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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cassandra Austen's Portrait of Mrs. Tilney

During the past day, in several different ways, I have made the argument that the backfacing watercolour portrait by Cassandra Austen [presumably of Jane Austen, created sometime between 1800 and 1810] was not only an in-joke between CEA and JA (as Linda Walker & Diane Reynolds have both suggested), but was _also_ particularly and significantly connected to Northanger Abbey—and I took that argument to its logical endpoint, and suggested that the portrait might just be that of a woman gazing down at Bath from the top of Beechen Cliff:

In support of such claims, I have pointed in particular to the passage in Northanger Abbey that describes the outing to Beechen Cliff, and have shown the uncanny parallelism between several details in that passage and the details of CEA’s watercolour portrait.

Now I wish to add one _more_ layer to my interpretation, focusing on the theme of female portraiture, which----aside from the scenes relating to Emma’s “too tall” sketch of Harriet----only (to the best of my recollection) appears in one other Austen published novel----what a big surprise, Northanger Abbey!

The scene at Beechen Cliff, in which Henry Tilney makes Catherine’s mind reel with his erudite disquisitions on pictorial art, is _not_ the only place in Northanger Abbey in which pictorial art is raised as a theme. I will now quote you three _other_ passages in NA where that occurs, and where the focus soon turns to female portraiture, in a crucial thematic way.

First, this one, from when Catherine has just arrived at Northanger Abbey, afire with curiosity to see the place:

“She was all impatience to see the house, and had scarcely any curiosity about the grounds. If Henry had been with them indeed! But now she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it. Such were her thoughts, but she kept them to herself, and put on her bonnet in patient discontent.”

Clearly, Catherine’s head is still buzzing, many chapters later, with Henry’s lessons in the techniques of pictorial art at Beechen Cliff, and so now her expectations of what she would see at the Abbey have been tempered by what he said to her.

Look at that sentence: “But now she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it.” There is a pun lurking in that enigmatic sentence on the word “picturesque”. On the surface “picturesque” means “visually striking and beautiful”. But on another level it refers to whatever is worth making a “picture” of—as in a portrait of some person or event worth depicting and preserving, whether within a picture frame or within one’s mind. So “picturesque” means, in that alternative mental sense, “intelligible” and “memorable”, having nothing necessarily to do with an actual physical landscape.

And so, I claim, it is no coincidence that not long after this scene, we read the following emotionally climactic scene as Catherine and Eleanor discuss the mysterious deceased Mrs. Tilney:

“Miss Tilney continuing silent, [Catherine] ventured to say, "Her death must have been a great affliction!"
"A great and increasing one," replied the other, in a low voice. "I was only thirteen when it happened; and though I felt my loss perhaps as strongly as one so young could feel it, I did not, I could not, then know what a loss it was." She stopped for a moment, and then added, with great firmness, "I have no sister, you know—and though Henry—though my brothers are very affectionate, and Henry is a great deal here, which I am most thankful for, it is impossible for me not to be often solitary."
"To be sure you must miss him very much."
"A mother would have been always present. A mother would have been a constant friend; her influence would have been beyond all other."
"Was she a very charming woman? Was she handsome? Was there any picture of her in the abbey? And why had she been so partial to that grove? Was it from dejection of spirits?"—were questions now eagerly poured forth; the first three received a ready affirmative, the two others were passed by; and Catherine's interest in the deceased Mrs. Tilney augmented with every question, whether answered or not. Of her unhappiness in marriage, she felt persuaded. The general certainly had been an unkind husband. He did not love her walk: could he therefore have loved her? And besides, handsome as he was, there was a something in the turn of his features which spoke his not having behaved well to her.
"Her picture, I suppose," blushing at the consummate art of her own question, "hangs in your father's room?"
"No; it was intended for the drawing-room; but my father was dissatisfied with the painting, and for some time it had no place. Soon after her death I obtained it for my own, and hung it in my bed-chamber—where I shall be happy to show it you; it is very like." Here was another proof. A portrait—very like—of a departed wife, not valued by the husband! He must have been dreadfully cruel to her!” END QUOTE

The portrait of Mrs. Tilney is no sooner mentioned, than it immediately becomes the center of our attention, and arguably, the emotional, thematic center of the entire novel!

There is so much going on in that passage, it would take pages to unpack it all, but I am focused for now only on how clever, resourceful and empathic Catherine’s thinking is, to correctly guess that there must have been a portrait of Mrs. Tilney, and moreover, to recognize how important such a portrait would have been for Eleanor. Catherine has uncannily shot straight to the heart of the matter, and to the heart of Eleanor (and Jane Austen), for that matter.

And is the presence of this passage about a portrait of a lady, in the same novel with the Beechen Cliff episode, and then Catherine’s reaction to same as she arrives at the Abbey, a coincidence? Surely not!

And here is the last passage, when Eleanor fulfills her promise to Catherine, and shows her the portrait of Mrs. Tilney:

“Eleanor was ready to oblige her; and Catherine reminding her as they went of another promise, their first visit in consequence was to the portrait in her bed-chamber. It represented a very lovely woman, with a mild and pensive countenance, justifying, so far, the expectations of its new observer; but they were not in every respect answered, for Catherine had depended upon meeting with features, hair, complexion, that should be the very counterpart, the very image, if not of Henry's, of Eleanor's—the only portraits of which she had been in the habit of thinking, bearing always an equal resemblance of mother and child. A face once taken was taken for generations. But here she was obliged to look and consider and study for a likeness. She contemplated it, however, in spite of this drawback, with much emotion, and, but for a yet stronger interest, would have left it unwillingly.”

Jane Austen has made a very big deal about this portrait, and I say this is for a special reason. I think Jane Austen left the enigmatic image of Mrs. Tilney—her portrait of all the English wives who died in childbirth over several centuries--most unwillingly. Northanger Abbey itself can be seen as a “backfacing” portrait of Mrs. Tilney and all her sisters in conjugal suffering and death—we never see Mrs. Tilney’s face in the novel, and yet it is there lovingly preserved in the attic by her daughter. Just as Jane Austen, writing her own version of female history—HERstory—to preserve the “portrait” of all those “faceless” English wives who died so anonymously and pointlessly.

And that is yet another reason why the woman in Cassandra’s portrait is seen only from behind, and with no part of her face visible—because she has been obliterated from the histories of England written by men, she is “faceless”. And that is also why she is shown gazing out at a landscape with nothing in it—a perfect metaphor for an empty life with no future, no _prospects_!

For those in sympathy with my interpretation, I hope the above will add to your pleasure in savoring Jane Austen’s virtuosity, and the added significance of Cassandra’s portrait. For the rest of you, I can only echo the inimitably witty exchange about mental portraiture in P&P between Darcy and Elizabeth:

"May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of YOUR character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I can readily believe," answered he gravely, "that reports may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he coldly replied.

I would by no means suspend any pleasure of _yours_ in Jane Austen’s writing which differs from my own pleasure in same.

Cheers, ARNIE

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