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

Monday, September 19, 2016

North-Angel Abbey: Catherine Morland’s Ladder to Grace & Merit

Diana Birchall replied to me: "Hi Arnie, I much enjoyed your most interesting and creative extension of the meaning of Jacob's Ladder as it applies to themes in Northanger Abbey.”

I’m so glad, Diana! You’ve once again given me an extremely suggestive nugget, on which I did not have to chisel too hard to extract some pure scholarly gold!


Diana: “Unfortunately, I can't answer your question as to whether the phrase used in Jane Austen's day to describe the stairs leading to Beechen Cliff, as it is now. I'm sure there are people who are steeped in the history of Bath, and know; perhaps my friend who took me there does, and I can ask. It would certainly be an old name, not newly bestowed, though I don't know if it goes back to JA's day. "

I already Tweeted Jane Odiwe that very question before I read your reply, she kindly replied that she will look into it when she returns to Bath from London – but as you will see, below, I believe the odds that it was in use by 1816 are already much greater than I knew when I wrote my post yesterday!


Diana added: "However, whether the literal stairs were called Jacob's Ladder then or not,  it is of course absolutely certain that JA knew the term; she knew her Bible, and then (as you've probably found out) there is a "Jacob's Ladder" sculpture on the front of Bath Abbey. And your image of Catherine climbing to heaven, from her heavenly (to her) talk with Henry on Beechen Cliff, to the attaining of her real heaven in their marriage, is so delightful, it's hard to think JA didn't mean to convey the association to us."

Thanks again, and I of course agree with you, it is indeed so lovely and apt that it can’t be a coincidence – that would be (to paraphrase the wry narration in the Beechen Cliff scene) too much serendipity for one scholarly question!

But no, I did not know about that sculpture before you just mentioned it, so it’s a really good thing that you mentioned it! It turns out you’ve given me an even more suggestive clue to add to the first one. You don’t realize just how significant an additional fact that really is! Let me show you:

First here's an excellent close-up photo of that spectacular sculpture on the exterior of the Abbey front wall: https://www.flickr.com/photos/david_lewis_baker_arts/1906570248

Second, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about its origin:  "The west front [of Bath Abbey] which was originally constructed in 1520, has a large arched window and detailed carvings. Above the window are carvings of angels and to either side LONG STONE LADDERS WITH ANGELS CLIMBING UP THEM……Oliver King (1432-1503) was a Bishop of Exeter and Bishop of Bath and Wells who restored Bath Abbey after 1500….The story of the refounding is told on the front of the Abbey in carved Bath stone. King had a dream in which he saw a host of angels on a ladder, the Holy Trinity, and an olive tree with a crown on it. He heard a voice: 'Let an Olive establish the crown, and let a King restore the Church.' King believed this was a call for him to support the candidature of Henry Tudor as King, and to restore the Abbey. These images are carved on the West Front of the Abbey…this is a direct reference to the dream of the prophet Jacob mentioned in the Bible and commonly called Jacob’s Ladder.”

I almost can’t type the rest of this post, I am SO amazed and thrilled at how well that all fits with my speculations about those wooden steps at Beechen Cliff in my previous post! The above facts show that Jacob’s Ladder was indeed an iconic image and Biblical story on frequent display to all visitors to England’s stone city, Bath—Bath Abbey was after all the most prominent structure in the entire town! But that’s only the start.

That iconic image is on display on the front of an abbey that was restored not long before Henry VIII took the throne. That raises an obvious and strong ironic resonance with Catherine Morland’s Gothic famous imaginings (and also those of the teenaged Jane Austen in her wry spin on Gilpin in her History of England) vis a vis the beauty of ruined abbeys!

It seems to me an especially plausible and solid inference that the wooden steps at Beechen Cliff were given the name Jacob’s Ladder a very long time ago, precisely because people in the 17th and 18th centuries who climbed up and enjoyed the “heavenly” views from the top of Beechen Cliff would have found Bath Abbey as perhaps the most prominent landmark in the middle of the vista they enjoyed!:
Although the Jacob’s Ladder statue is not visible today in 2016 from Beechen Cliff, because the view of it is blocked by a smaller building in front of the abbey, the following much older photo of that view seems to show that the view of the statue would have been unobstructed in JA’s lifetime:

Now, I acknowledge that we don’t explicitly read in the novel about Catherine visiting Bath Abbey, but don’t you think she’d have walked over to look at it at some point during her long stay in Bath, given her obsession with abbeys born from her Gothic novel addiction, manifest also in her eagerness to visit Blaize Castle? It would be shocking if she had not taken a stroll there, and especially so after that Beechen Cliff outing. I.e., it would have been the most natural thing in the world for Eleanor, after viewing the Abbey with Catherine from atop Beechen Cliff, to have taken her curious young friend to Bath Abbey in order to give her a closeup view of a real abbey. Eleanor would surely have delighted in introducing her protégée, with her absorbent sponge of a mind, to this wonderful aesthetic and historic experience, filling her in perhaps on the unfortunate history of Henry VIII’s wives all the while!

