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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perspectives and Shades of Meaning

This morning, Elissa Schiff wrote a marvelous response to my earlier post about Janine Barchas's presentation about a real life historical "Bluebeard" castle just outside of Bath, and Elissa's comments included the following insightful comments:

"Barchas argued that JA's mention of the specific distance that the party had traveled was not an accident. Not only is Thorpe misleading Catherine as to what she will find at Blaize, he is literally 180 degrees turned around in the wrong direction from what she wants. JA mentioned how long the party had traveled and, to underline the point mentioned the distance.

Austen's entire novel, it seems to me, is a development of the idea of presentation of direct 180 degree opposites, or dichotomies, that are simply not recognized as such by the characters: Gen. Tilney and Thorpe mistake Catherine for a potential heiress; Isabella mistakes Col. Tilney's intentions; Catherine mistakes (or does she?) sinister happenings and the evidence thereof with old laundry lists. But the two hyperimportant issues (and they are connected, really) at 180 degrees apart that JA presents in NA are somewhat more far-reaching: one Arnie has already written on extensively and now spoken about - childbirth as part of the greater issue of how men treated women in the world that Austen presents to us. Now is childbirth and the readily compliant sex and state of repeated pregnancy the benign bliss that we have presented by Mrs. Moreland who has given birth to and nurtures ten healthy children? Or is it somehow a horror that has caused some unmentionable pain, suffering, and illness that has led to death experienced by Mrs. Tilney? [Note: a circumstance totally avoided by Mrs. Allen] Perhaps somewhere in between - witness the Mrs. Bennet-like Mrs. Thorpe. But obviously the strong, strong dichotomy between Catherine's mother and the Tilneys mother is in the novel for a reason. Otherwise, why have ten Moreland children, why not five or six??" END QUOTE

I replied as follows:

Elissa, You are in fine form today, your cogent summary of many relevant points
about JA was simply brilliant, and I can only say how strongly I agree with every word you wrote.

In particular, I loved your observations about the metaphorical significance of the 180 degrees opposites. They are exactly congruent with the comments I made at my JASNA AGM presentation about the following passage from the Beechen Cliff scene in NA:

"In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side–screens
and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the
enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence."

This paragraph is quintessential JA subtext. On the surface, it sounds like another passage with Henry educating the ignorant Catherine about visual aesthetics, with a dollop of wisdom about the wider world tossed in at the end. Same old same old, that is the essence of the overt story of NA, i.e., how Henry educates Catherine.

But look at the richness, pointing 180 degrees in the other direction, hidden just beneath the glistening surface of that witty narration. The entire discussion of perspective is ALSO an extended metafictional meditation by JA on the way she writes novels, especially the hall of mirrors known as Northanger Abbey. She is alerting the receptive reader that our understanding of this passage, and of the entire novel, depends on our point of view, our perspective. Novels, she implies, consist of a series of VERBAL pictures---interpersonal landscapes, if you will---and
a skilled artist (like Holbein in his famous Ambassadors, and like JA) knows how to wrongfoot readers/viewers, by concealing in plain sight ALTERNATIVE images which are discernible and comprehensible only when viewed from a skewed perspective.

And the alternative image in NA is that of Catherine (unwittingly) educating Henry!! In my JASNA presentation, I argued that it is Catherine who triggers in Henry an epiphany about the Tilney family--including most of all the realization that his mother died in childbirth at the hands (so to speak) of her "Bluebeard" husband,
General Tilney--an epiphany which enables Henry to transform into a heroic husband worthy of marrying Catherine. The Bluebearded Montoni-ish General wished to make Catherine his next wifely victim, but Henry outmaneuvers him at the end and wins Catherine's hand.

And, as a bonus, that passage references enclosure, as a wink back to the earlier extended riff in the novel on General Tilney as one of JA's many "improvers" and enclosers, who, lacking all perspective on the ancient natural and architectural beauty and ancient social fabric of rural England, destroy all that they have inherited, in a frenzy of greed and lack of aesthetic sensibility.

All that in a passage seemingly devoted only to an abstract discussion of the picturesque. Indeed, NA, the "lightest" of JA's novels, was, to a discerning eye, potentially very controversial, and its literary and historical allusions are integral to the themes of the novel. Which answers Ellen's question as to why JA would make so many of her allusions by implication rather than explicitly----JA masked her most controversial and radical ideas, so that these novels WOULD be
published, and would survive to be read by those with eyes to see her masked meanings.

When it came to being explicit about her radical feminist views, it was INDEED "an easy step to silence" about her covert message, in order to avoid being totally silenced!

Cheers, ARNIE

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