(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Opening Pandora’s Royal Box at the Abbey: “…in suspecting General Tilney (and the Prince Regent).....

....of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

(For those who enjoy what I do, this one is really special, you’re gonna love it!)

In the following-linked 2007 Persuasions article, Colleen Sheehan presented conclusive evidence that Jane Austen satirized the Prince Regent (the future King George IV, whom I will henceforth refer to as the “PR”) in the longer charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, by pointing to a _second_ secret answer to the charade which Emma (convinced the only answer is “courtship”) never imagines, but which Harriet Smith points toward in her “wrong” answers: the “Prince of Whales” (with an “h”):

As significant as Sheehan’s discovery was in the realm of Austen studies----and as hugely validating as it was for me personally in the second year of my own research into Austen’s shadow stories, in particular seeing Frank Churchill as a representation of the PR)---- Colleen was not the first scholar to detect satire of the PR by Jane Austen.

Way back in 1996, Roger Sales, in _Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England_ , made an ingenious extended argument that the PR was represented by Tom Bertram in _Mansfield Park_:

and there was one other claim I came across last year, suggesting another satire of the PR in Austen’s novels, being the following 6/25/09 blurb at an online Austen-related site by an insightful amateur going by the Swiftian moniker “Stella”, who clearly had done her homework and had read both Sheehan and Sales, and saw an extension of their insights into Northanger Abbey:

“At the other end of the Regency social ladder was the wildly extravagant Prince Regent, a well documented gourmand and glutton. The poor begged for bread, but the Prince and his entourage feasted far into the night at lavish banquets that routinely lasted four hours. While the average working man earned £29 a year, the Prince Regent paid his French chef £2,000 annually and spent around £700 a month on meat and fish. In 1811, the Prince celebrated his elevation to Regent status with a dinner for 2,000 of his closest and most intimate friends. It is a massive understatement to say that the Prince ate to excess. He dined on lobster twice a day, and one of his favorite dishes was roasted peacock. The Prince consumed so much that on occasion he became sick or passed out in front of his appalled guests. Eventually, the Regent grew so fat that he was referred to as the Prince of Whales, w-h-a-l-e-s, and he took to wearing a whale-boned corset to hold his enormous girth in check. Northanger Abbey’s General Tilney shares many of the Prince Regent’s personal weaknesses. The General’s reputation for gluttony precedes him with John Thorpe: “I should like to dine with him; I dare say he gives famous dinners” (96). Like the Prince, General Tilney has expensive greenhouses, and a lavish kitchen with the most up-to-date stoves and hot closets, whether he can afford them or not. Built with borrowed money, the Prince Regent’s elaborate kitchens at Brighton Pavilion and Carlton House in London were especially constructed in order to lure the best chefs away from France. "

And that is how things stood up till this afternoon, when my usual combination of obsessive thoroughness and serendipity led me to a dramatic realization of just how spot-on “Stella” was in her perception of strong parallels between General Tilney and the Prince Regent. As you will read, below, I found the “bread crumb” which JA hid in plain sight in Northanger Abbey, which pointed unmistakably to the Prince Regent. Read on to find out what it is!

My realization arose because of a chain reaction in my head, triggered by, of all things, the answer to one of the clues in today’s NY Times crossword puzzle:

“It stayed in Pandora’s box”

At first, I had no idea of the answer, but the answers to the surrounding clues led me to the answer, which was “hope”. This made me realize that I never knew any details about the mythological Pandora, and, as soon as I started reading Wikipedia’s entry on that topic, it also helped me connect the dots between the Pandora myth, with its ancient Greek origins, and the Bluebeard story, which took center stage in Europe at the start of the 17th century in Charles Perrault’s enormously famous Mother Goose story collection.

Both had to do with (as the academics would put it) “transgressive female curiosity”, and both obviously had enormous Freudian implications.

But why the connection of Pandora’s Box to Bluebeard was of special interest to me was that I had in my presentation at the JASNA AGM last October in Portland made the case for a brilliant covert allusion by JA to Perrault’s tale, in Northanger Abbey, consisting of the following three elements:

General Tilney being JA’s ultrasly version of Bluebeard;

Mrs. Tilney’s being the last (deceased) wife of Bluebeard, having been “murdered” by her husband by his making her pregnant; and

Catherine Morland being in danger of becoming the next wife of Bluebeard, before being rescued from that dire fate by Bluebeard’s own son!

In short, I claimed that General Tilney was an English everyhusband, Mrs. Tilney an English everywife, and that JA was venting her outrage at English husbands ‘in general”, who were (unwittingly) murdering their wives!

But….here is where the serendipity came in. Although I knew from my prior research that I was the first person to see General Tilney as a Regency Era Bluebeard, I decided to Google “Tilney” together with “Pandora’s Box” to see if anyone else had previously connected Pandora’s Box with any member of the fictional Tilney family. I quickly found out that at least one scholar had, Robert Miles, who in his 2003 edition of NA quoted from the passage in Ch. 21 with Catherine’s hilariously hesitant and frequently interrupted attempts to open the mysterious trunk in her room, and then wrote:

“Catherine is, and is not, Pandora. Catherine is clearly not Pandora, in that she discovers clean linen, rather than evils; but equally, the reader cannot help thinking of Pandora as Catherine is caught rummaging in a forbidden chest, even if forbidden by nothing more than good manners..."

