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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Haunted by the Ghost of Jane Austen

Christy Somer posted a link to Claudia Johnson's 2008 Persuasions article, which she spoke about in her keynote speech at the AGM a few years ago.

As I reread that article this morning, I was powerfully struck by two things which I had not noticed previously, but which have become extremely salient for me as a result of my research on Northanger Abbey (NA) in connection with my upcoming presentation at the JASNA AGM:

1. Johnson writes some intriguing riffs on the notion of "possession" of Janeites by JA's ghost, but Johnson does not connect the dots to the very famous riff on literary "possession" which we were recently discussing in these groups, i.e., Byatt's Possession.

Notwithstanding Ellen's claim that the allusion to Eliot is preeminent in Byatt's Possession, I assert that the allusion to NA in Possession only appears to be tangential, but it is actually at least as central. My theory is that Byatt was consciously alluding to the "haunting" of Northanger Abbey by the "ghost" (and of course, I don't mean a real ghost, but rather the memory) of Mrs. Tilney. And, by the way, Johnson surely read Byatt's novel, and probably (like most Janeites) saw the film as well.

Anyway, in Chapter 22 of NA, we have that poignant scene when Eleanor confides in Catherine as to how much she still misses her mother, nine years after her death. It is perhaps the most moving scene in the entire novel.

As I just reread it, I was struck by a new perspective on the fact that NA was itself not published until AFTER JA herself died. This means that its publication was, already in 1818, a kind of "haunting", a voice from beyond the grave summoned by Henry Tilney, acting as a kind of literary medium!

I wonder whether JA, sometime during the last two years of her life, when her illness progressed in fits and starts, revised that scene in NA so as to cause it to resonate as her own artistic swan song? In her hope that NA would be published posthumously, was she, in Chapter 22, "veiledly" (all puns intended!) expressing a hope that her "daughters" (meaning, her female readers, contemporary and future) would remember HER? Was she wishing that her readers would be faithful and constant in cherishing the memory of her literary offspring? Were her novels intended to function, in part, as "awful memorials", not only where all Janeites could worship, but, much more important than to worship, where her female readers in particular could all draw inspiration and courage to be prudent, wise, and strong, in their dealings with the opposite sex?

I cannot help but be reminded of the narrator in Chapter 22 of NA reporting Catherine's questions, and Eleanor's answers thereto, about Mrs. Tilney:

" “Was she a very charming woman? Was she handsome? Was there any picture of her in the abbey? And why had she been so partial to that grove? Was it from dejection of spirits?” — were questions now eagerly poured forth; the first three received a ready affirmative, the two others were passed by; and Catherine’s interest in the deceased Mrs. Tilney augmented with every question, whether answered or not. "

Indeed, as I think about JA's biographers asking those very same questions about JA herself, including the recurrent furor about portraits of JA, there can be no doubt whatsoever that our interest in the deceased Miss Austen augments with every question raised by her writing, whether answered or not, and that we Janeites are all happily haunted by her ghost on a daily basis!


P.S.: I will be mentioning the above in my presentation about Mrs. Tilney's illness at the JASNA AGM in Portland, now only 6 weeks away!

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