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Monday, February 6, 2012

Jane Austen's Christianity REDUX

Over this past weekend in Austen L and Janeites, Christy Somer posted some extracts from Laura Mooneyham White's 2011 book 'Jane Austen's Anglicanism', in which Christy heartily endorsed White's stance, which was that Jane Austen was a staunch supporter of the Anglican church and its doctrines. I responded as follows:

Christy, Laura Mooneyham White (who is by the way a lovely person---she and I exchanged emails in 2005 about her article about Emma and New Comedy in Persuasions, and then again in 2008 about her JASNA talk about Oscar Wilde, which I attended) is the last and best of the apologists for the notion of Jane Austen as a traditional Anglican Christian. I have therefore given particular attention to her ideas, and I have strong rebuttals to every one of her central claims, which will actually be the heart of my argument about my interpretation of Jane Austen's radical, dissenting Christianity --- which, as I have repeatedly claimed, involved covertly defending the 99% against the elite 1%, and decrying the profound hypocrisy of the latter, just as Jesus did repeatedly in the Gospels. White's arguments have several Achilles Heels, but the biggest one is the lack of awareness of all the covert Biblical allusions that saturate the subtext of JA's novels, allusions which universally satirize and rebut the Orthodox Anglicanism of JA's era. She does not know about them, and so her argument is, at bottom, one giant begged question.

For White to be right about JA being a strong believer in orthodox Anglicanism, JA would have to have had not one but _three_ levels:

1. A surface endorsement of orthodox Anglican values (even as JA mercilessly and overtly mocks pretty much every single Anglican clergyman in her novels, and of course her brother James in her letters),

2. Beneath that surface level, a covert rejection and merciless satire of the hypocrisies of those same orthodox Anglican values, which is my domain of inquiry.

3. But then beneath _that_, an even deeper acceptance of those same orthodox Anglican values, taking the reader back to the surface again.

To think of JA doing this would be to be ten times the conspiracy theorist that I am! And anyway, as I recollect, White does not look past the surface, she takes the novels at face value in terms of their religious significance.

White does the best one can do with the hand dealt her by JA's actual writing, but in the end she can only, in my opinion, dance on the head of nonexistent pins.

[When Christy disagreed, I made my argument much more specific]

As I repeatedly state, Christy, the epicenter of the extreme wrongheadedness of approaches like White's to the nature of Jane Austen's Christianity is the following passage in Northanger Abbey, when Henry castigates Catherine for suspecting atrociously foul play in the marriage of General and Mrs. Tilney:

" "If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room. "

I have chosen this passage as my point of attack on claims that Jane Austen was an avid supporter of the Anglican Church precisely because it remains widely (mis)read by Janeites as the definitive expression of JA's warnings against young women being seduced by Gothic novels into believing that there were horrors in the ordinary English marriage.

And yet, this is not an example of my going into realms of interpretation where no one else has gone before--quite the contrary, I am far from the first Austen scholar (going back a few decades) to expose this passage as being utterly ironic and meant by Jane Austen to be read by knowing readers 180 degrees _opposite_ to the normative reading, i.e., as JA's acting like the child in the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, deploying exactly the same sort of irony that Jesus deploys in defending the woman from being stoned to death for adultery, by holding up the mirror to the angry misogynistic mob and showing them their own deeper sinfulness.

However, what I _am_ the first is to do is to provide the huge validation of that ironic reading of that passage hiding in the plainest possible sight in Northanger Abbey, by pointing out is that this passage is the tip of the iceberg of the awful and widespread horrid holocaust of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth that plagued all married English gentlewomen, which makes the irony of this passage 10 times more powerful. Christy, you heard me speak for 30 minutes on that topic in Portland in 2009, and that was only a fraction of what I have in support of my claims.

But, circling back to White's book----as far as I can tell on Google Books, It is extremely revealing that White does _not_ address the substance of this passage at all, mentioning (without quoting) it in passing, only as follows, during White's attempt to contrast JA's treatment of the word "earnest" with Oscar Wilde's ironic, anti-Orthodox treatment of same in his very famous play title which I play with in my Subject Line:

"It is..."earnestly" that Henry Tilney questions Catherine about her suspicions about her mother's death (NA 201), and with "gentle earnestness" that Fanny seconds Edmund's defense of the Church (MP 109). The word's meaning was tied up withe evangelical reforms of the 1790s and thereafter; 'earnestness' became a hallmark of Anglican Evangelicalism in its attempts to re-infuse the Church and its practices with devotional vigor..."

White stakes all on her claim of the opposition of Wilde's view of the Church with JA's, whereas I (not surprisingly) also note Wilde's obvious engagement with JA's writing in The Importance of Being Earnest, but I believe it is because Wilde has profoundly understood JA's irony, and is emulating and extending it in his play! And by the way, apropos White's passing reference to Edmund Bertram's "earnestness", I have previously also pointed out JA's repeated ironies in her presentation of the profoundly self-deluding morally stunted Edmund.

So, if I were engaged in a debate with White on the merits of our respective claims, the above would be my opening argument, and I would be very curious to hear how she engages with it--unless she was prepared to somehow acknowledge the irony and somehow give an alternative explanation for it than mine, I would rest my case right there and call for a summary judgment. Why? Because JA revised Northanger Abbey as late as 1816, and this is how she left it, as the definitive final position she took on these issues, in full synch with the few dozen sarcastic comments and jokes in JA's letters, over 20 years, about that same plague (a topic which White, not surprisingly, completely ignores in her book).

At large and at short, then, JA had no faith whatsoever in the Anglican Church as a moral force to protect women from the horrors of the ordinary English marriage, despite all of that Church's "earnest" (and profoundly hypocritical) assertions to the contrary. Women's right to choose what would happen to their own bodies was not at the top of the list of that organization--to the contrary, the Anglican Church was in the vanguard of telling women they had to simply acquiesce.

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