Only that small minority of Janeites who have reread Northanger Abbey many times will hear in my Subject Line the distinct echoes of the following little-noticed passage in Chapter 2, when the ironical narrator explains why Mrs. Morland does_ not_ warn Catherine about the perils to her from the predatory schemes of not so noble men she might encounter upon leaving the “nest” at Fullerton for the first time:
“Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their _general_ mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations.”
In this post, I will suggest that, as usual with Jane Austen, the seemingly trivial is almost always a mask for the serious and profound—the above passage is only the opening salvo in a comprehensive alternative version of a climactic scene in Chapter 28 of the novel, to wit: that during her final night at the Abbey, Catherine Morland, immediately after she tearfully swears off all future (supposedly excessive) Gothic imaginings will comes perilously close—_without_ realizing it-- to being the victim of the very sort of sexual assault described so elliptically and off-handedly in Chapter 2!
And here’s the best (or the worst) part of this alternative climax: the would-be perpetrator—“the nobleman or baronet” --who is foiled _just_ in the nick of time by an audacious intervention by a secret guardian angel of Catherine’s---is _not_, as is commonly speculated by Austen scholars and readers alike, an opportunistic predatory stranger who chances to observe her traveling alone back to Fullerton, but is none other than the man who has, as the above passage suggests, brought Catherine away to his own “remote farm-house”—a man whose hospitality (and _protection_) she believes she has been enjoying for nearly a month…..of course, I am referring to the “mischievous” General Tilney himself!
Sounds completely crazy, right? Except….as has been the case with every single one of my previous, major subtextual epiphanies about the shadow stories of Jane Austen’s novels—such as Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy in _Emma_, or Mrs. Tilney’s death in childbirth in NA, ---Jane Austen has hidden hints about this major alternative textual interpretation in plain sight all the way through the novel, beginning with the above passage in Chapter 2, continuing through a cavalcade of seemingly innocuous passages which reveal to us the General’s ill temper and impatience, and reaching its climax in the scene in Chapter 28 which, upon my latest rereading, removed the scales from my eyes, and revealed to me that General Tilney was the would-be domestic rapist of _Catherine_!
Let me set the stage: in this climactic scene, Catherine and Eleanor have been enjoying some quality face time in private (i.e., with only servants present) at the Abbey, while General Tilney is away in London for the week on business, and then Henry is suddenly called off to Woodston for a couple of days. As their pleasant female intimacy stretches into the late evening hours, a visitor is suddenly heard arriving by carriage, whom Eleanor first assumes to be brother Captain Tilney but then, after checking, returns upstairs and informs Catherine that it is actually the General himself, returned prematurely from his trip.
Here is the fulcrum between the overt story and the shadow story of the novel. In the overt story—the generally accepted interpretation of “what happens” in the novel, which the passive reader takes at face value---Eleanor discovers that the mysterious midnight visitor is actually General Tilney, who angrily demands that Eleanor send Catherine packing the very next morning, instead of extending Catherine’s stay for another month, as has just been agreed between the two young friends earlier that same day. It is only in Chapter 30 that the cause of the General’s inexplicable anger at Catherine is revealed—her “offense” is that the avaricious General has heard that Catherine was not the rich heiress he wished his son to marry. All very tidy—perhaps a little too tidy, as many scholars have noted, but have then attributed to what they see as JA’s reticence or even squeamishness about enacting too much romance in her climaxes. No Austen scholar has, to the best of my knowledge after a pretty diligent search over the past week, ever guessed that we may have read an elaborate but completely fabricated cover story for another train of events underlying Catherine’s summary eviction from the Abbey.
Open your imagination, then, to an entirely _alternative_ version of fictional reality---a second, parallel universe depicted in the very same words of the novel, but read _against_ the grain instead of _with_ it, in which the order to banish Catherine has _not_ been given by the General, but actually is a fake order from the General “forged” by Eleanor Tilney in order to get Catherine out of the Abbey as soon as possible. But why in the world would Eleanor do such a thing?
