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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

P.P.S. re The Mysterious Footnote in Northanger Abbey

Haste makes for inadvertent misstatements, and I now wish to rectify an important misstatement from my previous posts. It does not change my ultimate conclusion, but obviously i want to be accurate in my description of how I get there.

Here is the relevant text in Chapter 3 of NA:

"Whether [Catherine] thought of him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was not more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman`s love is declared, it must very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.”

And here is the relevant text in Johnson's Rambler:

"That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is an heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow. "

It is not that the footnote in NA pointing to Johnson's Rambler is incorrect--as you can see from the two excerpts quoted above, there is indeed an unmistakable allusion. It is clear that "the celebrated writer" referred to by the NA narrator IS Samuel Johnson. But what IS misleading is that the footnote is INCOMPLETE in a material way, because it does not alert the reader to the SECOND allusion in that same sentence, which is an extremely important one, i.e., the dreams of a virginal girl on the Eve of St. Agnes.

So think about it--if JA was going to insert a footnote (when she could just as easily have written "Dr. Johnson" instead of "a celebrated writer") to alert the reader to the first allusion, why in the world would she then NOT ALSO alert the reader to the SECOND allusion, one which is, as I have demonstrated, important in THREE (or maybe four) of her novels, and which in many ways overshadows the first allusion!??

No, that makes no sense at all. What makes much more sense is to say that Henry Austen was in a tight spot in 1818--perhaps the manuscript had already been given to the publisher, and had come back to him for proofreading--or maybe some comment from the editor or publisher raised the question of the identity of "the celebrated writer" and brought it to Henry's attention for the first time. And maybe it was only then that he, being a sharp elf and no doubt privy to many of JA's literary adventures, realized that Jane had alluded to the Eve of St. Agnes and Gay's Wife of Bath, and thereby indirectly to Aunt Leigh Perrot. Naughty Jane! What WAS a brother to do in such a case?

He couldn't very well tell the publisher to just delete that marvelously entertaining sentence. So he had to find a way to deflect the reader's attention from the SECOND allusion, by making the FIRST one explicit, and thereby make it sound like there was a mystery, but the mystery was already explained.

Henry Austen learned this technique from Jane, actually. I.e., that the best way to hide a secret is to mask that secret with ANOTHER secret, and then reveal the answer to that masking secret! Just as JA found the perfect way to mask the shadow story of Emma, which revolves around Jane F's concealed pregnancy, by telling the reader quite openly that there is a mystery surrounding Jane, and then "revealing the truth" at the end, i.e., that Jane and Frank had been engaged. What reader would THEN be so stubborn as to not accept that explanation?, for one, but it took 190 years for a reader to pull aside that curtain and reveal the Wizardess sitting at the control panel.


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