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Monday, August 4, 2014

Northanger Abbey’s Replay of Catherine of Aragon Under The Slightly Lascivious Eye of Henry VII



Anielka Briggs wrote in Janeites & Austen-L, as part of her and my ongoing conversation arising  out of my obserrvation that Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, might be an illegitimate child: 
"Some of us are now agreed that the story of Northanger Abbey is that of Catherine of Aragon marrying Henry VIII under the avaricious, cruel and slightly lascivious eye of Henry VII."

Anielka, not "THE story" but one well-developed, coherent, and important allusive historical subtext, which is also well-coordinated with JA's other subtexts. And it's no large leap to see the future George IV as a satirical butt in NA, given that Colleen Sheehan, in 2006, gifted the Janeite world with the Mother of all Austenian Satirical Subtexts--i.e., Colleen's discovery of the "Prince of Whales" alternative answer to the "courtship" charade in Emma. And it’s also clear the young Prince Regent is a major source for Tom Bertram in Mansfield  Park.

In this message, I want to respond to, and expand upon, Anielka’s first-rate catch of Henry VII as romantic rival for Catherine of Aragon with his son Prince Henry. It is a quintessential example of how seamlessly and brilliantly JA coordinated her varied subtexts, and it helps lay to rest forever the absurd notions that this sort of covert authorial practice was way beyond JA’s artistic capacities (as she herself pretended to James Stanier Clarke), or that JA was way too honest and upright an author to ever trick her readers by hiding important themes under the surface of her novels, themes which ran contrary to the apparent surface meanings.

First, not knowing English history that well, I hadn't known that the shadow story meme of "General Tilney wooing Catherine for himself" (which I first recognized and sussed out textually  in 2009, and then learned that it had been previously noted in Austen scholarly circles by John Dussinger back in 1998, who was, in turn, preceded by this same meme being strongly implied, albeit in passing, in the 1987 NA film adaptation starring Robert Hardy as the General) fit so well with the real life marital aspirations of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

For those like me who did not know that history, here is Wikipedia's summary of that cross-generational love triangle:

"Henry VII wanted to maintain the Spanish alliance. He therefore arranged a papal dispensation from Pope Julius II for Prince Henry to marry his brother's widow Catherine, a relationship that would have otherwise precluded marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1503, Queen Elizabeth died in childbirth, so King Henry had the dispensation also permit him to marry Catherine himself. After obtaining the dispensation, Henry had second thoughts about the marriage of his son and Catherine. Catherine's mother Isabella I of Castile had died and Catherine's sister Joanna had succeeded her; Catherine was therefore daughter of only one reigning monarch and so less desirable as a spouse for Henry VII's heir-apparent. The marriage did not take place during his lifetime.
Henry made half-hearted plans to remarry and beget more heirs, but these never came to anything. In 1505 he was sufficiently interested in a potential marriage to Joan, the recently widowed Queen of Naples, that he sent ambassadors to Naples to report on the 27-year-old's physical suitability. Despite his efforts at remarriage, there is little doubt that Henry felt genuine grief for his wife; on her death he "privily departed to a solitary place, and would that no man should resort unto him." END QUOTE

So there you have not only Henry VII, just like the shadow General Tilney, at first competing with his son Prince Henry for the hand of Catherine of Aragon, then backing out because she became less eligible as a bride for the calculating, greedy, Machiavellian Henry VII---you also have General Tilney's extreme and genuine grieving for his first wife WHO DIED IN CHILDBIRTH.  And it has been my hobby horse about  NA since 2008 that the late Mrs. Tilney is the emblem of the “death in childbirth” epidemic that hung over English wives for centuries, including three of JA’s own sisters-in-law—all as I explained  in my presentation to the JASNA AGM in Portland Oregon in 2010.

So the history dovetails perfectly with all of these significant plot motifs in NA. And....when also combined with the perfect alignment of the Spanish royal siblings with the Thorpe siblings that Anielka pointed out over the weekend, it reaches  a point far  beyond all rational opposition that JA did all of this quite knowingly and intentionally in NA.

But even that is not all there is to say on this point. Next, we should also note the coordination of this Tudor historical subtext with the explicit and extensive discussion at Beechen Cliff among Henry, Catherine and Eleanor about the relative merits of history books and novels, in terms of entertainment and educational value, and most of all the blurred lines between these categories of “history” and “novels”:

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made—and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great."

Note the rich metafictional irony of Eleanor’s assertions, when viewed in the light of the veiled historical subtexts like the Tudor love triangle—i.e., Northanger Abbey is not only a great novel, it is also a great history book, in the sense that  it takes what really happened  among Henry VII, his son, and the woman they both wished to marry, and it “embellishes” that  history with “false” words, and makes the history real—I know that because of learning that real history via Northanger  Abbey, and having it  coded into my memory as woven together with the fictional story of NA which I know so well, I have a greater insight into what really happened back in the early 16th century.

Wonderful stuff, isn’t it? And I have a followup post that I’ll post shortly, which takes NA’s historical subtexts in yet another fresh direction!

And yet still there are many Janeites who, in their serious underestimation of the merits of NA, think it is a light, inferior literary production compared to JA’s other novels. It is, to me, no more inferior to the other five novels, than one of Shakespeare’s mature comedies is to one of his great  tragedies. Plus, it becomes more and more clear to me that NA is not an “early” work, I now can show in various  ways that JA revised it very significantly in late 1816.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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