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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The awe-inspiring “architecture” of Northanger Abbey

 I’ve now had time to read reread, and think about Collins Hemingway's excellent article, “Northanger Abbey: The Bridge to Austen’s Mature Works—and More” in the new Persuasions Online:

As usual with Collins's scholarly work, it’s well-researched, clearly written, comprehensive, and thought provoking, and he provides lots of specific textual evidence for his more general claims. That’s why, as with our disagreement a few months back about the significance of the quadruple-coincidence structure of P&P, I derive great value from contrasting his opinions with my own, even though I profoundly disagree with some of with his major conclusions.

Hr asks all the right questions, and for me that’s what makes even a disagreeing scholar’s work like his well worth my study! In particular, as you’ll see, I find it fascinating that, despite our shared predilection for “architectural” analysis of Austen’s writing, we, with our opposite assumptions about Jane Austen’s agenda as an author and her belief system as a person, often arrive at opposite conclusions.

Collins: “Gothic elements set the edge and form the building blocks of the beginning of the work.  A gothic parody opens the story, which is always the hardest step for every writer, then returns from time to time as part of a unifying framing device.  Further, the love story grows out of the gothic, in two senses.  First, Catherine’s interactions with Henry Tilney intersect at times with the gothic themes, which would not have been possible had the gothic been tacked on.  Second, the relationship eventually moves beyond the gothic humor.  To follow the Southam-Emden interpretation, Austen must begin with a mature relationship story and add less mature gothic sidebars.  The book ripens in the opposite direction. 

I agree that gothic elements were there from the start, but I don’t believe Jane Austen, even in her first version of what eventually became NA, ever intended to just write a gothic parody. Let me be more precise – I believe JA did always intend to write what appears to be a gothic parody. However, I believe she also always intended that apparent gothic parody to function as a mask, thinly concealing her passionate anti-parody --- indeed, JA’s celebration and defense --- of the gothic –and not only the female gothic of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho, but the male gothic of Lewis’s Monk, too!

I’ve made that point repeatedly,  – I’ve said it at the 2009 Chawton House conference, the 2010 JASNA AGM, and what must be a hundred times the past decade in this blog.

When I do, I invariably quote Henry Tilney’s famous castigation of Catherine’s suspicions about what General Tilney did to his wife as the epicenter of that anti-parody – and then I illustrate how Mrs. Tilney, metaphorically, represents all the English wives who died in childbirth after being “murdered” by being “poisoned” by their husbands – but all the established authorities turned a blind eye to this widespread and long-lasting plague.

So I claim that, in the anti-parody, which gives the Gothic novel credit for whispering an otherwise forbidden, unspeakable critique of one key aspect of the English patriarchy, it is Henry who is the true satirical butt of that speech. It is he who wakes up late in the novel and realizes that, yes, Gothic domestic horrors were indeed happening every day in Merrie Olde England, and no one lifted a finger to protect the wives who were victimized, because everyone thought it was “normal”. The Gothic arose to address that crisis, and it is to Henry’s credit that in the end, he listens and learns – and that is what inspires him to finally end his indecision, like Hamlet, and rise up against his father’s tyranny, and to marry Catherine and also liberate his sister.

Collins: “The gothic framing device, however, has an archeological interest.  It does not encompass all of the novel, or even most of it.  After setting the book in motion, it largely disappears into the background. It’s like the foundation of an ancient church discovered to be supporting the walls of the modern church built over it.  From the remaining outlines of the original, one can trace the shape of the earlier and humbler edifice.  A comparison would be to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.  One can see not only the underground foundations of the preceding church, built by Constantine; one can go a step lower to discover what the Vatican says is the original burial tomb of St. Peter himself.  In the reverse, starting with the origins, we begin with a small but respectable local necropolis; over this structure is built a much larger, more impressive building; over that one comes the final magnificent basilica of today.  So it is with NA.  A literary excavation reveals the presence of possibly 3 different periods of construction of the novel.” 

