[this is a repeat of the latter part of my January 5, 2012 post about the controversy then swirling around the discovery of what might be a heretofore unidentified contemporary portrait of Jane Austen at the peak of her career]
In my talk at the JASNA AGM held in Portland, Oregon (now my home!) in October, 2009 about the late Mrs. Tilney, mother of Henry & Eleanor in Austen's Northanger Abbey, as the symbol of all the English wives who died in the childbirth "epidemic" that lasted centuries, I gave not one but three compelling reasons why
Westminster Abbey would have been a perfect symbol for a portraitist
of Jane Austen to include in a portrait celebrating JA's success as an
First, I realized early in 2009 that the name NORTHanger
Abbey was a clever play on the name WESTminster Abbey, especially as I
also claimed that Shakespeare's Hamlet was a very significant but
totally veiled allusive source for Northanger Abbey. And as anyone
familiar with Hamlet would know, JA's little word game with geographical directions ("north" and "west") in
names of an Abbey (and don't forget SOTHerton in Mansfield Park in that regard as well!)
is an unmistakable echo of the following rather famous speech by Hamlet,
which has also served as the basis of the title of a rather famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock:
"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."
we have north (twice) and west together in that one marvelous compound
word. PLUS.....two other wonderful parts of JA's elaborate little word
(a) a synonym for "mad" is "angry", as in North _anger_ Abbey; and
JA's famous April Fool's Day, 1809 letter to Crosby demanding the
return of the manuscript of _Susan_ (later, of course, retitled
Northanger Abbey!) was signed by JA under the pseudonym "Mrs. Ashton
Dennis" which is abbreviated as M.A.D.----as in JA being, like a
forerunner of Howard Beale, "mad as hell and not going to take it any
more (!)" in terms of a publisher sitting on that manuscript for nearly
a decade without publishing it!
If you think I'm being too clever by
half, and projecting my own overactive paranomosiac imagination in a
"direction" JA herself never intended or imagined, in claiming that
Northanger Abbey stands for Westminster Abbey,. well...
consider next my second reason, which is that, as Terry Robinson
pointed out in a 2009 article, Henry VIII and three of his six
queens who had Christian names which were variants on Catherine, were
very likely sources for the names of HENRY Tilney and CATHERINE
Morland, and these real life regal personages were, as we all know, all
rather closely associated with Westminster Abbey!
third reason which I disclosed in Portland is my personal favorite---I
came across a remarkable factoid in 2009, which is that in Westminster
Abbey there are two memorials hanging side by side on the wall in a
rarely viewed nave in the Abbey, which were erected there by a grieving
middle aged husband who had "murdered" not one but "two" much younger
wives, via death in childbirth. And these "awful memorials".....
all the chances against her of house, hall, place, park, court, and
cottage, Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its
inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel,
were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue
the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured
and ill-fated nun...."]
.....were, I claim viewed by Jane Austen
herself during a visit to Westminster Abbey. And the reason I am so
certain of this is that the gentleman involved was a very famous fellow
in his day (the latter part of the 17th century), and his name just
happened to be Samuel MORLAND! And these memorials were intentionally
echoed by JA when she described General Tilney's great grief over the
death of Mrs. Tilney, whom I have argued is the symbol of all the
English wives who died in childbirth. And by now you've probably figured out that the images of those memorials are what you see at the top of this post! They are in fact hanging on the wall in an apse in Westminster Abbey, towering over the modest brass plaque embedded in the floor below, dedicated to Aphra Behn, who had a complex relationship with Samuel Morland, and also was, I have long believed, a feminist icon and inspiration for Jane Austen!
so I believe I've made a pretty good case that I am not "mad"--north by northwest, or in any other direction--but have
demonstrated that a portraitist celebrating JA's career as an author
would have had these three very good reasons, at the very least, to
include a view of Westminster Abbey in the background.
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