Jane Austen’s Lost Hero

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma – but no sooner had Austen unleashed her young heroine to match-make her way around Highbury than thoughts turned to what she should write next…

Rev. James Stanier Clarke (1766-1834), the Prince Regent’s librarian from 1799, was never short of a suggestion should his ‘dear Madam’ need a gentle shove in the right direction. It was he who had orchestrated the dedication of Emma to the Prince during Austen’s visit to Carlton House by casually mentioning that the Regent enjoyed her novels and would look favourably upon a dedication should one be bestowed. A correspondence ensued in which he would propose various unsuitable ideas for her next novel – including a Romance about the royal family. You would think he’d never actually read one of her books, and on 1st April 1816 Austen politely replied to tell him so:

thFQBA63FZ‘You are very , very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem, – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.’

Austen’s letters to James Stanier Clarke are some of my favourites, and never fail to raise a wry smile. She knows exactly how to shoot down a stupid suggestion with a combination of false modesty, politeness and self-assured determination. You can just imagine Jane laughing at the librarian’s ideas as she wrote back! This was not the first time Austen had to write a polite but firm ‘no’ in response to Stanier Clarke’s literary advice. Prior to hinting that an Historical Romance centred on the Cobourg’s ‘would just now be very interesting’ (that is following the marriage of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Cobourg), he had hoped that Jane would ‘delineate in some future Work the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman – who should pass his time between the metropolis & the country.’ No prizes for guessing that he is talking about himself! On 11th December 1815 Austen had penned the following reply:

‘I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of  in your note of Nov: 16. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing – or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. – A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your Clergyman – And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.’

Stanier Clarke wouldn’t take the hint. He continued to champion the cause for his clergyman hero with the aim of getting himself immortalised in print – even going so far as to provide some of the plot from his personal experience to get her started:

220px-James_Stanier_Clarke‘Do let us have an English Clergyman after your fancy – much novelty may be introduced – shew dear Madam what good would be done if Tythes were taken away entirely, and describe him burying his own mother – as I did – because the High Priest of the Parish in which she died – did not pay her remains the respect he ought to do. I have never recovered the Shock. Carry your Clergyman to Sea as the Friend of some distinguished Naval Character about a Court – you can then bring foreward like Le Sage many interesting Scenes of Character & Interest.’*

Alas, this lady was not for turning so there is no broodingly handsome and highly-educated librarian to be found in Persuasion. The irony lies in the fact that a clergyman just like Stanier Clarke already existed in Austen’s oeuvre – you only have to turn open the pages of Pride & Prejudice to find him… Mr Collins! Austen had done her duty in dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent even though she thoroughly disliked him, so in Persuasion she could get her own back. Here we find the aristocracy represented by the spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot who is selfish, impractical and extraordinarily vain – wonder who could have inspired him?

*Deirdre Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen’s Letters, (Oxford, OUP: 1995)

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