(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Three Thorpes, Eleanor’s lord, & the incest “iceberg” concealed within Northanger Abbey

In followup to my two previous posts (call them Post #1 & Post #2) about the key role played by three Thorpes (Mrs. Thorpe, Isabella, & John) in both the current action and the backstory of Northanger Abbey, I have two more angles to add to this already rich and suggestive mix.

First, in Post 2, I claimed that Jane Austen’s causes John Thorpe to tell Catherine that his favorite novels are Tom Jones and The Monk, primarily because of one salient plot detail shared by those two notorious, but otherwise dissimilar, novels---a shocking disclosure of hidden INCEST, which in the Fielding’s comic novel turns out to be a false alarm, but in Monk’s Gothic chiller is seen to be actual.

With just a little Googling, I‘ve found that John Thorpe’s creepy little bookshelf is only the tip of an allusive iceberg in NA on the theme of concealed incest. As strong evidence thereof, first read the following excerpt from Susan Ford’s 2012 article “A Sweet Creature’s Horrid Novels: Gothic Reading in Northanger Abbey: which outlines the incest theme as it crops in all six of the so-called “Northanger Novels” named in Northanger Abbey:

“More often in the novels on Miss Andrews’s list, however, sexual guilt derives from the suspicion or the fact of INCESTUOUS desire. While the INCEST discovered in The Monk, in which Ambrosio rapes and murders his sister, is simpler in its definition and so more horrifying in its pleasures, these novels approach the topic most closely through the forbidden desire for a brother’s wife.  Moreover, they don’t approach too near the horrors of this safer kind of INCEST:  rather than pursuing the forbidden passions, Miss Andrews’s novels examine the consequences. In Roche’s Clermont, St. Julian’s suspicion that his half-brother Phillipe had introduced him to his wife only to disguise his own seduction of her spurred him to murder his brother. In fact, Phillipe was married to St. Julian’s wife’s sister…In The Midnight Bell, Alphonsus, “addicted to suspicion”, convinces his brother Frederic to attempt to seduce his wife Anna, in order to test both her virtue and his brother’s. In one last refinement of his plan, Alphonsus pretends to have been murdered; Anna accuses Frederic of villainy, makes her son, also named Alphonsus, swear to avenge his father’s death…
Other novels use confirmed INCESTUOUS desire as a mainspring of the plot. Eliza Parsons’s The Castle of Wolfenbach begins its narrative with a species of father-daughter INCEST, but tracks backward in time —though within the same family unit—to the desire of a brother for a sister (or sister-in-law).  The orphan Matilda flees from her uncle Weimar, who has raised her but who now attempts to seduce her, showing her indecent drawings and “for ever seeking opportunities to caress [her]”. 
Although later he denies he’s her uncle and attempts to enforce a marriage, after he’s kidnapped her and they’re attacked by pirates, he finally admits not only that he’s her uncle but that, in love with his brother’s wife (Matilda’s mother), he killed his brother “by repeated stabs”. INCEST is also the mainspring of The Mysterious Warning (also by Parsons). Ferdinand’s wife Claudina is seduced by his half-brother Rhodophil. But the family structure is even more complicated. Claudina turns out to be the half sister of Ferdinand and Rodophil’s half sister Charlotte (also known as Fatima). Again, the sins of the father create a world of fleshy complexity. In a mysterious warning, Ferdinand hears a voice urging him to “Fly, fly from her arms, as you would avoid sin and death!”. While the immediate cause for that warning is Claudina’s continuing relationship with his brother, their link through the father’s sexual adventuring, as yet unknown, is later seen as evidence of the forbidden nature of the marriage.  Further, Claudina’s father turns out to be Count M***’s brother, whom Ferdinand has rescued from a dungeon and who then becomes his best friend. In these horrid novels, even as characters roam around France, Germany, Italy, Corsica, Morocco, Turkey, and England, the world collapses: everyone is related….”  END QUOTE FROM FORD

By reading Ford’s excellent summary, I was serendipitously alerted to another wink in NA at incest in yet another novel, which I hadn’t noticed before: the “sweet creature” who first hooks Isabella Thorpe on those six INCEST-tinged Northanger Novels is “Miss Andrews”. Does that surname ring a bell for any of you? Of course, it’s the surname of one of the most famous heroines of 18th century English literature—Miss Pamela Andrews, the title character of Samuel Richardson’s first, best-selling, and enormously influential epistolary novel, Pamela. Richardson’s Pamela Andrews was so influential, in fact, that she was reincarnated in a second literary existence---and not once but twice---by Henry Fielding (yes that very same chatty author who wrote John Thorpe’s co-favorite novel, Tom Jones). First Fielding produced a short parody, Shamela, and later in his career, he did so in much longer and more serious fashion, in Joseph Andrews. And wouldn’t you know, when I found an online synopsis of Book IV, Chapter 12 of Joseph Andrews, lo and behold, there was “that incest thing” yet again!:

“The Pedlar has been researching the Booby family and has discovered that Sir Thomas bought Fanny from a traveling woman when Fanny was three or four. After the dinner at the alehouse, he offers to reveal to Fanny who her parents are. He tells a story of having been a drummer with an Irish regiment and coming upon a woman who thereafter lived with him as his mistress. Eventually she died of a fever, but on her deathbed she confessed having stolen and sold a child during a time when she was traveling with a band of gypsies. The buyer was Sir Thomas, and the original parents were a couple named Andrews who lived about thirty miles from the Squire. Everyone reacts strongly to this information; Mr. Adams falls on his knees and gives thanks “that this Discovery had been made before THE DREADFUL SIN OF INCEST was committed.”

So, it’s now quite clear to me that Jane Austen was having a jolly good time cherrypicking from among the 18th century literature she knew so well, collecting those which had an incest subtext of some kind. Beyond that, there’s much more that could be said about these novels vis a vis the whiffs of incest in Northanger Abbey itself, but I will leave this point at that for now, so I can get on to my second one.


My Post #1 explained how I saw the following passage in Chapter 4 as a giant clue hinting (by ironic negation) at a 20-year-old backstory for the current action of the novel, revolving around Mrs. Thorpe when she was young and single:

“Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well. This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.”

At the heart of my central claim that all of Jane Austen’s novels are double stories is what I have long called The Jane Austen Code. By this I mean a wide palette of writing techniques, focused in particular on wordplay, verbal echoing, and the like. I mention that now, after requoting the above Mrs. Thorpe passage, because I detect a great deal of echoing of it in the following passage, which occurs near the other end of Northanger Abbey, in the antepenultimate paragraph of the entire novel. Please read them both a couple of times one after the other, and then I invite you to tell me if you also detect echoing:

“The marriage of Eleanor Tilney, her removal from all the evils of such a home as Northanger had been made by Henry’s banishment, to the home of her choice and the man of her choice, is an event which I expect to give general satisfaction among all her acquaintance. My own joy on the occasion is very sincere. I know no one more entitled, by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering, to receive and enjoy felicity. Her partiality for this gentleman was not of recent origin; and he had been long withheld only by inferiority of situation from addressing her. His unexpected accession to title and fortune had removed all his difficulties; and never had the general loved his daughter so well in all her hours of companionship, utility, and patient endurance as when he first hailed her “Your Ladyship!” Her husband was really deserving of her; independent of his peerage, his wealth, and his attachment, being to a precision the most charming young man in the world. Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all. Concerning the one in question, therefore, I have only to add—aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable—that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills, resulting from a long visit at Northanger, by which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures.”

