Sometimes folly is folly
By Deborah Yaffe, May 15 2017 01:00PM
“To put it bluntly, he was screwing her.”
It’s not every day that my Jane Austen Google alert yields a line like that. Especially when the screw-ee in question is alleged to be the thirteen-year-old Jane Austen.
Read it and weep: An Australian writer claims that Our Jane was the barely pubescent lover of a dashing, possibly criminal Irish-born surgeon nearly fourteen years her senior who emigrated to Australia and became an important public figure in the young colony. The surgeon’s name? D’Arcy Wentworth.
The author of the newly released, apparently self-published Jane and D’Arcy: Folly is Not Always Folly, the first of a projected two volumes, is Wal Walker, himself a Wentworth descendant. Unsurprisingly, he’s certain that his new discovery – based on “research into both their lives and a detailed reading of Austen’s writing” -- will blow the fusty world of Jane Austen scholarship wide open.
“Jane Austen ‘people’ are in fear of recognizing it,” Walker told the Weekend Australian. “This will change the whole way Jane Austen is viewed.’’
Austen first crossed paths with the oh-so-fascinating Wentworth when she was a ten-year-old schoolgirl in Reading, Walker says. “There was no romance, but he kissed her hand,’’ Walker explains. Things hotted up a couple of years later, when Wentworth landed in the employ of an apothecary in Alton, a town in Austen’s home county of Hampshire.
From there, Walker suggests, the romance proceeded apace, culminating in a secret wedding, undertaken before Wentworth, pursued by charges of highway robbery, decamped for Botany Bay aboard a ship that left port right around Austen’s fourteenth birthday. But they kept in touch via letter, and Austen was so deeply attached that she named the hero of Pride and Prejudice after her exiled love, just so she could hear his name read aloud.
At this point, those of us who’ve read Jane Austen’s letters, her family’s reminiscences of her life, and perhaps a biography or two may be wondering how this passionate episode slipped our minds. Not to worry: Walker acknowledges that he doesn’t have any of what the reporter calls “explicit evidence” – aka evidence – of the connection; he’s just figured out “where and when they might have met, and what brought them together,” a (surprisingly sympathetic) reviewer writes.
I will not bother pointing out how utterly ludicrous this tale is, in every particular; the estimable Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, has done so elegantly. (“There is no factual basis for it, so you have to say it’s not true,” Fullerton notes, tactfully but firmly.)
No, I’d prefer to focus on what seems to be Walker’s bedrock rationale for pursuing this silly fantasia. To wit: “She couldn’t have written those books without experiencing a love affair.”
Taken at face value, this claim is bizarre. It’s not as if Jane Austen’s novels contain detailed sex scenes, or even lengthy passages of lovey-dovey talk; they’re about virginal young women feeling their first serious attractions to respectable men who never attempt to steal so much as a pre-engagement kiss. How extensive does the writer’s personal romantic experience have to be before she can plausibly tell such stories?
But (Walker might argue): The emotion! The passion! The psychological depth! How could Austen possibly have portrayed all of that so compellingly if she hadn’t, say, screwed a surgeon in her early teen years?
Sigh. Haven’t we been down this road before? (See – or, preferably, don’t see – Becoming Jane.) The explanation is quite simple -- or, from another perspective, quite profound. It’s called imagination. Perceptiveness. Acuity in observation. You know – novelistic genius. Why do so many people find it easier to believe in a phantom love affair that left no trace in the historical record than in brilliant artistry that flowered into six great masterpieces?