(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jane Austen’s Letter 57: the Rosetta Stone of the Sexual Subtext of Northanger Abbey

As promised, the following is the message I have just sent to the online groups:

Jane Austen’s Letter 57: the Rosetta Stone of the Sexual Subtext of Northanger Abbey

Copyright Arnold Perlstein 2010

It was my firm intention yesterday to write up a full-length article on the above subject, pulling together all the findings I have made relevant to this topic, citing extensive passages from the text of both NA and Letter 57, and to then immediately post such article at my blog, and to send messages to all the usual groups directing attention thereto.

But today, after sleeping on that ambitious plan, it seems more than sufficient to instead post a shorter version of same, summarizing my discoveries and analysis of what is a very complex subject, and to include a minimum of textual quotations. This latter strategy had the great advantage of being something I could produce today --so now, a scant few hours later, here it is.

It is my explicit intention in so doing this to publicly stake my claim and all attendant copyright and other legal rights, to the discoveries set forth below, in a way I had not intended to do at present before this thread was initiated, but which I felt it crucial to do once it was. I will be expanding on all of these matters in my book to come.


Before I go any further, however, I wish to take this occasion, in which I will be discussing Northanger Abbey, to announce that I will be one of the breakout session presenters at the upcoming JASNA AGM that will be held over Halloween weekend in Portland, Oregon, the theme of which (if you were not previously aware) is Northanger Abbey:

Letter 57 will be one of the many topics I will be discussing in my presentation, as I will place my above-described discoveries in a much larger context than I will outline below. I had not intended to make this announcement till later, when the title and actual time of my session will be posted online by JASNA along with all the other breakout sessions, but this subject of Letter 57 coming up presented me with the perfect opportunity to let you all know.


But back to the subject at hand. Because I will not be extensively quoting from NA or Letter 57, it will be necessary for those of you who wish to suss out all my claims, to have copies of both Northanger Abbey and Letter 57 at hand. Whether you don’t take my word for it, or whether you do, if you want to know whether I really have the goods I claim to, in terms of the connections between letter and novel which I outline, below, I urge you to go through this exercise. That is the only way you will be able to fully verify to your own satisfaction whether my central argument, below, is a valid one, and also to fully appreciate the context of what I am going to tell you. Had I quoted all the relevant text from Northanger Abbey to make my case and also give you the full context, this message would have been five times as long as it already is.

For those who are unaware, here are searchable online texts for both:

Those of you who wish to do this the old-fashioned way, with the two books in hand to be thumbed through, will, I fear, have a dreadfully difficult time of it—word searches are a beautiful thing and an indispensable took in studying JA’s literary artistry. Otherwise, you will be doing a lot of searching for needles in haystacks.

However you choose to approach it, I can promise you hours of great sleuthing enjoyment, if you enjoy that kind of thing, as I obviously do. And if you do it, I’d really REALLY like to hear, either in one of these groups, or in my blog, what your reactions are! Some people don’t seem to be very shy about pointing out my errors in these posts of mine, and it would mean a lot to me if those of you who actually enjoy what I do would voice your approval publicly more often.


Let me be clear first off about one thing--what I will reveal in this post is not “THE” meaning of the coded jokes contained in JA’s Letter 57 dated 10/7-9/08, but is, rather, ONE significant domain of meaning pertaining to same. By this I mean to emphasize, right off the bat, that with JA, I have found it to be universally the case that it is almost never correct to claim that there is ONLY one definitive meaning of any of her subtextual shadow allusions and references. So even though I am confident that what I am telling you about today is both valid and extremely significant, I do not claim it to be the exclusive meaning—in fact, I myself am aware of other meanings hidden in Letter 57, which I will be disclosing in my book.

As I discovered in November, 2007, when I first sat down and did the same kind of close reading of Letter 57 as all good Janeites strive to bring to bear in reading JA’s novels, Letter 57 is densely packed with jokes and coded references to pseudo-events, to a degree that, to the best of knowledge after careful study, is not the case with any of the other surviving JA letters. Letter 57 is sui generis among her letters. That is why I selected it in particular to urge Anielka, in November, 2007, to read Letter 57 very carefully.

In that sense, Letter 57 therefore is very very analogous to Emma-the-novel, which also has been described by countless Janeites, scholars (like Edmund Wilson) and amateurs alike, as being qualitatively different from the other novels, in this same way. They both can be described as literary La Brea Tar Pits, with hidden meanings buried just under the surface in every direction where you turn your gaze. And in particular, there is a striking resonance of each of the riddling paragraphs in Letter 57 to the “courtship” charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, which itself is, as I have found, and have begun to reveal publicly, a Rosetta Stone for the full interpretation of Emma.


