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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, March 24, 2017

“strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be FAIRLY searched”: Austen’s pity in Northanger Abbey for “poor animals” (worn-out wives) “falling apart at the touch…”

…I vigorously rebutted Ellen Moody’s unjustifiably confident assertion that Janine Barchas had engaged in over-historicism in her 2010 Persuasions article “The Real Bluebeard of Bath: A Historical Model for Northanger Abbey”. In that article, which Barchas subsequently included in her excellent book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Barchas brilliantly and persuasively argued that Austen had the Castle at Farleigh Hungerford, a real life Gothic horror located near Bath, and its most evil resident, Walter, Lord Hungerford, specifically in mind as a prototype for General Tilney.

Today I return to focus on one small section of Barchas’s article, which years ago provided me with an extraordinary clue, which Barchas did not notice, in the pun of the word “fairly” on “Farleigh”. As you’ll see below, I was able to follow that clue all the way to the heart of the overarching “death in childbirth” theme I ‘ve seen and argued for in Northanger Abbey since 2009 ---- an original interpretation of mine, which, by the way, was recently lifted practically lock, stock, and barrel from my public writings and speeches on that topic by Helena Kelly for her recent book about Austen, as I explained here:
“ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”

That overarching theme is embodied by the ghost of Mrs. Tilney, who, I claim is, Austen’s symbol for the ghost of all the multitude of anonymous English wives who died in childbirth over centuries--- a ghost who hovers over the entirety of Northanger Abbey like the ghost of King Hamlet does in Shakespeare’s play, crying for remembrance and justice. Conversely, I claim that General Tilney is the symbol of the hypocrisy and domestic horror of the ordinary English gentleman husband, who blithely and righteously “poisoned” and “imprisoned” his wife to death, or at least physical ruin and drudgery, via serial pregnancy (“confinement”), all the while believing he was doing what God and country expected of him.

With that brief background, here is the relevant section of Barchas’s article that gave me my clue:

“Even more uncanny is the manner in which the “ruined chapel” of Catherine’s imagination, where she hopes to find evidence of “some traditional legends” and further “awful memorials” at Northanger, resembles the spooky and crumbling crypt under the ruined chapel at Farleigh Castle as described
by Reverend Warner in this same guidebook on the Austens’ shelves:
“The crypt, or vault, under this chapel, exhibits a very extraordinary family party, the pickled remains of eight of the Hungerfords, ranged by the side of each other, cased in leaden coffins, and assuming the forms of Egyptian mummies, the faces prominent, the shoulders swelling out into their natural shape, and the body gradually tapering towards the feet.”
Most of these curious family coffins, what one 1816 visitor termed “the cold relics of an ancient clan,” still remain on view today for visitors who similarly descend the stairs into the lower crypt (Weekly Entertainer 56: 220). After identifying the Hungerford family members thus on display, guidebook veteran Warner recommends one macabre activity:
“The Chapel at Farley Castle near Bath (early 19th c)…One of the full-sized leaden coffins has a perforation on the right shoulder, through which a stick may be introduced, and the embalming matter extracted; this appears to be a thick viscous liquid, of a brown colour, and resinous smell and consistence; the flesh is decomposed by the admission of the air, but the bones still retain their soundness.”
Catherine also imagines inspecting the coffin of Mrs. Tilney, which she conjectures may be occupied by a mere “waxen figure”. She demands the physical proof of death that, according to Warner, awaited visitors to Farleigh Hungerford:
“Were she even to descend into the family vault where her ashes were supposed to slumber, were she to behold the coffin in which they were said to be enclosed—what could it avail in such a case?  Catherine had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced, and a supposititious funeral carried on.”
Is Catherine following the directive in Warner’s book when she thinks of descending, with determined step, into the Tilney vault to put her suspicions to the test? Thankfully, there is no proof that Austen herself poked the decomposing Hungerford remains with a stick during any visit to Farleigh Castle, but her signature and marginalia in the family copy of Warner’s guidebook suggest she surely knew of this “choice” sight for any fan of the gothic, located about seven miles from Bath. Austen’s satire of the gothic resonates therefore with genuine history. Catherine’s gothic fantasies may not be, after all, utter nonsense. Instead, their resemblance to actual historical events and relics at Farleigh Castle may expose Austen’s ironic project, elevating the ambitions of her early fiction. Resemblances to these real situations would also add to the humor of her story. If Austen bests the fantasy of a Radcliffe novel with her own characteristic brand of hyper-realism, she may be showing readers that the choicest truths make for the strangest fictions….”

