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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Jane Austen’s WESTminster Abbey secret hidden in NORTHanger Abbey

[this is a repeat of the latter part of my January 5, 2012 post about the controversy then swirling around the discovery of what might be a heretofore unidentified contemporary portrait of Jane Austen at the peak of her career]


In my talk at the JASNA AGM held in Portland, Oregon (now my home!) in October, 2009 about the late Mrs. Tilney, mother of Henry & Eleanor in Austen's Northanger Abbey, as the symbol of all the English wives who died in the childbirth "epidemic" that lasted centuries, I gave not one but three compelling reasons why Westminster Abbey would have been a perfect symbol for a portraitist of Jane Austen to include in a portrait celebrating JA's success as an author:

First, I realized early in 2009 that the name NORTHanger Abbey was a clever play on the name WESTminster Abbey, especially as I also claimed that Shakespeare's Hamlet was a very significant but totally veiled allusive source for Northanger Abbey. And as anyone familiar with Hamlet would know, JA's little word game with geographical directions ("north" and "west") in names of an Abbey (and don't forget SOTHerton in Mansfield Park in that regard as well!) is an unmistakable echo of the following rather famous speech by Hamlet, which has also served as the basis of the title of a rather famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock:

"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

So we have north (twice) and west together in that one marvelous compound word. PLUS.....two other wonderful parts of JA's elaborate little word game:

(a) a synonym for "mad" is "angry", as in North _anger_ Abbey; and
(b) JA's famous April Fool's Day, 1809 letter to Crosby demanding the return of the manuscript of _Susan_ (later, of course, retitled Northanger Abbey!) was signed by JA under the pseudonym "Mrs. Ashton Dennis" which is abbreviated as M.A.D.----as in JA being, like a forerunner of Howard Beale, "mad as hell and not going to take it any more (!)" in terms of a publisher sitting on that manuscript for nearly a decade without publishing it!

If you think I'm being too clever by half, and projecting my own overactive paranomosiac imagination in a "direction" JA herself never intended or imagined, in claiming that Northanger Abbey stands for Westminster Abbey,. well...

...then consider next my second reason, which is that, as Terry Robinson pointed out in a 2009 article, Henry VIII and three of his six queens who had Christian names which were variants on Catherine, were very likely sources for the names of HENRY Tilney and CATHERINE Morland, and these real life regal personages were, as we all know, all rather closely associated with Westminster Abbey!

But my third reason which I disclosed in Portland is my personal favorite---I came across a remarkable factoid in 2009, which is that in Westminster Abbey there are two memorials hanging side by side on the wall in a rarely viewed nave in the Abbey, which were erected there by a grieving middle aged husband who had "murdered" not one but "two" much younger wives, via death in childbirth. And these "awful memorials".....
["...With all the chances against her of house, hall, place, park, court, and cottage, Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun...."]
.....were, I claim viewed by Jane Austen herself during a visit to Westminster Abbey. And the reason I am so certain of this is that the gentleman involved was a very famous fellow in his day (the latter part of the 17th century), and his name just happened to be Samuel MORLAND! And these memorials were intentionally echoed by JA when she described General Tilney's great grief over the death of Mrs. Tilney, whom I have argued is the symbol of all the English wives who died in childbirth. And by now you've probably figured out that the images of those memorials are what you see at the top of this post! They are in fact hanging on the wall in an apse in Westminster Abbey, towering over the modest brass plaque embedded in the floor below, dedicated to Aphra Behn, who had a complex relationship with Samuel Morland, and also was, I have long believed, a feminist icon and inspiration for Jane Austen!

And so I believe I've made a pretty good case that I am not "mad"--north by northwest, or in any other direction--but have demonstrated that a portraitist celebrating JA's career as an author would have had these three very good reasons, at the very least, to include a view of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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