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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sex, Radicalism, & Jane Austen: Connections to John Thelwall

Yesterday, I read a very interesting guest post at Sarah Emsley’s blog (which this year has an ongoing focus on Northanger Abbey) by Judith Thompson, about resonance between NA and the career and writings of the late 18th century political radical John Thelwall. Thompson is one of the leading Thelwall scholars in the world, and, unlike many other scholars writing about Austen, she does not shy away at all from speculating about resonance between Thelwall and Austen, even though, according to what I call the Myth of Jane Austen, that was a twain that supposedly never met. So first and foremost, I urge you to read her post:

I want to focus today first on two related topics, one addressed in Thompson’s current post, and the other in her 2014 guest post at Emsley’s blog, also about Thelwall and Austen.


Thompson quotes Henry’s witty mockery of Eleanor’s alarm about news from London, then writes:   

“This passage…is one of my favorites in Northanger Abbey….because the mention of riots in London makes it the best place in Austen’s corpus to enter a discussion about the nature and degree of Austen’s political consciousness and her engagement with one of the most revolutionary critical moments in literary history, which she is often accused of, or assumed to be, ignoring.  These much-vexed debates have been rekindled lately with the publication of Helena Kelley’s much ballyhooed book on Jane Austen: The Secret Radical….”

Those who follow my blog know that I’ve previously explained in a detailed blog post here…
…how Kelly’s chapter about Northanger Abbey in her 2016 book owes an enormous, detailed, and utterly UN-acknowledged debt to my own public speaking and writing dating back to 2009, in which I argued (and still argue) that the shadow story of NA is the real-life “domestic Gothic” horror of the death-in-childbirth and serial pregnancy plague that decimated married English gentlewomen like Mrs. Tilney.

Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I generally agree with Thompson’s brief, unfavorable reaction to Kelly’s book, except for the following observations by Thompson, with which I take strong issue:

In place of real, historically-, critically- and technically-informed analysis of radicalism, she substitutes a breathlessly superficial revelation of sexual symbolism (masturbation by the washing-chest, oh my!) in a tone that mimics Isabella’s prurient faux-naïveté, without the saving grace of Catherine’s sincerity. Despite her title, Kelley shows little awareness of the subtle and multiple forms that radicalism takes in the period, or the reasons why a woman in particular might have had recourse to secrecy in an age (like our own) of ideological binaries that forced many intelligent thinkers into silence (clue: it’s not all about sex).”

My rebuttal to Thompson is simple – while, indeed, “it’s not all about sex”, 13 years of research have shown me beyond a shadow of doubt that for Jane Austen (in this regard very different from male radicals like Thelwall) sex (or to be more precise, women’s control over their own bodies, especially in relation to sexuality) was THE main political battleground which engaged Austen’s lifelong radical political focus. When Catherine Morland spurns “real solemn history”, that is Austen herself, slyly hinting that HIStory leaves out the other half – HERstory. The fears, hopes, and interests of women were utterly and very pointedly ignored by the men holding the collective pen (so to speak).

And this is a “plus ca change” moment, because this same comment applies in 2018 even more so, if possible, than in 1818 (and of course, before, during and long after Jane Austen’s own brief lifetime).
As I’ve noted in recent months, Jane Austen was in effect engaged in a covert, one-woman-author, #metoo literary campaign, and I’m proud to be a member of the board of AGE
which has for several years now worked to obtain a fair share of the grip of the “pen” for women, by “offering grants to professional Portland (OR) metro-area theatre companies that demonstrate a commitment to intersectional gender equity in playwriting, directing, casting, and designing.” gender equity in playwriting, directing, casting, and designing.
I’m certain that Jane Austen would approve, but let me now turn to Thompson’s flippant “masturbation by the washing-chest, oh my!”. It is true that Kelly’s treatment of that topic was paper-thin, but consider instead what I said (with Kelly in attendance, as I noted in my linked post) at my own Chawton House talk in July 2009:

"In Northanger Abbey, Austen wanted us to ignore Henry Tilney and recognize that Catherine Morland’s Gothic fantasies of General “Tyranny” as the wife-murdering Bluebeard of Northanger Abbey were all too valid in a world where husbands, including several of Austen’s own brothers, routinely “murdered” their wives with a little too much “love and eloquence”! While in London this coming week, I intend to visit the memorial erected in the 17th century by Samuel Morland in honor of his two wives who died in childbirth, a memorial I strongly suspect was visited by the young Jane Austen over two centuries ago. But that “disorder” also includes the sexual awakening of a girl (the hyacinth that Catherine learns to love, the sexual architecture of she explores that dark and stormy night in Northanger Abbey). As with all other issues raised by her novels, Austen offers elusive complexity and ambiguity."

By the way, I did go to Westminster Abbey, and check out those “awful memorials” yourself:
And note that one of the radical feminists who inspired Jane Austen most of all was Aphra Behn!

So, when Thompson concludes with “Austen’s irony, walking the fine line between sedition and entertainment, is a more likely sign of the secret radicalism of Northanger Abbey than her sexual symbolism”, I reply that in Northanger Abbey Austen’s sexual symbolism was at the fiercely beating heart of her secret radical feminism (“feminism”, ironically, being the crucial word Kelly left out of her title when she “borrowed” from me).

