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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, April 1, 2011

"What connubial felicity really is"

In Austen-L and Janeites, Diana Birchall quoted the following passage from Northanger Abbey:

"[Catherine] was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. But Catherine did not know her own advantages and did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward." END QUOTE

Diana then made several comments, of which I focus on one:

"Many people take exception to what JA is stating as truth here - that clever men like ignorant women. This is the basis for the problem of disbelief in the Tilney /Catherine romance and marriage. We may wonder if JA was being facetious here - and yet, there is the unarguable fact that Tilney is attracted to Catherine."

I responded in Austen L as follows:

Diana, apropos your most recent comments, I will repeat the gist of my JASNA AGM presentation last November, which is my claim that there are two linked pillars upon which the shadow story anti-parody of Northanger Abbey is based:

First, that Catherine is actually the most insightful of all, because mrs tilney _has_ been "murdered" by the general, in the metaphorical sense that English husbands _in general_ were all making their wives serially pregnant, resulting either in death in childbirth or, at best, destruction of their wife's health and personal creative ambitions.

Second, and directly related, that Henry tilney's rant about voluntary spies etc is a reflection of his own blindness, up till that very moment, to the plague inflicted on wives by their husbands, but.... The good news is that in the shadow story, at that very instant Catherine has unwittingly enlightened _Henry_ and that is why _he_ , going forward, will respect her when they are married and not repeat his father's sins, either as an arrogant facetious passive aggressive jerk constantly ridiculing Catherine's supposed ignorance, or in making her serially pregnant, because he will not want his wife to suffer the same tragic fate that his mother did.

In the anti parody, it is Henry who realizes that it is he, for all his book learning, and quick wit, who has been most ignorant, unaware of the deeper reality which Catherine, with her own extraordinary native intelligence, but also the insight she has derived from reading a range of literature, from Shakespeare to the female Gothics inspired by Shakespeare, most of all Radcliffe, all as an autodidact (because her stupid unreflective mother certainly has not been a wise teacher), has pierced to the very essence of the toxic plague at the heart of English society which destroys the lives of so many Englishwomen-- the centuries old tyranny invested in English husbands by law, custom, and church.

Henry Tilney is Oedipus--a cocky wiseacre knowitall who has been blind to the actual cause of his society's sickness, but he is lucky to receive enlightenment without having to suffer poking his own eyes out!

In summary, it is because _Henry_ finds enlightenment that we may be optimistic for his marriage to Catherine being an equal one filled with domestic felicity, and one in which Catherine will never feel an compulsion to hide her formidable intelligence.


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