Here are the noteworthy echoes I noticed:

First, this is yet another passage, strikingly similar to the earlier one about Mrs. Thorpe, in which the narrator blithely intrudes in her own drily satirical voice and simultaneously (i) hints at intriguing details regarding a secondary character (Eleanor’s new husband), but then (ii) promptly announces that she’s not going to actually provide those details after all!:
Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all.”

Such authorial intrusions are pretty rare in JA’s novels ---JA was the very opposite in this regard of Henry Fielding, who seemed never to have stifled any impulse to speak directly to the reader---and so any paragraphs where they appear are always of special interest. And the two I quoted above are no exception, as you will see…

Second, there are two unusual and suggestive words which both occur in both paragraphs:

Chapter 4: Mrs. Thorpe’s “past ADVENTURES and SUFFERINGS…

Chapter 31: Eleanor’s “habitual SUFFERING” & one of Catherine’s “most alarming ADVENTURES….”

“adventures” and “sufferings” – both common English words – perhaps this is just random coincidence? Here’s where the Jane Austen Code comes in – a quick word search of JA’s novels reveals that these two paragraphs at opposite ends of NA happen to be the only ones in all of JA’s six novels in which both of these Gothic-novel nouns occur! To me, this is a clear signal from JA that this was deliberate interchapter echoing, so written in order to prompt readers who notice it to take a closer look at Mrs. Thorpe, and to wonder why in the world JA would want us to link her to Eleanor Tilney and Eleanor’s new husband – as far as we know, they never meet during the course of the novel, and they certainly seem to be very different sorts of people.

But then, perhaps the unmarried young pre-Mrs. Thorpe might well have endured comparable sufferings as Eleanor did? I.e., in the elided story of Mrs. Thorpe’s arrival at adulthood, we hear about the “worthlessness of lords and attornies”. So, when we learn that Eleanor will be known as “Her Ladyship”, that tells us that the groom who gave her that title must be a Lord!—albeit a worthy lord, rather than a worthless one! 

So, taking this post today along with Post #1 and Post #2, I hope you’ll be inspired to undertake adventures of your own in sleuthing out hidden icebergs in JA’s fiction—the only suffering is having your curiosity piqued while you struggle to crack that part of the Jane Austen Code, and bring the iceberg to the surface where we all can see it clearly!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Art of the VERY BAD Deal, by Donald Trump (ghostwritten by Vladimir Putin)

Now that the rats are finally beginning to abandon the rapidly sinking ship of Trump's candidacy, an extraordinary irony just occurred to me --- this is 1995 all over again with Trump -- just substitute the Republican Party for the lenders and investors who financed Trump's 90's casino buying binge, and substitute the double digit electoral loss Trump might be facing at this point for the billiondollar loss from those spectacularly failed real estate ventures that Trump deducted on his 1040, and we only found out about a week ago (in what we all naively thought had to be the biggest bombshell revelation we were going to get this election cycle---WRONG!!).
Here's the best part of this analogy in the "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" --- from Trump's point of view, his own life experience has taught him that despite the seemingly desperate, weak position he appears to be in at the moment, he is actually, vis a vis his "creditors" (meaning the Republican leadership that so reluctantly embraced him after his primary victory), in a position of strong bargaining power!
That's why I think he really is very unlikely to voluntarily walk away from his candidacy --- he has nothing further to lose by carrying on, because he will whine and whine and whine about the rigged system, and he will remain very popular with his large number of deplorable followers.
But the elders of the Party of Lincoln know that united they fall, but divided they fall further. So, unless (here's my punchline) they make it worth Trump's while to resign, he won't budge, he will do what he did in 1995 and stare them down defiantly.
And what might they have to do to make it worth his while? Perhaps the Koch Brothers will have to slip the Donald a cool BILLION (or two) under the table, money which would enable him to pay off Putin & his cronies who hold him by the kahones in ways that have only been guessed at by the rest of us, and maybe have enough loose change left over to buy an upgrade of Melania when she turns 50 in 4 years.
This campaign has now finally been revealed as an extended miniseries updated version of The Sopranos....

Friday, October 7, 2016

The shocking significance of John Thorpe’s two fictional favourites in Northanger Abbey:

Diane Reynolds responded briefly to my last post, “Mrs Thorpe’s “past adventures and sufferings” are keys that unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey“…. … as follows: 

"There are many interesting catches here, especially on Mrs. Thorpe's backstory..."

Thank you very much, Diane -- I must admit that even I was surprised at how quickly and readily the various pieces of the backstory puzzle fit together, once I got going. That’s always a very encouraging indicator that I’m barking up the right tree in my literary sleuthing.

Diane also wrote: "...but I don't think it likely John Thorpe would want to marry his half sister."

You are the voice of common sense, Diane, but let me push back on that, hard, because it turns out that with your excellent instinct for brainstorming about what matters in fiction, you’ve just pointed me to yet another key to the backstory of Northanger Abbey that I sketched out in my prior post!

First, do you recall John Thorpe's favorite novels? Here is where we hear about them from him:

"[Catherine] ventured at length to vary the subject by a question which had been long uppermost in her thoughts; it was, “Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?”
Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation.”

So, what might have been the reason why JA lets us know that the satanic John Thorpe has not one but two favorite novels, Tom Jones and The Monk? Austen scholars have repeatedly noted the obvious, which is that both novels were notorious for crossing into what many conservative readers deemed to be indecency, although that indecency was obviously much more the case with the darkly lurid evils depicted in The Monk than with the wittily salacious Tom Jones.

It took me a few seconds to realize that there’s one key plot point where John Thorpe’s two literary inspirations are in startling, disturbing, and very specific alignment with each other, beyond the above  general resemblance. If you will just note the portions I put in ALL CAPS in the following two Wikipedia synopses, that specific parallel will become immediately apparent to you:

First, Tom Jones:      “…Tom…is expelled from Allworthy's estate for his many misdemeanours, and starts his adventures across Britain, eventually ending up in London. Amongst other things, he…beds two older women (Mrs Waters and Lady Bellaston)…Eventually the secret of Tom's birth is revealed, after A SHORT SCARE THAT MRS WATERS (who is really Jenny Jones) IS HIS BIRTH MOTHER, AND THAT HE HAS COMMITTED INCEST. Tom's real mother is Bridget, who conceived him after an affair with a schoolmaster — hence he is the true nephew of Squire Allworthy himself…”