And, speaking of those angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder, is it not also delightful to think of Catherine as Jane Austen’s most angelic heroine? Should we not then read, with a wry smile, the following intense colloquy between Catherine and Isabella in Chapter 6 involving a different spin on angels, as an inadvertent satire of King’s statue?:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them. I wish you knew Miss Andrews, you would be delighted with her. She is netting herself the sweetest cloak you can conceive. I THINK HER AS BEAUTIFUL AS AN ANGEL, and I am so vexed with the men for not admiring her! I scold them all amazingly about it.”
“Scold them! Do you scold them for not admiring her?”
“Yes, that I do. There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong. I told Captain Hunt at one of our assemblies this winter that if he was to tease me all night, I would not dance with him, unless he would allow MISS ANDREWS TO BE AS BEAUTIFUL AS AN ANGEL. The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference. Now, if I were to hear anybody speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment: but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with the men.”
“Oh, dear!” cried Catherine, colouring. “How can you say so?”
“I know you very well; you have so much animation, which is exactly what Miss Andrews wants, for I must confess there is something amazingly insipid about her. Oh! I must tell you, that just after we parted yesterday, I saw a young man looking at you so earnestly—I am sure he is in love with you.” Catherine coloured, and disclaimed again. Isabella laughed. “It is very true, upon my honour, but I see how it is; you are indifferent to everybody’s admiration, except that of one gentleman, who shall be nameless. Nay, I cannot blame you”—speaking more seriously—“your feelings are easily understood. Where the heart is really attached, I know very well how little one can be pleased with the attention of anybody else. Everything is so insipid, so uninteresting, that does not relate to the beloved object! I can perfectly comprehend your feelings.”

In that passage I see yet another wink by JA at Jacob’s Ladder, this time at the statue of the angels on the front of Bath Abbey --- i.e., Isabella’s hyperbolic rhapsodies about Miss Andrews being as beautiful as an “angel” suggest to me that even when not atop Beechen Cliff, a visitor to Bath would be doing a great deal of gazing at picturesque beauty – in this case, at female beauty--- at ground level and indoors!

And as for Oliver King, the man who dreamt of putting Jacob’s Ladder on the front of the Abbey, might JA have winked at him thrice in the text of the novel?:

First, in Henry Tilney’s witty ventriloquistic description of himself viewed from Catherine’s perspective:  “I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by MR. KING; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.” [I know that there was another real-life Mr. King who was the master of the lower, and then of the upper, assembly rooms – but JA was fond of double allusions]

Second in this conversation between Isabella and Catherine with its sly reference to “kings” in a card game, one in which, perhaps not coincidentally, we hear yet again about Catherine’s dreaming:

“…What a delightful hand you have got! KINGS, I VOW! I never was so happy in my life! I would fifty times rather you should have them than myself.”
And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself, if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months….”

And third in that conversation about history and novels atop Beechen Cliff – in that regard, how fitting that Catherine should mention the actual historical quarrel of Henry VIII and Pope Clement VIII in 1527 (over Henry’s wish to marry as many women as he pleased, that led to Henry’s being excommunicated, and then to his seizure of the monasteries) while looking down at Bath Abbey: 
“…I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The QUARRELS OF POPES AND KINGS, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome…”

And as if that were not enough, I found an excellent scholarly article entitled  “Luther and the Ascent of Jacob's Ladder” by David C. Steinmetz in Church History, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 179-192.  After reading it, I am now convinced that Jane Austen herself, with her extraordinary erudition that she found amusement in pretending she did not have, had in mind the very same sorts of exegesis of the Biblical Jacob’s Ladder, as engaged the mind of Martin Luther centuries before her: [trust me, it’s worth taking the time to read the following analysis closely]