So, why do I claim that Letter 57 is a Rosetta Stone for Northanger Abbey? In a nutshell, because the coded paragraphs of Letter 57 collectively contain a cluster of about twenty words and phrases which are ALL deployed by JA in the text of NA, some of them repeatedly, in passages which I had ALREADY PREVIOUSLY identified as being part of the sexual subtext of the novel, solely from reading the text of the novel itself, without reference to any outside sources such as Letter 57.

So you can imagine my astonishment and joy when I first realized that these dozen keywords were present in both Letter 57 and in NA!

Let me immediately add another caveat—most of these words and phrases also appear in JA’s other novels, and often in a shadowy sexual context, but in no other of JA’s novels do they all appear, and in no other novel do they appear clustered in a handful of key, particularly sexually charged passages. Letter 57 and NA are inseparably joined at the hip.


Let’s start with the “Mr. Floor” passage in Letter 57:

“My mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K.; she has picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, and means to have it dyed black for a gown -- a very interesting scheme, though just now a little injured by finding that it must be placed in Mr. Wren's hands, for Mr. Chambers is gone. As for Mr. Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation. How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces. I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a touch. There was four shillings thrown away, to be added to my subjects of never-failing regret.”

Here are the words and phrases in that one paragraph which ALL point to NA’s sexual subtext:

silk, pelisse, “(all) to pieces”, dyed, gown, injured, Wren’s, Chambers, low, “divided with a touch”, and shillings.

If you search in the text of NA, you will find each of these words, or variants on them, and if you look at the passages where they appear, you will find that they almost all carry a sexual charge of some kind, in many cases a dramatic, almost over-the-top sexual charge, when read “against the grain”.

And…. if you now go to the other coded passages in Letter 57 (Anielka identified most of them in her last message), you will also find the following words and phrases which ALL ALSO point to NA’s sexual subtext:

wind, Chimney, (high) drawers, key, keyhole, Wethered, Foote, reins, and velvet


I have not yet counted them up, but I guess there are at least several dozen total usages of these words in a sexually suggestive context in NA, but my personal favorite, I think, is the following, which is John Thorpe deprecating the performance capabilities of James Morland’s “gig” to Catherine:

“Upon my soul, you might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch.”

It is my favorite because it points to not one, but TWO of the keywords in the “Mr. Floor” paragraph in Letter 57---“to pieces” (which actually appears TWICE in that paragraph) and “with a touch”—and the sexual connotation is identical in both the novel and the letter!

The odds that this multiply determined identity of words and meaning between novel and letter is a coincidence, or even an unconscious act on JA’s part, is, in my opinion, ZERO. Even standing alone, this is a smoking gun---but it becomes a FUSILLADE of smoking guns when you add in all the other connections between letter and novel which I have outlined above.


I deliberately left one word out of the immediately preceding paragraph, so that I could express a special thanks and commendation to Elissa, who did the heavy lifting in pointing me to a particularly elegant and hilarious addition to the above list.

But before I give the details, I also want to particularly thank Elissa for paying me the high compliment of actually, carefully reading what I write in these groups, even when my posts are long--and being sharp enough not only to pick up on my nuances, but to enrich them with her feedback.

The thing I wrote that Elissa paid attention to was the following, regarding the “Mr. Floor” paragraph:

“In addition to the (to me, obvious) sexual innuendo in this passage which I first noticed two+ years ago, and which is very interesting indeed…”

Elissa contacted me to ask exactly what obvious sexual innuendo she was missing, and I was glad to tell her. As I quickly ran down the above-written list of words and phrases, she, being the very sharp elf she is, came back in very short order with the suggestion that the word “Floor” must somehow also be part of that equation, and the further suggestion that the French word for “floor”, “plancher” might be the ticket. I found her suggestion very intriguing, and quickly found a couple of items via Google which were a little promising, and which seemed like they might lead somewhere good. But…. it was then that Elissa made her truly brilliant connection, suggesting that “plonger” sounds a lot like the English word “plunge”.

