche. She could be witty, and it was actually rumored was the author of P&P and S&S! this despite the reality that these are typical passages from Dacre:
’tis all a cheat, Yet, fool’d with hope, men favour the deceit — Trust on, and think to-morrow will repay: To-morrow’s falser than the former day; Lies worse; and, while it says we shall be blest …
All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame, All are but ministers of Love, And feed his sacred flame. Oft in my waking dreams do I Live o’er again that happy hour, When midway on the mount I lay, Beside the ruined tower. … Choice quotations from Dacre
Diana Birchall quotes from the Countess’s acknowledged gothic and Ossian-like The Flying Burger (sic) Master: A Legend in the Black Forest (available on-line):
“In Swabia’s forest, wild and black, A weary traveller lost his track: Dark was the night — the thunder’s crash Swift followed on the lightening’s flash; And aweful as the tempest spoke, Responsive groaned the blasted oak. The way-worn man, with rueful gaze, Eyed the red lightening’s fearful blaze; And, as the rattling thunder past, Lost in the howlings of the blast …”
Who could think this woman wrote Pride and Prejudice? It probably helped that it was Mary Russell Mitford (no friend to Jane Austen) who started the rumor and that Francis Talbot did not deny it. When a Lady Lopes said
‘I have been much amused lately with reading one of y’r La’ship’s novels.’ ‘Which?’ says I. ‘Pride and Prejudice’, says she, ‘& to be sure ‘tis uncommon funny, but I found out the character directly. Lord, says I to my niece as she was reading it – why, as sure as you are alive, my dear, Mr. Darcy is L’d Boringdon. Why, he’s like him as two peas. I sh’d have known him any where, even if I had not known her Ladyship wrote it.’ I did not correct her mistake ab’t my authorship, as I saw no benefit in doing so — but I think you will agree with me that the likeness to Darcy is charming.
The Countess was so proud of her presence of mind that she repeated her quip four days later to her sister-in-law, Theresa Villiers, whom the Countess then informed that even her husband could read this book:
Milord is absolutely in the midst of Pride & Prejudice, & tho’ both those ingredients [?] operate in his nature to set him against the style exclaiming now & then, ‘that is very natural’ — & really upon the whole he tolerates it more than I expected.
Alas, though she fulfilled some of Austen’s fears when it came to Emma:
I have got only half thro’ the first Vol of Emma — therefore it is not fair to judge it — but I do not yet think it so good as the others — tho’ there is still a great deal that is good & like herself she a little draws out the conversation too long, I think … tho’ they are excellent … (29 Dec 1814)
She finds it better than Mary Brunton’s Discipline (she sees the parallel): there is “more in the character of Emma and in a Mr Knightley” than in Brunton’s Maitland, but upon finishing:
Emma does not satisfy me at all & you may imagine that it does not excite a very high interest when I tell you that I have not yet finished it. Still there are people who it is impossible not to have a taste for. (7 Jan 1816)
I did not say (I think) that I did not like Emma — I only said that I did not like it so much as Mansfield Park or Pride & Prejudice — nor more I do. Yet I think there is much of it that is admirable. Mr Woodhouse, Mrs Elton, Miss Bates & a few others are delightful; but there is such a total want of story & there is so very little to like in the heroine & so little to interest in the hero, who gives me only the idea of an elderly, sensible, good sort of man. With all due deference to your better judgement I do think that Emma’s passion for match making is by no means natural — a match-making Miss is a non-de script – that is a metier so much more confined to the matronly part of her sex. Then, surely, with all the sense & cleverness w’ch Emma is represented to possess it is not natural that she sh’d have formed such a violent friendship with such a vulgar little fool as Harriet – then, surely, her talking characters talk too much. The pages filled with Miss Bates & Mrs Elton w’d make up one of the volumes & that is more than can well be afforded. Still their conversations are certainly admirable. Mr and Mrs Elton are both charming people — I have seen fifty such people as her …
[The editor of the countess’s letters, E.J. Stevens thinks she wrote Mr and Mrs Elton for Miss and Mrs Bates, not being able to believe the countess found the Eltons “charming”.]
In her private list of “opinions,” Austen writes only that “Countess of Morley delighted with it [Emma].” The most painful (and obtuse) reading of Emma is found in Maria Edgeworth’s letters — she called it boring — I hope that did not get back to Austen who probably voluntarily did send one of her 12 to Edgeworth as an admirable author she wanted to be peers with. (How odd it is we have nothing to connect Austen directly with Frances Burney d’Arblay, only with Madame d’Arblay’s son. Austen does not appear to have sent a copy of Emma to Madame D’Arblay.)
The Countess much preferred the sensational Rhoda, praises it extravagantly, finds its characters “natural,” reads it to her (long-suffering) husband who while “not well,” was much “interested” and “amused.” And yet she was a fan or devotee, remembering Austen’s novels when she visited a family, seeing in people’s behaviors instances of how Austen’s characters behaved, and thinking of her thoughts as analogous to Austen’s heroines:
The House of Treby are delightfully in the Bennet style — all the four daughters & the mother too … I daresay ’tis a very good thing to be stowed away in a well-fortified castle (perhaps Catherine Morland thought so too — once!) but I don’t think it cheerful in these piping times of peace’
Diana Birchall mentions that later in life Henry called himself “Domestic Chaplain to the Earl of Morley.” William Jarvis tells us that Henry spent part of 1818 as Chaplain to the British Embassy in Berlin, delivered lectures on Genesis there (they were published in 1820), and on the title page of a sermon he preached at Clifton in 1829 again called himself Chaplain to the Earl of Morley. Perhaps Francis Talbot pushed her obliging husband to help Jane Austen’s brother.
For my part I don’t find the Countess that individually interesting a woman in her own right, though she has an appeal.
Have a look at the cleverness in Frances’s eyes as painted in her middle-aged years by James Stant:
She is here showing us her talents: a reader, writer, she sews beautifully, she paints:
Francis Talbot was the daughter of a surgeon who made a solid marriage, and kept her side of a bargain by maintaining a beautiful house, Saltram, and cultured social life.
Yes it was in front of Saltram House that Emma Thompson Hugh Grant walked in the 1995 S&S
As Countess, she could enter into a world which indulged itself in sexual promiscuity, yet kept herself safely apart. Let us recall that by contrast Austen professed herself aggressively narrow-minded: “What can be expected from a Paget, born & brought up in the centre of conjugal Infidelity & Divorces? – I will not be interested about Lady Caroline. I abhor all the race of Pagets” (to Fanny Austen Knight, 13 March 1817).
Reading Diana’s account of who married and left whom, who had children by whom in the Boringdon-Paget circles, I am struck by how once the Countess became John Parker, Count Morley or 2nd Lord Boringdon’s second wife, he had two children and settled down with her for 31 years, reading with and allowing himself to be read to. Chris Viveash claims that even at 27 (that was the age Francis was when John Parker courted her) the Countess had refused to have a sexual liaison with him before marriage; if so, she became pregnant on the honeymoon. Her stable attitude of mind here suggests how she could come to like Austen’s books and their outlook, including that of Mansfield Park; her conventionality how she could gush in Ossianisms, and her participation in the regency world why she could revel in Rhoda.