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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Methods of Poison Delivery in Jane Austen's Novels

Yesterday, a discussion in Janeites and Austen L prompted me to respond as follows:

"I am the originator of the two part claim that Jane Austen took a radical feminist position on the issue of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth, and that she made this position the centerpiece of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey. That was the explicit subject of my JASNA AGM presentation 11 months ago."

Among the arguments I made in that AGM presentation was that General Tilney was a kind of Bluebeard, a symbol of the ordinary English husband of two centuries ago, in the era before Semmelweis and safe childbirth, who was "poisoning" his wives, one after the other--i.e., murder by pregnancy and childbirth.

That's when Nancy Mayer, my most polite and unwavering naysayer, wrote as follows:

"Now, if you want to say that General Tilney browbeat her to death, or killed her with coldness, or even , poisoned her , as we like to speculate that Frank Churchill killed Mrs. Churchill, then I might be able to see a possibility."

I responded as follows, and it will be obvious that one must read between the lines of what I am saying, to grasp its x-rated meaning:

He did "poison" her, just in a way you are not used to thinking, in terms of the method of "delivery" of the poison.

Which actually puts a whole different spin on the following line from _Emma_, when Emma reflects on Jane Fairfax's possible romantic intrigues, a topic that obsesses Emma throughout the novel:

"Emma was very willing now to acquit her of having seduced Mr. Dixon's affections from his wife, or of any thing mischievous which her imagination had suggested at first. If it were love, it might be simple, single, successless love on her side alone. She might have been unconsciously sucking in the sad poison, while a sharer of his conversation with her friend; and from the best, the purest of motives, might now be denying herself this visit to Ireland, and resolving to divide herself effectually from him and his connections by soon beginning her career of laborious

Do you see what I see, in terms of that "sad poison"? Without realizing it, Emma has been imagining Jane performing a lubricious service for Mr. Dixon, vis a vis that "poison". And do you also see how this is directly related to the Bluebeardian poisoning I claim is covertly portrayed in Northanger Abbey via the character of General Tilney?

Dr. Freud would be nodding in sage approval of JA's subtle wit, and her ability to hide very graphic sexual innuendo in absolutely plain sight!


P.S.: What I forgot to mention to Nancy regarding General Tilney as Bluebeard poisoner, was the following passage in Northanger Abbey which constitutes Jane Austen's massive wink on that topic--as Catherine Morland reflects on her own horrified surmises about General Tilney having perhaps murdered his poor wife:

"But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither POISON nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist."

The point being that General Tilney did not, like Shakespeare's Romeo, have to procure poison from a druggist or apothecary--he was himself the natural "manufacturer" of his own poison, and carried his own "drugstore" hidden inside his own body! ;)

No comments: