Juvenilia (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen)

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Table Talk in Austenworld


There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea.
—Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, January 1796
The company was seated for dinner on the second night of the camp, and as we discussed the villainous General Tinley from Northanger Abbey, the subject turned quite suddenly to torture.

“You know, surely,” said the lady in the blue bonnet, “that Jane based the general on a real-life model?” One gentleman at the table made a face to indicate he knew where this was going and had no interest in coming along. Others nodded their heads, and the lady leaned forward, lowering her voice and glancing behind her, as though the general himself might appear at any moment.

The tale begins in farce and ends in tragedy, but the short version is that the Austens’ neighbors in Hampshire included one family of straight-up villains who were deep into torture. The scion of this family was a stammering young man named John Wallop, Third Earl of Portsmouth. From childhood, when he boarded with the Austens as one of George’s pupils, the earl showed signs of idiocy and occasional psychosis—one reason his family engaged trustees to oversee his estate, including the solicitor John Hanson, who was also Byron’s lawyer, and who sometimes hosted Byron for hunting parties in the neighborhood.

“Of course, the English aristocracy is full of nincompoops,” the lady told the table, “but Wallop was simply a fiend.” As a young man, the earl rejoiced at any chance to inflict pain. He starved his servants, tormented frogs with a fork (here, one woman at the table stopped eating), and would visit slaughterhouses to whip the hogs who were about to die, telling each one in turn: “Serves you right!” Often he beat his oxen about their heads with an axe. His fascination with death was such that he would attend the funerals of strangers and, when there was not a dead stranger at hand, would have his servants stage a mock ceremony so that he could laugh at it. The earl also took to beating his servants. He pursued these pastimes with no appearance of remorse, or understanding of what remorse might mean—a bright-eyed young torture enthusiast. Or, if you join Miss Blue Bonnet’s more sympathetic view, “a silly broken creature without a heart whose father probably broke him in the first place.” (One woman at the table winced at this description of the madman. Another gentleman, who had not been listening, asked me to pass the bread.) When chance provided, the earl would prey on the sick or the convalescing: when one of his coachmen broke his leg in an accident, the earl waited until the doctor had set the leg, then went into the room where the man was recovering and rebroke it. His main erotic pastime involved hiring women-servants of the neighborhood to draw his blood using lancets and then carry it in a basin under their petticoats while he watched; this is also how the earl thought that insemination happened.

Even though he was almost certainly impotent, the family wanted to make sure the earl had no legitimate offspring, so, when he was 31, they married him to a 47-year-old woman who did her best to keep him in line while the second brother, Newton, waited to succeed to the title. During this period, Jane Austen and her family went to several dinners and balls at the Wallop family seat, and Austen’s letters show no sign that she knew what the earl got up to; in one instance she notes his wife’s new dress, while after another of his balls, she acknowledges that she got carried away with the wine: “I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day.”

But the earl was soon to go from villain to victim. Upon the death of the earl’s first wife, Hanson, the family lawyer, spirited him to London, where the lawyer then insisted on introducing his three daughters to the earl and told him to pick one. The earl chose Laura, who was deemed the prettiest, but somewhere en route to the chapel, the lawyer pulled a switcheroo, and the earl found himself shortly thereafter reciting the marriage vows not to Laura but to her elder, apparently plainer sister Mary Ann. Byron, whom Hanson engaged as a witness at the wedding, recalls that at the rushed ceremony, the earl recited his vows like a schoolboy doing Cicero— “[Portsmouth] responded as if he had got the whole by heart; and, if anything, was rather before the priest.”

Byron saw the wedding as just another instance of an idiot nobleman about to enter a joyless marriage and could hardly have known that Mary Ann rivaled her new husband for sadism. She took to beating him, kept a whip under her pillow, and installed her lover in the house, a man named William Alder, who (so the servants said) would sometimes creep into bed with Mary Ann while the earl snored at her side. At one point, Alder began torturing the earl regularly and keeping him under lock and key. Eventually, the earl regained sovereignty over his own house and banished his wife, along with the three children she had produced with no help from him. In a sensational trial after Austen’s death, the earl was accused and then acquitted of madness. He lived to 84, and in his final years became a sort of crazed faux monarch who called himself the King of Hampshire.

A few of us had heard the story before, or part of it; the Portsmouth saga appears in Claire Tomalin’s celebrated biography of Austen, but David Nokes’s biography ignores the more lurid aspects, and a lot of Janeites, even if they know about the earl, have little interest—he was just a kook in the neighborhood, of little significance because the families were not close. Others, like the lady in the blue bonnet, think of the tale as a reminder that even in bucolic Hampshire lurked deception, madness, and violence so unimaginable as to verge on comic.

The table was silent after the tale was concluded. One gentleman had left his seat, and the lady who had put down her fork at the mention of tormented frogs began, tentatively, to eat once more.

“But could Jane have known?”

“Jane must certainly have known,” said Miss Blue Bonnet.

“Jane could not—she writes about him in a letter, I forget which, and mentions nothing of—”

“But he was at school under Jane’s father! He boarded in their house as a boy—”

“Exactly—back when he was just a stammering bedwetter, not the worst villain on the earth.”

“So you don’t think General Tilney is drawn from the wicked earl?”

“I should think the general would be much more interesting if Jane had based him on the earl. In the book he’s just a coldhearted grasper.”

“That’s true, no one mentions him torturing the hogs.”

“Or torturing the coachman!”

“Though Catherine does imagine him abusing his wife.”

I entered the fray. “He does sound like a character who might have appeared in the Juvenilia.”

Miss Blue Bonnet looked at me as though I’d just saved her family from debtors’ prison. “My dear, exactly! I’ve said it myself. Where else could Jane have got the inspiration for those bloodthirsty villains?”

I demurred. “Well, Swift, for one.”

The lady considered. “Yes,” she said, “yes, Swift is there.” She paused to sip her wine. “But you must remember that Cassandra burned a lot of Jane’s letters. It is thoroughly possible”—she turned to the woman who had blanched at the frogs, and repeated—“thoroughly possible that Jane knew of the earl, and wrote all about him.” I gave a half-bow to concede the possibility.

I was beginning to learn the secret of mealtimes in Austenworld. In some ways they offer the most gossipy and delicious interactions that world has to offer. The shared passion, the disputed biographical details, the disagreements over recipes and interpretations—these bubble during the lectures and panels but wait until a teatime pause to express themselves in full. Meals are also the most democratic part of these gatherings. At the table, one’s manners are on fullest, clearest display (are you a bad listener? do you chew with your mouth open?), but digesting in company is also democratic, a reminder of equality (we are all animals together at the trough). In Austenworld, then, meals are much more about the rank and file than about the elites. Here, conversation goes to the quick, to the bold, and to those who care the most—not to those with credentials or book deals. It’s anarchy, it’s art, it’s where the most interesting conversations happen, and where judgments are discussed, refined, and rendered without mercy.

Excerpted from Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman, published March 6, 2018, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright ©2018 by Ted Scheinman. All rights reserved.

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