“On the west front of Bath Abbey there are carved two stone ladders stretching from heaven to earth on which twelve angels are climbing, six on each ladder. A tourist who sees the west front of the abbey for the first time is told that the carvings represent the dream of Oliver King, Bishop of Bath and Wells under Henry VII and his former chief secretary. The bishop had a nocturnal vision of angels climbing ladders to heaven. As he stood before the ladders in amazement, he heard voices saying that an olive should establish the crown and that the king should restore the church. He took the reference to olives and kings to be an allusion to his own name and concluded that he, Oliver King, should support the Tudor monarchy and rebuild the abbey at Bath.
In the bishop's dream about politics and architecture, however, there more than a hint of something familiar, of a dream even more famous and ancient. The biblical setting and inspiration for Oliver King's dream of intrigue and ecclesiastical ambition is Genesis 28, the story of Jacob's dream as Jacob camped by night at Bethel on his lonely journey from Beersheba to Haran. Like Bishop King, Jacob dreamed of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, a ladder along which angels ascended and descended in a never- ending procession. While Jacob did not restore a ruined shrine (or support the political aspirations of that Labanesque monarch Henry VII), he did erect a stone monument at the place where he had slept as a memorial of astonishing and wholly unanticipated vision.
If we leave the front of Bath Abbey and consult the biblical commentaries in the abbey library, we discover that there are even more connections between Jacob's dream and the dream of Bishop King than we first thought. The commentaries on Genesis 28-the Ordinary Gloss, and the Postils Hugh of Saint Cher, Nicholas of Lyra, and Denis the Carthusian-all establish the relationship between Jacob's dream and sacred space. According to the medieval commentators, Jacob had slept by accident on the site of the future temple, a site which therefore would become famous both as the cultic center of ancient Israel and as the focal point for the activity of Jesus.
In other words, Jacob rested in the shadow of the altar and under the sign of the cross. Wherever the cross and altar are found, there is the place where Jacob slept, the place where heaven and earth are joined by an angelic ladder. Denis the Carthusian, Bishop King's older contemporary, put the matter this way: “The place where Jacob rested is not only the universal church but also any particular church, no, rather, even a material basilica dedicated to the Lord,which, because of the presence of the highest majesty, because of the presence of sacraments of Christ, because of the celebration of the divine office, because of the devoted gathering and holy prayer of the faithful, is nothing other than the “house of God," "the gate of heaven." For in it sins are taken away through sacramental confession and the virtues infused through which the gates of the heavenly kingdom are opened.”
Bishop King's dream took him back to Bethel, to the sacred space where a stone monument to God should be erected. It took him, like Jacob, to the "house of God" and the "gate of heaven," where the sacramental presence of Christ could be adored and celebrated. Bath Abbey is the place where Jacob rested. I mention this dream because of what seems to me a shining and obvious fact all too frequently overlooked or undervalued, namely that the biblical stories, images, and themes which pervade the culture of late medieval and Reformation Europe have their own history in that culture.
The story of Jacob's dream has had a particularly rich history of interpretation in Western Christendom. Anders Nygren…identified three principle strands in the dogmatic traditions of medieval Christianity which relied on the story of Jacob's dream for their inspiration and at least partial justification. According to Nygren, medieval theologians identified Jacob's ladder with the ladder of grace and merit, the analogical ladder of speculation, and the anagogical ladder of mysticism.
The first ladder, the ladder of grace and merit, was by far the most common. It was the ladder by which every Christian ascended from a state of sin to the beatific vision of God. The analogical ladder of speculation, on the other hand, was reserved for a smaller group of Christian intellectuals who were able to use the material and sensible elements of this world as a ladder to enable them to rise to the contemplations of the immaterial and invisible realities of the spiritual world. The third ladder, the anagogical ladder of mysticism, was open in principle to every Christian, though in actual fact relatively few Christians attempted the ascent to the more rarefied heights of spiritual ecstasy. Nygren argued that Martin Luther rejected all three of these interpretations of Jacob's ladder because they rested on a faulty conception of Christian love.” END QUOTE

I can already tell, from my extremely preliminary analysis, that a very interesting follouwp scholarly article could be written about Catherine Morland as a Regency Era, female Jacob, seeking to climb those ladders toward grace and merit, but also her largely unrecognized gift for speculation as well!

And finally, I’ve saved for last what I believe is Jane Austen’s slyest hint of all. Henry Tilney hands down his tablets of wisdom about perspective to Catherine as they stand atop Beechen Cliff, gazing down and TO THE NORTH at Bath Abbey! So, as my Subject Line playfully hints, those climbing angels constructed by Oliver King, when viewed from the unique perspective of Beechen Cliff, would have literally been, in that perspetival sense,  “northangels”! And therefore perhaps that was part of what led Jane Austen to choose the name “Northanger Abbey” for the edifice where the second half of her novel takes place, changing only that final letter from “l” to “r”!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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