I’ve recently revisited one of Jane Austen’s short poems:
Camilla, good humoured, & merry, & small
For a Husband was at her last stake;
And having in vain danced at many a Ball
Is now happy to jump at a Wake.
As I reread it for the first time in over a decade, I quickly realized that there was much more to these four lines than met my still scholarly naïve eyes in 2006, and this post presents to you the fruits of my consequent delvings into its deeper, darker, and very subversive meanings.
FIRST, I noted that this poem appears in the text of Letter 77 written by JA to Martha Lloyd on 11/30/1812. I’ve long recognized that the handful of surviving letters written by JA to Martha are much more likely to contain overtly subversive material than the large cache of surviving letters to Cassandra. It seems it was only while writing to Martha that JA felt free to include edgy material like “ejaculations about cocks and hens” and hating the Prince Regent, although it’s also possible that CEA later destroyed any and all comparably edgy letters that JA wrote to her.
SECOND, I took a closer look at the pun on the word/name “Wake”. Le Faye’s footnote states that JA was marking the engagement of the 38 year old Camilla Wallop to the “elderly curate” Reverend Henry Wake. Le Faye thereby delicately implies that in marrying a much older man, Camilla Wallop’s marriage baked meats (pace Hamlet, but in reverse) might well shortly furnish forth the funeral tables for her husband. Thus, the pun on the imminent wake for Revd. Wake would appear to express the identical sentiment as the non-joking comment we find in Letter 60 to CEA dated over four years earlier, on 10/25/1808: “Tomorrow I hope to hear from you, and tomorrow we must think of poor Catherine.”
As I noted in 2015, Le Faye, in her typical editorial obscurantism, minimally footnotes that line thusly:
Catherine: “Bigg”. One must read Le Faye’s bio note for Revd. Herbert Hill in order to deduce that poor Catherine Bigg (age 33) and Revd. Hill (age 59) were united in marital “bliss” on (surprise, surprise) the very same date as JA’s Letter 60!
JA, in writing the “Wake” poem, would thus initially appear to be registering a protest at the desperate decision of a single woman -- in the eyes of her family already long past her “bloom” --- making a decidedly unromantic marital choice, under pressure, when faced with the looming prospect of falling into Miss Batesian genteel poverty and social isolation. This reminds us of the fictional Charlotte Lucas stooping to marry a man like Mr. Collins, and also of the real life Jane Austen in 1802, when she almost married Catherine Bigg’s less-than-desirable brother Harris under comparable circumstances.
THIRD, I noted that JEAL went out of his way, in his 1869 Memoir, to spin JA’s “Wake” poem as her mockery of “the marriage of a middle-aged flirt with a Mr. Wake, who, it was supposed, she would scarcely have accepted in her youth”. JEAL also altered “Camilla” to “Maria”, seemingly in order to obscure the connection to the real life Camilla Wallop.
Hmmm… Given that I’ve shown in a dozen different ways over the past decade how Le Faye’s misleading obscurantism is only a misdemeanor in comparison to JEAL’s numerous outright editorial “felonies”, i.e., his whopping lies and Bowdlerizations. So I guessed there must be more hidden ore to be mined from the poem, for JEAL to have wielded his deceitful red pen so forcefully on it. In particular, the Jane Austen I know would not have meanly mocked the plight of a 38 year old single woman, especially when writing to her dear friend Martha who was single and even older. What else, I wondered, might JEAL have been trying to hide?
FOURTH, I also noted that Camilla Wallop was the niece of Lord Portsmouth, who (as I’ve recognized since I learned Lord Portsmouth’s sad story a decade ago) was one of Jane Austen’s principal sources for the character of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion --- an ageing aristocrat of very weak intellectual capacity, who was vulnerable to being captured in marriage by a fortune-hunting woman. And so, how curious that the misogynist portrait JEAL painted in the Memoir of Lord Portsmouth’s niece as a fortune hunter, resembled JA’s fictional Mrs. Clay in that significant aspect.
