Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 9 - 10 (24 - 25)

May 24, 1999

To Janeites

Re: 'Of the Alps and Pyrenees ... ' and Marie Mancini

I am slightly perplexed by the following passage in NA because of its flat tonality or maybe atonality (it strikes a thud, much like the moment where Emma is supposed to answer Knightley's proposal of embarrassment and Austen intervenes):

Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities ...'. (NA, 2:10 or Ch 25).

We could read this meditation as coming from Catherine's mind as she thinks about gothics, but I think the opening line warns us not to. Here is our authoritative narrator speaking at length and in abstractions and with a distanced view Catherine never does obtain in the book. I would argue that except in the reference to the northern 'extremities' of England where Austen cannot resist a bit of metaphoric teasing language, the tone is that of concession not mockery:

From my reading of French and Italian history, letters, memoirs and chronicles of the period I know the arm of the law did not reach into private houses very well; that aristocrats were (in effect) above the law, and that if it is improbable a woman would be chained to a stake in a basement with a rotting dead baby by her side (one of Matthew Lewis's images in The Monk), it is not at all improbable that murders, very hard behavior amounting to mental torture, and roughing up (to use slang language) were the order of the day. Wife-beating as we all know was legal and, worse, accepted (custom controlling our intimate behavior far better than law) until at least the mid-19th century.

Written about a decade before Austen grew up and began to write, Charlotte Smith's The Romance of Real Life contains some of the typical kinds of material one can find in court cases of the period. It is an adaptation of fifteen tales from the Causes Célèbres Gayot de Pitaval. These raw, hard and sordid stories from trials and lawsuits have real power, and they show what Charlotte was thinking about. These stories include the tale of Martin Guerre (which still fascinates people today), 'The Chevalier de Morsan' which Lorraine Fletcher calls a 'tale of transvestism'. There are women who we are to sympathise with even though they break the law -- and violently: one woman murders her husband. Another woman tries to leave her property to her mother; for her pains her brothers-in-law murder her. This last one also reminds me of a ghost story by Elizabeth Gaskell. Because of our obsession with the novel, we will read Smith's Emmeline, but I suggest The Romance of Real Life (popular) tells us more about the reality and sources of the gothic of the period than Emmeline. In her novels Smith loved to place the action in the Pyrenees and Provence, and marital and familial cruelty and tyranny are her great subjects. As the latter is the subject of NA through General Tilney.

I have been over the past few weeks reading a remarkably rich book in Italy which is chock-a-block with the real letters of Italian, French, and Spanish women of the 15th through early 18th centuries. I am reviewing for Renaissance journal, Per lettera: Le scrittura epistolare femminile tra archivio e tipografia secoli XV - XVII, a cura di Gabriella Zarri. In this remarkable book of real letters, the mask of convention comes away and you listen to believable people. At the same time I have come across a story from letters which recalls striking aspects of Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest -- as well as numbers of story in the Italian chroniclers of the period. Perhaps those interested in the reality the gothics sets out to show us, the breaking of taboos of what we are not allowed to speak of, are ashamed to speak of, frightened even to think about, will like to hear a bit of this real life story.

It begins on 29 May 1672 when Maria Mancini (niece of the famous cardinale) left her husband, Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna (an important male in the powerful Colonna clan); she fled Rome with her sister, Ortensia Mazzarino who had left her husband. From this rupture a series of letters emerged because Maria needed her husband: she needed him to be seen to be protecting her where she travelled; she needed his money; she needed his permission to enter convents. She also wanted to keep in contact with her three children by him.

He acceded to all this, sort of. It is unlikely that he missed her: he had a mistress he much preferred to Maria; they had officially separated (a thoro) some time earlier so she was no longer going to produce heirs. The story is long, complicated, and contains many aspects of this couple's shared life (for they were a failed not a destroyed marriage) beyond those which recall the gothic romances of the period. I will dwell just on the protectors or guardians her husband sent Maria: Carlo Filiberto d'Este, one of Colonna's trusted cronies; and the Abate Antonio Oliva, a libertine, said to be a rapist who later committed suicide when he fell into the hands of the Inquisition. In brief, what happened is these two tricked Maria into travelling into Spain where a war was going on; she took refuge in a castle she didn't know was prepared for her. A deal had been cooked up by Colonna and some other powerful men to keep his wife in this castle and out of a group of convents where she could talk to others and make trouble for him.

We have letters from the protectors criss-crossing those of Maria which read ironically: she doesn't know they are not her friends. At the castle she is treated very badly; bullied, humiliated because she is a French woman (Spain was at war with France) and the Cardinal's niece (always fun to get back at the apparently powerful). At one point very like Radcliffe's Adeline, Maria Mancini is maneuvred into fleeing with a soldier. By catching her in the act, her jailers put her in the wrong. Uncooperative you see. Not to be trusted. She is brought back and write an anguished letter to her husband who she does more than half-suspect is somehow behind all this. There is a remarkable series of phrases in Italian which recall passages of the Bronte novels. Maria was well-educated, one of the précieuses, and she takes on a tone not unlike that of Lucy Snowe.. One phrase recalls Bertha Rochester's story: i 'no rinchisua come una bestia feroce in due stanza' (Englished: I will not be shut up like a ferocious beast in two rooms).

I have been talking off-list with someone who is writing a book on the relationship of war to the gothic (Scott belongs here). Lawlessness comes directly from the war-torn countryside Maria finds herself in -- without any friend to help her. She felt herself going mad. She was in a manipulated nightmare not of her doing.

There are other essays in this volume with letters by young women to their bethrothed which put paid to many presupposition about how women acted in private to men. One 15 year old girl sounds like any of us on the Net, all excited and amorous, not a bit ashamed or formal with her lover. (The engagement was permitted.) One begins to ask how much Austen's novels are images of what ought to be between men and women in public, nothing to do with them in private, though scholars will extrapolate and generalise. Did not someone say to generalise is to be a fool? (or words to this effect).

In one essay someone asks, Why are the letters of Madame de Sévigné so well known and not these? The answer: she presents a somewhat exaggerated but still socially acceptable and idealised portrait of motherhood. She breaks no tabooes with her stories. The other side of the correspondence is destroyed: her daughter's letters were burnt. We have reason to believe the daughter was not so keen on these (in effect) highly demanding ceaseless letters.

All I have said relates to earlier threads we have had on the value of biography as well as to the Brontes and gothics. I'll close with providing an Englishing of an Italian passage by one of the women essayists on reading people's letters (real, non-fictional) of the past:

The past vibrates through to us through words in circulation across and contradicting what is said in published books. At the edges between truth and legend. In this [incident of a relatively unknown person found in an archive] as in other incidents which became famous (mostly because the men involved were rich and powerful) we can find the reality of what happened and what was really felt in despite of the efforts of interested parties and the access to and domination of the press that men and people in whose interest the status quo is have always had. We go behind what is imposed on us as the correct social relations and moral behavior. For women we may see the divergence between discourses about women and by women, about the protagonists of a story and by them, discourses that are not equal in feel or weight since women about whom people talk and who talk against the grain of accepted social discourse have always risked heavy punishment (my translation)

How easy it is, convenient, comforting to dismiss something as emotional exaggeration and gothic romance when in fact the gothic is inwardly true to life. Austen's instinct for tact made her draw back and say nothing of what she did not know.

Ellen Moody

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