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

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Samuel Morland & General Tilney from Northanger Abbey (and the Bill Clnton-Bob Dole X-word Puzzle Clue)

I just wrote the following message to Anielka Briggs in Austen-L in response to several messages she wrote there about my recent postings here and in Austen L about Samuel Morland.

Anielka, apropos your several recent repeated critiques of my longstanding claim that the late 17th century historical figure Samuel Morland was a major allusive source for General Tilney, I have just been waiting in amazement as you have by now hoisted yourself on several petards of your own construction, before lighting the fuses you provided, and now I will allow you to blow yourself at the moon, as it were, entirely with your own words. 

Anielka wrote, at various places in her recent posts: "But that's just it. You're working backwards. In order to prove Samuel Morland represents General Tilney in "your" thread you have started with a "hunch" and then forced Samuel Morland to fit it. To prove something you have to start the other way round: you have to find the elements of the subtext where English husband's "murder" their wives and then attribute the same to General Tilney and then extend the suspicion to Samuel Morland. General Tilney doesn't match well to Samuel Morland….  
There are only three possible conclusions 1.) Mansfield park is secretly about Samuel Morland too.  2. ) ALL the books are secretly about Samuel Morland. (possible! See below*) 3.) By directing your searches to Samuel-Morland-Connected words in Northanger simply prove yourself right when in fact there is no more evidence of Samuel Morland's maths in Northanger Abbey than in any of the other books…. 
The "maths proof" of Samuel Morland is terribly unsound. It would work if charisma and force of will or unbiased ignorance was the state of the argument and the audience but the average intellectual Janeite likes their answers logically parsed. Take a look at these quotes from Mansfield Park…” END QUOTE

I will avoid all jargon about “null hypothesis” and highblown claims about being so rigorously scientific, and just write in plain straightforward English words.

The basis of my repeated claim that Samuel Morland is such an extraordinary fit as an allusive source for General Tilney in Northanger Abbey, is the intersection, in one historical person, of the collective of  ALL of the following eight parallels:

ONE: Samuel Morland’s surname is identical to that of the protagonist of Northanger Abbey.

TWO: Samuel Morland created not one but two “awful memorials” to his dead wives in an ancient Abbey. I saw them with my own eyes in July 2009, and have provided photos of same in my previous posts. General Tilney of course created his own memorial to his dead wife in his ancient Abbey.

THREE: Samuel Morland’s two dead wives were both very close in age to Catherine Morland when they married him, and he was, like General Tilney vis a vis Catherine, decades older than they were.  I have asserted since 2009 that General Tilney is actually wooing the much younger Catherine for himself in Northanger Abbey, not, as almost all Janeites believe, on behalf of his son Henry. And by the way, my interpretation must have been shared by Maggie Wadey, screenwriter of the Robert Hardy Northanger Abbey, because her screenplay unmistakably hints at that very same reading of General Tilney’s amorous intentions toward Catherine in a very clever way.

FOUR: Samuel Morland’s two young wives both died in childbirth, and I was the first to claim that General Tilney is the poster child for Jane Austen’s most persistent and explicit feminist hobby horse, her deep abiding outrage over the “plague” of serial pregnancy leading to a “Russian Roulette” scenario of frequent death in childbirth among English gentlewomen/wives that was still raging in full force during JA’s lifetime. Her letters are filled with examples of her sarcastic outrage at this state of affairs.
In a nutshell, I claim that Mrs. Tilney is the “ghost” of all the English wives “murdered” in childbirth by their Bluebeard-like husbands----a ghost whose voice Catherine Morland “hears”, in Hamletian fashion.  And I therefore claim that Henry Tilney’s famous  “We are Christians” rant is meant to be read topsy turvy, i.e., as Jane Austen’s condemnation of the corrupt and hypocritical moral, political, spiritual, and familial patriarchal authorities of the day, for their collective failure to lift one finger to protect those English wives, or to even acknowledge the existence of that plague.

FIVE: Samuel Morland was famous for his work with ciphers, which of course is what prompted my recent endorsement of your excellent detection of the most direct sigh for/cipher wordplay in Northanger Abbey, which I then supplemented with other textual evidence from NA, as well as from Shakespeare.

SIX: Samuel Morland was famous for his political intrigues on behalf of aristocratic patrons, which are strikingly echoed by General Tilney’s burning the midnight oil toiling over “stupid pamphlets”.

SEVEN: Samuel Morland, in later middle age, became a true marital mercenary just like General Tilney-i.e., Samuel Morland tried to marry a woman of some wealth, in order to help him pay his considerable debts.

