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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Mouldering Hand Which Guided The Pen: The Mysterious (and Poetic) Death of Miss Austen




It was suggested last week in Janeites and Austen-L that Henry Austen’s comment, in the Biographical Notice (which he wrote as an introduction to the 1818 publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion)….


….that “THE HAND which GUIDED THE PEN [which wrote JA’s novels] is now MOULDERING IN THE GRAVE”, might be an allusion to the following passage in Julia de Roubigne, a novel by Henry Mackenzie, a passage containing uniquely parallel imagery:

"Before this can reach you, THE HAND that WRITES it, and the heart that dictates, shall be MOULDERING IN THE GRAVE.”

To begin, for sure Henry’s using that strikingly Gothic phraseology, in an introduction to Northanger Abbey, a novel which functions both as parody and anti-parody of the Gothic, does demand some explanation.

And I do also agree, after acquainting myself with Mackenzie’s novel, that this was an intentional but veiled allusion by Henry Austen to Mackenzie’s (then still) famous novel.  But… I also believe there is a great deal more going on here than Henry Austen merely being extremely, even inappropriately, satirical in his use of Gothic imagery to describe a portion of his recently deceased sister’s corpse.

It turns out that there is a more complex and disturbing subtext to this allusion ---as I will now explain, with the “punch line” coming at the very end of this post.

First, here’s what you need to know about Julia de Roubigne. It is an epistolary novel published in 1777, a tragic tale in which a jealous husband, Montauban--in a rage over what he (mistakenly) believes to be the infidelity of his young wife, Julia---poisons her, only to discover right at the instant of her death that she had always been faithful and moral (despite her having feelings for a former and younger beau, whom she believed to be dead at the time she married her older husband). Overcome by remorse when he realizes his tragic error, Montauban then promptly takes an overdose of Laudanum.

If this all sounds like Othello, you’re not the first to think so—Sir Walter Scott, in an 1823 Memoir of Mackenzie, drolly writes: “The cruelty to which Montauban is hurried may, perhaps, be supposed to exempt him from our sympathy, especially in an age when such crimes as that of which Julia is suspected are usually borne by the injured parties with more equanimity than her husband displays. But the irritable habits of the time, and of his Spanish descent, must plead the apology of Montauban, as they are admitted to form that of OTHELLO….”   END QUOTE

And, if you need more evidence of Mackenzie’s interest in Othello, Mackenzie himself wrote the following in a 1779 essay (i.e., 2 years after he published Julia de Roubigne): "….Voltaire was unjust when, not satisfied with pointing out blemishes in Shakespeare, he censured a whole nation as barbarous for admiring his works. He must, himself, have felt the excellence of a poet, whom, in this very tragedy of Zara, he has not disdained to imitate, and to imitate very closely too. The speech of Orasmane, (or Osman, as the English translation calls him,) beginning,  J’aurais d'un oeil serene, d'une front inalterable”, is almost a literal copy of the complaint of OTHELLO: “Had it rained All sorts of curses on me, &c. “ which is, perhaps, the reason why our translator has omitted it."  END QUOTE

So…as it has also been claimed by Austen scholars that she was familiar with Mackenzie’s writing, and my own experience tells me that she would never have overlooked such a famous example of sentimental novelizing of the late 18th century, I think it safe to assert that JA would have known this particular Mackenzie novel very well. And I think it equally likely that her brother Henry, a brother privy to his sister’s literary tastes, would have known of her familiarity with Mackenzie, even though Cowper and Johnson are the only 18th century authors he mentions favorably in his Biographical Notice.

But what would Henry Austen have meant by making such an allusion to Mackenzie, an allusion that was extremely unlikely to ever be noticed by any reader in 1818? After all, Mackenzie’s novel was not Shakespeare or the Bible—texts which were reread and memorized--or even Richardson. Plus, the alluded-to passage, which occurs near the end of the first of two volumes, does not occur at a dramatic moment in the storyline. I.e., it was not one likely to have been memorized even by a Mackenzie enthusiast. So, this was a private message from Henry to…who knows whom?!

The “mouldering hand” in Julia de Roubigne is that of Julia’s long deceased mother, and the text is an incomplete letter of advice that her mother left to be read by Julia, one in which (as has been pointed out previously) the advice given to Julia upon marriage is to obey her husband at all costs—hardly a message with which JA herself agreed--in fact, it was the opposite of what JA believed!

So…what in the world could Henry Austen have meant by an allusion that would not even have been detected by any reader unrelated to Jane Austen who did not know of her interest in Mackenzie, to a passage that Jane Austen would have found utterly objectionable?