I admire the ingenuity of Collins's reverse engineering of the novel, Collins, and find merit in much of it. However, as I stated earlier, I believe that JA from the start always intended an anti-parody of the gothic, whereas hr seemd to be saying that she grew out of an early simplistic gothic orientation during the evolution of the novel. I believe JA was already of strong radical feminist leanings as she wrote her juvenilia as a teenager – in particular already under the positive influence of Wollstonecraft when she wrote her History of England and the first version of Catharine, or the Bower -- but what changed is that JA became progressively more and more sophisticated and ingenious in her strategy for finding literary structures in which she could best express those feminist ideas, and keep them just enough under the radar in order to get published (more about that last point, below).

But more important, I see layered metonyms in the “architecture” of the novel. I.e., ‘Northanger Abbey” is the name of the abbey that Catherine visits, but it is also (and I believe this was JA’s own call, not her family’s) the title of the novel – and so, at every step in Catherine’s sleuthing around the physical abbey, Jane Austen is implicitly inviting her knowing readers to do likewise with the novel itself – to treat all the winks and nods and apparent narrative exaggerations as clues to be followed  --metaphorically, as virtual chests and doors (including “trapdoors”) to be opened.

And, just as I claim that in the anti-parody it is Catherine who was imaginative and perceptive enough to follow her Gothic instincts, so too it is the reader who opens those forbidden doors who is rewarded in the end with access to the “second story” (pun intended) of the novel – the shadow story, which is the story of the third layer of the overarching metonym of NA – which is Mrs. Tilney herself.

So I’m saying that the physical abbey not only represents the novel, it also represents Mrs. Tilney – and in Catherine poking around the abbey for clues, she is in a deep and poignant sense poking around in that late lady’s body -- which is part of the explanation for the over the top sexual innuendo of Catherine’s late night Gothic ruminations and examinations, such as:

 “Again, therefore, she applied herself to the key, and after moving it in every possible way for some instants with the determined celerity of hope's last effort, the door suddenly yielded to her hand: her heart leaped with exultation at such a victory, and having thrown open each folding door, the second being secured only by bolts of less wonderful construction than the lock, though in that her eye could not discern anything unusual, a double range of small drawers appeared in view, with some larger drawers above and below them; and in the centre, a small door, closed also with a lock and key, secured in all probability a cavity of importance.”

 Because in the end, the Gothic tragedy of rampant serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in JA’s real world in England was (and, sadly, remains a polarizing issue in 21st century America) all about “ownership” of the female body – is it her own body, or does it “belong” to her husband or the state, if she is married, or to the “courting” predator like John Thorpe, if not? Henry VIII seized, vandalized, and parceled all the physical abbeys off to cronies – and that is exactly what I believe JA is saying has been done in her world to all female bodies, except for a very fortunate few.

Novel/building/female body, all thematically in synch – this is the awe-inspiring architecture of this “slight” novel by Jane Austen that I see.

Collins: “When Catherine goes with her neighbors, the Allens, to Bath, she finds the gothic everywhere she looks. She exchanges commentary with her new friend Isabella Thorpe about Radcliffe’s book.  “‘While I have Udolpho to read . . . nobody could make me miserable,’” Catherine says.  She compares Beechen Cliff above Bath with the vistas of Udolpho’s France and makes reference to three countries being as “fruitful in horrors” as Udolpho. These are all views she has read about in gothic novels, not seen. Eight other “horrid” novels are mentioned, including The Monk.1 “

And I say that Catherine finds the gothic everywhere she looks, because JA’s overarching point is that domestic gothic horror was in fact everywhere in everyday England! It’s like that memorable comic scene from High Anxiety when, even as Mel Brooks, who is intensely phobic, speaks about those who wish to harm him, we see Harvey Korman behind him actually making menacing gestures! Catherine sees the Gothic everywhere, and it is a sign of her “greatness of mind” that she does so, when the cynical Henry is the one who is blind to it.

So where Collins sees writerly inexperience, I see a very much in control Jane Austen deliberately hamming it up in her narrative voice. She deliberately and parodically adopts an exaggerating narrative voice that seems like beginner’s writing, leading the unsuspecting reader down the garden path of dismissal. Whereas, each of these shout-outs to the Gothic is meaningful, in terms of the domestic Gothic horror of English life.