EIGHT: Samuel Morland was famous for inventing calculating machines, and in one of my last posts I demonstrated that Northanger Abbey contains wordplay about calculating and numbers which winks at Samuel Morland’s fame in this regard.

Now, note that, even though you explicitly attributed it to me, I never made any suggestion that Item EIGHT, above, standing alone, was particularly strong evidence that Jane Austen meant for General Tilney to stand in for Samuel Morland. All I suggested was that the first 7 such Items, taken together, comprise the most compelling and extraordinary sort of textual evidence in support of my claim. I.e., the chances that all of these 7 parallels might have arisen together by chance are, I think any reasonable observer would agree, minuscule. Only in that context does the less laser-focused Item EIGHT become significant—i.e., Item EIGHT becomes a “tail” only because the first 7 Items comprise a fully-fleshed-out “dog”!

Now, in contrast, let’s look at the counter-example you brought forward trying to rebut my claim--Sir Thomas Bertram from Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is, I do think it fair to say, the most “General Tilneyesque” character from among all the other Austen novels. And yes (as I have previously written, by the way, here….

…), Sir Thomas is most definitely a greedy mercenary, powerful SOB who values his monetary wealth infinitely more than he values the unfortunate people who comprise his family.
But…Sir Thomas does not have any of those other parallels to Samuel Morland that General Tilney does. Run them down, one by one, and you’ll see that it’s so. Sure, Sir Thomas shows a creepy “dirty old man” interest in Fanny’s body when he returns from Antigua, and sure he is a member of Parliament who, based on his owning a slave plantation and his abhorrence of the theatre, was probably a strong anti-Jacobin like General Tilney. But Sir Thomas at most has a very weak connection to Samuel Morland, negligible in comparison to General Tilney’s connections. No “awful memorials”, no dead wife, no cipher expertise, no late night spying on fellow Englishmen, no common surname. I.e., no allusion worth the trouble to analyze.  And forget about any of the other Austen patriarchs, they are all much further away from even a whiff of Samuel Morland. No, General Tilney stands uniquely alone in this regard.

So…without recourse to jargon or lengthy recitals of War of the Roses history, Anielka, if you have any rebuttal to the above specific points, feel free to quote from my examples, and show how you believe I am in error.

But before I finish, I have two more items presented by you to respond to, which actually also relate to my above answers so far:

Anielka wrote: “As to WESTminster and NORTHanger abbey. To be honest, like trying to fit a size 12 foot into a glass slipper. Might as well bring in all the ugly sisters and try and ram SOUTHerton in as well.”

As a matter of fact, Jane Austen used three directions in names of her great estates: NORTHanger Abbey, SOTHerton, and NORland. The only one she did not use was “west”, and I think the reason for this omission is obvious---the name was already taken by WESTminster Abbey, which after all was arguably the most famous early modern edifice in all of Great Britain. 

So, I think anyone reading the above would find your metaphors about Cinderella completely wrong, because the “foot” consisting of the collective of JA’s directional names for those three fictional edifices could not fit more perfectly into the “slipper” of clever wordplay of the kind you of all people should acknowledge as classic, vintage Jane Austen wordplay!

But there’s still one more claim you made, in response to my measured and (I think) polite and non-aggressive framing of our difference of opinion as being merely that, and not evidence of my rightness and your wrongness. It turns out that in this last claim of yours, you are very wrong, in a particularly ironic and meaningful way:

Anielka wrote: “Whilst we may march to the beat of a different drum there is only one common direction in which we can be headed if we use cracking Austen's code as a goal.  Suggesting that there are two different interpretations or that one can "vive the difference" in code breaking is like suggesting we can fill in different words on the same crossword grid when given the same clues by the same author. Or that we can be given the same set of jigsaw pieces and come up with our own, different, creative jigsaws. Or that if you encrypt a piece of text with a code-word that you can produce two completely different but equally cogent deciphered texts. There's only one answer. That's the point of codes.” END QUOTE

In reply to the above, I start by pointing you to the following post by me simultaneously 2 ½ years ago in both Austen L and in my blog…

…in which I acknowledged you as a puzzle solver, by the way, and in which I also wrote about a New York Times puzzle I had done that day which was extraordinary for its bravura hiding in plain sight of some extraordinary anagrammatical wordplay that Jane Austen would have been proud to have generated herself.

Well….what I did not mention then, but should have, was something that you’d know if you had been doing NY Times crossword puzzles since 1992 or earlier, and/or if you had seen the 2006 documentary film Wordplay….

