by Matthew Walther
Of all the male love interests in Jane Austen, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey has always seemed to me easily the least impressive. Apart from his pompous habit of giving unsolicited advice and omnidirectional Sydney Smith-style pseudo-witticisms, there is the monologue for which he is probably best known:
Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?
The joke, lost on most of Austen’s readers today but, one imagines, obvious to her contemporaries (who had read Clarissa) is that forced confinements and domestic murders did take place even in perfectly respectable country houses. Henry’s Whiggish moralism is even more tedious than his frequent helpful hints.
I thought of Henry when I read reports about Britney Spears’s attempts to be released from the terms of the conservatorship in which she was placed at the end of the Bush administration. In testimony given earlier this week, Britney—referring to her by her surname strikes me as absurd somehow—claimed that among other things she is being made to work and to visit psychiatrists against her will (“I don’t owe them to go see a man I don’t know and share him [sic] my problems. I don’t even believe in therapy. I always think you take it to God”). It also appears that she is being forcibly sterilized:
I would like to progressively move forward and I want to have the real deal, I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby, I have an I.U.D. inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the I.U.D. out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children—any more children. So basically, this conservatorship is doing me way more harm than good.
I deserve to have a life. I’ve worked my whole life. I deserve to have a two to three-year break and just, you know, do what I want to do. But I do feel like there is a crutch here. And I feel open and I’m okay to talk to you today about it. But I wish I could stay with you on the phone forever, because when I get off the phone with you, all of a sudden all I hear all these nos—no, no, no. And then all of a sudden I get I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone. And I’m tired of feeling alone. I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so.
After years of condescending jokes about #FreeBritney, who would have guessed that there was something to her years of semi-public complaints? This case is a perfect illustration of what I have occasionally referred to as the “Tilney trap.” For some reason we find it difficult to imagine that in a country which sanctions the murder of hundreds of thousands of infants each year women could be legally forced to work and coerced into using contraception. This is, in fact, exactly what life is like for millions of women on Medicaid, who are routinely misled about unnecessary quasi-medical interventions when they give birth by public health authorities that would prefer to see them infertile and have increasingly invasive contraceptive devices foisted upon them as a matter of course. Surely nothing of the kind might take place here in our hospitals (or in our immigrant detention facilities), we tell ourselves; for-profit nursing homes cannot possibly be dens of misery and abuse; no American school would lock a child with special needs in a de-facto torture chamber in order to undergo what bureaucrats refer to as “seclusion/restraint”; no responsible physician would give a teenaged girl a double mastectomy with or without consulting her parents on the advice of a quack blogger.
In the United States, one of the most famous women in the world says that she is being robbed of her considerable earnings from concerts in which she would prefer not to appear (“In California, the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking,” as she put it in her testimony). If this sort of thing can happen to the singer of “Oops, I Did It Again,” it can happen to anyone. And it does.
Britney herself put it best: We’re not that innocent.
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