All the evidence presented by Barchas in her article in general, and in that section in particular, in aggregate strongly supports the interpretation that Jane Austen did indeed mean to allude to Farleigh Hungerford in Northanger Abbey. Today, I want to expand on one sentence in that quoted excerpt:
“Thankfully, there is no proof that Austen herself poked the decomposing Hungerford remains with a stick during any visit to Farleigh Castle…”

While Barchas is correct, there’s no proof that Austen went corpse-poking, nor would I have guessed she did. But I am quite certain that she knew of that specific gruesome practice, and she chose those grotesquely exploited, decomposing corpses at Farleigh Hungerford as the perfect metaphor for the gentlewives of England, who were so worn-out from serial pregnancies that their bodies practically fell apart at a touch (a turn of phrase used in the Austen quotation in my Subject Line, as you’ll see, below).

And it just so happens that the adverb “fairly” is subtly linked to seemingly unrelated passages in Northanger Abbey which have to do with deterioration due to excessive wear. The idea of English wives as Regency Era zombies, whose bodies were slowly decomposing (as it were) due to up to two decades of serial pregnancies, punctuated by a dozen or more harrowing childbirths, over each of which hung the threat of excruciatingly painful death, has the kind of macabre wit that I believe Jane Austen particularly relished, when she was in “Avenging Angel” mode.

I’ll now walk you through the relevant passages in the novel, with this theme in mind:

Chapter 1:   She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be FAIRLY searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a BARONET.

Of course, during the course of the novel, the “strange things” which will inspire Catherine Morland’s real passion and curiosity are the Gothic horrors she believes have been perpetrated by General Tilney against his late wife – fanciful horrors which I claim are actually representative of the true Gothic horror of the scourge of death in childbirth ignored by all the powers that were in England. Austen is winking in those last two sentences that Catherine will “fairly search out” the causes of that scourge at a modern day Farleigh Hungerford, and the reference “a baronet’ is another clue, because it turns out that at Farleigh Hungerford there was a baronet whom Jane Austen would have known about, because he was connected biologically both to the Bluebeard Walter, Lord Hungerford, and also to Jane Austen herself!

In 2010, Derrick Leigh wrote the following in Janeites:  "Jane Austen's great grandparents on the Leigh side were Theophilus Leigh and Mary Brydges. Their daughter Mary Leigh married the 4th BARONET, Sir HUNGERFORD Hoskyns in 1720." I pointed out at my 2010 AGM presentation that one of the several personal connections of NA’s death-in-childbirth theme was to that same Mary Leigh (nee Brydges)----the wife of Theophilus, and great grandmother of JA herself---who died in childbirth after bearing her twelfth child! And Bluebeard, Walter, Lord Hungerford, had a descendant, Jane Law, who was the mother of the same Sir Hungerford Hoskyns, 4th bart., who married Mary Leigh, as Derrick stated, above –so you see that there was indeed a “baronet”, who provides a key clue to Jane Austen’s deeper theme!

Now for the next relevant textual quotation:

Chapter 3:  “But then you know, madam, muslin always turns to some account or other; Miss Morland will get enough out of it for a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak. Muslin can never be said to be wasted. I have heard my sister say so forty times, when she has been extravagant in buying more than she wanted, or careless in CUTTING IT TO PIECES.”
“Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here. We are sadly off in the country; not but what we have very good shops in Salisbury, but it is so far to go—eight miles is a long way; Mr. Allen says it is nine, measured nine; but I am sure it cannot be more than eight; and it is such a fag—I come back tired to death. Now, here one can step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes.”
… “I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty FAIRLY divided between the sexes.”
They were interrupted by Mrs. Allen: “My dear Catherine,” said she, “do take this pin out of my sleeve; I am afraid it has TORN A HOLE already; I shall be quite sorry if it has, for this is a favourite gown, though it cost but nine shillings a yard.”
“That is exactly what I should have guessed it, madam,” said Mr. Tilney, looking at the muslin.
“Do you understand muslins, sir?”