…one of the highlights of which is some footage of former US President Bill Clinton being interviewed about his longstanding passion for solving Will Shortz crossword puzzles. That interview is very entertaining, but the part of the film that uncannily demolishes your claim that it would be impossible to “fill in different words on the same crossword grid when given the same clues by the same author” is the scene when we are shown the following about the November 5, 1996 crossword puzzle, which, not coincidentally was the day after the US Presidential election in which Clinton, as it turned out, defeated Dole:

By now you’ve probably guessed what the above clip from the film (and related blog post) both explain. I.e., the puzzle was cleverly constructed by Jerry Farrell under Will Shortz’s usual editorship, such that the 7-letter answer to the clue asking, in effect, for the winner of the election, would work perfectly fine with either “Clinton” or “BobDole”!!! 

How could that be? Because, as Clinton himself and that blogger both explain, the 7-letter horizontal answer to that clue intersects seven different vertical answers, each of which has two completely plausible and satisfying answers. So if the solver had entered “Clinton” for 39 Across, he or she would then find that there were seven vertical answers intersecting the letters of “Clinton” which work just fine. But…if the solver had entered “BobDole”, then there was also a set of seven other vertical answers, varying from their twin vertical answers by only that one letter, intersecting the letters of “BobDole”, which also work just fine!!

No wonder Will Shortz refers to this puzzle as his favorite of all time---And now you see, Anielka, that you actually made a claim that could not be more profoundly wrong, not just regarding crossword puzzles, but, much more importantly, regarding Jane Austen and literature in general!

You were so wrong, because, bringing things back to Samuel Morland and General Tilney, I draw the very apt analogy to the 1996 Presidential Puzzle, and opine that it is possible for various textual clues in Northanger Abbey to collectively allude to Samuel Morland, while at the same time, a different configuration of textual clues in Northanger Abbey can collectively allude to other historical or literary sources, such as, e.g., your Tudor subtexts (which as I responded last week, I find interesting, even though I consider them “tails” and not “dogs”).

And then, the most satisfying (and subtly difficult) puzzle of all, once one has assembled enough of these allusive sources in Northanger Abbey, is to analyze them side by side, and to think about how they might somehow interact with each other.  And then at the peak of the summit, analyzing how the gestalt of all these covert allusive sources might inform the reader as to how to find what I call the coherent “shadow story” of the entire novel!

If you think this highest level of analysis can be reduced to a single word that is utterly objective and supersedes all other levels, then I say you are living in a fantasy world of your own entire creation.

Jane Austen was interested, I suggest, in creating meaningful simulacra of the messy, muddy experience of real life. In real life, we don’t have Will Shortz or Jane Austen sitting on our shoulder whispering the meaning of our lives to us—the whispers we hear are our own voice, the sum total of our own wisdom and folly, pride and prejudice, knowledge and delusion, and there is no such animal as “objective reality”. Quite the contrary, there are lots of people in our lives, including perhaps most of all our own selves, who look like “ducks” sometimes, but like “rabbits” some other times. Such a puzzlement! But that is real human life, we are born into this sort of uncertainty, and would do best to just embrace it, rather than to lust for certainty where no certainty exists.

But back to Jane Austen one more time---as an author of layered allusions, she buried inside her characters multiple allusive sources drawn from history, politics, literature, her own family, etc., and so she knew she did have the luxury of a perfect fit for each of those allusive sources. But, who cares that Samuel Morland was married three times, what matters are not the 50 ways he is different from General Tilney, but the seven ways he is the same. Those seven connected parallels are already statistically significant, and they give Jane Austen the luxury of creating quadrophonic layering of allusions for each of her characters. Otherwise, any single allusion that worked in every way would not only be totally heavy handed and obvious, and therefore unworthy of a great author, it would also be a kind of Procrustean bed, which would prohibit any other allusion from working.

Jane Austen was such a sophisticated student of epistemology—how we know what we know---that she knew that the best way she could teach her readers to be better readers of life would be to give them engaging novels which they’re read and reread enough to eventually see deeper and deeper into the depths of these riddling texts. In so doing, they’d be practicing skills they could then apply in real life, looking upon their real life family and friends as mysterious characters as to whom it would be perilous to jump to too-quick conclusions based on “first impressions”. Gradually, she clearly hoped, her readers would learn  to be humble in the face of the enormous and never-ceasing struggle to get closer to the most elusive beast of all in the human jungle---truth.

So…thank you, Anielka, for prompting me to put all of the above together in rebutting your claims and arguments, it has been a most refreshing turn around the room!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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