The crucial clue to Henry Austen’s meaning, for me, is the blatant allusion to Othello in Julia de Roubigne—the minute I became aware of that, I instantly recalled the following opinions which I expressed here a few years ago, but which I held for some years prior thereto…


…specifically the following:

“I would suggest that the starting point for discussing Cassandra Austen’ss attitude toward JA, must be her letter to Fanny written right after JA's death, which is the one and only extended bit of writing by CEA that survives (I am 99% sure I am correct in that statement?):
"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed…..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."
Now why in the world would CEA write something so jarring as those final words, as if JA's death were somehow a just punishment imposed by God for sins committed by JA during life, sins which CEA somehow aided and abetted? And why would CEA allude so openly to Othello in this way (an allusion Jocelyn Harris noted, without further comment, in A Revolution Beyond Expression published a few years ago), as if CEA were Othello and Jane were Desdemona?
There is something very very disturbing in this, and the only possible mitigation I can come up with for these awful pronouncements is that CEA had become temporarily unhinged by grief over JA's death, and in her Othello-like madness, said crazy things.”   END QUOTE

In case you don’t remember, here’s the speech by Othello that Cassandra clearly had in mind:

….Stabs himself

So here we have Othello in effect giving instructions as to how he should be eulogized upon his (imminent) death, in “letters”, and, alongside it, we have Cassandra’s allusion to Othello’s speech, contained in her letter to niece Fanny Knight which is in its entirety her eulogy for her just deceased sister Jane.

Now, isn’t it very, very strange that both Cassandra and Henry should choose to allude to scenes of violent, tragically unnecessary, intentionally inflicted death, when writing about Jane’s death?

And it gets still stranger when you realize, as I recalled today, that the Gothic imagery of the word “mouldering” was actually deployed, explicitly and implicitly, by Jane Austen in, of all places, her poetry, and not once but twice, decades apart!

First we have JA’s cryptic Gothic-tinged parody, Ode to Pity, written by her as a teenager:

Ever musing I delight to tread
The Paths of honour and the Myrtle Grove
Whilst the pale Moon her beams doth shed
On disappointed Love.
While Philomel on airy hawthorn Bush
Sings sweet and Melancholy, And the thrush
Converses with the Dove.
Gently brawling down the turnpike road,
Sweetly noisy falls the Silent Stream--
The Moon emerges from behind a Cloud
And darts upon the Myrtle Grove her beam.
Ah! then what Lovely Scenes appear,
The hut, the Cot, the Grot, and Chapel queer,
And eke THE ABBEY TOO A MOULDERING HEAP,
Conceal'd by aged pines her head doth rear
And quite invisible doth take a peep.

Doesn’t that line in all caps remind you of Northanger Abbey, specifically Catherine Morland’s Gothic imaginings (exacerbated by Henry Tilney’s egging on) as she rides toward the Abbey from Bath? She expects the Abbey to be “a mouldering heap”, but then it turns out to be the opposite, a very normal looking mansion.

And I never noticed before, but the surname “Morland” is anagrammatically very closely related to the verb “moulder”—they sound very much alike. Which only adds to the connection!

So, I think it quite likely that Henry Tilney not only wished to point to Julia de Roubigne by his reference to a deceased woman’s “mouldering hand”, he also wished to point to Ode to Pity—another private joke that would have been utterly invisible to an unrelated reader.

And now I come to the other, implicit allusion to the idea of mouldering---contained in another poem written by Jane Austen, one which we know Henry Austen knew about, because he actually describes it, with some specific details, in his Biographical Notice!:

“She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen was become too laborious. The day preceding her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.”

Those “stanzas replete with fancy and vigour” were what Janeites know as When Winchester Races:

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham's approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine'd and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.--
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
'Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you're enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, then farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you're debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand--You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o'er July
Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers--'.

As I have previously opined several times, including here in my previous consideration of Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice….


…this last written production by Jane Austen sounds like the final message of someone who wanted to be understood, but believed she would not be allowed to say it clearly.

And so, now, as I now revisit this question, I am certain that Henry Austen, with his reference to his sister’s “mouldering hand”,  was also winking at Jane Austen’s final imagining of herself as St. Swithin, a saint whose bones were famously mouldering in Winchester Cathedral where JA was interred. He would seem then to be covertly validating JA’s desire for immortality:  "When once we are buried you think we are gone, But behold me immortal!"

To conclude….what in the world does all of the above mean?  I can’t help wondering whether all the unexplained coincidences, involving murder and defiant claims of immortality, are all pointing toward one overarching covert suggestion, by both Cassandra and Henry---that Jane Austen herself, like Desdemona, and like Julia de Roubigne, did not merely die, but was murdered (by poison, as Julia de Roubigne was murdered by her jealous husband)!!

In that regard, here’s what I wrote about Lindsay Ashford’s 2011 novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, in which the suggestion that Jane Austen was poisoned was first imaginatively floated in a well-researched fiction:


Now, even I recognize that none of the above constitutes hard evidence of murder most foul. Even if you believe that Henry Austen intended to make all the allusions I have outlined above, that does not settle the question, because there still remain two opposite possibilities.

I.e., it is possible that Henry’s contributions to this mystery constitute a final tribute to Jane Austen’s overt Gothic parody in Northanger Abbey, one in which he covertly raises Gothic expectations which have little to do with everyday reality? Or it is equally possible that it is instead a tribute to Jane Austen’s covert anti-parody, in which Henry follows sister Jane’s lead and suggests that everyday reality is actually every bit as Gothically horrid as the fictional, and murders do actually occur, even in “the Midlands counties of England”.   

Food for thought (or at least, as Hamlet might have chimed in, for worms),  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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