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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

General Tilney as Bluebeard Murdering His Wives Through Childbirth

An interesting thread arose today in Austen L in response to my recent reiteration of my 2009 interpretation of General Tilney as a Bluebeard murdering his wife through childbirth:

[Nancy Mayer wrote] : “I do think Austen was appalled at the number of women who died in childbed and think it was her main reason for not marrying. I think even before she took to wearing caps that she subtly discouraged suitors-- despite the propensity of biographers to claim she was madly in love with several men. However, I do think that her point would have been made more clearly if she had Mrs. Morland die, or mentioned that there were many small graves in the church yard with the name Tilney. This way is an inefficient way to carry her protest. I think she was clever enough to make it more obvious without making it blatant.”

Thank you for engaging with my claims, but I respectfully and completely disagree. I think that JA's solution was brilliant---it is a quintessential and utterly brilliant example of how to hide a giant elephant (or a 900 pound gorilla) in plain sight, as follows:

In JA's day, the superficial Gothic parody would have been completely satisfying to those readers (mostly men) who thought that Gothic novels like Radcliffe's Udolpho were at best pulpy crap, and at worst dangerous incitements to women's unhealthy imagination. And so such readers excluded themselves from ever seeing the deeper level, because they were trapped by their own sexist assumptions, which were fed by the put-on faux-modest authorial voice and persona of "sweet harmless Aunt Jane". For those who wanted to think that everything was just hunky-dory in English marriage, JA gave them a masking surface that would _seem to_ completely validate their complacent self-serving, mindless assumptions.

However...for contemporary readers (almost all women) who didn't assume such sexist nonsense, and who were either living the marital nightmare themselves, and/or knew sisters/sisters in law/mothers/daughters who were living that same nightmare, and were all suffering in silence (except in very private correspondence with a trusted sister or friend, as we see between JA and CEA), it would not have taken much to trigger an awareness that there was an anti-parody going on in NA. And any women who "got it" would quickly realize that this Jane Austen Code should _not_ be disclosed to the powers that be, who, if they knew, might have triggered calls for burning all copies of NA.

You think I am exaggerating? Well, just remember Sir Thomas's reaction to Lovers Vows, when he returned from Antigua (not coincidentally, a giant symbol of another even more horrible Holocaust-the English colonial slave trade/plantation system). He burned every copy of Lover's Vows. JA is telling us, "This is what men like Sir Thomas do when confronted with the truth of their own sins". So it was very important to JA that the code only be visible to those who could be trusted not to publicly expose it.

It reminds me a lot of what happened this year in the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt, the organizing advanced covertly to a sufficient degree that the dictator could no longer keep the genie in the bottle. I think this was JA's hope. But what has happened in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria is also a relevant cautionary tale, because it shows that JA had good reason to fear a brutal reaction if individual English gentlewomen such as herself were to openly petition for redress from domestic tyranny. Those in power rarely cede an equal share of it to the disenfranchised, without a fight.

And that is how things stood in the reading of NA until less than 20 years ago, when the first glimmerings of awareness that JA might have meant the opposite to a Gothic parody, began to surface in JA scholarly circles. But, before myself, nobody ever found the "smoking gun", which is Mrs. Tilney's death in childbirth, hiding in plain sight. It is the key that unlocks the treasure chest of the anti-parody, and what is inside is a "laundry list" of all the horrors of ordinary English marriage. That is when the whole anti-parody unfolds itself in quadrophonic brilliance through the entire length of NA--that was my own experience, the first time I _reread_ NA after finding this "key"!

Today, fortunately, serial pregnancy is an almost unimaginable absurdity in the First World. But there are still a huge number of women living in the world today, who bear the same cross that English gentlewomen bore 2 centuries ago.

How anyone could suggest that this is not a feminist message is mind-boggling to me. There could not be a more feminist message for an English author writing during the Regency Era. This was not the time to advocate for suffrage for women, or for equal pay for equal work, serial pregnancy was a matter of life and death on a mass scale. You have to put out a raging fire first, before you worry about rebuilding a comfortable house.

And, by the way, the subtext regarding Henry VIII and his wives (which, again, I spoke about in Portland in November, 2010, and was earlier discussed in a scholarly article by Terry Robinson) is part of that feminist matrix of meaning, it is a means to a larger end.

[Someone named Linda then responded with a couple of comments which spurred me to clarify myself further:
First, thanks for responding to me substantively, Linda, I really appreciate it! I have no problem engaging in a civil disagreement in which different positions are sharpened by conversation.

