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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Real Life Bluebeards in the Subtext of Northanger Abbey

Ellen Moody made the comments shown in quotes, below, in response to my earlier claim that Janine Barchas had made an extraordinary presentation at the recently completely JASNA AGM in Portland on the subject of a real life Bluebeard family alluded to covertly in the subtext of Northanger Abbey. While Ellen's point of view is extreme, it is not atypical in the realm of literary scholarship, and so I felt it was important to rebut it strongly.

[Ellen] "I was thinking of another talk I heard by Barchas in the ASECS at Richmond last year. She proposed as a literal source for the non-incident at Blaise Castle (remember they never get there) a castle or abbey which is in the location of Somerset. There is not a shred of evidence this other place is referenced. Her talk about this place was very interesting, but it has no particular bearing on NA -- that is, any more than any other historical site."

Ellen, you could not be more incorrect in EVERY aspect of what you wrote, above.

First of all, Barchas gave her talk in Portland at the AGM on that SAME EXACT subject, i.e., the castle/abbey is Farley (or Farleigh) Hungerford). Second, in Portland Barchas gave DOZENS of specific bits of convergent evidence to support her claim that JA was alluding to same in NA. And after I heard her talk, that evening I did my own style of research in the text of NA and found lots of compelling additional evidence to support Barchas's claims. It is truly an amazing discovery on her part.

There must have been 100+ people in the audience for Barchas in Portland and there was not a naysayer in the bunch, the room practically gave her a standing ovation, people were so impressed, lots of excited q&a afterwards. No person could have heard her presentation and doubted its accuracy. It was simply overwhelming, as overwhelming, in a different way, as the case I made for Mrs. Tilney's illness being childbed fever.

[Ellen] "Janine Barchas’s talk was based on an article she had recently had published. She took a map of the Bath area and found that near the mileage Austen says that Thorpe drove Catherine on the way to Baise Castle is what is today a heritage site: Farleigh Hungerford Castle. By assuming that Austen meant us to know this, and meant us to remember many details about this castle known at the time through rumor and tourism, Barchas was able to inject into *Northanger Abbey* the violence of the 14th century, a family history filled with cruelty, murder, ruins, moats, and ghosts and buried spouses."

You must not have heard what Barchas actually said, because you chose one detail out of FIFTY that she presented, and by presenting that one detail in the distorted context you provide, you try to make her sound like she is a wild confabulist. In point of fact, she is a meticulous scholar, who tracked down every single detail to its logical end, and made no leaps at all, just logical steps of inference. She gave tons of very specific and persuasive evidence.

[Ellen] "The example became what Austen expected us to remember when Henry chided Catherine for imagining terrific happenings around her."

And if you had attended MY talk, you'd know that a number of Austen scholars over the past two decades have been arguing that Henry's chiding of Catherine can either be read without irony OR WITH IRONY! There is a world of evidence to support reading that passage WITH irony, and that was an integral part of my argument, which is that in the shadow story of the novel, it is Henry who is (inadvertently) enlightened by Catherine! So your argument is turned on its head--what JA is telling the reader in the overt story is that too much imagination is bad, but in the shadow story she shows that TOO LITTLE imagination is much WORSE!

[Ellen] "Barchas said that we know Austen owned a guidebook which had a picture of Hungerford chapel; Austen also owned and left marginalia on a copy of Richard Warner’s *Excursions from Bath* (1801). While the slides were picturesque, and the history of this place as a tourist site as well as originally was of real interest, it seemed to me Barchas’s talk showed us the dangers of over-historicizing."

You neglect to mention that the name of the author of one of the Guide Books Barchas cited in Portland was THORPE!

[Ellen] "By over-historicizing I meant the idea you can necessarily add meaning to a text by finding out the particulars of history of Austen's time. It's more in the general feel of Hungerford chapel and many other such places that NA's satire resides."

As I said, Barchas made an overwhelming case in Portland. No rational opposition to her claims is possible.

[Ellen] "My argument really is that unless you have a literal citation or some really persuasive evidence in the text a specific text or place is alluded to, you get caught up in details that have no relevance (over-historicizing)."

You make my point for me. What about great writers who find literal citations heavy handed and inconsistent with their purpose of challenging their readers to read between the lines? By your own words, you show precisely why you have missed so much of importance in JA's writing, despite your encyclopedic knowledge of her texts. Your bias blinds you to a great deal of what is in the text, you simply close your eyes to it unless it meets your absurdly strong standard of proof.

[Ellen] "It's a matter of tact and discipline. Blaise is mentioned in NA so the real B;aise is relevant. Hungerford is not so it is relevant only as an archetype."

It has nothing to do with tact or discipline, it has to do with a profound deafness to the kind of subtextual writing that ALL the greatest writers practiced, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Austen to Dickens to the Brontes to James to Joyce, etc. Every single one of those writers embedded in their writing the kind of subtext that Barchas so brilliantly described in her presentation. None of these writers left notarized affidavits behind for the benefit of readers with your bias, instead they wrote for readers who would enjoy, and profit from, the kind of subtextual richness which Barchas has described.

[Ellen] "I have the same objections to some of Jocelyn Harris's "finds" -- archetypcally they're fine, but she does not persuade they are specific sources or alluded to."

And you are consistent in your error--Jocelyn Harris has been one of the best Austen scholars of the past 25 years, so it is only natural that you would dismiss her as well. Harris's only error was in not going far enough with her brilliant insights. And I am very proud to stand beside them in my own research and analysis, which I see as an extension of theirs.

I don't expect to convince you, but I think it is very important to forcefully rebut the kind of argument you have made, for those reading along in this group. You do not speak for all reputable scholars, you speak for an increasingly diminishing sector of the critical community.

Barchas told the audience that she has a book coming out very soon, which I urge every Janeite interested in this sort of research to buy--I already know from the several articles of hers about Austen related subjects that I have read that it will be a very significant piece of work. I eagerly await it.

And by the way, I don't know Barchas personally at all, I just respect and admire her work and hate to see it wrongly dismissed.

Cheers, ARNIE

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