And second, The Monk:     “Newly arrived in Madrid, Leonella and her niece Antonia visit a church to hear the sermon of a celebrated priest, Ambrosio…The mysterious priest, who was left at the abbey as a child, delivers the sermon, and Antonia is fascinated with him…On the way home, a gypsy warns Antonia that she is about to die, killed by someone who appears to be honorable….Ambrosio grows tired of [Matilda], and his eyes begins to wander, noticing the attractiveness of other women. Ambrosio is approached by Antonia, who asks him to provide a confessor for Elvira, her dying mother, and is immediately attracted to her. He prays for Elvira, who begins to improve, and so agrees to come to visit them often, for the simple purpose of being with Antonia and hopefully seducing her. Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is.
Ambrosio continues his visits to Antonia. He asks if there is not a man whom she has ever loved, and she confesses that she loves him. Misinterpreting her, he embraces her, but she resists him, insisting that she did not love him in that way, yet the priest continues to ravish her until her mother enters. Ambrosio pretends that nothing was happening, but Elvira had already suspected his designs on her daughter and tells him that his services are no longer needed. Matilda comes to his room and tells him she can help him to gain Antonia’s charms, even though she realizes she herself no longer holds his interest, in the same way in which she was healed of the poison: witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified and rejects her suggestion. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that reveals to him Antonia bathing, he agrees. Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up Lucifer and receives his help, and they receive a magic myrtle bough, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio agrees, without, he believes, selling himself to the devil.
…Ambrosio carries out his plot to rape Antonia. With the magic myrtle bough he enters her chamber and finds her asleep. He performs the magic rite that will prevent her resistance. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira enters the room and confronts him, promising that she will make his true nature public. In desperation, Ambrosio murders Elvira without carrying out his true purpose of ravishing Antonia. He returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer. Antonia is grief-stricken at the death of her mother and alone…One night Antonia wanders into Elvira’s room and sees what she takes to be her mother’s ghost, which warns her that it will return in three nights and Antonia will die. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, Jacintha, who goes to Ambrosio, requesting him to exorcise her home. Under Matilda’s advice, Ambrosio acquires a concoction that will induce a condition appearing to be death for Antonia. While he is attending Antonia, he slips the potion into her medicine and waits. While he is waiting, he sees what he fears is, in actuality, the ghost of Elvira retreat across the room. He pursues it and discovers it is Flora, Antonia’s maid, who is spying on him on the advice of Elvira before she died. As they are speaking, Jacintha cries out that Antonia is dying, as it indeed appears. With her "dying" breath, Antonia confesses how much she admired Ambrosio and desired his friendship, against her mother’s wishes. She leaves everything to her aunt Leonella, and releases her half-uncle Cisternas from all obligations to her, though she waited for him to come rescue her from her dire straits.… When Antonia awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt Ambrosio rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape. 
Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition, and at first both proclaim their innocence, but then Matilda confesses her guilt and is condemned to be burned at the auto-da-fe. Ambrosio insists upon his innocence and is tortured…In despair, Ambrosio requests Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Yet still Ambrosio resists, hoping eventually for God’s pardon. Lucifer informs him that there is none, and Ambrosio, after much resistance, signs the contract. He is rescued from the cell by Lucifer and brought to a wilderness. LUCIFER INFORMS HIM THAT ELVIRA WAS HIS MOTHER, MAKING ANTONIA HIS SISTER, ADDING TO HIS CRIMES THE SIN OF INCEST. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio’s soul, and Matilda was his servant in the process. Lucifer then carries Ambrosio up and drops him on the rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days, dying alone and damned for eternity.”

So, does anyone who looks at the above really think Jane Austen, who knew all 18th century fiction like the back of her prolific hand, didn’t realize that Tom Jones and The Monk both involve incest which plays a salient role in the climax of the plot—whether in the assuaging of the fear of incest in Tom Jones which (suspiciously to my eyes) proves very conveniently unfounded, or in the actuality of brother sister incest, committed by a satanic brother on an innocent sister, in The Monk?

But I’ve got two more points to make in support of my above claim.

First, I direct your attention to Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice of sister Jane, which includes the following oft-noted disclaimer:     “She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.”

Five years ago, I argued here…  …that Henry Austen deliberated lied in the above statement, because he did not want readers to realize that Jane Austen actually was profoundly influenced by Fielding’s fiction. However, it only occurred to me today, that Henry was not just telling a general lie, he was also telling a very specific lie. To wit: the key point is that his Biographical Notice was first published as the Preface to the posthumous first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, a year after JA’s death.

So, I now believe that Henry Austen singled out Fielding’s fiction for special condemnation, precisely because Tom Jones was explicitly mentioned in Northanger Abbey, as part of a veiled incest subtext which I assert Henry Austen was very much aware of, and devoutly wished to suppress. I.e., he did not want any readers to do what I just did this morning, which is to think too much about the curious juxtaposition of John Thorpe’s two favorite novels. And this point is only enhanced when we recall that there’ve been a number of scholarly studies of Austen’s fiction outlining the pervasive brother sister incest themes in all her novels --- to which I now make this intriguing and surprising addition.

That brings me to my final point – did you happen to notice the following in the above-quoted synopsis of The Monk?:  “Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is.”

Here’s the actual passage in The Monk, in which Antonia and her mother discuss Ambrosio:

'Even before He spoke,' said Elvira, 'I was prejudiced in his favour: The fervour of his exhortations, dignity of his manner, and closeness of his reasoning, were very far from inducing me to alter my opinion. His fine and full-toned voice struck me particularly; But surely, Antonia, I have heard it before. It seemed perfectly familiar to my ear. Either I must have known the Abbot in former times, or his voice bears a wonderful resemblance to that of some other, to whom I have often listened.
There were certain tones which touched my very heart, and made me feel sensations so singular, that I strive in vain to account for them.'
'My dearest Mother, it produced the same effect upon me: Yet certainly neither of us ever heard his voice till we came to Madrid. I suspect that what we attribute to his voice, really proceeds from his pleasant manners, which forbid our considering him as a Stranger. I know not why, but I feel more at my ease while conversing with him than I usually do with people who are unknown to me. I feared not to repeat to him all my childish thoughts; and somehow I felt confident that He would hear my folly with indulgence. Oh! I was not deceived in him! He listened to me with such an air of kindness and attention! He answered me with such gentleness, such condescension!...”

Anyone who read my above-linked first post will understand that what caught my eye in the above was its striking parallel to the way the Thorpes all remark about Catherine’s remarkable resemblance to brother James, which I took as a clue to Catherine’s possible illegitimacy, even before I knew that such a parallel passage involving a concealed brother-sister relationship even existed in The Monk . So, I hope you’ll now agree that it is little wonder that John Thorpe was such a big fan of The Monk!!!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Mrs Thorpe’s “past adventures and sufferings” are keys that unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey

At the end of Chapter 4 of Northanger Abbey, we read a narrative synopsis of the Thorpe family: "Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well. This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated."

As I've previously noted (and in accord with other Austen scholars), the running joke of the wry narrator of Northanger Abbey is to state facts in the form of a negation: Catherine was not destined to be a heroine; Mrs. Morland did not die in childbirth; “Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding [Catherine], no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she once called a divinity by anybody”;  “Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero”; England is a Christian country where horrors and atrocities could not be perpetrated without an outcry from church, government, and neighborhood “spies”, etc etc.

In each case, JA is dropping an ironic hint to question the narrator’s minimizing negation, and to look behind it for its reverse ---i.e., to recognize that Catherine was actually a true heroine in her bravery, clear-sightedness, and honesty; that Mrs. Morland was a lucky outlier, compared to the many English wives who endured serial pregnancy, and did die in childbirth; and, most significantly, that England was indeed a Christian country where domestic horrors and atrocities of all kinds against women—not the lurid literal imprisonment, torture, and murder of Gothic novels, but the banal metaphorical death, confinement, and oppression, of wives and single women alike, which were everyday events, and were, appallingly, blithely ignored and rationalized by the supposed protectors of those English gentlewomen.  