In a nutshell, I suggest to you that the above passage, which all Janeites enjoy for the wit and atypical expertise that Henry Tilney displays, serves a second, darker purpose. If one reads “muslins” (which of course were a staple of women’s clothing in Regency Era England) as a metaphor for women in general, and pregnant wives in particular, there is a very very sharp and bitter irony masked just beneath the witty surface—i.e., the bodies of English wives were literally being cut to pieces, with holes torn, to (literally please their husbands! And there, again, tucked away in this passage, is “FAIRLY divided”, to remind the knowing reader of Farleigh Hungerford, where Walter, Lord Hungerford repeatedly (but thankfully unsuccessfully) attempted to murder his wife.

And now, yet another punny metaphor for the serially pregnant female body, the carriage, courtesy of John Thorpe:

Chapter 9: “Break down! Oh! Lord! Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it. The wheels have been FAIRLY worn out these ten years at least—and as for THE BODY! Upon my soul, you might SHAKE IT TO PIECES YOURSELF WITH A TOUCH. It is the most devilish little rickety business I ever beheld! Thank God! we have got a better. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds.”
“Good heavens!” cried Catherine, quite frightened. “Then pray let us turn back; they WILL CERTAINLY MEET WITH AN ACCIDENT if we go on. Do let us turn back, Mr. Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him HOW VERY UNSAFE IT IS.”
“Unsafe! Oh, lord! What is there in that? They will only get a roll if it does break down; and there is PLENTY OF DIRT; it will be EXCELLENT FALLING. Oh, curse it! The CARRIAGE is safe enough, if A MAN KNOWS HOW TO DRIVE IT; A THING OF THAT SORT IN GOOD HANDS WILL LAST ABOVE TWENTY YEARS AFTER IT IS FAIRLY WORN OUT. Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail.”

How many words in that passage point to the pregnant female body? You count the ways, with an assist from my ALL CAPS alterations. Could it be more obvious, once you’re thinking about it, that this is an extended riff on serial pregnancy wearing out women’s bodies?

In addition to that, it has been well recognized by other Austen scholars that Thorpe speaks about horses and carriages in a highly sexualized manner- he sounds, actually, like one of those typical English gentleman husbands (Edward Austen Knight for one) who kept their wives barefoot and pregnant, so to speak, for “above twenty years” before she would be “fairly worn out”. 

And, as I’ve previously pointed out many times, it’s a well established biographical fact, derived from explicit verbiage in JA’s letters over a period of twenty years, that Jane Austen was appalled at the serial pregnancy that afflicted so many of English gentlewomen/wives. Most personal was JA’s anguish for niece (and psychological daughter) Anna Austen a few years after Anna’s marriage, expressed in Letter 155, less than four months before JA’s death:
“Anna has not a chance of escape…Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.”

Ironically, what saved Anna was an unusual escape for an English wife of that era- it was her husband who died in 1829 after fifteen years of marriage, having first sired seven children on her, when Anna was 35. Thereafter, Anna, without a “Bluebeard” in her home (and more important, bed), wound up never remarrying, never having another child, and living a relatively long and healthy life for another 43 years. But JA died before she could rest easy about Anna’s survival, let alone survival in good health.

And finally, I tie together with the above quotes from NA the following excerpt from JA’s own Letter 57 (written when her sister in law Elizabeth Austen was soon to die in childbirth in 1808), which I assert is a kind of companion to the above quoted passage about muslins in NA. It’s not just the punnily named made-up persons Mr. FLOOR and Mr. CHAMBERS, ---it’s the “pelisse” which “falls apart at a touch” which stands for the “injured body” of the “poor animal” “dying” English wife:

Letter 57: “My mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K.; she has picked her old silk pelisse TO PIECES, and means to have it DYED black for a gown -- a very interesting scheme, though just now A LITTLE INJURED by finding that it must be placed in Mr. Wren's hands, for Mr. CHAMBERS is gone. As for Mr. FLOOR, he is at present rather LOW in our estimation. How is your blue gown? Mine is ALL TO PIECES. I think there must have been something wrong in the DYE, for in places IT DIVIDED WITH A TOUCH. There was four shillings thrown away, to be added to my subjects of never-failing regret.”

So, I hope you’ll now agree that the above provides still further evidence to support Barchas’s claims, and to rebut Ellen Moody’s claim of “over-historicism”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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