FIFTH, I checked to see whether any other Austen scholars had ever looked at JA’s “wake” poem, and found two instances:
This excellent observation several years ago by Barbara Seeber: “[I]n the 4-line stanza "Camilla, good humoured, & merry, & small", occasioned by the impending marriage of her friend Urania Catherine Camilla Wallop, 38 years of age, to Reverend Henry Wake, Austen puns on the groom's name and connects marriage to death: Camilla "having in vain danced at many a Ball / Is now happy to jump at a Wake."
And this informative gloss by Kathryn Sutherland: “…The reference is to a four-line quatrain written in anticipation of the marriage of the middle-aged and, to Austen’s comic mind, desperate Urania Wallop and the elderly Revd Henry Wake. Like others of her comic verses, the joke hangs upon the punning associations of the victims’ names…The text as reproduced by Chapman and more recently by Margaret Doody comes from Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, and presumably is the version improved by James Austen, Austen-Leigh’s father, and handed down in the family .. a variant text preserved in the diary of Stephen Terry, father in law to Anna Lefroy’s fourth daughter, Georgiana, confirms that two versions were circulated in the family…”. How interesting that the “Wake” poem was considered significant enough by others in JA’s family that it was passed from hand to hand to hand, and was not treated as disposable ephemera.
With all that background in hand, I decided to dig further into the real life of Revd. Henry Wake, and I quickly learned that I was right to mistrust Le Faye’s May-December explanation. Google and Google Books showed me that the Revd. Henry Wake was actually only 4 years older than Miss Wallop, a totally insignificant age difference when she was 38 and he was 42! So, if Jane Austen knew, as she surely did, that Camilla Wallop was actually entering into a May-June marriage, what else could JA have meant by her dark pun on “wake”?
It took me a few minutes of checking my own assumptions to realize that it wasn’t Mr. Wake’s wake JA was winking at, but Camilla’s! And not just a wake for a metaphorical death in a marriage to a much older man –which Henry Wake was not--- but Camilla’s grave risk of literal death upon marrying a still-virile man who might get her pregnant and thereby “murder” her in childbirth! That would fit all too perfectly with both the death-in-childbirth theme which I’ve argued countless times is, in the ghostly character of the late Mrs. Tilney, at the center of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey; and also with the repeated sarcastic references to numerous English gentlewives in JA’s social circle, imprisoned in the endless cycle of serial pregnancy whiich afflicted so many of JA’s married “sisters in Lucina”.
That in turn led me to check a little further online, to see if I could determine the order of “wakes” which actually occurred in the wake of the 1813 marriage of Camilla Wallop and Henry Wake. It will give you a shiver.
From his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine, I learned that Henry Wake died four decades later at the ripe old age of 82; but I also learned a more revealing fact --- i.e., that he “was presented…to the rectory of Over Wallop in 1813 by the Earl of Portsmouth”. Do you see what that latter factoid tells us? It means that he was given a desirable living by his new cousin by marriage, the Earl of Portsmouth, at the same time as he married the Earl’s niece Camilla.
This adds an even darker and more subversive shade to JA’s meaning in her poem, because it suggests that the grant of the living was a form of “payment” by her patriarch to Henry Wake, in exchange for his marrying Camilla Wallop, and thereby taking her off the hands of the Wallop family. Now we come to the point of JEAL’s editorial deception -- the actual “fortune hunter” in this instance would appear to have been Henry Wake, not Camilla Wallop! JEAL, himself a clergyman who was given wealth and position which he did nothing to earn, seems to have been motivated to spin JA’s “Wake” poem backwards, and turn the bride into the fortune hunter – so as not to see himself in the mirror when looking at the fortune-hunting Henry Wake!
Which brings me to the most chilling part --- the death of the real life Camilla Wallop, the 38 year old woman who was at her last marital stake, and therefore jumped at a Wake. She died less than two years after her wedding day, and only a month after turning 40! Whether she died in childbirth, we may never know, but I’m pretty sure JA was saddened and angered, but not surprised, when she heard that tragic news about the death of her old friend, only a year older than JA herself. Camilla gambled her life, and lost, because the sexist odds of her country were stacked against her.