Because, I suggest, Eleanor knows, as no one else in the fictional world of NA can know, that the General’s presence in the Abbey _without_ Henry’s being there, i.e., without another man in the place other than servants subservient to their imperious master, constitutes an imminent and grave danger to Catherine--- that if Catherine is still there in her room at the Abbey after the General awakens well rested after his long trip back from London, it will the _General’s_ hand on the door to Catherine’s bedroom that Catherine will hear, and not Eleanor’s, and when she opens the door, a fate much worse than eviction from the Abbey will fall upon her!
But how does Eleanor feel so confident that the General constitutes a danger to Catherine? It’s not just because the keenly observant Eleanor has observed the General paying extravagant attentions to Catherine on numerous occasions over the previous month—attentions which have led many interpreters of the novel (including the screenwriter of the 1987 film adaptation, Maggie Wadey, and also myself) to conclude that General Tilney has been courting Catherine for his _own_ marital account, and not that of his son Henry, whom the General actually views as a rival.
No, it ‘s even more than that. I also assert that Eleanor has an even _more_ compelling, and awful, reason to recognize the grave danger to Catherine---and that reason is that Eleanor has _herself_ been the victim of the General’s unwelcome sexual advances for some time prior to that fateful night at the Abbey, and so she can see, in the way the General had been ignoring Eleanor and zeroing in on Catherine, the writing on the wall for Catherine!
When I address this point in my book, I will provide an extensive textual analysis in which I will make a strong case that this radical alternative interpretation was entirely intentional on Jane Austen’s part. Obviously, this blog post is not the place for that analysis, but in the interim, I can promise you that if you want to take an enjoyable “carriage ride” through the novel, in the safety of your own home, with this alternative reading in mind, you will be able to spot much of the evidence yourself, if you just keep your eyes and your mind open. But, for now, let me add a few additional highlights.
First, one major motif many astute Janeites will immediately connect to the above is the way that John Thorpe’s “symbolic rape” (as Diane Reynolds recently put it very succinctly) of Catherine during his brief attempt to, in effect, abduct Catherine under pretense of taking her to see Blaize Castle, does not stand alone, but is merely the more overt half of a rape subtext that unites Thorpe to the General in this deeper, covert way, the same way they are united on the surface by their unholy alliance in scoping out young vulnerable females to prey upon in some fashion or other. We can now see that Thorpe and the General are evil birds of a feather, and that the gravest danger to young women was not from strange men, but from men they knew and were entitled to trust!
And of course this relates to my recent postings about how certain I am that Jane Austen would have been utterly outraged at the likes of Todd Akin, Rick Santorum, and all the other Neanderthals on the Far Right in the US, with their slick casuistry about different kinds of rape. Seen in the light I have outlined above, Northanger Abbey is a virtual covert manifesto about the dangers of what we might call domestic rape.
And in that regard, if you read Miriam Rheingold Fuller’s excellent article, "'Let me go, Mr. Thorpe; Isabella, do not hold me!': Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Gothic." in the 2010 issue of _Persuasions_, you will read much that is in harmony with my claims. Even though Miriam did not step outside the box far enough to make the interpretive leap I have made, I am confident that she will find my interpretation to be a valid extension of hers.
Consider also that several scholarly commentators have pointed out the extremely uncharacteristic over-the-top Gothicizing of Eleanor Tilney’s explanations to Catherine in Chapter 28, for why the latter must leave the Abbey early the next morning. It is ironic that those commentators have taken as a given that Eleanor’s reaction is disproportionately large, speaking in melodramatic tones as if she were casting Catherine into a horribly dangerous circumstance. But under my interpretation, entirely unknown to Catherine, Eleanor has actually been confronted with a situation that Eleanor knows, from her own extensive personal experience, is extremely dangerous to Catherine, so long as the latter _remains_ at the Abbey! So how ironic that Eleanor’s seeming over-reaction in the overt story turns out to be 100% justified in the shadow story!
And, finally, taking one step further back, this latest realization on my part makes it clear to me that I have, for the past 4 years, been engaged with only half of the feminist critique contained in the shadow story of NA---while I remain certain that Mrs. Tilney represents the married woman’s half of the feminist shadow story, with all the “confinements” of women performed in the name of marriage, I realize now that Catherine represents the _unmarried_ woman’s half of the story, with the dangers of abduction and rape that constantly threaten _them._ And, JA being the literary economist that she was, puts General Tilney to _two_ complementary uses—as he turns out to be the primary villain on _both _ of those counts!