In particular, as I pointed out during the Q&A for one of the breakout speakers at the recent JASNA AGM, I see the proto-Gothicism of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Verona not far from the action of Udolpho, hidden in plain sight everywhere. And JA in particular must have LOL’ed like mad when she wrote this line in NA:

“Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”

JA may as well have written in the margin, in letters of gold, “Take a close look at ROMEO AND JULIET, and figure out what it has to do with this novel!!”

Collins: “It’s even possible that Crosby bought Susan specifically to bury it—a practice known in modern parlance as “catch and kill.”  Margie Burns, in a 2017 article, proposes that Crosby pulled Susan because in it Austen unknowingly criticized two of Crosby’s publishing partners. 

I had to laugh when I read this reference to “catch and kill”, because of what I wrote on December 14 in this blog (and, obviously, therefore, two days before I read the above excerpt in Collins's article late Sunday night!).

I was reacting to Devoney Looser’s recent TLS piece about the discovery by her (also independently made by Elisa Beshero-Bondar) of Mary Russell Mitford’s 1823 mock letter about Jane Austen. Looser had noted that Mitford’s mock letter was dated April 1, and I wondered whether this was Mitford’s sly allusion –based on Cassandra Austen’s perhaps having informed her -- to Jane Austen having previously written not one but two April Fool’s Day letters! Here’s what I wrote:

“…consider her April 1, 1809 letter from “Mrs. Ashton Dennis” (Miss Austen Denies?), in which JA demands that Crosby – who perhaps was involved in some sort of “catch and kill” scheme? --- publish NA, and further offers to produce another copy of same if somehow Crosby had mislaid the original submitted in 1798. And note in particular that the 1809 letter had to do with publication of Northanger Abbey, which is at the center of Mitford’s mock letter…”

 I had read Margie Burns’s 2017 article last year, probably when Collins did, and we both, sensitized by high profile current events to the phrase “catch and kill”, made that same association, as we read Burns’s theory for why Crosby would “catch and kill” Northanger Abbey.

However, and apropos of our disagreement about NA as parody vs anti-parody, I disagree with Burns as to the motive. I.e., I believe this was a “catch and kill” that was desired, not by two of Crosby’s publishing partners, but by JA’s aunt Leigh-Perrot herself,  precisely because that grande dame of the Austen family did not wish NA to ever see the light of publishing day!

But why would JA’s own aunt put the kibosh on her niece’s first published novel? I believe the conservative wing of the larger Austen family, led by her dictatorial aunt, was already very well aware of JA, even at age 22, as the dangerous feminist sharp poker/observer Mary Russell Mitford so shrewdly observed JA to be. And, even more specifically, Aunt Leigh-Perrot, if she had been allowed to read Susan, was smart enough to see herself being sharply lampooned in the foolish character of Mrs. Allen, as I speculated 9 years ago:

Collins: “Simply put, there’s a very good chance that NA began as one of the longer, later pieces of Austen’s outrageous juvenilia.  Over the next seven or eight years—and possibly longer—she developed the final novel in major, separate stages.  The original juvenilia would have been similar to Love and FreindshipLesley CastleEvelyn, and The Bower.2  The first three feature gothic parody; the last, a tentative first step at a relationship story.  That is, they collectively represent awkward, early versions of what appears in NA. Sensing its potential, Austen developed this juvenile production from the fragmentary beginning to a mid-length work with mature themes. Afterward, she kept updating and revising the text until it became her first completed novel. The nature of this development accounts for some of the unevenness of both the structure and the quality of the writing.”

 In preparation of my proposal to speak at the 2020 JASNA AGM, I did quite a bit of study of Catherine or the Bower, and I too, believe, NA could have been inspired by COTB, for much the same reasons Collins outlined so well in his speculations. But I would add one speculation of my own -- that both works are particularly concerned with sexual danger to women. However, whereas JA was able to alter the ending of Persuasion while preserving all that came before it, with minor changes, I believe she concluded in the late 1790s that she had to scrap COTB entirely, and start over this time with her “Catherine” in Bath (where JA, we know from her letters, visited in 1798, and perhaps earlier as well) instead of in her country village of origin.

Again, great work by Collins Hemingway, I will look forward to his book, which he, in your admirable professionalway, will surely deliver into the world before too far in the future.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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