This is a very effective ironic technique, which first raises as straw man the conventional wisdom about a given situation, only to promptly puncture it, and show that sometimes the seemingly absurd is real, as crystallized at novel’s end in this epigram: “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

With that brief intro, what I noticed today (which hasn’t been spotted by other Austen scholars) is how JA’s ironic narrator gives a short summary of the Thorpes early in NA, but then teasingly hints, via yet another wry negation, at what the narrator is not going to talk about: the “long and minute detail…of [Mrs. Thorpe’s] past adventures and sufferings.” The trusting reader accepts this as mere satire of the verbose, histrionic account Mrs. Thorpe gave. I imagine a film version of this scene with visuals of Mrs. Thorpe going on and on (like Miss Bates) while Catherine politely pretends to listen--but we can’t hear Mrs. Thorpe, only the narrator’s Fieldingesque voiceover delivering JA’s drily disparaging commentary.

But the suspicious reader who recognizes those other NA negations as ironic, will imagine a backstory of “worthlessness of lords and attorneys “ which “might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before”. Worthless lords and attorneys sound to me, respectively, like a rake (Henry Crawford or John Willoughby) who impregnates the future Mrs. Thorpe when she is single and naïve, and an attorney (Mr. Shepherd) a “fixer” who arranges her shotgun marriage to the late Mr Thorpe. That time period of twenty years just happens to take us back a generation, to when the main characters (Catherine, Isabella, John, Henry, and Eleanor) were all born. So we’d be “scarcely sinning” in taking JA as hinting at those sorts of “past adventures and sufferings” for Mrs. Thorpe, ones that would justify her in giving “long and minute detail” of same.

Hard to swallow? Consider, then, the scene when Catherine meets the Thorpes, earlier in Chapter 4: “hardly had [Mrs. Allen] been seated ten minutes before a lady of about her own age, who was sitting by her, and had been looking at her attentively for several minutes, addressed her with great complaisance in these words: “I think, madam, I cannot be mistaken; it is a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing you, but is not your name Allen?” This question answered, as it readily was, the stranger pronounced hers to be Thorpe; and Mrs. Allen immediately recognized the features of a former schoolfellow and intimate, whom she had seen only once since their respective marriages, and that many years ago. Their joy on this meeting was very great, as well it might, since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years….”

What was the nature of that occasion 15 years earlier when Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen last saw each other? Was the current meeting of Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen in Bath not accidental at all? That speculation in turn leads to a third suggestive passage in that same short Chapter 4:   “The Miss Thorpes were introduced; and Miss Morland, who had been for a short time forgotten, was introduced likewise. The name seemed to strike them all; and, after speaking to her with great civility, the eldest young lady observed aloud to the rest, “How excessively like her brother Miss Morland is!”
“The very picture of him indeed!” cried the mother—and “I should have known her anywhere for his sister!” was repeated by them all, two or three times over. For a moment Catherine was surprised; but Mrs. Thorpe and her daughters had scarcely begun the history of their acquaintance with Mr. James Morland, before she remembered that her eldest brother had lately formed an intimacy with a young man of his own college, of the name of Thorpe; and that he had spent the last week of the Christmas vacation with his family, near London. “

Why do the Thorpes all emphasize how closely Catherine resembles James? It sounds like “protesting too much”, which suggest that the Thorpe children were instructed by their mother to repeat this observation in unison. Is this because Catherine actually does not resemble James? And if so, is that non-resemblance due to a lack of actual biological consanguinity they don’t want Catherine to notice? I.e., what if Catherine isn’t really a biological child of Mrs. Morland after all, but is instead, the illegitimate child…of Mrs. Thorpe and an “worthless lord”?

Before you reject that out of hand, look more closely at those passages, and note that there’s still more Austenian sleight of hand going on. Although the discreet narrator of NA doesn’t point it out, this is actually a DOUBLE coincidence. Not only is Mrs. Thorpe connected to Mrs. Allen as her old schoolmate, Mrs. Thorpe is also connected to Catherine via James’s friendship with John Thorpe. This double coincidence was noted in 1996 by T. Barton:

So when Mrs. Thorpe recognizes Mrs. Allen in the Pump Room by “accident”, I ask: what if Mr. Thorpe did not randomly become friends with James at Oxford? And that speculation leads us to yet another coincidence… tucked away in the scene at the theatre in Chapter 12:       
“While talking [with Henry], [Catherine] had observed with some surprise that John Thorpe, who was never in the same part of the house for ten minutes together, was engaged in conversation with General Tilney; and she felt something more than surprise when she thought she could perceive herself the object of their attention and discourse. What could they have to say of her? She feared General Tilney did not like her appearance: she found it was implied in his preventing her admittance to his daughter, rather than postpone his own walk a few minutes. “How came Mr. Thorpe to know your father?” was her anxious inquiry, as she pointed them out to her companion. He knew nothing about it; but his father, like every military man, had a very large acquaintance.”

To recap: we now have three surprisingly interrelated connections being made, seemingly accidentally and independently, by members of the Thorpe family, each with a person a single degree of separation from Catherine: (1) Mrs. Thorpe meets Catherine’s chaperone; (2) John Thorpe meets her brother; and (3) John Thorpe meets the father of Henry & Eleanor. What’s the most probable explanation? That the Thorpes are united on a mission to establish connections with the Morland family, for some undisclosed reason. And by the way, this is another of those apparently multiple coincidental meetings which occur throughout Austen’s novels (most spectacularly in P&P, where we have a quadruple coincidence of Darcy, Wickham, Collins, and Mrs. Gardiner all “independently” connected to Elizabeth), which I’ve long asserted were not mere plotting expedience on JA’s part, but were invitations to alert readers to speculate on how such meetings might have occurred other than by accident. 

So, coming full circle, I suggest that all this coincidental ‘smoke” arises from the “family planning” hinted at in the sly narrator’s faux-dismissal of Mrs. Thorpe’s “adventures and sufferings” 20 years earlier. What seemed to be mere satire on Mrs. Thorpe is actually the key to unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey. As Faulkner famously put it: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Or as Elissa Schiff, who rarely agrees with me, put it a few years ago in Janeites: “I think much of Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, and MP revolve around what actually did happen in the past both in the lives of our characters and their families as well as in the larger world.” 

My speculations about backstories in JA’s novels have all consistently moved toward the sort of hidden familial relationships that filled the Gothic novels that Catherine Morland imbibed—and which, as I (and JA’s NA narrator) have suggested, served her much better than has been noted by most Janeites. And so, I see a repeated pattern of concealed parent-child and brother-sister relationships woven deep into the fabric of NA, centered on Mrs. Thorpe. As with Miss Bates, it behooves us to listen, even when Austen teasingly doesn’t allow us to.

I’m certain that Jane Austen intended for her readers to speculate about what might have gone on with Mrs. Thorpe two decades earlier, the consequences of which are playing out before our eyes in the novel’s present. But we can only do this, if we first recognize that behind the novel’s apparent mockery of an overheated Gothic imagination, there’s a whispered but urgent call to recognize that the largest impediment to seeing the world as it is, is an underactive imagination, one which unsuspiciously accepts what we think we see at face value.

