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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jane Austen was haunted by the Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft

And finally, here is my response to Nancy Mayer's questioning why I mentioned "unsex'd females" in one of my earlier posts today.

"The Unsex'd Females, a Poem (1798), by Richard Polwhele, is a polemical intervention into the public debates over the role of women at the end of the 18th century. The poem is primarily concerned with what Polwhele characterizes as the encroachment of radical French political and philosophical ideas into British society, particularly those associated with the Enlightenment. These subjects come together, for Polwhele, in the revolutionary figure of Mary Wollstonecraft. The poem is of interest to those interested in the history of women, as well as revolutionary politics, for several reasons: it demonstrates the continued viability of the tradition of misogynist literature; it is an example of the British backlash against the ideals of the French Revolution; it is representative of the strategic conflation of women writers with revolutionary ideals during this period;[1] and it helps illuminate the obstacles faced by women writers at the end of the 18th century."

Nancy: "?"

Nancy, If I am not mistaken, I think that your question mark means, "What does the above summary of Polwhele's poem have to do with Jane Austen?" If that is what you meant, then my answer is, "Only EVERYTHING!"

For starters, read everything I have written during the past few years about JA as a covert feminist----had she been explicit, she'd have been at the top of Polwhele's "Enemies List", right next to the Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft.

But, more important and specifically, answering you has just made me realize, with a shiver, that what I just wrote was a "Trojan Horse Moment" for me, because it only dawned on me consciously AFTER I wrote what I wrote that Mrs. Tilney is in part a SPECIFIC representation of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died (as the world knows) in childbirth (and in extreme and prolonged agony). I had seen that in a fragmentary way before, but now it all is crystal clear to me. Let me explain.

I think JA was haunted by the Ghost and the memory of Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman who was brave enough to speak out on behalf of women very publicly, and who, after her death, was vilified because she had been so brave.

It's no accident, therefore, that JA alluded SPECIFICALLY to the very radical polemical novel CALEB WILLIAMS (written in 1809), which, after all, just happened to be written by Godwin, who just happened to have been the husband of...............Mary Wollstonecraft!

So it means that when I interpret Henry Tilney as having an epiphany about his mother's death as a result of Catherine's detective work at the Abbey, this is deeply connected to JA's allusion to Godwin's 1809 novel, a novel written a few years AFTER Godwin had a chance to see how the Far Right seized on his Memoir of his dead wife as grounds for crucifying her reputation in the court of public opinion.

So JA is telling us, covertly that (i) in a way, Godwin was Henry Tilney, because he eventually "got it" that he had screwed up, and he wrote Caleb Williams as penance, and (ii) in another way, Godwin was GENERAL Tilney, who did regret the role he played in bringing about his wife's death.

And the most awful thing is that Godwin "killed" his wife TWICE, and both times it was "involuntary womanslaughter"--the first time, by getting her pregnant, leading to her physical death in childbirth, and the second time by writing her Memoir (perhaps trying to resurrect her), but having it backfire, and instead leading to the public assassination of her character!

I believe that for a very long time, maybe her whole adult life, JA played with the idea of going public with her true feelings. But in the end of the day, every time she put quill pen to paper, she chose to go undercover--but I get the very strong sense that she always felt ambivalent about that painful decision. The regret that Catherine and Eleanor express when they talk about Mrs. Tilney is, I think, JA's own regrets....

So Northanger Abbey is in a very real sense JA's eulogy to the greatest feminist "heroine" of her time.

Thanks for spurring me to realize all that, Nancy.



Arnie Perlstein said...

Roberta, I can already tell this is the beginning of a wonderful intellectual friendship, as we are clearly kindred spirits who see the joy and wit, as well as the serious content, in the writings of these towering figures such as Wollstonecraft and Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE

Roberta Wedge said...

Well, talk about a new angle on an old topic! I come to this blog from the other side, as it were: A Vindication of the Rights of Mary is my focus. I can't wait to pick up Northanger Abbey again, and the whole canon, and look for signs of Mary Wollstonecraft.

I have just begun to explore the links between the two authors (see
Jane Austen's secret nod).

Glad would I be, could I in all honesty claim JA as another of MW's "lost sons and daughters"! I'd need a little more persuading, but after all, what is Persuasion for?

[Sorry, I pressed PUBLISH when I meant to hit PREVIEW, hence the self-delete, to tidy up.)

Arnie Perlstein said...

No worries, but for a moment I thought I was in lost in the Gothic world of Northanger Abbey, when the post I had just responded to vanished as soon as I did respond! ;)

Seriously.....I have done exactly what you did so many times....

Anyway, thanks again for posting!