One of the most enduring foundational elements of what I call The Myth of Jane Austen is the notion that she was conservative in her religion, politics, literary taste, and any other aspect of her personality you might name. Despite an ever mounting accumulation of mainstream scholarly evidence to the contrary, this idea just refuses to die. You need only read any of the steady stream of articles about Jane Austen in the general non-Janeite media to see this canard repeated explicitly, or at least strongly implied, as if it were the gospel truth, a given, a point not even worthy of discussion. And so, correspondingly, I consider it a central part of my own mission as an Austen scholar to debunk that part of the myth whenever I have the chance.
In that regard, in my post on Saturday, I claimed that JA had the radical protofeminist Mary Hays’s writing firmly in mind when JA wrote the history passages in Northanger Abbey, most notably the discussion of history and novels at Beechen Cliff among Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor, the last of whom I quoted in my post earlier this morning about the Tudor history hidden in NA.
In my post about Hays, I noted that Hays had called herself, and also been called, a disciple of Godwin (“disciple of Godwin” being the phrase that JA used enigmatically in her May 1801 letter to sister Cassandra describing a Mr. Pickford whose company JA enjoyed at Bath). I also noted that I’ve recognized since 2009 that JA, in NA, had also alluded to Godwin’s controversial, radical 1790’s novel Caleb Williams. Needless to say, that is not a view shared by most Austen scholars today.
But not till today, when I revisited Terry Robinson’s article (European Romantic Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 215–227) entitled “A mere skeleton of history”: Reading Relics in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey” did I realize how thorough a disciple of Godwin himself, and not merely Mary Hays, Jane Austen really was, especially as she wrote NA, as I will now explain.
First, here’s what Robinson wrote, he (again) being the first Austen scholar to connect the fictional Catherine Morland to the fictional Catherine of Aragon:
“The argument I have presented here has additional historical and biographical undertones as well. Indeed, a reading of Henry Tilney as King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and Catherine as any one of the three “Catherines” who were the wives of Henry VIII is possible. It was Henry VIII who broke from the Roman Catholic church in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy and thereby laid the foundations for Protestantism in England; in one fell swoop, he literally disconnected himself from the Church and...from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a country staunchly devoted to the Catholic church. Henry had his fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, executed in 1542 for supposed infidelity, and his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, perished in 1548 due to complications from childbirth. In this way, Northanger Abbey documents the ideological tension inherent in a country with a Roman Catholic past and a Protestant-centered present, but moreover, it attests to the violence of such an ideological transition—the blatant divorce from or even death of the past in order to form a new future. A SORROWFUL GODWIN WRITES, “we cut ourselves off from the inheritance of our ancestors; we seem from time to time to cancel old scores, and begin the affairs of the human species afresh” (Essay 55–56); FOR HIM, the reign of Henry VIII “was signally a period, in which a plot was laid to abolish the memory of the things that had been” (65). And certainly, Austen recognized that a similar “cancel[ing] of old scores” was again occurring in her day—a post-Enlightenment taxonomy that devalued the work of romance.”
END QUOTE FROM ROBINSON ARTICLE
END QUOTE FROM ROBINSON ARTICLE
I only realized as I reread the above that JA not only had Godwin’s Caleb Williams on the brain when she wrote NA, she also had Godwin’s nonfiction writings as well. The intentionality of JA’s allusion to the former was bolstered by that of the latter, and vice versa. I.e., neither was accidental.
And sure enough, Robinson in that same article went on to demonstrate yet another of Godwin’s essays which JA clearly must have read and agreed with:
“William Godwin’s essay “Of History and Romance” (1797). In fact, Austen seems to echo Godwin’s statement that “To read historical abridgements … is a wanton prodigality of time worthy only of folly or of madness… . I believe I should be better employed in studying one man, than in perusing the abridgement of Universal History in sixty volumes” (363, 364). He, like Austen, favors “fictive” over “factual” history, concluding that “The writer of romance then is to be considered as the writer of real history,” because romance “consists in a delineation of consistent, human character” (372). In his essay, he contends that “true” history writing is not about writing the “truth”: “That history which comes nearest to truth, is the mere chronicle of facts, places and dates. But this is in reality no history. He that knows only on what day the Bastille was taken and on what spot Louis XVI perished, knows nothing. He professes the mere skeleton of history. The muscles, the articulations, every thing in which the life emphatically resides, is absent.” (367–368, my emphasis)” END QUOTE FROM ROBINSON
Robinson then goes on to unpack that last point in a brilliant tour de force of literary analysis, showing that JA brilliantly and metafictionally wove into Catherine’s Gothic imaginings Godwin’s metaphors of history as a sepulcher filled with dead and buried skeletal and decomposing corpses. As he puts it, “…one may read Northanger Abbey itself as a reliquary that actively engages Godwinian sentiment.” I urge you to read Robinson’s argument in full, as I can’t do it justice in the short space I have here.
Suffice to say that when you fully grasp the nuances of this line of inquiry into NA, you appreciate even more how intellectually rich and sophisticated is JA’s unique synthesis of fiction and history. You also realize that the actual fairy tale, the nonsensical story that no rational reader of JA’s novels ought to believe, is the persistent notion that JA was hostile to Godwin’s radical ideas about history, politics, and literature, i.e., that foundational tenet of the Myth of Jane Austen. That pernicious and false notion is an intellectual “vampire” which stubbornly claims that Jane Austen was a conservative, and that Northanger Abbey was merely a parody of over-excited Gothic imaginings in a young girl’s impressionable mind, a “phase” from which she must mature in order to see things as they really are.
Whereas, when viewed from the proper intellectual perspective, i.e., from off-center, peering into the shadows, you see that NA is, in a half dozen ways, a profound ANTI-parody. It is a deeply subversive work which makes us realizes, in the act of decoding it, that the truth can only be glimpsed through imagination, and, more specifically, with the assistance of imaginative literature like NA itself, which transcends the artificial categorical division of fiction from history.
And on this point, Jane Austen was obviously inspired by both Godwin and his first disciple, Mary Hays, and that would make NA one of Jane Austen’s six “gospels” telling the good news that GOD-win and Hays had handed down to the teenaged Jane Austen.
And I believe that JA, perhaps as a girl or young woman, stood in an apse in Westminster Abbey, and looked up at the beautiful memorials erected a century before JA’s birth by Samuel MORLAND to his two young brides whom he “murdered” by childbirth, and then looked down at the plain brass plaque on the floor beneath them quietly memorializing Aphra Behn, and decided to memorialize that experience in her fiction.
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