[Here is the link to my first followup post to the above, which adds a crucial additional key to the backstory of Northanger Abbey:  "The shocking significance of John Thorpe’s two fictional favourites in Northanger Abbey"  ]
Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Artaxerxes & Darcy: Jane Austen’s Operatic Performance to Strangers in P&P

Anel wrote: “I am going to embark on a rereading of P&P where I will note all the "false notes" that pique my interest.  Naturally, they would be false notes *intended* by JA. Arnie would agree that those are normally the doors to the shadow dimension he so fondly introduced us to. The below is one of them and I just can't get to grips with even Arnie's explanation in one of his most popular posts. With a stupid semantics question here: is it usual to use a "WE" in this below last sentence? Why could it not have been left out: *Neither of us performs to strangers*.. referring to neither him, nor Elizabeth..? I use the singular here because that is what is/was normally used in formal English, so the below last sentence just has a strange ring to *my ears*….”
Anel, thank you for your response to my 2013 P&P bicentennial post “We neither of us perform to strangers”. For those who haven’t read it, I claimed that Darcy misreads Eliza’s repartee (at Netherfield and then again at Rosings) as a series of sexual come-ons---such as her jabs about female “fingers” “performing” on “instruments” being very similar to Shakespearean sexual banter in The Taming of the Shrew. What Darcy is saying to Eliza, in code, is this: “Even though Lady C. and the Colonel (“strangers”) don’t register your veiled sexual come-ons (“performance”), I do.” Darcy’s misreading leads him to botch his proposal, because he assumes from her seeming come-ons that she’ll say “Yes!”; it also prompts his aggrieved counterattack when she shocks him with her emphatic “No!”. In that post I also mentioned that there’ve been many other explications of Darcy’s enigmatic “We neither of us perform to strangers” by amateur and scholarly Janeites alike, including one of my own in a 2011 post. But I still assert that sexual innuendo is the best translation of Darcy’s cryptic meaning.
Anel also questioned the peculiar syntax of “We neither of us perform to strangers”, when “Neither of us performs to strangers” would’ve been grammatically sufficient. To my ears, the addition of “We” at the start creates a poetic rhythm that is pleasing to the ear, and makes Darcy’s statement more aphoristic, memorable, and…Shakespearean! But her comment also prompted me to check in Google Books, and find that the phrase “We neither of us” was not uncommonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries, including one such usage in a published letter written by Jonathan Swift.
However, among the dozen such usages, ONE OF THEM STOOD OUT, because it seemed to resonate strongly with Darcy’s and Eliza’s verbal battle in the Rosings salon. It occurs in one of the mock letters in Joseph Addison’s The Spectator, the famous early 18th century periodical the Austen family knew well. It was a major inspiration for the mock letters that comprised the Oxford Austen brothers’s The Loiterer, to which JA (aka Sophia Sentiment) contributed a memorable entry. Moreover, The Spectator is explicitly mentioned twice in Northanger Abbey:  “And while the abilities of…the man who collects and publishes in a volume…a paper from the Spectator…are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist…Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

To paraphrase Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen, like Eliza Bennet, often “f[ou]nd “great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact [we]re not [he]r own"; and I see the above as a prime example. I.e., the narrator of NA seems to dismiss literature like The Spectator as consisting of “topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living”, but I’ve repeatedly found that JA was a scholar of all manner of literature written long before her lifetime, including The Spectator. With that introduction, I’ll now give you that short letter in the Feb. 27, 1711 issue of The Spectator, immediately followed by the relevant passage in Chapter 31 of P&P, with parallel language between the two passages in ALL CAPS. After that, I’ll explain the amazing operatic allusion that I believe lay behind Austen’s allusion to Addison:

“Mr. Spectator, You are to know that I am naturally Brave, and love Fighting as well as any Man in England. This gallant Temper of mine makes me extremely DELIGHTED with Battles on the Stage. I GIVE you this TROUBLE to complain to you, that Nicolini refused to gratify me in that Part of the Opera for which I have most TASTE. I observe it’s become a Custom, that whenever any GENTLEMEN are particularly PLEASED with a SONG, at their crying out Encore or altro volto, the PERFORMER is so obliging as to SING it over again. I was at the Opera the last time Hydaspes was PERFORMED. At that part of it where the hero engages with the lion, the graceful manner with which he put that terrible monster to death gave me so great a PLEASURE, and at the same time so just a sense of that GENTLEMAN’s intrepidity and conduct, that I could not forbear desiring a repetition of it, by crying out altro volto, in a very audible voice…Yet, notwithstanding all this, there was so little regard had to me, that the lion was carried off, and went to bed, without being killed any more that night. Now, Sir, Pray consider that l did not understand a word of what Mr. Nicolini said to this cruel creature; besides, 1 have no ear for MUSIC; so that during the long dispute between them, the whole ENTERTAINMENT I had was from my eyes. Why then have not I as much right to have graceful action repeated as another has a PLEASING sound…WE NEITHER OF US know that there is any REASONABLE thing a doing?...I am an Englishman, and expect some REASON or other to be given me, and perhaps an ordinary one may serve; but I expect your Answer. I am, SIR, Your most humble Servant, Toby Rentfree 
And now, that passage in the Rosings salon:        
“...Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said: "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
"I shall not say you are mistaken," he replied, "because you could not really believe me to ENTERTAIN any design of alarming you; and I have had the PLEASURE of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself…”...Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire—and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too—for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear."
"I am not afraid of you," said he, smilingly.
"Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though GENTLEMEN were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."
"I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party."
"True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders."
"Perhaps," said Darcy, "I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
"Shall we ask your cousin the REASON of this?" said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?"
"I can answer your question," said Fitzwilliam, "without applying to him. It is because he will not GIVE himself the TROUBLE."
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the TROUBLE of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. WE NEITHER OF US PERFORM TO STRANGERS."
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who called out to know what they were talking of. Elizabeth immediately began playing again. Lady Catherine approached, and, after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy:"Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her TASTE is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a DELIGHTFUL PERFORMER, had her health allowed her to learn."

The resonance between these two quotations isn’t merely one of repetition of keywords, it’s that both are about a listener’s reaction to a sung performance, and both are about “battles”: verbal, between Darcy and fearless Eliza, and physical, between the lion and fearless Hydaspes. Here’s a 1922 synopsis of Mancini’s Hydaspes in “Opera in England prior to The Beggar’s Opera” by Frank Kidson, who, you’ll notice, recalls the Addison connection from 2 centuries earlier:   
“In 1710…the next opera to follow was Hydaspes. In this, Nicolini took the part of Hydaspes. The plot of the opera was dramatic enough. Hydaspes, the brother of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, is a rival to the King in the affections of Princess Berenice. His brother condemns Hydaspes to be devoured by a lion in the amphitheatre while Berenice is placed to see her lover’s sufferings. Hydaspes with much vocal effort begs the lion, which is supposed not to see him at first, to ‘come on’…The lion incident seemed to provoke a good deal of good-natured satire, and Addison in The Spectator pokes fun at Nicolini’s struggles with it. The opera was by Francesco Mancini and it was acted in 1710.” END QUOTE
So, if Jane Austen did mean to allude to Hydaspes when writing Darcy’s famous aphorism about not performing to strangers, what might this mean? I suggest that JA thereby meant to point to the love story told in that century-old opera, in which the powerful Artaxerxes and his brother Hydaspes are rivals for the affections of Princess Berenice, just as the powerful Darcy and his “brother” Wickham are rivals for the affections of Elizabeth Bennet. And here’s some suggestive evidence of JA’s strong interest in that operatic story, in her March 5, 1814 letter to Cassandra, written from London:  We are to see The Devil to Pay to-night. I expect to be very much amused. Excepting Miss Stephens, I daresay Artaxerxes will be very tiresome.”  And then, after seeing it, this followup comment:
"“I was very tired of Artaxerxes, highly amused with the Farce, & in an inferior way with the Pantomime that followed. Mr. J. Plumptre joined in the latter part of the Evening-walked home with us, ate some soup, & is very earnest for our going to Cov. Gar. again to night to see Miss Stephens in The Farmer's Wife....”

