[In this article I discuss and speculate on the curious relationship between Jane Austen and The Prince Regent.]
I was reminded on reading John Nash: The Prince Regent’s Architect at Jane Austen’s World of the mark that the Prince and his architect John Nash left on London. I live, if not quite in the shadow of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, actually in the shadow of the Prince Regent swimming pool that adjoins it, and can confirm that the pavilion has really come to define the identity of the city of Brighton and Hove.
The prince first visited Brighton in 1783, stayed in the farmhouse that was to become the Pavilion in 1787 and in 1815 commissioned John Nash to construct the pavilion we see today (completed in 1826). As we know 1815 was also the year that Jane Austen reluctantly dedicated Emma to the future king, who reputedly kept a set of all her published novels (in 1815: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park) in each of his residences. And it does seem a bit incongruous for Austen to be dedicating her masterpiece to the Pleasure Prince given that her recently-published novel had been explaining ‘the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure’ (48.31), and that all of her novels were pretty severe on custodians of estates that abused their responsibility. With an illegal marriage being hushed up in the cause of diverting quite staggering sums of public money towards keeping the Prince afloat (Darcy’s £10,000 p.a. would have been chicken feed) through acts of parliament , his weight and waistline expanding to 17 stone 7lb (111kg/254lb in 1797) and 50in (127cm in 1824), the casual observer could be forgiven for wondering whether the dissolute prince had taken in anything of what he was reading.
However, the Prince’s admiration becomes more understandable when it is remembered that the novels were equally critical of parents that used their power over dependants to divide lovers and/or force them into love-less, mercenary marriages—the likes of Mrs Ferrars, Colonel Brandon’s father, Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine de Burgh, and of course Sir Thomas Bertram:
Sir Thomas came towards the table where she sat in trembling wretchedness, and with a good deal of cold sternness, said, “It is of no use, I perceive, to talk to you. We had better put an end to this most mortifying conference. Mr. Crawford must not be kept longer waiting. I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct, that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. […]” After half a moment’s pause: “And I should have been very much surprised had either of my daughters, on receiving a proposal of marriage at any time which might carry with it only half the eligibility of this, immediately and peremptorily, and without paying my opinion or my regard the compliment of any consultation, put a decided negative on it. I should have been much surprised and much hurt by such a proceeding. I should have thought it a gross violation of duty and respect. You are not to be judged by the same rule. You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude—”
He ceased. Fanny was by this time crying so bitterly that, angry as he was, he would not press that article farther. Her heart was almost broke by such a picture of what she appeared to him; by such accusations, so heavy, so multiplied, so rising in dreadful gradation! Self-willed, obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful. He thought her all this. She had deceived his expectations; she had lost his good opinion. What was to become of her? (32.39)
Indeed, in allowing Maria to contract a convenient marriage to someone that neither he nor she respected Sir Thomas very nearly brings catastrophe on his house, as did George III who ‘starved’, ‘absolutely starved’ (41.37) his son into marrying his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795. The prince might well look on with approval at the steel in the heroine of Mansfield Park as she resists the ‘advice of absolute power’ (28.33), neo-parental authority and every other kind of authority, all trying to shove her into an ill-judged, loveless marriage that suited everyone else’s convenience, and he must have well appreciated from bitter personal experience the havoc then ensued when Maria’s disastrous marriage collapsed.
And then we have the passage where Sir Thomas realises his great error.
Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them. (48.8)
Is it to hazardous to speculate that it may have been all the more poignant for the Prince Regent to realise his own father’s stern preoccupation with formal obligations to the neglect of the inner life of his son may also have been his own undoing?
But look how the story ends for the him, with a modern city celebrating their Prince and delighting in his extravagant, kitsch, beautiful, pleasure palace, taking it as our emblem. And Austen did finally dedicate her magnus opus to the Prince.
Although conservatives and liberals will endlessly forward their own interpretations of Austen’s novels, it is only when both views are taken into consideration I think is it possible to avoid a one-sided account.
Related articles of mine on Mansfield Park:
- Puritans, Prigs and the Tyranny of Petty Coercion (based on two essays by Marilynne Robinson)
- The Mansfield Park blog