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Bluebeard in Jane Austen(28 Mar 2015)
By Miss Arden Hegele
In recent weeks, the students in my class on the Romantic novel have begun to notice certain gothic patterns that continually recur among the texts we are studying. We most recently read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), that arch-parody of gothic tropes, and I was intrigued by one student’s comment about that text’s central non-event, General Tilney’s crime against his wife: “We expect Catherine to find Bertha Mason in Mrs Tilney’s bedroom!” Proleptic as this suggestion is, my student is quite right, and she has hit on something I never considered before: Northanger Abbey is an avant-la-lettre parody of Jane Eyre.
How can this be? It turns out that both texts have a similar origin story: the Bluebeard narrative. As Louise Benson James outlined in her intriguing blog post from January, “Bluebeard in the Female Gothic,” Jane Eyre is strongly influenced by Charles Perrault’s 1697 story, La Barbe bleue. Northanger Abbey, too, seems to be a version of the same myth: a young and ingenuous heroine is courted by an older man, is brought to live in his home, unlawfully opens the door of a secret chamber, and is saved from a violent comeuppance by the patriarch through the good offices of brothers and sisters, who whisk her away to safety with her family of origin.
Northanger Abbey fits all these criteria, and General Tilney’s disturbing relationship with Catherine Morland is the crux of the story. Bluebeard helps to explain their strange mutual attraction and courtship. Catherine is an apparent substitute for the text’s absent mother, and the General takes a strong interest in learning about her fitness as a potential marital partner, even taking on most of the burden of wooing during the portion of the novel set at the Abbey. For her part, though Catherine eventually becomes sensitive to General Tilney’s emotional vampirism, her first instinct in the Bath ballroom where they meet is to perceive his mature physical attractiveness. While we learn later that the General has been courting Catherine on behalf of his son (whose attractions had been enough to charm her from the beginning), his active participation in the long seduction is disquieting. Meanwhile, Henry Tilney’s role is changeable: he plays the part of the young lover, the helpful sibling, and the judging husband, temporarily occupying the Bluebeard role when he finds Catherine guiltily exiting his mother’s chamber. Eleanor Tilney, whose sororal affiliation with Catherine is made clear from their first meeting and actualized through Catherine’s marriage to Henry, is the “Sister Anne” who spirits Catherine away from the angry General once her unforgivable secret (her status as non-heiress) is discovered. Though the family relationships are slightly altered, the basic plot of Bluebeard governs the narrative.
Moreover, like Thornfield Hall, the eponymous estate of Austen’s text likewise plays a role in reflecting its master’s controlling state of mind. As the critic Heta Pyrhönen writes, “Bluebeard and his house mimic each other…His domestic architecture echoes his psyche” (15), and we see this association of mind and space play out at Northanger Abbey. General Tilney is the local anti-Jacobin spymaster, and he ostensibly values “lay[ing] everything open,” an attitude that is reflected in his modernized and “improved” home. But, like Catherine herself, General Tilney reads her inhabiting of Northanger Abbey not as realism, but as romance: his erroneous belief in her role as a great heiress is matched by her sense of him as a Gothic villain. For both the General and Catherine (but for no other characters), in spite of all the ostensible improvements to the estate, certain spaces become haunted—for the General, Mrs Tilney’s garden-walk, and for Catherine, her former chambers.
Austen’s contemporary readers were sensitive to General Tilney’s quasi-mythical character, which they felt was out of place in the novel of manners. Maria Edgeworth, Austen’s fellow novelist, wrote that “The behaviour of the General in ‘Northanger Abbey,’ packing off the young lady without a servant or the common civilities which any bear of a man, not to say gentleman, would have shown, is quite outrageously out of drawing and out of nature.” The British Critic likewise wrote, “General Tilney seems to have been drawn from imagination, for it is not a very probable character, and is not pourtrayed with our authoress’ usual taste & judgment.” In their perceptions that General Tilney doesn’t fit the realist mode characteristic of Austen, both critics gesture to the underlying, decidedly non-realist Bluebeard framework that governs the tale.
What was the status of the Bluebeard story in Regency England? While scholars normally point to its textual origins in Perrault’s 1697 story, Shakespeare had referred to the Bluebeard myth as “the old story” as early as 1600, suggesting its early origins in pan-European oral folklore. The Aarne-Thompson classification of folktales (1910; rev. 1961) lists Bluebeard as type 312, a tale in which a heroine rescues her sisters. The story also resonates with Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, who, like Bluebeard’s wife, contends with the knowledge of her husband’s murdered former spouses. What is interesting, though, is how Bluebeard became a prominent cultural text during the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth—just as Austen was writing Northanger Abbey and her other realist novels. With the rise of Gothic drama and pantomime on the English stage, the ancient Bluebeard myth returned to public consciousness. The most influential production was Blue Beard; or Female Curiosity (1798), with music by Michael Kelly (who studied with Antonio Salieri) and text by George Colman the Younger. This production of the “Dramatick Romance,” which was restaged in 1811 and 1816, transformed the French villain of the folk-tale into a Turkish despot, and the production featured very expensive stage effects, including 16 horses in one performance run. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Ludwig Tieck wrote a German version of the same story, Blaubart, which premiered in 1799.
These dramatic iterations of the Bluebeard story were tremendously influential for the prose writers of the Romantic period and the later nineteenth century. In his 1832 Preface to Caleb Williams (1794), William Godwin invoked the intertext of Bluebeard from Romantic drama to explain Falkland’s revenge against Caleb: “Falkland was my Blue Beard, who had perpetrated atrocious crimes, which if discovered, he might expect to have all the world roused to revenge against him. Caleb Williams was the wife, who in spite of warning, persisted in his attempts to discover the forbidden secret.” The gender-bending of the original Bluebeard story in Godwin’s version would persist in Lord Byron’s reassertion of this persecution during his infamous relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb: when she discovered the secret of his past affairs with men (a crime then punishable by death), he threatened to persecute her like Falkland (and thus like Bluebeard).
Later in the century, novelists who had been influenced by the Bluebeard drama took up the story in their prose works. Brontë’s Jane Eyre, though the most obvious example of a Bluebeard-inflected novel, is by no means the only one. William Thackeray, who likely saw Colman and Kelly’s Blue Beard, adapted the story into “Bluebeard’s Ghost” (1843), while Charles Dickens wrote “Captain Murderer” (1860), a short story that combines the Bluebeard legend with pie-based cannibalism that winks to Titus Andronicus and Sweeney Todd. The French novelist Eugène Sue wrote a full-length adaptation of the story in 1844, which reversed the normal trajectory of the tale by assigning the tyrannical role to the woman. Sue's The Female Bluebeard, or The Adventurer recounts the tale of a mysterious woman who seems to have many different husbands and lovers, who are all quickly and chillingly dispatched. (In fact, it turns out that she’s married to the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, the whole time; in order to conceal his identity, Monmouth adopts and then abandons many different disguises.)
For the writers of the nineteenth century, Bluebeard was an important cultural touchstone, and Austen’s rendition of the Bluebeard narrative in Northanger Abbey is of a piece with many other variants on this story during this era. We might speculate as to why Bluebeard rose to prominence during the Romantic period. Could it have been in response to the French Revolution, with the idea of uncovering an abundance of blood-soaked bodies of female aristocrats gaining new traction in light of historical events? Or did the increasingly vocal calls to empower women, such as in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), inspire a patriarchal backlash in narratives that punished female curiosity? In light of the latter suggestion, Austen’s version of Bluebeard in Northanger Abbey is excitingly subversive, since Catherine’s suspicions of General Tilney’s gothic cruelty are confirmed: “in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”