So, might there be some connection between the performance of Artaxerxes JA correctly predicted would be “very tiresome” for her to watch, and the character Artaxerxes in the opera Hydaspes which Addison wrote about in The Spectator? YES!! There were actually two operas performed in England, which were both on Jane Austen’s radar screen. First, in two recent posts… “Austen’s shocking risque allusion to The Marriage of Figaro in P&P   &  “Much more on the Cherubino Marriage of Figaro subtext in P&P  ….I showed that Jane Austen was deeply engaged with Mozart’s great comic opera as she wrote P&P.  And, second, the Artaxerxes JA didn’t expect to enjoy was an opera, not a play; and not just any opera, a very popular one:
“In 1791, Joseph Haydn, then working in London, went to a performance of Thomas Arne's opera Artaxerxes. He was astonished by it. He had "no idea", he is on record as saying, "that we had such an opera in the English language". That an English-born composer might have produced one of the great operas was difficult for Haydn to imagine: he was unaware of the huge popularity of Arne's masques, operas and songs, which audiences had flocked to see only a few decades previously. Premiered in 1762, Artaxerxes was regarded as one of Arne's masterpieces. By the turn of the 19th century, every British music lover was familiar with it, almost to the point of satiety: in 1814, Jane Austen admitted she was becoming "very tired" of hearing it.
And here’s the revealing connection of Figaro to Artaxerxes: Catherine Stephens, the opera diva whose performance JA foresaw would be the saving grace of Artaxerxes, was not merely making her debut at Covent Garden in that 1814 performance; two years earlier, in May 1812 at the Little Theatre, Stephens played the “trouser role” of Cherubino in the first London staging of Figaro, and her main arias were often encored. So I suggest that JA looked forward to seeing Catherine Stephens that evening in March 1814 precisely because JA had enjoyed her cross-dressed Cherubino (Chamberlayne in P&P) so much in Figaro two years earlier!
So, in conclusion, I thank Anel for getting me started on a line of inquiry that revealed this whole additional layer of operatic subtext in P&P –so that, two centuries later, we readers need no longer be “strangers” to JA’s subtle “performance” in P&P of that Figaro/Artaxerxes subtext.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Northanger Abbey's General Tilney as Samuel Morland, real-life Bluebeard/Montoni/Henry VIII

The relevant portions of my earlier post: "...And the reason I am so certain of this is that the gentleman involved was a very famous fellow in his day (the latter part of the 17th century), and his name just happened to be Samuel MORLAND! And these memorials were intentionally echoed by JA when she described General Tilney's great grief over the death of Mrs. Tilney, whom I have argued is the symbol of all the English wives who died in childbirth. And by now you've probably figured out that the images of those memorials are what you see at the top of this post! ....I came across a remarkable factoid in 2009, which is that in Westminster Abbey there are two memorials hanging side by side on the wall in a rarely viewed nave in the Abbey, which were erected there by a grieving middle aged husband who had "murdered" not one but "two" much younger wives, via death in childbirth."

Nancy Mayer replied in Janeites:  "The point with which I disagree is that Samuel Morland or Gen. Tilney were murderers or  in any way responsible for the death of wife or wives. According to that logic any man who wants children with his wife is a potential murderer because even today women  die in child birth whether the first child or the tenth. In NA , the Morlands have a quiversful of children with the mother still alive. Gen Tilney only has 3 children. Many women died with the first as my daughter  would have if she had lived then. You have children-- you therefore attempted to murder your wife. You do not know how many children Mr. Morland of Westminster Abbey  had.  A duchess alive in JA's day had 21 children and then risked more by marrying again after the duke died. She had a choice."

Nancy, we've been around this block many times before, and you always forget one crucial fact-- this is not about Arnie Perlstein's personal opinion on the topic, it's about Jane Austen's opinion, as she watched wives she knew drop like flies around her --including two of her own sisters in law while JA was alive, and then a third shortly after her death. That sort of pattern tends to get your attention in a hurry. Now I  happen to agree with Jane Austen, but that's beside the point! And what's also beside the point is that I have children, since I live in an era and country when and where childbirth does not carry a significant probability of maternal fatality, or even illness!

My interpretation of Northanger Abbey having as its central shadow theme the epidemic of death in childbirth among English gentlewomen is one that I've argued many times (although not much recently)--it was, after all, the topic of my breakout session at the 2010 JASNA AGM in Portland, Oregon  (where I now live). It has many strong bases, which I barely had time to cover more than in summary during the 40 minutes of my presentation. My presentation included, but was far from limited to, the dozen or more unequivocally sarcastic comments by Jane Austen in her letters spanning two decades. These sarcasms were all about married women being turned into breeding animals by their husbands who demanded their conjugal rights over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, regardless of the real danger that the next pregnancy would be their wife's death sentence. These were not the hints I see in NA -- there is actually no other controversial complaint on which Jane Austen was more explicit and more focused during her entire adult life than this. That's not my interpretation--that is 100% ironclad fact.

Plus, as my research back in 2009 also demonstrated, the epidemic was exacerbated by male doctor incursion into the childbirth room, displacing the centuries old tradition of female midwives. The male doctors, being pre-Semmelweis, would frequently come straight from the dissecting room o supervise births, without washing their hands. So, just as we are seeing today with the unconscious racism which still permeates many police departments in the US, there was male privilege at two ends of the tunnel, so to speak---the husbands who impregnated their wives at the start, the doctors who delivered their babies (and cases of sepsis) at the end.

As Jane Austen said, think of what is probable --is it probable that married women would be dropping like flies and no other women would notice or be concerned or fearful? Do you think English wives worried about their soldier or sailor husbands dying in war, but were blithely unconcerned about their own risks of dying? You think it's an accident that Jane Austen chose not to marry? I believe there was no single issue of greater interest to English gentlewomen than this, which female writers, had enough of them held the pen of authorship, might have written about in their novels. No, what was clear, was that any novel which contained an explicit complaint about this epidemic could not get published -- and had one managed to slip through into publication, its author would have been universally vilified as an "unsex'd female" daring to challenge man's God-given supremacy in marriage. I even wonder whether the original version of Northanger Abbey which sat on Crosby's shelf gathering dust for a decade, was more explicit about this topic, and that was the main reason it was purchased but then placed in a deep freeze for a decade, until Jane Austen's M.A.D. anger led her to buy it back, and revise its polemics enough into the shadows where it could safely pass the censors, which it did, ironically, only after JA's death -- but not before brother Henry made sure to reassure the world that there could not be any hidden meanings in it!

I am certain that Jane Austen saw herself as a modern day Cassandra, whispering that the emperor is indeed wearing no clothes----i.e., the average English husband did not have to be a literal Montoni who literally locked his wife in a dungeon or literally poisoned her, he was a banal real life Montoni, Bluebeard (the popular story that symbolized this epidemic) or Henry VIII--the English husband repeatedly, metaphorically "poisoned" his wife with "poison" which entered her body otherwise than through her mouth, or "chopped off her head" (i.e., deflowered) her.  And, as Henry Tilney unwittingly averred, improbable as it might have seemed to a lucid observer, nobody lifted a single finger to stop the epidemic:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

Here is the quintessential dark Austenian irony. Jane Austen is challenging her readers to WAKE UP to what is happening! These were genuine atrocities at which English marital laws did connive, which could be perpetrated without anyone objecting out loud, where all the voluntary spies  and newspapers were too busy looking for French spies to notice that young English wives were dying with sickening regularity.