Old friend, you ask? Did Le Faye ever mention Camilla Wallop was JA’s old friend? No, she did not, nor, for that matter, did any Austen biographer other than Seeber, as far as I can tell. So, why do I nonetheless feel so confident that this was indeed the case? Because I found strong evidence for that inference hidden in plain sight in another one of JA’s letters, a letter written 7 ½ long years before JA wrote Letter 77:
Letter # 43 dated 04/11/1805 to CEA from Bath to Godmersham near the end of the Bath years, includes the following playful passage:
“I was not able to go on yesterday, all my Wit & leisure were bestowed on letters to Charles & Henry. To the former, I wrote in consequence of my Mother’s having seen in the papers that the Urania was waiting at Portsmouth for the Convoy for Halifax;--this is nice, as it is only three weeks ago that you wrote by the Camilla.—The Wallop race seem very fond of Nova Scotia…”
Le Faye’s footnote states: “The surname of the Earls of Portsmouth was Wallop, and many of the ladies of that family were Camilla or Urania—the ships so named reminded JA of this”. That might just take the cake, when it comes to Le Fayean editorial misdirection. How so? Because while it is certainly true that “many of the ladies of that family were Camilla or Urania”, I’d be willing to bet that only one member of the “Wallop race” living during the Regency Era had a name that included both of those names, and that one lady was Urania Catherine Camilla Wallop, the “heroine” of JA’s Wake poem written much later!
So, if JA was punning on two of Camilla’s names in an 1805 letter, and then punning on Camilla’s prospective husband’s name in a poem in an 1812 letter, this strongly suggests, at a minimum, an ongoing personal relationship between JA and her peer Camilla Wallop. It also suggests more to me –it speaks to an affection strong enough to induce JA to pun on both to her sister and to Martha. Why Le Faye would wish to obscure that close relationship is a question only Le Faye can answer for sure, but I believe it sounded uncomfortably romantic to the redoubtable protector of the Myth of Jane Austen.
And that’s when it all came together for me, and I realized the final forbidden element hidden in plain sight in that poem by JA --- like JA herself, I imagine that Camilla did not wish to marry at all, and, at age 38, had held out nearly to the end of her childbearing years, but then was forced to jump at it, and thereby, within a year, into the pregnancy that led to her own death. And that’s when I also realized that it is no coincidence that Jane Austen wrote her “jump at a Wake” poem in November 1812, during the exact same time period when JA was lopping and cropping First Impressions into Pride & Prejudice.
How so? Because I see, in Camilla jumping at a Wake, precisely the same punning import as I saw a few years ago in Elizabeth Bennet “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” The common theme is of women jumping at the order of men, like slaves on a slave ship forced by their sadistic captors/ transporters into “dancing” in their shackles.
I’ve previously argued that Caroline Bingley’s mockery of Elizabeth’s sunburnt skin and dirty petticoats is coded racist sneering at Elizabeth being biracial http://tinyurl.com/oqh8e9k , as also is Mr. Darcy’s sarcastic “Every savage can dance” riposte to Sir William Lucas’s admiration of dancing at Lucas Lodge:: http://tinyurl.com/lbwwocx
For Jane Austen, as for one of her inspirational mentors, Mary Wollstonecraft, marriage was in many ways a form of metaphorical slavery for women; but in JA’s sharper, more radical feminist imagination, she extended that metaphor far beyond Wollstonecraft’s usage, by hinting at women being made to “jump” into marriage and “dance at a ball” (i.e., submit to sex leading to pregnancy).
In conclusion, then, I believe that Jane Austen’s seemingly trivial “Wake” poem was in actuality a coded, radical feminist complement to her undisguised expression of feminist hatred toward the Prince Regent, contained in Letter #82, also written to Martha, less than three months after Letter 77. It shows yet again that JA was fully awakened not only to the dangerous, everyday reality of womanhood in her profoundly sexist society, but also, with her utter clarity and freedom from illusion, to the danger to the career of any female writer who dared to openly express such awareness. Indeed, unless expressed in code, no such radical feminist message could successfully run the gauntlet of misogynist critics (like Hazlitt, who savagely attacked Burney’s Wanderer, with its overt catalog of women’s “difficulties”). Jane Austen was determined that her "darling children", i.e., her novels, would survive, and live on to spread her message throughout the world.
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