[Linda] "I suppose the argument could be made that Austen possessed an understanding different from her sisters-in-law and other female contemporaries and saw an injustice where they did not. "

As you have deduced, I think, that _is_ my argument, with the modification that I speculate that there were (at least) three categories of women in this regard:

A: Those, like JA, who saw it as a Holocaust on a society-wide scale. I suspect that this was rare.
B: Those who personally experienced it as a horror, but were isolated, felt powerless, and just went along because they felt they could not say no.
C. Those who, as you suggest, consciously chose to be serially pregnant.

My guess is that there were more in Category B than in Category A, but there is no way anybody can say with a high degree of confidence.

[Linda] "(I personally think that her rather facile recommendation of "the simple regimen of separate bedrooms" suggests the limitation of her insight into the most intimate aspects of marriage.)"

And my riposte is that she felt extreme frustration when she saw women _not_ exercising whatever personal power they had. The only thing facile about it was the assumption that a married woman could impose such a regimen on her husband.

Mary Wollstonecraft's novel Maria was, I believe, an accurate representation of how hard it was for women to defend their own bodies, whether married or not.

[Linda] " However, it seems very odd to me that Austen, who had not lost a mother, sister, or particularly dear friend to death-in-childbirth...."

You are inaccurate. JA _did_ lose a maternal grandmother, as well as two sisters in law, in childbirth, as well as a number of close and casual acquaintances, before JA herself died, and a third sister in law died 6 years after JA died.

This is not speculation on my part, it is fact, fact that has been noticed by dozens of Austen scholars prior to my coming on the scene. If you pay attention to this point in her letters, there is a monotonous staccato of vignettes of wives dying in childbirth, as well as wives overburdened with a zillion children.

[Linda] "... would adopt this as the driving force of her entire creative life and subordinate her art to a campaign of this nature."

And I think that you've made my point for me, it was because JA did see this Holocaust up close and very personal that she decided to take it on as a cause.

A woman living in the West who chooses to have a dozen children today, when there is a much smaller risk to her health, and when women are in a much stronger position in society than they were 2 centuries ago in England, and are infinitely better educated, can be said to be making a rational choice. That was not the case with many women in JA's day.

JA's world was much more similar to what life is like today in a place life Afghanistan than it is to life in 21st century England. It is a fact that as societies modernize, the birth rate plummets. There's a good reason for that--in regard to male-female relations, the society JA lived in was, to my mind, very primitive. And what made it worse was the hypocrisy, the pernicious lie that women were on a pedestal, that women somehow really were in control--I think JA saw that as perverse propaganda from the likes of Polwhele, with his "Unsex'd Females" drivel. this is a Jane Austen discussion group, and not a history discussion, I will finish by pointing out that even if you were correct in your assertion that married women in England had power over their own bodies, I still assert that I believe I have a very strong case that JA herself did not believe that!

Thanks for your interesting comments.

And then finally, Nancy Mayer commented further:
[Nancy] "Yea, Linda. That is so much what I wanted to say, but feared being thought contentious for posting on the subject too often."

You are never contentious, and your posts usually induce others to join in with their own comments, so I am glad you posted again.

[Nancy] "Most blamed God for pregnancies, deaths in childbirth, and the deaths of children, unless the husband had done something really nasty.Most husbands weren't bullies-- though some existed, of course. Women perfected the headache and the semi-invalidish status to avoid the conjugal embrace when it and the husband were distasteful to them. Jane Austen as a virgin spinster could not understand all the dynamics of a married couple, nor the desire women had for their husbands or even for children."

Or...JA had insight into the lives of many women who lacked that insight themselves.

And as to husbands being bullies or not, I am certain that JA's point was that the default setting for conjugal relations was a form of institutional bullying.

And I have opined previously that Mrs. Bennet, Lady Bertram, Mary Musgrove were all practitioners of "the headache".

But my bigger point is that regardless of whether JA was accurate in her judgments on English marriage or not, I do believe that it is clear where JA really stood on them, and that is a big deal, given that so many Janeites, particularly those who have never read her letters, believe that JA considered marriage to be an unadulterated blessing.

I claim that it is no accident that we never see her heroines actually living as married women, and it is also no accident that the climactic moments in her novels are so often bluntedly anti-romantic. I think JA knew exactly what she was doing in this regard, and was not being (as has been argued) squeamish. She means to withhold the very same throbbing strains of idyllic romance which are the sine qua non of all Austen film adaptations, even Davies's.

[Nancy] "There have always been women who have desire for their husbands and accept whatever consequences come."

These same debates continue today, in a different social context, don't they?

Cheers, ARNIE

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