And Mrs. Morland, the English wife who was healthy as a horse (so to speak) despite having had 10 children, is a classic Austenian ironic inversion, described thusly right at the start of the novel via those famous negations ("Mrs. Morland did not die in childbirth") precisely for that ironic purpose -- the exception who proves the rule. The novelist did slyly protest too much that Mrs. Morland was healthy, in order to make her point, which is that so many other English wives were not so lucky! And that brings us right back to those two "awful memorials" hung in WEST-minster (rotated a mere 90 degrees from NORTH-anger) Abbey by the real life 50-something Samuel Morland, in memory of his two VERY young wives who each died in childbirth. No wonder Jane Austen named her heroine "Catherine MORLAND", it was to echo the life of that well known (in Jane Austen's era) inventor/spy/politician, and his particular hypocrisy in his conjugal life, who mourned his wives in three classic languages, but who, like the classic definition of chutzpah, did not mourn them quite enough to stop murdering them!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, September 19, 2016

North-Angel Abbey: Catherine Morland’s Ladder to Grace & Merit

Diana Birchall replied to me: "Hi Arnie, I much enjoyed your most interesting and creative extension of the meaning of Jacob's Ladder as it applies to themes in Northanger Abbey.”

I’m so glad, Diana! You’ve once again given me an extremely suggestive nugget, on which I did not have to chisel too hard to extract some pure scholarly gold!

Diana: “Unfortunately, I can't answer your question as to whether the phrase used in Jane Austen's day to describe the stairs leading to Beechen Cliff, as it is now. I'm sure there are people who are steeped in the history of Bath, and know; perhaps my friend who took me there does, and I can ask. It would certainly be an old name, not newly bestowed, though I don't know if it goes back to JA's day. "

I already Tweeted Jane Odiwe that very question before I read your reply, she kindly replied that she will look into it when she returns to Bath from London – but as you will see, below, I believe the odds that it was in use by 1816 are already much greater than I knew when I wrote my post yesterday!

Diana added: "However, whether the literal stairs were called Jacob's Ladder then or not,  it is of course absolutely certain that JA knew the term; she knew her Bible, and then (as you've probably found out) there is a "Jacob's Ladder" sculpture on the front of Bath Abbey. And your image of Catherine climbing to heaven, from her heavenly (to her) talk with Henry on Beechen Cliff, to the attaining of her real heaven in their marriage, is so delightful, it's hard to think JA didn't mean to convey the association to us."

Thanks again, and I of course agree with you, it is indeed so lovely and apt that it can’t be a coincidence – that would be (to paraphrase the wry narration in the Beechen Cliff scene) too much serendipity for one scholarly question!

But no, I did not know about that sculpture before you just mentioned it, so it’s a really good thing that you mentioned it! It turns out you’ve given me an even more suggestive clue to add to the first one. You don’t realize just how significant an additional fact that really is! Let me show you:

First here's an excellent close-up photo of that spectacular sculpture on the exterior of the Abbey front wall:

Second, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about its origin:  "The west front [of Bath Abbey] which was originally constructed in 1520, has a large arched window and detailed carvings. Above the window are carvings of angels and to either side LONG STONE LADDERS WITH ANGELS CLIMBING UP THEM……Oliver King (1432-1503) was a Bishop of Exeter and Bishop of Bath and Wells who restored Bath Abbey after 1500….The story of the refounding is told on the front of the Abbey in carved Bath stone. King had a dream in which he saw a host of angels on a ladder, the Holy Trinity, and an olive tree with a crown on it. He heard a voice: 'Let an Olive establish the crown, and let a King restore the Church.' King believed this was a call for him to support the candidature of Henry Tudor as King, and to restore the Abbey. These images are carved on the West Front of the Abbey…this is a direct reference to the dream of the prophet Jacob mentioned in the Bible and commonly called Jacob’s Ladder.”

I almost can’t type the rest of this post, I am SO amazed and thrilled at how well that all fits with my speculations about those wooden steps at Beechen Cliff in my previous post! The above facts show that Jacob’s Ladder was indeed an iconic image and Biblical story on frequent display to all visitors to England’s stone city, Bath—Bath Abbey was after all the most prominent structure in the entire town! But that’s only the start.

That iconic image is on display on the front of an abbey that was restored not long before Henry VIII took the throne. That raises an obvious and strong ironic resonance with Catherine Morland’s Gothic famous imaginings (and also those of the teenaged Jane Austen in her wry spin on Gilpin in her History of England) vis a vis the beauty of ruined abbeys!

It seems to me an especially plausible and solid inference that the wooden steps at Beechen Cliff were given the name Jacob’s Ladder a very long time ago, precisely because people in the 17th and 18th centuries who climbed up and enjoyed the “heavenly” views from the top of Beechen Cliff would have found Bath Abbey as perhaps the most prominent landmark in the middle of the vista they enjoyed!:
Although the Jacob’s Ladder statue is not visible today in 2016 from Beechen Cliff, because the view of it is blocked by a smaller building in front of the abbey, the following much older photo of that view seems to show that the view of the statue would have been unobstructed in JA’s lifetime:

Now, I acknowledge that we don’t explicitly read in the novel about Catherine visiting Bath Abbey, but don’t you think she’d have walked over to look at it at some point during her long stay in Bath, given her obsession with abbeys born from her Gothic novel addiction, manifest also in her eagerness to visit Blaize Castle? It would be shocking if she had not taken a stroll there, and especially so after that Beechen Cliff outing. I.e., it would have been the most natural thing in the world for Eleanor, after viewing the Abbey with Catherine from atop Beechen Cliff, to have taken her curious young friend to Bath Abbey in order to give her a closeup view of a real abbey. Eleanor would surely have delighted in introducing her protégée, with her absorbent sponge of a mind, to this wonderful aesthetic and historic experience, filling her in perhaps on the unfortunate history of Henry VIII’s wives all the while!

And, speaking of those angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder, is it not also delightful to think of Catherine as Jane Austen’s most angelic heroine? Should we not then read, with a wry smile, the following intense colloquy between Catherine and Isabella in Chapter 6 involving a different spin on angels, as an inadvertent satire of King’s statue?:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them. I wish you knew Miss Andrews, you would be delighted with her. She is netting herself the sweetest cloak you can conceive. I THINK HER AS BEAUTIFUL AS AN ANGEL, and I am so vexed with the men for not admiring her! I scold them all amazingly about it.”
“Scold them! Do you scold them for not admiring her?”
“Yes, that I do. There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong. I told Captain Hunt at one of our assemblies this winter that if he was to tease me all night, I would not dance with him, unless he would allow MISS ANDREWS TO BE AS BEAUTIFUL AS AN ANGEL. The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference. Now, if I were to hear anybody speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment: but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with the men.”
“Oh, dear!” cried Catherine, colouring. “How can you say so?”
“I know you very well; you have so much animation, which is exactly what Miss Andrews wants, for I must confess there is something amazingly insipid about her. Oh! I must tell you, that just after we parted yesterday, I saw a young man looking at you so earnestly—I am sure he is in love with you.” Catherine coloured, and disclaimed again. Isabella laughed. “It is very true, upon my honour, but I see how it is; you are indifferent to everybody’s admiration, except that of one gentleman, who shall be nameless. Nay, I cannot blame you”—speaking more seriously—“your feelings are easily understood. Where the heart is really attached, I know very well how little one can be pleased with the attention of anybody else. Everything is so insipid, so uninteresting, that does not relate to the beloved object! I can perfectly comprehend your feelings.”

