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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mrs. Allen's Sexual Innuendo and also as the Wife of Bath

Responding to three different posts by Nancy Mayer about my claims yesterday about Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey:


"Far from engaging in scintillating or otherwise repartee and sexual innuendo, Mrs. Allen has always been presented as a a comic character whose interest in clothes makes her a poor chaperone."

Mrs. Allen is a character very much in the same vein as Harriet Smith and Miss Bates--they can be read in two opposite ways-either as fools, or as women pretending to be fools. I know you (and most other Janeites, at present) don't hear the latter, but I do, and so does Elissa, and note also that Jill Heydt Stevenson circles around that muslin passage a couple of times in her book as well.

And as I advised Elissa yesterday, if you read everything in the novel that has to do with Mrs. Allen, this sexual innuendo based on muslin, especially torn muslin, as code for the female body is a recurrent one. In particular, I refer you all to the following comments by Mrs. Allen to Catherine in Chapter 30 of NA, entirely at the other end of the novel from the scene when Catherine meets Henry for the first time:

“Only think, my dear, of my having got THAT FRIGHTFUL GREAT RENT in my best Mechlin so charmingly mended, before I left Bath, that one can hardly see where it was. I must show it you some day or other. Bath is a nice place, Catherine, after all. I assure you I did not above half like coming away. Mrs. Thorpe’s being there was such a comfort to us, was not it? You know, you and I were quite forlorn at first.”

And I say, only think, my fellow Janeites, of Lydia Bennet having got that frightful great slit in her gown, and think also about Mr. Darcy insisting on MENDING his own pens....

And then take note of the following even more curious passage that follows shortly thereafter in Chapter 30 of NA:

*/"/*A VERY SHORT VISIT TO MRS. ALLEN, IN WHICH HENRY TALKED AT RANDOM, WITHOUT SENSE OR CONNECTION, and Catherine, rapt in the contemplation of her own unutterable happiness, scarcely opened her lips, dismissed them to the ecstasies of another tete–a–tete..."

Even though Henry seemed, TO CATHERINE, to talk to Mrs. Allen at random without sense or connection, I claim that another "strange" conversation occurred at that time, which was in exactly the same vein as their initial conversation.


"Mrs. Allen is as far from the wife of Bath as Mrs. Morland."

Actually, last night, I reviewed my files, and saw that in 2009 I had come across an EXPLICIT allusion to the Wife of Bath in Northanger Abbey, identified by a very mainstream literary critic, Barbara Benedict, in her edition of NA. She pointed out that John Thorpe's citing the proverb about one wedding bringing another appears to be a veiled allusion to Gay's play.

It is too complicated to explain here, but suffice to say that, upon examination, this allusion to Gay's play is neither accidental nor trivial, and my intuitive sense of Mrs. Allen as a veiled representation of the Wife of Bath is spot-on. Those who are interested can readily pursue this line of inquiry, you will find it worthwhile, I promise. Those who wish to wait can read my own analysis in my book.

This also illustrates the non-linear trajectory that my research has taken during the past 6 years. I knew about the allusion to Gay's play last year, but because I did not at that time have a sense of Mrs. Allen as a representation of the Wife of Bath, I did not pay particular attention to this allusion at the time. It was only after I got the idea of her as the Wife of Bath and then searched my files and saw the Gay play that the light bulb went on in my head, and I then found Gay's play
and read it, and saw even more.

As is stated in S&S in the scene about the color of the hair in the cameo that Edward is wearing, the setting casts a different shade on what is presented. It was only when I had Mrs. Allen in mind as the Wife of Bath that the significance of the allusion to Gay's play became clear. This research requires a great deal of patience!

And by the way, for those who might recognize the name, JA was apparently very interested in John Gay, because she ALSO alludes to his fable about The Hare in BOTH Northanger Abbey AND then again in Emma--and this is also not accidental or trivial.

"Considering the feats of memory and allusion and intricate and complex plotting some attribute to Austen's novels it is miraculous that she was able to finish six books."

She was a genius who took her work seriously. I never underestimate such creative persons, the history of the arts is filled with similarly miraculous achievements. Jane Austen was one of them. If I, who do not claim to be more than clever, can see all this stuff, it should not be surprising that a genius can create it.

"One who reworks other's writing can be a clever person but is rarely called a genius."

That is a common fallacy, to consider allusions to be merely clever and a marker of a lack of creativity. That kind of reaction always amazes me. How do you account, then, for the incontestable FACT that the annotations of allusions in the works of Shakespeare and James Joyce fill greater volumes than the texts of their writings themselves? I hope you are not going to say that Shakespeare and Joyce were merely clever, or were not creative enough to find inspiration for their own stories in
their own imagination? You might want to rethink your own estimation of what allusion is all about.

"There is just something so off about the descriptions. I don't say that no new interpretation is possible, just that I'd like the interpretation to be within the text of the novel and the character of the characters."

Again, I claim the shadow story is supposed to be 180 degrees opposite from the overt story, that is the marker of the shadow story. JA's shadow stories are deliberately topsy turvy from her overt stories, that is one thing that is so wonderful about them.

"Henry's discussion about muslins is "strange" as Catherine recognizes. there is nothing sexual about the talk."

Au contraire! Catherine, who has a great intuitive mind which merely lacked formal education, very accurately picks up on the strangeness of tone, even though she lacks the tools to properly analyze what she senses.

"I am a rather literal person as far as interpretations go."

Yes, I gathered that some time ago.

"There is no need to drag in Falstaff."

But what if JA "dragged in" Falstaff herself, because it enriches her story? I find it enriches my understanding and appreciation of literature such as JA's novels when I discover or learn of an allusion in them. It's not my goal to keep it simple, and to turn a blind eye to allusions when they present themselves, and when I can see that the author wishes to make it pleasingly complex.

Cheers, ARNIE

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