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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 31, 2010

Child mortality in the 17th Century & Northanger Abbey

Earlier today, Ellen Moody posted some very astute comments about discussion in a book by Antonia Fraser about 17th century women having babies who died. This, to my ears, was very much in synch with what I have been saying for some time about Northanger Abbey:

"I'm aware that (as today) it was made socially unacceptable to voice strongly that as a woman, you didn't want any children; paradoxically all the more so because the mortality rate was so high."

That is exactly what I was talking about in Portland at the AGM-- Northanger Abbey is about Jane Austen's outrage at the way women are treated like breeding farm animals--forced by every social power-wielder (church, state, culture, law) to just breed and breed and breed and breed until they died, were debilitated, or were just overwhelmed by a flood of children to care for. And add to that the horrible additional torment that a very high % of your babies would die. No wonder Jane Austen felt a Christian responsibility to speak out on behalf of her dead, overwhelmed, and/or grieving "sisters"!

"It's hard to catch the repressers in the act as this sort of thing is not written down; one really finds it in the apologetic semi-laments of women then pregnant supposedly writing to the coming new-born child on the supposition the writer is going to die. Occasionally in their reverse defensiveness you'll hear the accents of someone who "scolded" (a la Cassandra say in that first letter) the woman for her presumption, fear: often religion was thrown out them to shut them up."

Exactly so! And Jane Austen knew she'd never get Northanger Abbey published if she were explicit in her outrage. So it's all covert, but fully accessible when you "get" what she driving at.

"On the positive side they were told they were worthless until they had children (ha) and that how respected and useful they would be to the husband and family when they did produce a live child (especially a son)."

And see how Jane Austen turned that misogynist drivel on its head--her novels were her children, and she very well knew her own great worth!

"So it makes sense to me that part of the "evidence" we've had over the years that adults, especially parents did not invest emotionally in their children might just come from silences imposed by others. I had not thought of that."

Good for you that you see it now, Ellen, and speak out about it so fluently.

"It would be done in line with the kinds of stances above, reinforced by the usual (to me illegitimate and oppressive norm) that one must be "tough" in public, not show emotion and so on. (This is much used nowadays in hospitals to help rob patients of their autonomy -- this is seen in the powerful movie, Wit, which I again showed to my students this term)."

Exactly so, once again, well stated.

"Thank you for the insight via Fraser. She can err badly at times -- meaning some of her portraits are not convincing, but she does see through the cant of others in history."

And so did Jane Austen, long before it was safe for women to say such things!


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