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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jane Austen the Daughter of Korah


In Janeites, Nancy Mayer posted a link today, the 195th anniversary of Jane Austen’s tragically premature death, to a post at austenonly.  

I have previously posted my thoughts about Jane Austen’s interment in Winchester Cathedral, mostly in relation to JA’s final (and intensely subversive) poem, Winchester Races….




…but I had been unaware of the following tidbit revealed in the austenonly blog post Nancy linked to:

“In 1898 a request for donations by way of public subscription, with an individual limit of 5 guineas, was made in a letter to The Times, and it was signed  by the Earl of Selborne, Lord Northbrook, W.W B Beach and Montague G. Knight of Chawton, in order that a memorial window could be erected in Jane Austen’s memory in addition to the two existing memorials. This window  was designed by Charles Ea[m]er Kempe,  and was installed in the north wall directly above Jane Austen’s memorial tablet:
The imagery in the window is astounding, and I should imagine, for many visitors to the Cathedral, difficult to interpret today.  At the head of the window is a figure of St. Augustine, whose name in its abbreviated form is St Austin. It is therefore a visual pun on Jane Austen’s surname. The central figure in the top row of the window is King David playing his harp. Directly under him is St John, who displays his Gospel, opened at the first words: “In the beginning was the Word…”  A Latin inscription to Jane Austen is also included, and this can be  translated as follows: Remember in the Lord Jane Austen who died July 18th A.D. 1817.
The figures in the four remaining lights are the sons of Korah who each carry a scroll upon which are inscribed sentences in Latin which allude to the religious nature of Jane Austen’s character. How interesting that even in this window the references to her genius are oblique by today’s standards. And I do often wonder how many visitors to her grave notice the window, for there is only a small notice to the side of the brass tablet which explains it significance. How fascinating to see how, as her fame rose, the memorials to her got greater in size, but were not necessarily plain acknowledgments of her genius.”

I became curious to know the text of those four “inscribed sentences in Latin which allude to the religious nature of Jane Austen’s character” and Google quickly led me to the following passage in  Geraldine Mitton’s 1905 bio, Jane Austen and Her Times, at p. 321-2, which not only supplied that text, it also _clearly_ was the (completely unacknowledged —tsk tsk) primary source for austenonly’s description:

“In 1900 a memorial window was inserted as the result of a public subscription; it was designed and executed by C. E. Kemp. In the head of the window is a figure of St. Augustine whose name in its abbreviated form is St. Austin. In the centre of the upper row of lights is David with his harp. Below his figure, in Latin, are the words, "Remember in the Lord Jane Austen who died July 18, A.D. 1817." In the centre of the bottom row is the figure of St. John, and the remaining figures are those of the sons of Korah carrying scrolls, with sentences in Latin, indicative of the religious side of Jane Austen's character, namely, " Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." "Them that are meek shall He guide in judgement, and such as are gentle them shall He teach His way." "My mouth shall speak of wisdom and my heart shall muse on understanding." "My mouth shall daily speak of Thy righteousness and Thy salvation."

Some quick  Googling showed that the remaining figures (other than David and “St. Austin”) are holding, respectively, Latin versions of Psalms 34:11, 25:9, 49:3, and 71:15, and still more confirmed to me that the Bible has indeed long ascribed these Psalms (as well some others)  to the four sons of Korah.

The name “Korah” caught my eye from my earliest days of literary sleuthing in 1998-9, when I first read Richard Elliot Friedman’s  Who Wrote the Bible? & The Hidden Book in the Bible, in which Friedman made a (to my mind) compelling argument (adapted from the heyday of the “Documentary Hypothesis” in 19th century Germany) for the centrality of the Yahwist strand of the Torah.  

Friedman also speculated that the Yahwist might have been a woman, and Harold Bloom took that idea of Friedman’s and ran (wild) with it in The Book of J. So, as I progressed in my Austenian sleuthing, and became aware of more and more veiled Biblical allusions in Jane Austen’s writing, I fancied that JA was aware of the early strands of the Documentary Hypothesis wafting about in the free air of England during her lifetime, and that she intuited that there was a distinctly female and subversive voice hiding in plain sight in the Torah, which the later priestly writers had coopted but had not destroyed. I also believe that she emulated the Yahwist in her own novelistic “Heptateuch”, which, as I have argued countless times, are a kind of female Torah, covertly and highly subversive of the hypocritical Anglican church hierarchy and dogma of her day.

And so…that last thought led me to the Torah tale of the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16.  Wikipedia’s summary is as good as any:

“The Korah who fought against Israel was the…great-grandson of Levi, the third son of Jacob born to Leah who became the progenitor of the tribe of Levi (Num.16:1; Gen. 29:31-35). …They resisted Moses' leadership and as a result were swallowed by the earth along with many of their households. However the children of Korah were spared and remained alive (Numbers 26:11) and later wrote some Psalms…”

So…why did the designers of 1900 memorial include windows for the 4 Psalmist sons of Korah in addition to the window for the greatest Psalmist of them all, David? Was this suggesting that Jane Austen was a kind of literary Psalmist? Or was this suggesting that Jane Austen was, like the sons of Korah (who got out of Dodge in the nick of time, before the earth moved), a survivor, who was willing to generate superficially conformist writing---but who, unlike those sons, was meticulous in her creation of subversive subtext, challenging religious orthodoxy, like Korah, but subtext that was (safely) accessible only by those who could learn to read off-center?

Now…is it possible that Charles Eamer Kempe, a century ago, might have had any of this in mind as he constructed these windows?  On the anniversary of JA’s death, it is intriguing to speculate about it!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S. I realized as I wrote the above post that the death of Don Juan/Giovanni in the grip of the Stone Guest must have been inspired, in part,  by the tale of Korah, and that in turn reminded me of JA’s comments after seeing a performance  of a Don Juan pantomime in London:

I must say that I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty & Lust.”

That is my view of Jane Austen herself, except that she was, unlike Don Juan and Korah, too pragmatic and tricky to so openly rebel—had Korah been like Jane Austen, he’d have created a covert satire of Moses instead of openly challenging him—JA knew that overt rebels tend to get swallowed up in the earth.

P.P.S.: My friend Prof. Diane Capitani, who, as I reported last Fall, gave a brilliant presentation at the Ft. Worth JASNA AGM about allusions to St. Augustine  in S&S, will be interested, I am sure, to hear about the sixth window devoted to “St. Austin”, if Diane did not already know about it…

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