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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, June 24, 2013

Catherine Morland DOESN’T Lose (All) Her……Mirth After All: Words, Words, Words, Indeed!

At the JASNA AGM presentation in Portland in 2010, my main argument was that death in childbirth is the principal theme of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey:

One of my important sub-arguments was that there is a pervasive allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet spread throughout Jane Austen’s gothic novel, from beginning to end.  In a nutshell, I claimed, and still claim, that the ghost of the murdered King Hamlet’s father haunts Elsinore, crying out for justice, and, likewise, metaphorically, the ghost of Mrs. Tilney, who was “murdered” by childbirth, haunts Northanger Abbey and cries out for justice for all the similarly “murdered” English wives, including three of Jane Austen’s own sisters-in-law.

In my JASNA talk, I outlined many of the passages in NA which I’ve identified as covertly pointing to passages in Hamlet. One of the most significant is the following famous passage in Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey….

[Catherine] “That is, I can read POETRY and PLAYS, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
[Eleanor] “Yes, I am fond of history.”
[Catherine]  “I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either VEX OR WEARY ME. The quarrels of popes and KINGS, with wars or PESTILENCES, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and HARDLY ANY WOMEN AT ALL — it is very TIRESOME: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The SPEECHES that are put into the HEROES’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what DELIGHTS me in other books.”

…which, to my eyes, unmistakably points to Hamlet’s even more famous speech in Act 2, Scene 2:

As I analyze it, JA is  enjoying the rich irony of having Catherine say she enjoys reading plays and poetry (Hamlet is of course both), as opposed to reading history, and yet…Hamlet is also all about quarrels of kings, and has only two female characters, as opposed to a dozen male characters!

Shakespeare, as an adapter of history into poetic plays, seems to fall somewhere in the gray area, between the reading Catherine says she enjoys, and the reading she says she does not enjoy. By this veiled allusion, JA seems to be suggesting that these categories are much more complicated than Catherine realizes. And on a metafictional level, JA, by alluding so pervasively to Hamlet in NA, is in effect blending poetry and prose, fiction and history, in one complicated meta-text!

But, as it turns out, that is only half of the Austenian subtext in NA pointing to Hamlet’s famous speech. Today, I realized that Jane Austen also had that same speech by Hamlet in mind as she wrote the following passage in Chapter 25 of NA, which occurs after Catherine has just learned that Isabella Thorpe has jilted the modest James Morland for the rakish Frederick Tilney:

[Henry to Catherine] "Your brother is certainly very much to be pitied at present; but we must not, in our concern for his sufferings, undervalue yours. You feel, I suppose, that in losing Isabella, you lose half yourself: you feel a void in your heart which nothing else can occupy. SOCIETY IS BECOMING IRKSOME; and as for the AMUSEMENTS in which you were wont to share at Bath, the very idea of them without her IS ABHORRENT. You would not, for instance, now go to a ball for THE WORLD. You feel that you have no longer any friend to whom you can speak with unreserve, on whose regard you can place dependence, or whose counsel, in any difficulty, you could rely on. You feel all this?"

Here Henry---in a manner reminiscent of the scene a few chapters earlier, when he deliberately stoked the fires of Catherine’s imaginative anticipations of Gothic horrors to come as they approach the Abbey--- describes the world-weary Hamletian angst which he supposes Catherine feels after reading that James has been jilted by Isabella.

And the ironic parallel is enhanced, when we  recall that Hamlet makes his above-quoted speech to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, his old school chums whom he has, in Act 2 Scene 2, rapidly exposed as false friends, just like Isabella vis a vis Catherine. Hamlet is weary of the false world filled with false friends like them, and Henry (and of course, JA, pulling the strings behind  him) hints that Catherine, having been shocked by her “best friend’s” romantic treachery, should feel as Hamlet feels.

But then, after all of that fevered buildup toward an excessively emotional response by Catherine,  JA, in classic ironic mode, pops the balloon of expectations, and abruptly brings us down to earth, from the heated  imaginary world of Gothic excess to the real world of Catherine’s commonsensical, pragmatic, self-awareness of her actual feelings.

In response to Henry’s leading question, “You feel all this?”, this time the less gullible Catherine fails to rise to Henry’s bait, and instead responds in quite the opposite fashion as she did as they approached the Abbey:

“ "No," said Catherine, after a few moments' reflection, "I do not—ought I? To say the truth, though I am hurt and grieved, that I cannot still love her, that I am never to hear from her, perhaps never to see her again, I do not feel so very, very much afflicted as one would have thought."
[Henry] "You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves."
Catherine, by some chance or other, found her spirits so very much relieved by this conversation that she could not regret her being led on, though so unaccountably, to mention the circumstance which had produced it.” END QUOTE

The attentive reader cheers along with Henry, and is confident that Catherine will indeed follow Henry’s excellent advice and further investigate her feelings about Isabella, uninfluenced by notions of the tragic Hamletian ennui and angst which Henry has so deftly and subtly alluded to in his set-up.

And the final lovely touch in all of this is that once again (as when, as I argued at the AGM, JA leaves broad textual hints that the play which everyone goes to see in Bath is actually Hamlet) JA has slipped a wink at the actual, tangible text of Hamlet into this passage. It’s right there under the reader’s nose.

 I.e., when we read earlier in that passage in Chapter 25 the following exchange….

“Nothing further was said for a few minutes; and then speaking through her tears, she added, "I do not think I shall ever wish for a letter again!"
"I am sorry," said Henry, closing the book he had just opened; "if I had suspected the letter of containing anything unwelcome, I should have given it with very different feelings."

….I suggest to you that the book that JA so inobtrusively mentions that Henry had just opened but then closes, is nothing less than the Northanger Abbey edition of Shakespeare’s plays, where he had just been reading…Hamlet’s above quoted speech! 

Words, words, words, indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter   

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