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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mrs. Allen, Aunt Leigh-Perrot, and the Wife of Bath

I promise to reveal, by early tomorrow morning (EST), a summary of the evidence I collected over the weekend which links Mrs. Allen specifically, and Northanger Abbey generally, to one of the most famous and influential female characters in all of English literature, the Wife of Bath (hereinafter the WOB), who of course made her "debut" as the "star" of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This is an allusion which, to the best of my knowledge after diligent search online, has never been discovered before by any Austen scholar. At the end of this message, below, I will give a few hints as to the central motif of the allusion, which is a seemingly trite comment by John Thorpe to Catherine, but which takes on gigantic significance as pointing to the Wife of Bath, only for those who understand the specific literary allusions pointed to INTENTIONALLY by JA.

You've already heard, from me and also Elissa, about some obvious resemblances between Mrs. Allen and the WOB, such as the (apparent) lack of children despite not being young and having been married for a while (and in the WOB's case, many times).

Did you know that they also share clothing sense (recall all the description in the Canterbury Tales of the WOB's brightly colored wardrobe)?

And even though what they say sounds very different on the surface, notice that they are both women who are no longer young and who, perhaps because of that, have the self-assurance to say whatever they feel like saying, without apparent concern that people listening might not approve of they're saying.

And in light of what I wrote a few months ago about JA giving hints that Mr. Allen might just be a secret lush, spiking his Bath water with an alcoholic kicker, it is interesting that the WOB refers (if memory serves me right) to her first husband's tendency to indulge in alcohol.

It also now occurs to me to also point out that (as what must be the nine-hundredth proof I've found that Henry Tilney was lying through his teeth when he wrote, in his Biographical Notice, that his sister Jane did not write about real people) there are two remarkably droll skewerings of Jane's own Aunt Leigh Perrot in the character of Mrs. Allen. I ask those familiar with the Austen family history whether Jane could have found two more telling and sharp-edged ways of satirizing her Aunt than by the following two excerpts in the novel:


"Mrs Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with THE DISCOVERY, WHICH HER KEEN EYE SOON MADE, THAT THE LACE on Mrs Thorpe's pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own."

You can find what I believe is the first published claim of a connection between Mrs. Allen's interest in lace and Aunt Leigh-Perrot's arrest for shoplifting lace in a shop in Bath, in an essay written some years ago by Albert Borowitz which has been most recently published in Legal Studies Forum, Volume 29, Number 2 (2005), as "Crimes Gone By".


Of course we all know that thanks to the rumor-spreading John Thorpe, General Tilney becomes very interested in Catherine Morland as a young woman worthy to marry a Tilney (of course, another question is, which Tilney, his son Henry or the General himself!), because Thorpe leads the General to believe that Catherine is going to inherit vast sums of money from the rich Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

But, as I last discussed in these groups several months ago.....

...this is a SECOND (and, from JA's point of view, devastating) parallel to the real life relationship between Aunt Leigh Perrot and JA's family, because Jane and her family all had every expectation (in the personal and legal sense) of receiving substantial bequests from UNCLE Leigh Perrot upon his death. However, as we all know, when he did die in 1817, the Austen women got stiffed in favor of JA's nephew JEAL.

Which also makes me wonder about whether JA, by her portrait of Mr. Allen, was suggesting that Uncle Leigh Perrot also indulged in some secret tippling while taking his Bath waters..

But that is enough background, here are the clues to the allusion to the Wife of Bath:

The allusion hidden in the text of Northanger Abbey is connected not only to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but also to all of the following:

a literary work (well known in JA's time but only known to literary scholars today) by a well known (then and today) English author, published early in the 18th century (i.e., in the early 1700's);

a literary work published LATE in the 18th century (i.e., during JA's youth), fairly well known then but unknown even to literary scholars today; and ALSO

a VERY well known literary work (when first published and continuously since then) published AFTER Northanger Abbey, written by a VERY famous Romantic poet!

PLUS....the hidden allusion relates (i) in one ADDITIONAL way to the drinking of alcohol, AND (ii) to something very specific that John Thorpe says to Catherine.

PLUS....if you get the answer, you will see that it has a potentially significant effect on the calendar for the action of Northanger Abbey prepared some years ago by Ellen Moody, i.e., it points toward 1797 and 1809 as the two primary candidates for year in which the action took place, plus it suggests that Ellen's calendar might be about 11 days off!

Till tomorrow morning, then, unless someone comes forward with a successful answer today!

Cheers, ARNIE

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