Nancy Mayer replied in Janeites: "The point with which I disagree is that Samuel Morland or Gen. Tilney were murderers or in any way responsible for the death of wife or wives. According to that logic any man who wants children with his wife is a potential murderer because even today women die in child birth whether the first child or the tenth. In NA , the Morlands have a quiversful of children with the mother still alive. Gen Tilney only has 3 children. Many women died with the first as my daughter would have if she had lived then. You have children-- you therefore attempted to murder your wife. You do not know how many children Mr. Morland of Westminster Abbey had. A duchess alive in JA's day had 21 children and then risked more by marrying again after the duke died. She had a choice."
Nancy, we've been around this block many times before, and you always forget one crucial fact-- this is not about Arnie Perlstein's personal opinion on the topic, it's about Jane Austen's opinion, as she watched wives she knew drop like flies around her --including two of her own sisters in law while JA was alive, and then a third shortly after her death. That sort of pattern tends to get your attention in a hurry. Now I happen to agree with Jane Austen, but that's beside the point! And what's also beside the point is that I have children, since I live in an era and country when and where childbirth does not carry a significant probability of maternal fatality, or even illness!
My interpretation of Northanger Abbey having as its central shadow theme the epidemic of death in childbirth among English gentlewomen is one that I've argued many times (although not much recently)--it was, after all, the topic of my breakout session at the 2010 JASNA AGM in Portland, Oregon (where I now live). It has many strong bases, which I barely had time to cover more than in summary during the 40 minutes of my presentation. My presentation included, but was far from limited to, the dozen or more unequivocally sarcastic comments by Jane Austen in her letters spanning two decades. These sarcasms were all about married women being turned into breeding animals by their husbands who demanded their conjugal rights over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, regardless of the real danger that the next pregnancy would be their wife's death sentence. These were not the hints I see in NA -- there is actually no other controversial complaint on which Jane Austen was more explicit and more focused during her entire adult life than this. That's not my interpretation--that is 100% ironclad fact.
Plus, as my research back in 2009 also demonstrated, the epidemic was exacerbated by male doctor incursion into the childbirth room, displacing the centuries old tradition of female midwives. The male doctors, being pre-Semmelweis, would frequently come straight from the dissecting room o supervise births, without washing their hands. So, just as we are seeing today with the unconscious racism which still permeates many police departments in the US, there was male privilege at two ends of the tunnel, so to speak---the husbands who impregnated their wives at the start, the doctors who delivered their babies (and cases of sepsis) at the end.
As Jane Austen said, think of what is probable --is it probable that married women would be dropping like flies and no other women would notice or be concerned or fearful? Do you think English wives worried about their soldier or sailor husbands dying in war, but were blithely unconcerned about their own risks of dying? You think it's an accident that Jane Austen chose not to marry? I believe there was no single issue of greater interest to English gentlewomen than this, which female writers, had enough of them held the pen of authorship, might have written about in their novels. No, what was clear, was that any novel which contained an explicit complaint about this epidemic could not get published -- and had one managed to slip through into publication, its author would have been universally vilified as an "unsex'd female" daring to challenge man's God-given supremacy in marriage. I even wonder whether the original version of Northanger Abbey which sat on Crosby's shelf gathering dust for a decade, was more explicit about this topic, and that was the main reason it was purchased but then placed in a deep freeze for a decade, until Jane Austen's M.A.D. anger led her to buy it back, and revise its polemics enough into the shadows where it could safely pass the censors, which it did, ironically, only after JA's death -- but not before brother Henry made sure to reassure the world that there could not be any hidden meanings in it!
I am certain that Jane Austen saw herself as a modern day Cassandra, whispering that the emperor is indeed wearing no clothes----i.e., the average English husband did not have to be a literal Montoni who literally locked his wife in a dungeon or literally poisoned her, he was a banal real life Montoni, Bluebeard (the popular story that symbolized this epidemic) or Henry VIII--the English husband repeatedly, metaphorically "poisoned" his wife with "poison" which entered her body otherwise than through her mouth, or "chopped off her head" (i.e., deflowered) her. And, as Henry Tilney unwittingly averred, improbable as it might have seemed to a lucid observer, nobody lifted a single finger to stop the epidemic:
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
Here is the quintessential dark Austenian irony. Jane Austen is challenging her readers to WAKE UP to what is happening! These were genuine atrocities at which English marital laws did connive, which could be perpetrated without anyone objecting out loud, where all the voluntary spies and newspapers were too busy looking for French spies to notice that young English wives were dying with sickening regularity.
And Mrs. Morland, the English wife who was healthy as a horse (so to speak) despite having had 10 children, is a classic Austenian ironic inversion, described thusly right at the start of the novel via those famous negations ("Mrs. Morland did not die in childbirth") precisely for that ironic purpose -- the exception who proves the rule. The novelist did slyly protest too much that Mrs. Morland was healthy, in order to make her point, which is that so many other English wives were not so lucky! And that brings us right back to those two "awful memorials" hung in WEST-minster (rotated a mere 90 degrees from NORTH-anger) Abbey by the real life 50-something Samuel Morland, in memory of his two VERY young wives who each died in childbirth. No wonder Jane Austen named her heroine "Catherine MORLAND", it was to echo the life of that well known (in Jane Austen's era) inventor/spy/politician, and his particular hypocrisy in his conjugal life, who mourned his wives in three classic languages, but who, like the classic definition of chutzpah, did not mourn them quite enough to stop murdering them!
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