In that passage I see yet another wink by JA at Jacob’s Ladder, this time at the statue of the angels on the front of Bath Abbey --- i.e., Isabella’s hyperbolic rhapsodies about Miss Andrews being as beautiful as an “angel” suggest to me that even when not atop Beechen Cliff, a visitor to Bath would be doing a great deal of gazing at picturesque beauty – in this case, at female beauty--- at ground level and indoors!

And as for Oliver King, the man who dreamt of putting Jacob’s Ladder on the front of the Abbey, might JA have winked at him thrice in the text of the novel?:

First, in Henry Tilney’s witty ventriloquistic description of himself viewed from Catherine’s perspective:  “I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by MR. KING; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.” [I know that there was another real-life Mr. King who was the master of the lower, and then of the upper, assembly rooms – but JA was fond of double allusions]

Second in this conversation between Isabella and Catherine with its sly reference to “kings” in a card game, one in which, perhaps not coincidentally, we hear yet again about Catherine’s dreaming:

“…What a delightful hand you have got! KINGS, I VOW! I never was so happy in my life! I would fifty times rather you should have them than myself.”
And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself, if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months….”

And third in that conversation about history and novels atop Beechen Cliff – in that regard, how fitting that Catherine should mention the actual historical quarrel of Henry VIII and Pope Clement VIII in 1527 (over Henry’s wish to marry as many women as he pleased, that led to Henry’s being excommunicated, and then to his seizure of the monasteries) while looking down at Bath Abbey: 
“…I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The QUARRELS OF POPES AND KINGS, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome…”

And as if that were not enough, I found an excellent scholarly article entitled  “Luther and the Ascent of Jacob's Ladder” by David C. Steinmetz in Church History, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 179-192.  After reading it, I am now convinced that Jane Austen herself, with her extraordinary erudition that she found amusement in pretending she did not have, had in mind the very same sorts of exegesis of the Biblical Jacob’s Ladder, as engaged the mind of Martin Luther centuries before her: [trust me, it’s worth taking the time to read the following analysis closely]

“On the west front of Bath Abbey there are carved two stone ladders stretching from heaven to earth on which twelve angels are climbing, six on each ladder. A tourist who sees the west front of the abbey for the first time is told that the carvings represent the dream of Oliver King, Bishop of Bath and Wells under Henry VII and his former chief secretary. The bishop had a nocturnal vision of angels climbing ladders to heaven. As he stood before the ladders in amazement, he heard voices saying that an olive should establish the crown and that the king should restore the church. He took the reference to olives and kings to be an allusion to his own name and concluded that he, Oliver King, should support the Tudor monarchy and rebuild the abbey at Bath.
In the bishop's dream about politics and architecture, however, there more than a hint of something familiar, of a dream even more famous and ancient. The biblical setting and inspiration for Oliver King's dream of intrigue and ecclesiastical ambition is Genesis 28, the story of Jacob's dream as Jacob camped by night at Bethel on his lonely journey from Beersheba to Haran. Like Bishop King, Jacob dreamed of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, a ladder along which angels ascended and descended in a never- ending procession. While Jacob did not restore a ruined shrine (or support the political aspirations of that Labanesque monarch Henry VII), he did erect a stone monument at the place where he had slept as a memorial of astonishing and wholly unanticipated vision.
If we leave the front of Bath Abbey and consult the biblical commentaries in the abbey library, we discover that there are even more connections between Jacob's dream and the dream of Bishop King than we first thought. The commentaries on Genesis 28-the Ordinary Gloss, and the Postils Hugh of Saint Cher, Nicholas of Lyra, and Denis the Carthusian-all establish the relationship between Jacob's dream and sacred space. According to the medieval commentators, Jacob had slept by accident on the site of the future temple, a site which therefore would become famous both as the cultic center of ancient Israel and as the focal point for the activity of Jesus.
In other words, Jacob rested in the shadow of the altar and under the sign of the cross. Wherever the cross and altar are found, there is the place where Jacob slept, the place where heaven and earth are joined by an angelic ladder. Denis the Carthusian, Bishop King's older contemporary, put the matter this way: “The place where Jacob rested is not only the universal church but also any particular church, no, rather, even a material basilica dedicated to the Lord,which, because of the presence of the highest majesty, because of the presence of sacraments of Christ, because of the celebration of the divine office, because of the devoted gathering and holy prayer of the faithful, is nothing other than the “house of God," "the gate of heaven." For in it sins are taken away through sacramental confession and the virtues infused through which the gates of the heavenly kingdom are opened.”
Bishop King's dream took him back to Bethel, to the sacred space where a stone monument to God should be erected. It took him, like Jacob, to the "house of God" and the "gate of heaven," where the sacramental presence of Christ could be adored and celebrated. Bath Abbey is the place where Jacob rested. I mention this dream because of what seems to me a shining and obvious fact all too frequently overlooked or undervalued, namely that the biblical stories, images, and themes which pervade the culture of late medieval and Reformation Europe have their own history in that culture.
The story of Jacob's dream has had a particularly rich history of interpretation in Western Christendom. Anders Nygren…identified three principle strands in the dogmatic traditions of medieval Christianity which relied on the story of Jacob's dream for their inspiration and at least partial justification. According to Nygren, medieval theologians identified Jacob's ladder with the ladder of grace and merit, the analogical ladder of speculation, and the anagogical ladder of mysticism.
The first ladder, the ladder of grace and merit, was by far the most common. It was the ladder by which every Christian ascended from a state of sin to the beatific vision of God. The analogical ladder of speculation, on the other hand, was reserved for a smaller group of Christian intellectuals who were able to use the material and sensible elements of this world as a ladder to enable them to rise to the contemplations of the immaterial and invisible realities of the spiritual world. The third ladder, the anagogical ladder of mysticism, was open in principle to every Christian, though in actual fact relatively few Christians attempted the ascent to the more rarefied heights of spiritual ecstasy. Nygren argued that Martin Luther rejected all three of these interpretations of Jacob's ladder because they rested on a faulty conception of Christian love.” END QUOTE

I can already tell, from my extremely preliminary analysis, that a very interesting follouwp scholarly article could be written about Catherine Morland as a Regency Era, female Jacob, seeking to climb those ladders toward grace and merit, but also her largely unrecognized gift for speculation as well!

And finally, I’ve saved for last what I believe is Jane Austen’s slyest hint of all. Henry Tilney hands down his tablets of wisdom about perspective to Catherine as they stand atop Beechen Cliff, gazing down and TO THE NORTH at Bath Abbey! So, as my Subject Line playfully hints, those climbing angels constructed by Oliver King, when viewed from the unique perspective of Beechen Cliff, would have literally been, in that perspetival sense,  “northangels”! And therefore perhaps that was part of what led Jane Austen to choose the name “Northanger Abbey” for the edifice where the second half of her novel takes place, changing only that final letter from “l” to “r”!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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