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Monday, November 15, 2010

The color of a famous man's beard

The following thread just arose out of my responding to a couple of comments about the covert allusions in Northanger Abbey. Trust me, you will want to read this one through to the end:

"I wonder just how well known these things were to people who lived in Yorkshire or Kent. Jane and her family could laugh at her joke, but would a general reader understand it?"

But I claim that JA's goal, Nancy, was NOT to be universally understood, only to be understood by those who were oriented to look at all her character names as potential clues to allusions--i.e., only by those readers who paid her the respect of NOT underestimating her, and therefore taking her textual winks and nods seriously. And I think JA (correctly) anticipated that, for the most part, the only readers of hers who would pay her that respect would be FEMALE readers--- intelligent, mostly self-educated women who had themselves learned to speak obliquely in a world where censorious powerful vigilantes like General Tilney were burning the midnight oil to root out and punish all "Jacobins" and "unsex'd females"!

And that's all it would have taken--if a female contemporary of JA saw the name "Thorpe" and took the time to find out if that name was connected in any significant way to Bath, it would not take long at all, even for a reader living elsewhere in England, to do a little digging and to discover that Thorpe was a famous Bath mapmaker. Then, reflecting (as Barchas brilliantly did) on the linkage of mapmaking to Thorpe's physically driving in the wrong direction, it becomes crystal clear that JA did this on purpose, because it is both so hilarious AND so thematically relevant.

"Does knowing these things change the interpretation of John Thorpe as a stupid, obnoxious, self-centered person whose judgment is shown to be faulty?"

I'm glad you asked, because you show by the way you frame your question that you have been far too limited in setting the parameters of your radar screen. That is where the shadow stories come in, because that is where many of these clues find their most significant meaning. So yes, in an important way, the presence of covert allusions to Ralph Allen, to Thorpe the mapmaker, to Farley Hungerford, to Samuel Morland (as I spoke about in my AGM talk), etc., DOES indicate that they are there for important reasons--and many of those reasons are in the shadow stories! So if you go looking only under the "streetlight" of the overt stories, you are not going to find the "lost key" left there by JA that opens the door to the shadow story!

But even in the overt story, it adds meaning---think about it--isn't it John Thorpe who "misdirects" General Tilney not once but TWICE, and those two misdirections are the axes upon which the world of the novel turns! It is because of Thorpe that General Tilney takes an interest in Catherine in the first place, and it is again because of Thorpe that General Tilney boots Catherine out of the Abbey.

So, couldn't we say that in the risky business of hunting for heiresses, Thorpe's "treasure map" is a little faulty? And I don't know about you, but I find that extremely funny and wonderful!

But........................speaking of treasure maps made me curious, so I "dug" for the word "treasure" in the "sand" of NA, and look what I found, first in Henry Tilney's mock Gothic story, and then in Catherine's own subsequent "digging" in the Abbey itself:

"At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open -- a roll of paper appears -- you seize it -- it contains many sheets of manuscript -- you hasten with the precious TREASURE into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher...."

"Well read in the art of CONCEALING A TREASURE, the possibility of false linings to the drawers did not escape her, and she felt round each with anxious acuteness in vain."
As I read that, my hunch was confirmed, that even though Catherine is in an Abbey, her imagination has already taken her to ANOTHER Gothic setting, not in the Black Forest of Germany, but a very sunlit sandy island in the West Indies! I suggest that Catherine imagines herself as a treasure hunter, searching for the treasure MAP which will lead her to the "buried treasure" she seeks--treasure which is not money, but KNOWLEDGE about the mysterious Mrs. Tilney. Knowledge so precious that every woman should know it--which is "Be careful if you get married, because your husband may "murder" you by "loving" you too much!"

And perhaps some of you now realize what I have been hinting at in my subject line....Catherine of course is very interested in the first half of the novel in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and in particular "the dreadful BLACK veil"! But there are OTHER references to the color "black" in the novel, which have Gothic resonance--one of the famous six Gothic novels mentioned by explicit title is "The Necromancer of the BLACK Forest"; and Catherine finds a particular cabinet at the Abbey particularly suggestive of Gothic wrongdoing:

"...Catherine, having spent the best part of an hour in her arrangements, was beginning to think of stepping into bed, when, on giving a parting glance round the room, she was struck by the appearance of a high, old-fashioned BLACK cabinet, which, though in a situation conspicuous enough, had never caught her notice before. It was not absolutely EBONY and gold; but it was japan, BLACK and yellow japan of the handsomest kind; and as she held her candle, the yellow had very much the effect of gold."

So JA is clearly and unmistakably amplifying Radcliffe's depiction of the color "black" as a cue for all things dark and Gothic.

And that takes us to the one OTHER usage of the word "black" in Northanger Abbey--but this one is metaphorical rather than visual:

"She could remember dozens who had persevered in every possible vice, going on from crime to crime, murdering whomsoever they chose, without any feeling of humanity or remorse; till a violent death or a religious retirement closed THEIR BLACK CAREER."

And I have already pointed out that both Barchas, with Farley Hungerford's family, and I, with Samuel Morland, have uncovered two instances of historical BLUEbeards--the Hungerford Bluebeard an actual Bluebeard, Samuel Morland a metaphorical Bluebeard.

But in the real world, men don't have BLUE beards, most of them in JA's Europe would have had BLACK beards!:

And now look at what Wikipedia tells us about the man whose name would have been the first one mentioned by someone living in JA's time, when the subject of black beards might have come up:

"Edward Teach or Edward Thatch (c. 1680- 1718), better known as BLACKBEARD, was a notorious English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies during the early 18th century.....A shrewd and calculating leader, Teach used his fearsome image instead of force to elicit the response he desired from those he robbed. Contrary to the modern-day image of the traditional tyrannical pirate, he commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews, and there are no known accounts of his ever having harmed or murdered those he held captive. He was romanticised after his death, and became the inspiration for a number of pirate-themed works of fiction across a range of genres."

So Blackbeard had an infamous "black career" in which he supposedly murdered many people "without humanity or remorse" and he did indeed died "a violent death". So, do you think I am "reaching" too far to bring Edward Teach into the subtext of Northanger Abbey? If so, then explain why I also just read the following bit of text in that same Wikipedia article:

"In contemporary records his name is most often given as Blackbeard, Edward Thatch, or Edward Teach, and it is the latter which today is most often used, but several spellings of his surname exist.... ONE EARLY CLAIM WAS THAT HIS SURNAME WAS DRUMMOND [!!!!!!!], BUT THE LACK OF ANY SUPPORTING DOCUMENTATION MAKES THIS UNLIKELY. It was the custom of pirates to use fictitious surnames while engaging in the business of piracy, so as not to tarnish the family name, and Teach's real name will likely never be known...."

Regardless of the factuality of Blackbeard's original name being Drummond or not, what matters is that the rumor of his name being Drummond would have been "out there" to be detected by JA!

And then isn't it just a little strange that I also read the following in that same article:

"[Blackbeard] continued on to BATH [the first capital of colonial North Carolina, and its port of entry!!!], where in June 1718—only days after Bonnet had departed with his pardon—he and his much-reduced crew received their pardon from Governor Eden. TEACH SETTLED IN BATH, on the eastern side of BATH CREEK at Plum Point, near the home of Eden. During July and August he travelled between his base in the town and his sloop off Ocracoke."

So we have Edward Teach aka Blackbeard being connected to the color black, seeking hidden treasure, Drummond, Bath, Bluebeard/Blackbeard, all of which are at the heart of the subtext and text of NA----think it is all one huge coincidence? You know I don't. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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