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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Catherine take Jacob’s Ladder up Beechen Cliff, Henry allows the subject to decline

In Austen-L and Janeites, Diana Birchall wrote the following regarding a walk she took up Beechen Cliff at Bath, following the footsteps of Catherine Morland and the Tilneys in Northanger Abbey:

[This is the first of two posts on this subject--the second one here  provides startling validation to my initial speculations, below]

“The walk certainly proved to be one of the most satisfying walks of my life. We probably walked several miles – four hours, all told – right up the wooden stairs known as Jacob’s Ladder, shaded by beech trees (from which the name is derived), and along the forested cliff, or hangar, where spread out before you is the magnificent prospect of Bath, as described by Jane Austen….”

Diana, I’m so glad you had an opportunity to rejoin us here, and to write that lovely blog post about your Beechen Hill pilgrimage. You’ve convinced me -- I definitely will include that walk in the itinerary of my next trip to England, whenever that might occur. And I hope you’ll have more opportunities and inspirations to join in, as Peter’s recovery steadily continues!

Something caught my eye in your above quoted excerpt—I hadn’t known that the wooden stairs leading up to the top of Beechen Cliff are known as Jacob’s Ladder – I wondered whether that name for those stairs predated JA’s lifetime, but the earliest reference to same that I found in Google Books was 1858. Do you happen to know if was in use prior to 1816, when JA last revised NA? If it was a name in use for those stairs while JA was writing NA, that makes me wonder, given the Biblical significance of Jacob’s Ladder, whether JA the clergyman’s daughter, took that name into account in writing the Beechen Cliff episode? Remember, she was a frugal creative artist, she never let anything go to waste!

The name “Jacob’s Ladder” of course derives from the following passage in Genesis 28: 10-19, right after Jacob tricks his (slightly) elder brother Esau out of his birthright, and right before Jacob arrives at Laban’s home and woos daughters, Leah and Rachel (the future mothers of many of Jacob’s children):

“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.”

Wikipedia gives this very brief overview: “Jacob's Ladder is the colloquial name for a connection between the earth and heaven that the biblical Patriarch Jacob dreams about during his flight from his brother Esau, as described in the Book of Genesis. The significance of the dream has been somewhat debated, but most interpretations agree that it identified Jacob with the obligations and inheritance of the ethnic people chosen by God, as understood in the Judeo-Christian-Islam panoply. It has since been used as a symbolic reference in various other contexts.”

So, what symbolic meaning might Jacob’s ladder dream add to Catherine’s ascent to the top of Beechen Cliff with the Tilneys? The first association that occurred to me was Catherine’s famous dreaming described much earlier, at the end of Chapter 3:

“They danced again; and, when the assembly closed, parted, on the lady’s side at least, with a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance. Whether she thought of him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her. How proper Mr. Tilney might be as a dreamer or a lover had not yet perhaps entered Mr. Allen’s head, but that he was not objectionable as a common acquaintance for his young charge he was on inquiry satisfied; for he had early in the evening taken pains to know who her partner was, and had been assured of Mr. Tilney’s being a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire.”

I’ve previously shown, in  “Eve of St. Agnes dreaming in 3 Austen novels” that Catherine’s dreaming is primarily a veiled allusion to the proverbial virgin dreaming of her future husband on the Eve of St. Agnes, the very date on which Catherine dreams. However, it seems plausible that it might also have been intended by JA to do double duty – i.e., to be recalled by the reader who knew Bath well enough, to think about Jacob’s Ladder while reading the Beechen Cliff episode.

As we envision Catherine, with her elastic step, striding gracefully up Jacob’s Ladder, did JA mean for us to see her as also ascending toward her own birthright? Or maybe JA was being the deflating ironist, creating a gentle parody of Jacob’s fateful dreaming encounter with God, by showing us Catherine’s “encounter” with Henry Tilney’s teasing ironic lectures about artistic perspectives and point of view.

Taking that idea further, Catherine’s physical ascent might symbolize the process of intellectual growth by which a naïve but bright young woman, first entering the wider adult world, struggles to ascend to the “summit” of mature knowledge and insight. And in that last regard, I just noticed that JA plays with the metaphor of descent in that same Beechen Cliff passage, in describing the end of the course of Henry’s lecture on the picturesque:

“Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.”

Progress, wearying, decline, transition, arrived, easy step –JA wittily uses these words which evoke a clever parallel between her physical descent down those actual stairs (Jacob’s Ladder), on the one hand, and the narrator’s ironic description of Henry managing Catherine’s gentle descent from the heights of his godlike—at least in Catherine’s eyes---wisdom, on the other! When he is described as “fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once”, this is also perhaps a witty echo of another Biblical personage descending from a great height after receiving a great deal of wisdom from God --- Moses in Exodus 33: 18-29:

“And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”

So I do now believe that if indeed Jacob’s Ladder was the name of those wooden stairs at Beechen Cliff in 1816, then JA might well have intended the meanings I sketched out above.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

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