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

Friday, July 12, 2013

“THE JUSTICE OF THE HAND that struck the blow..” & “THE HAND which guided the pen is now mouldering in the grave…”: The (Des)demonic Hands of Iago and….Jane Austen?

I have done a little more sleuthing, and am pleased to report that, upon closer examination, there is even more significant textual evidence hiding in plain sight, which still further bolsters my claims that Cassandra and Henry Austen, in writing about recently deceased sister Jane, were both deliberately alluding to Othello and to other related stories of murder of a close relative in a variety of ways, and that each of them hid behind a mask of Christian piety as they did so.

If you haven’t read my prior posts, here they are..

…they set the stage for what I add, below:

First, I realized what had been nipping at the edge of my awareness the past several days, i.e., that Henry Austen has had a clever good time inserting three metonyms in that single sentence! “The hand” is a metonym for Jane Austen, “the pen” for the act of writing novels, and “the grave” for death. And, similarly, Cassandra has used two metonyms in her dramatic sentence, “the hand” as metonym, in benign interpretation, for God, or, in dark interpretation, for the human murderer of Jane Austen, and “the blow” for the act of murder, not necessarily by literally striking a blow.

Just a rhetorical coincidence? Read on….

Mackenzie, in that sentence from Julia de Roubigne that Henry Austen alluded to, also used three metonyms: “the hand” for the mother writing the letter, “the heart” for the mother’s feelings, and “the grave” for death.

Again, coincidence? Read on further, recognizing in particular how remarkable it is that both Cassandra and Henry, apparently independently and six months apart, both use the metonym of “the hand” in describing the recently deceased Jane Austen.

Next, when we look at CEA’s loaded sentence, it becomes clear that CEA did not merely allude to the seventh line in the following passage in Othello…

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. I pray you, IN YOUR LETTERS,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose HAND,
Like the base Indian, THREW A PEARL AWAY
….Stabs himself

…we see that she also alluded strikingly to the metonym of “hand” deployed in the symbol set forth in lines 9 to 11 lines as well!

And, what’s more, CEA must have been aware that Jane Austen had herself deployed that very same metonym on “hand”  as was used in those same lines 9-11 in Othello in….(could it be more perfect?) Northanger Abbey, Chapter 23! Or to be more exact, it was JA who, 200 years after publication of Othello, clearly alluded to that very same speech by Othello, as follows:

“The new building was not only new, but declared itself to be so; intended only for offices, and enclosed behind by stable-yards, no uniformity of architecture had been thought necessary. Catherine could have raved at THE HAND which had SWEPT AWAY what must have been BEYOND THE VALUE OF ALL THE REST, for the purposes of mere domestic economy…”

The thematic parallel leaps out at you in this narration describing Catherine’s astonished scorn upon observing General Tilney’s utter disregard for Gothic architectural aesthetics. In both Othello and in NA, the metonym of “the hand” is followed by a verb which refers to that hand discarding something of value beyond all other possessions. This close tracking is, again, outside the realm of coincidence.

And of course NA was published in the same volume as Henry’s Biographical Notice, and only months after CEA wrote her letter to Fanny—and,  of further course, the central mystery of Northanger Abbey, from the point of view of the heroine, Catherine Morland, is….whether General Tilney has emulated Othello and  murdered his wife! Look at this famous passage in Chapter 25, which is distinctly resonant of the poisoning Othello sees “the justice” of…..

“But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of A WIFE not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. MURDER was not tolerated, servants were not SLAVES, and neither POISON nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as SPOTLESS as an ANGEL might have the dispositions of a FIENDS.”

…and now consider first that Venice is an exotic Continental location not that far from the Alps, and then consider the multiple significant echoes that the above passage in NA registers vis a vis the following speeches in Othello:

First, this one by Othello right after he murders Desdemona:


And then, how about these two passages about the spotted handkerchief which spells Desdemona’s doom:


She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
'Twas I that kill'd her.

And speaking of the ill-fated spotted handkerchief in Othello, I’ve got two more goodies for you that relate to it.  

First, I found yet another veiled allusion by Cassandra in that passage written to Fanny! Look at the following conversation which takes place between Iago and Othello after Iago succeeds with his handkerchief ploy, in convincing Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, and not long before Othello actually murders Desdemona:

“The justice of it [meaning, poisoning Desdemona]  pleases” Othello. Isn’t this creepily similar to Cassandra’s acknowledging “the justice of the blow”??? 

So, in a short and thematically congruent interval late in Shakespeare’s play, all associated with the murder of Desdemona by Othello, we have a cluster of words which are strongly echoed by Cassandra in a single paragraph which has as its subject the premature death of Jane Austen!

I cannot emphasize the tiny probability that this could have occurred randomly, it means that Cassandra clearly meant to invoke this specific passage in Othello, and you just have to ask, “WHY?”

And by the way, Othello defends the justice of murdering Desdemona as having justice, and, I just noticed now, he actually wants to poison Desdemona at first, bringing a further correspondence to Julia de Roubigne and to Hamlet, in the form of murder. So Henry Austen is similarly seen to be playing in the same metaphorical sandbox as sister Cassandra, and it looks as if they have worked in coordination in this regard.

But I have one final “pearl” for you which I’ve been very careful not to “throw away”, which somehow ties all of the above up in an amazing bow, which I hinted at in my Subject Line!

The one word which unifies Cassandra’s and Henry’s veiled allusions is their metonymic usage of  “the hand”, and perhaps you’ve already realized that the word “hand” is a key part of the word “handkerchief”!  And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that Shakespeare was totally on this, and JA knew it, i.e., that it is Desdemona’s hand, as well as her handkerchief, which constitute Ground Zero for Othello’s jealous rage.

It would take way too long to summarize here, but for those who wish to read a wonderful sussing out of the thematic significance of the hand and handkerchief imagery which permeates Othello, you will find it in “Demonic Ventriloquism and Venetian Skepticism in Othello” by Blair Morris, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 53, #2, Spr. 2013. Suffice to say that Morris makes an extraordinarily persuasive case for the significance of “the hand” in Othello  (even though, amazingly, he does not take note, as others have, previously, that “demon” is in the middle of “Desdemona”).

And given that extraordinary emphasis on “hand” in Othello, it tells us that not only did Jane Austen, literary scholar that she was, recognize that emphasis, she emulated it, and then her sister and brother emulated it again after she died, for whatever secret purpose they had.

In closing, for what it’s worth, I was also curious to see if any other Austen commentator was ever as disturbed as I am by what CEA wrote in her letter, and while I didn’t find any such thing, I did note that  one,  EM Forster, was at least willing to express sarcastic disapproval of Cassandra in a piece that ran in the 1932 Times Literary Supplement:

“ ‘I have lost such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed — she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’  We like these words of Cassandra's, and we had better read the words that follow, WHICH WE MAY NOT LIKE SO WELL: — ‘I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand that struck the blow.’ In that union of TENDERNESS AND SANCTIMONIOUSNESS, let us leave her for a moment to rest….”

If only that were the worst of what Cassandra wrote, but, for all the reasons I wrote above, and in my previous two posts, I believe what Cassandra did was the furthest thing from mere sanctimoniousness.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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