Had that been all I found, it would have been a great day at “the office” for me, because it would have added another non-trivial literary allusion to all those which I have found in JA’s novels. But because I am like Catherine Morland, I “open” every “trunk” I find via Google and other means, always curious to know what might be in the next one. So I kept browsing among the Google hits, and I came upon something when I opened the next link that blew my mind:

In a 1905 book entitled _Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV, Volume 1_ by William Henry Wilkins, in Chapter 17 entitled “The Prince’s Will—1796”, I found the phrase “Pandora’s Box” in the middle of a long essay which did not at _any_ point make any mention of the Tilneys, or indeed of Northanger Abbey or Jane Austen. But I could not resist skimming through it anyway, because it was a discussion of the life of Mrs. Fitzherbert during 1796—most Janeites know that she was the famous “secret wife” of the PR—and the subject of the PR was always of interest to me, especially if it had to do with his love life:

“For some time after the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Mrs. Fitzherbert lived in retirement at Marble Hill. She suffered much in health and spirits; "her heart," she told a friend, "was almost broken." Her position as "wife yet no wife" was a difficult one truly, and had she followed her inclination, she would have continued in seclusion, or have left England for a time. But her retirement from the scene, as her friends and well-wishers reminded her, would be liable to misinterpretation. Why should she hide her head as one ashamed? After all she had done no wrong, the wrong had been done to her, and to withdraw altogether from the world would be to play into her enemies' hands, and give colour to the many baseless rumours circulated against her. So, upon reflection, she resolved to act in the same way as she had done after Fox's denial of her marriage in the House of Commons—to make no difference in her mode of life, to go about exactly as if nothing had taken place, and to let people say what they would. But it was easier in 1787 than in 1795; then she had her husband by her side, now she was alone. Nevertheless she braced herself to the effort, and the summer of the following year (1796) found her once more in London. Her house in Pall Mall had been given up, and in place of it......”

Before reading further, I already found myself thinking “Mrs. Tilney”, and getting more and more excited, wondering where the “Tilney” was in this passage that Google had found, and that’s exactly when I read the next section, at which point my eyes nearly popped out of my head:

“...she bought another, at the corner of TILNEY STREET and Park Lane. The entrance was in TILNEY Street, but the house fronted Park Lane, separated from it by a tiny strip of garden.....”

Tilney Street! _That_ was why Google had brought me to this passage! _That_ was the breadcrumb that JA left all over the place in Northanger Abbey, that would alert any of her readers who knew about Mrs. Fitzherbert’s personal life, that the Royal Family was being concealed in the “basement” of Northanger Abbey!

And suddenly it all came to me in a rush----General Tilney was the PR, Mrs. Tilney was Mrs. Fitzherbert, and Eleanor Tilney was Princess Charlotte, the PR’s high spirited well read daughter (who, we know from her letters, identified passionately with Marianne Dashwood!).

And just as Eleanor Tilney married the man she loved instead of the man her father wanted her to marry, here is how that all went down between the PR and his daughter:

“After a failed attempt to force his daughter into a marriage with the Prince of Orange, whom she loathed, the Regent married his daughter and the heiress to the throne, Charlotte, to Leopold George Christian Frederick of Saxe-Coburg- Saalfield, (pictured right) her own choice as a husband.”

That wedding took place in 1816, exactly when JA was doing her final revision of Northanger Abbey, the novel she wrote the first version of, Susan, right around the time that Princess Charlotte was born!

So it turns out that “Stella” was so on the money with her intuitions about General Tilney and the PR, but she did not dream of the full extent of the veiled allusion to the Royal Family in Northanger Abbey, which itself is a literary Pandora's Box filled with "evils" needing to be exposed to the world!

I finish this post with a quotation from an 1837 letter written by a certain Lady Morgan, who knew Mrs. Fitzherbert very well:

"I spent two hours with [Mrs. Fitzherbert] yesterday, in her house in Tilney Street, tete-a-tete—the house, observe, of Mrs. Fitzherbert. What a causerie .'.... Tilney House is full of reminiscences of its celebrated, but, I suspect, unhappy late mistress—the true, legal wife of that type of heartless roue, George IV…”

And perhaps the most poignant irony of all is that Princess Charlotte, after marrying the husband of her own choice, became pregnant shortly before JA’s death in July 1817, and herself died giving birth at the end of only her first pregnancy in December 1817, thereby becoming herself another real life Mrs. Tilney, symbol of all English wives who died in childbirth.

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Charlotte had at least one miscarriage, some people say two, before the final pregnancy .
She died close to her 18 month anniversary.
I think she died after Jane Austen was already dead.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I did not know about the miscarriages prior to JA's death, but, as I said, JA died in July 1817, and Charlotte died in December 1817.

Thanks for your reply!