I recognized immediately that this was a bull’s-eye, and a quick search of JA’s novels showed that it indeed was, as I was not only led to the notorious passage in MP when Mary Crawford cautions her brother not to “plunge [Fanny] deep”, but to two of the very same passages in NA which I had already identified as having strong sexual innuendo and also containing other of those keywords.

As those who take the trouble to followup by actually scouring the text of NA for these various words will note, these words do not appear scattered randomly throughout the entire novel, like lonely orphans. No, these words are densely clustered in a relatively small handful of passages in the novel, and each word is a brick in the wall that is the gestalt of sexual innuendo with which those parts of NA are saturated.


One other connection in this matrix which I particularly like, and which is easy to explain in a short space, is that it provides an unexpected convergence to something I discovered back in July, 2009, when I went to see Troilus & Cressida at the Globe in London after attending the Chawton House conference.

I had not previously been particularly familiar with T&C, but I really enjoyed that production, including Act IV, scene 2, involving Pandarus, Cressida and Troilus:

Pandarus: man, let it sleep? a bugbear take him!

Cressida: Did not I tell you? Would he were knock'd i' the head!

Who's that at door? good uncle, go and see.

My lord, come you again into my chamber:

You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily.

Troilus: Ha, ha!

As the whole audience roared at the bawdy joke, it instantly flashed into my mind that this was the principal source for another notorious half-hearted female attempt at modesty:

“Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

I hinted at this discovery in my blog in July, 2009, and it is a world of literary interest in its own right, but I mention it now in passing here, because, among all the keywords and phrases which appear in Letter 57 and also appear in a sexual context in Northanger Abbey, the word “CHAMBER” is, if I am not mistaken, the one which appears the MOST among the twenty. In fact, to illustrate why we should be PARTICULARLY suspecting JA of this sexual pun in NA above all--there are ELEVEN usages of the word “chamber” in NA, and only fifteen altogether in all of JA’s other novels COMBINED! And the connection to Mary Crawford and Cressida’s speaking “naughtily” about her “chamber” is the icing on the cake. Again, the chance of coincidence, or of unconscious expression by JA, is, in my opinion, ZERO.


In case any of you were wondering, Jill Heydt-Stevenson deserves praise for picking up on two important aspects of the above matrix. But first, let me reiterate for the third time--even though she did not connect the dots and realize how they were all related, still, as I stated last week, and will state again and again, JHS was the one who blew the door off the room where JA’s sexual innuendoes were concealed. And her “Ha-Ha” article provided a giant personal inspiration to me early in my research to focus in particular on the sexual innuendoes in JA’s novels, which I had myself already haphazardly begun to explore in 2002-4. After reading her article, my search into this area became extensive and systematic, recognizing the centrality of sexual innuendo in JA’s shadow stories.

Anyway, the two “catches” I give JHS credit for (and no doubt there are others I have as yet overlooked) are the following:


The following passage from a ladies’ magazine which JHS quotes in full in her Introduction:

‘A lady having sent a very costly silk gown to be dyed, the dyer very politely carried it home himself, that he might be certain of its being conveyed with care. It so happened that the lady's husband opened the door to him, and being a very proud man, vexed at having condescended to open the door to a low tradesman, asked very angrily what he had in his hand, and whom it was for. ' Sir,' replied the man, ' it is a parcel for the lady of the house.' ' What, for my wife!' answered the gentleman, ' what can you have for my wife ?' ' Sir, 1 dye for your wife.' ' My wife !' 'Yes, Sir, I dye for your wife and her two sisters.' ' You impudent dog,' exclaimed the gentleman, in a violent passion, ' dare you tell me so to my face. Come, some of you, (calling his servants) and kick this presumptuous and ignorant blockhead out of the house.' They were proceeding to put his commands in execution, when the lady luckily came down stairs, (hearing a noise) and not only rescued her gown from the damage it might have sustained in the scuffle, but also the poor man, who for many years had actually dyed for her whole family.’

JHS cites the above passage as evidence of the kind of reading material that JA could easily have read during the era she was writing her novels. But it should be obvious to anyone who reads the above passage alongside the “Mr. Floor” passage in Letter 57 that there’s a MUCH more significant and very specific connection of that quotation to JA’s own writing. JA clearly had read the former before she wrote the latter. It’s far beyond any possibility of coincidence, and it is my speculation that JHS included that 1806 passage because, on a subconscious level, she did recognize the connections—but she can tell us if that is the case or not. And it was equally obvious to me the minute Anielka posted on Monday about Letter 57 and dyers, that she, too had noticed this same connection, while reading JHS’s introduction.