And apropos Thompson’s excellent discussion of “voluntary spies” in NA, I now quote the following exchange between Diane Reynolds and myself here in Janeites and Austen L in December 2012, which also resonates in interesting ways to our recent speculations about influence of Coleridge on Austen:

Diane: “I have circled back to reading Holmes's biography of Coleridge and was a bit startled to find out that in 1797, when the Wordsworths came for a long visit to Coleridge's cottage near Bristol, they were literally spied on, apparently as potentially ‘seditious’ people, largely because a radical or former radical, John Thelwall, also arrived in the area…The spy's account is of historic interest, because it documents from an outsider's point of view, the ramblings through nature and careful, ‘scientific’ observations of the natural world of titans of the Romantic movement, but I couldn't help but think of Henry Tilney's observation that in England, everyone's neighbor is a spy. It's possible he (and hence Austen) meant that literally. I can also imagine the young Jane and Cassandra on similar ramblings, with camp stools, notebooks and portfolios ...This is Holmes's account: "Describing Wordsworth and Dorothy [sic] as an 'emigrant family,' the [spy's] report engagingly present their nefarious activities with Coleridge: 'The man has Camp Stools, which he and his visitors take with them when they go about the country upon their nocturnal or diurnal excursions, and have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say were almost finished. They have been heard to say they would be rewarded for them, and were very attentive to the River near them... These people may possibly be Agents to some principal at Bristol.' 

My reply: Diane, this is what I've been saying all along, in terms of the supposed safety of a "radical" speaking out openly against the manifold hypocrisies, cruelties, and horrors of the "normal English way of life"--to openly espouse free thought was a very dangerous proposition in post-French-Terror England---what you describe above actually sounds like something out of Stalinist Russia, or Orwell's Oceania--thoughtcrime. And since It is clear that JA did not have a suicidal bone in her body, but, to the contrary, was intensely pragmatic, I believe she was determined to survive and to make sure her profound, even revolutionary, insights into human nature and society survived as well. If that meant going undercover, and staying off the radar screens of all the General Tilneys of England, and being very discreet and patient (just think about Miss Bates's survival strategies, and Miss Marple's detection strategies), then so be it. Better to live to fight another day, than to die gloriously on Day One. Just think about the scariness of a society in which malevolent, misogynistic garbage like Polwhele’s Unsex’d Females could attain a measure of fame and influence…”


As promised, here is an excerpt from Thompson’s 2014 guest post at Emsley’s blog… … which she wrote as part of a discussion of the influence of Thelwall on Mansfield Park:

“Recently I had occasion to revisit the adopted daughter of the Bertram family, in order to help me contextualize an edition of Thelwall’s novel The Daughter of Adoption, published 13 years before Mansfield Park. And strangely I found much to compare between the two narratives. Though Thelwall’s Seraphina is an outspoken Wollstonecraftian Creole who challenges and overturns the slave-owning patriarchal system, and Austen’s Fanny is a cowering English country-mouse who seems content to submit to class-bound hierarchies and traditional moral codes, both novels share several plot elements and even some characters with the same names and natures. Perhaps this is because both draw from a common source in Burney’s Evelina, though it is not impossible that Austen had read Thelwall’s Daughter: it was published under a pseudonym, and she read a lot more than she let on, too.”

When I read that in 2014, I was inspired to take a deeper dive into possible connections between Thelwall and Austen than I had found in brief forays since 2006, when I first became aware of who Thelwall was and wondered about that, especially given that by 2009 I had already argued in my JASNA AGM talk that Godwin’s Caleb Williams was a key allusive source for the radical political subtext of Northanger Abbey.

After reading Thompson’s focus on The Daughter of Adoption, and her spotting the strong resonance between it and Mansfield Park,  I decided to take a look at the actual text of Thelwall’s novel, hoping to find something beyond what Thompson had already mentioned in her blog post. And when I did, I struck gold, as I noted in my Oct. 6, 2015 blog post in which I listed nine different literary sources as all pointing to Mr. Woodhouse as an incestuous monster:
John Thelwall’s Daughter of Adoption (1801), with a character named Mr. WOODHOUSE who torments the West Indies-plantation-owning patriarch with an ultimate incestuous nightmare”

In Book 10 of Thelwall’s novel, the Revd. Emanuel Woodhouse is the duplicitous agent for the male protagonist, a Creole named Henry Montfort –so there you have both parts of Mr. Henry Woodhouse’s name. And I had long before then been suspicious of a dark cloud of paternal incest hovering over Mr. Woodhouse, involving one or more of Isabella (who exactly is the bio father of her baby son “Henry”?), Emma, and possibly even Miss Taylor. As I’ve detailed in numerous posts, the Shakespeare play which points to this paternal incest subtext in Emma is Pericles, which is the primary reason, I assert, for Mr. Woodhouse’s futile attempt to recall all the words of Garrick’s Riddle, which, as Heydt-Stevenson first pointed out two decades ago, is all about men with syphilis having sex with virgins in order to cure themselves.

So, for a character named “Woodhouse” to be explicitly connected to incest in Thelwall’s novel which, as Thompson pointed out in 2014 was part of the subtext of Mansfield Park, is, I suggest, very interesting indeed. And that points back to my claim in Part One of this post, above, in which I asserted that for Jane Austen, the collective, injured female body was Ground Zero for her brand of fiery, radical feminism.

And before I close, there’s still one point more. Although MP is the Austen novel in which West Indian slavery is foregrounded, several scholars including myself have speculated about the source of both the Woodhouse fortune and even more so about that of the nouveau riche Hawkins family of Bristol. So a connection to Thelwall’s novel, which involves both England and the West Indies, may perhaps add a great deal to penetrating that elusive slavery subtext in Emma.

And there I will conclude, and hope that the above adds to the development of more insight into the fascinating connections between the radical politics of John Thelwall and Jane Austen.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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