Just as with the death in childbirth theme, JA’s narrator ostensibly seems to tell us that death in childbirth will NOT be addressed in NA, but then, as I have demonstrated a hundred different ways, she actually makes death in childbirth a central theme of the shadow story of the novel.
Now I see that JA has created an awesome shadowy symmetry, by also making rape of unprotected young women an equally powerful theme. It’s not just the long recognized menace to Catherine’s safety that many readers of NA have seen in the bestial John Thorpe. It’s also the menace from the smooth, powerful, virile General Tilney—beneath his attempts to project a cultured veneer, we are meant to see that he too is a brute, and a much more dangerous one than Thorpe.
And there’s also the amazing symmetry of John Thorpe and General Tilney—Thorpe, being a piranha, operates according to the ordinary rapist’s formula, and Fuller addresses his tactics and goals pretty well in her article. But General Tilney is a much more dangerous Orca, as he not only represents the dangerous husband, he also represents the dangerous suitor as well!
And finally, we have the extraordinary resourcefulness and heroism of Eleanor Tilney, faced with a nightmarish crisis when her father turns up without warning at the Abbey, no doubt having arranged, behind the scene—as the lord and master over Woodston as well as the Abbey--for Henry to be suddenly called away to Woodston….
“Henry was not able to obey his father's injunction of remaining wholly at Northanger in attendance on the ladies, during his absence in London, the engagements of his curate at Woodston obliging him to leave them on Saturday for a couple of nights.”
....Eleanor must think _very_ fast when her father arrives at the Abbey and, no doubt, he instructs Eleanor to be sure to have Catherine ready during the latter part of the following morning for the General to take Catherine out for a private carriage ride to show her the full breadth of his vast holdings. What is Eleanor to do, with Henry not there to deal with this crisis together? If she openly defies her father, he will impose quick and unmerciful discipline on her, to squelch her revolt before it starts. She must realize that there is only one option---if she takes all her own free cash (a stash she has perhaps put aside over the years as a means of her own personal escape, if necessary), and uses it, while her father sleeps off his long trip, to assure that Catherine will have a safe and immediate trip back to the safety of Fullerton. Note that the narrator explains to us later in Chapter 28 how it is that Catherine’s ride home to Fullerton turns out to be so safe and non-eventful:
“She met with nothing, however, to distress or frighten her. Her youth, civil manners, and _liberal_ _pay_ procured her all the attention that a traveller like herself could require…”
And Eleanor knew she could then lie to the General in the morning and claim that Catherine acted without Eleanor’s knowledge and left without warning—which would account for the General’s anger upon awakening to find Catherine gone—the way a predator would be angry if his prey suddenly vanished at the very moment he expected to pounce.
And I also infer that Eleanor also sent a very discreet message to Henry at Woodston late that night, via a _trusted_ servant, to request that he return immediately to the Abbey, to assist her. And this is when I believe the revolt against the General’s tyranny finally occurs, as the brother and sister rise up in unity to confront their abusive father, and demand, upon threat of their both exposing his nefarious schemes, that he consent to the marriage of Henry to Catherine.
The General being very concerned with his own self-interest, reluctantly accepts their terms, and that is how the cover story recounted in Chapters 30 and 31 comes into being, so that Catherine never learns that she was much more accurate about the General than has even been understood by generations of Janeites—it turns out that Catherine was the cause of Henry’s awakening from the fitful slumber of denial about his father, which is epitomized in his famous rant which reduces her to tears—Catherine has lit a fire under his butt, which mobilizes him to join his long-suffering sister to defend the brave young woman he has come to love, and also to finally defend that very same sister, and facilitate _her_ escape from from any further “machinations” by his “mischievous” father.
And there I will leave off, ready to return with further explanation as and when people respond to this post.
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I completely agree with you analyses of the General's motives. I'd like to say I'd filled in the details before reading this post, but it was more that I'd noticed the especially predatory behavior of the General, and allowed the suspicion to ferment while I analysed the more obvious John Thorpe (more recognizable to high school and college students, I think, but not giving the dangerous older man credit makes the situation even truer). Your idea about Eleanor took me by surprise, but I think it fits. Rereading NA with this subtext in mind will definitely be an interesting experience.
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