The second “catch” by JHS which is directly relevant to my claims in this post is her excellent, but brief, discussion of sexual innuendoes in Northanger Abbey, which appears in her chapter regarding same, which we will be discussing later in this group read. Suffice for now to say that when you read that chapter in Unbecoming Conjunctions, you will see that, coming from a completely different perspective in reading the text of the novel, JHS points to some of the very same passages in the novel which contain the cluster of keywords I’ve described above.

This is yet another example of what is called CONVERGENT EVIDENCE, and there is a significant synergy between converging lines of evidence, which makes each of them more powerful, as they bolster each other.

As you may already have begun to realize, there are numerous significant implications of this discovery for Austen scholarship in relation to NA. Here are a couple of highlights:


The two existing film adaptations of NA, both the Wadey/Foster 1986 version, and the Davies/Jones 2007 version, have both been maligned for (allegedly) diverging too widely from the text of the novel itself, and also for the lurid sexuality which they both depicted, Davies more so than Wadey.

The connections of Letter 57 to NA are only the tip of the iceberg comprising all the evidence that JA loaded more sexual innuendo, page for page, into NA than any of her other novels, and in aggregate the evidence I will eventually fully present will 1000% vindicate the brilliant intuitions of both Wadey and Davies, in divining some of the secrets of the text of NA. __

I love both adaptations, by the way.


Perhaps some of you are familiar with the many heated and still unresolved controversies in scholarly Janeite circles regarding the composition and revision of NA by JA. If so, you will, I think, be as struck as I am by the very close proximity of the date JA wrote Letter 57 (10/7-9/08) to the date JA wrote ANOTHER much more famous letter, Letter 68(D) dated April 5, 1809 [or four days after April Fool’s Day!] from “Mrs. Ashton Dennis”, in which JA demanded that Crosby publish NA, and further offered to produce another copy of same if somehow Crosby had mislaid the original submitted in 1798.

It is my speculation that one of the reasons JA may have turned Letter 57 into a Rosetta Stone for Northanger Abbey was that she and Cassandra had been separated for quite a while before then [CEA having surely been dispatched to Godmersham to be of vital assistance as a de facto auxiliary governess to the multitude of children of Edward and Elizabeth Austen, as she lay in the final trimester of (her, alas, final) confinement] and JA was reporting to CEA, in code, about JA’s progress in revising NA along some exciting new lines, in particular in regard to the sexual subtext of the novel.

Surely CEA was in 1808 JA’s most intimate confidante, by a long stretch, about all things relative to JA’s novels, and so CEA and JA would have agreed in advance, before CEA left for her extended visit to Godmersham, on how JA would describe her progress to CEA.

Cheers, ARNIE


christy somer said...

Hello Arnie~~
Fascinating~~~~and all that~~~~
Perhaps You have already noted JA's use of Capitalizing the first letter of particular words throughout Letter 57~~there are variations~~In Chapman's and Le Faye's the Capital's i.e. Chimney, Touch, Dwelling, Flames, House, etc.~~~are kept~~ Your noting ".... for in places it divided with a Touch." ~~"Touch"~~In Brabourne's edition of letter 57 ~~the capital letter is not shown ~~as also the other's are not shown~~~~ and the internet site does show that particular version~~~
And what might such CAPITAL-letter-gatherings through~~~~~all of the Letters~~~~rally forth and reveal~~~~;-)

Until Next Time~~~~~;-)C. Somer

Arnie Perlstein said...

Yes, and I noticed it in your comment, too! ;)

Brabourne was a major Bowdlerizer, but he was not clever enough to spot all the innuendo.

I believe it's a signal to READ BETWEEN THE LINES!

You are a welcome relief from the spam and anonymous posters, C. Somer!

christy somer said...

Hello Again Arnie~~~

Thank You~~~~~

Just wondering...~~ within this reading and witnessing to Your rising Scholarship's discerningly controversial views ~~ arrows so aimed to pierce and arouse that "Lionized" Society of Sentinels ~~so protective of their Star Muse of Finesse ~~and Her Familial Canon of Letters~Stories~and Histories~~~
.....What may yet be "waiting in the wings"...almost two centuries.. to be uncovered~~and so discovered~~~

Regards Until Next time~~;-)C.Somer

Arnie Perlstein said...

I keep finding things after nearly 5 1/2 years of intensive research, so my answer is, a lot more!

Cheers, ARNIE