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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mrs. TILson & Mrs. TILney: Sisters in Suffering

"Mrs. Tilson's remembrance gratifies me, & I will use her patterns if I can; but poor Woman! how can she be honestly breeding again?"

The above passage from Letter 56 is perhaps the most famous of the two dozen or so negative references to serial pregnancy in the ordinary English gentry marriage which we find scattered across Jane Austen's letters-I would guess that it has been quoted at least in at least two dozen scholarly articles and books. But Mrs. Tilson stands out even among the married English gentlewomen mentioned by JA in this vein, because JA referred on _several_ occasions to Mrs. Tilson's tendency to pregnancy, over a period of _many_ years. So in that sense, Mrs. Tilson was the real life "poster mother" of JA's unvarying and very strongly felt outrage about married English gentlewomen being required to run this very dangerous gauntlet, in which they bet their lives (a la Groucho Marx and his famous bon mot in regard to a frequently pregnant married contestant) every time they conceived.

And I assert that it was the utter lack of public outrage in response to this widespread nightmare that appalled JA as much as any other aspect of it, which is why I read the famous rant by Henry Tilney as being most strongly focused on this very matter:

"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?"

Indeed, JA could not fathom how it was possible for every single social/political/ethical/religious/customary authority in England to turn a blind eye to this universal horror, especially during a politically repressive era of witchhunts against "Jacobins" and other "terrorists", when the public was supposedly hypervigilant to threats against the common good! That made the utter _lack_ of vigilance about the harms done to women all the more appalling and shocking--indeed, had JA openly expressed her actual views about serial pregnancy and death in childbirth, she knew very well that she would immediately have been branded as one of those "unsexed females" who were just as bad as those "Jacobins"---A horrible irony indeed!

However, as we can see, in her private correspondence, JA felt the freedom to express her outrage openly, and she did it over a period of twenty years!

But...it was not until I realized that Mrs. Tilney, the ghostly presence who haunts Northanger Abbey (the Abbey and the novel which bears its name), was herself the fictional poster mother of an elaborate subtext of outrage at the epidemic of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth that was the horrid norm of England long before, during, and long after, JA's lifetime, that I connected the dots between TILson and TILney, and realized that JA had united these two ladies, one real and one imagined, by their surnames!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. For a bit more uncommon knowledge about another connection between the real life Tilson family and the fictional Tilney family, go here:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/search?q=Tilson

And there is much more where that came from.....

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Response by Nancy Mayer in Janeites:

"But nothing at all in the novel suggests that Mrs. Tilney was a victim of too many pregnancies. She had 3 children . That isn't excessive. her husband might not have been kind and could even have murdered her, but there is no proof that Mrs. Tilney died of serial pregnancy."

My reply to Nancy:


Nancy, when you see the full scope of the textual evidence that I
present (I was only able to give about 1/3 of it when I spoke for 40 minutes at the Portland AGM), I think you may alter your opinion as to whether it is probative.

It is a masterpiece of subliminal suggestion, along the lines that is most memorably articulated about Marianne's "engagement" (a word that has more than one meaning) with Willoughby, which I will now paraphrase:

"Pregnancy/Childbirth subtext! ...there has been no pregnancy/ childbirth subtext... Yes—no—never absolutely. It was every page implied, but never professedly declared. Sometimes I thought it had been—but it never was..... could that be wrong after all that had passed?— But I cannot talk."

Every page implied, but never professedly declared, by Jane Austen as author! It makes for interesting debates about the absence or presence of a given theme in one of JA's novels!