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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bob Brown’s “Great Coat” Redux

A few weeks ago, I discussed the following line at the end of one of JA's 1798 letters to her sister:

"Ask little Edward whether Bob Brown wears a great coat this cold weather."

Today, posts by Christy and Elissa in Janeites induced me to take a second look at the above line from JA’s letter, which I previously identified as having nothing to do with a real person named Bob Brown......

....but which I otherwise did not take as anything more than a joke name made up for little nephew Edward.

Now today, I still think that, on the surface, this was very much a joke name repeated to the 5 year old Edward Knight, Jr., which could very well have referred to a snowman (although I would rather think it would be a scarecrow), but…..connecting Bob Brown’s great coat to the numerous great coats of Northanger Abbey made me immediately connect the dots between the pervasive sexual innuendoes in NA and the above phrase, a connection which of course was a private joke between JA and CEA.

It took me one minute with Google Books to find the following confirmation of my intuition that a “greatcoat”, when used on the street, meant something very different from its literal meaning:

Wayne Andersen: _Phobic raptures: wicked family histories_, 1991:

P. 53:“The condom originated in London in the 18th century— was referred to in France as a British equestrian jacket (nowadays la capote anglaise or _'military great coat’_)— but was expensive and over a century later was still rarely used.”

Perhaps this is why Mrs. Allen, in Chapter 11 of NA, says to Catherine:

“Anybody would have thought [it would not rain] indeed. There will be very few people in the pump–room, if it rains all the morning. I hope Mr. Allen will put on his greatcoat when he goes, but I dare say he will not, for he had rather do anything in the world than walk out in a greatcoat; I wonder he should dislike it, it must be so comfortable.”

This passage is closely akin to the solicitude that everybody expresses over Jane Fairfax going out to the post office in the rain—which I claim is a veiled reference to the sort of “rain” which falls only on women and which it is indeed very dangerous for a young lady, being a “delicate plant”, not to use an “umbrella” to keep one’s stockings from getting wet. And perhaps Mr. Allen is a representative of every selfish man who has ever allowed his dislike of wearing condoms to force a female partner to risk "getting wet". Behind the humor, rain,
pollination, all of them are metaphors drawn from nature to veiledly refer to the sometimes stark realities of human female sexuality.

And the “greatcoat” is part of this very same metaphor.

And the above quoted passage in NA is, as Christy suggested, only the beginning of an extended riff. Look at Catherine’s excited reactions upon first seeing the “very fashionable–looking, handsome young man, whom she had never seen before...She looked at him with great admiration,
and even supposed it possible that some people might think him handsomer than his brother..."

It’s no wonder that Catherine’s imagination turns immediately to “the three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a traveling–chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed.”

Horses...being forced into a carriage...and being driven off with incredible speed? Of course this is sexual innuendo! This is one of many passages which illustrates that both Northanger Abbey film adaptations have been spot-on, and actually rather restrained, in their depictions
of Catherine’s Gothic sexual fantasies.

A few chapters later in NA we read:

[The general’s] greatcoat, instead of being brought for him to put on directly, was spread out in the curricle in which he was to accompany his son…. At last, however, the door was closed upon the three females, and they set off at the sober pace in which the handsome, highly fed
four horses of a gentleman usually perform a journey of thirty miles…”

And there is the ironic counterpoint to Catherine’s fantasy—the general’s greatcoat is spread out in the curricle, and here we have three _females_ being driven at a _sober pace_ by a team of four horses. It is not just the spirits of the general’s children which are being
depressed, but Catherine’s herself! For all that she hated Thorpe abducting her and driving at high speed, Catherine liked it when she liked the man she was with in the carriage!

And then we have Henry in _his_ greatcoat, and this time it is the (gasp!) “open carriage” which triggers Catherine’s libido:

“The remembrance of Mr. Allen’s opinion, respecting young men’s open carriages, made her blush at the mention of such a plan, and her first thought was to decline it; but her second was of greater deference for General Tilney’s judgment; he could not propose anything improper for
her; and, in the course of a few minutes, she found herself with Henry in the curricle, as happy a being as ever existed. A very short trial convinced her that a curricle was the prettiest equipage in the world; the chaise and four wheeled off with some grandeur, to be sure, but it was a heavy and troublesome business, and she could not easily forget its having stopped two hours at Petty France. Half the time would have been enough for the curricle, and so nimbly were the light horses disposed to move, that, had not the general chosen to have his own carriage lead the way, they could have passed it with ease in half a minute. But the merit of the curricle did not all belong to the horses; Henry drove so well — so quietly — without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them: so different from the only gentleman–coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with! And then his hat sat so well, and the innumerable capes of his greatcoat looked so becomingly important! To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world….”

And we reminded of the above a few chapters later at the Abbey itself when we hear about “a dark little room, owning Henry’s authority, and strewed with his litter of books, guns, and greatcoats.”

And the final installment in this elaborate game of Freudian symbolism is a few chapters further:

“A ball itself could not have been more welcome to Catherine than this little excursion, so strong was her desire to be acquainted with Woodston; and her heart was still bounding with joy when Henry, about an hour afterwards, came booted and greatcoated into the room where she and Eleanor were sitting, and said, “I am come, young ladies, in a very moralizing strain, to observe that our pleasures in this world are always to be paid for, and that we often purchase them at a great disadvantage, giving ready–monied actual happiness for a draft on the future, that may not be honoured….”

This fits perfectly with my repeated assertions that JA was working on both P&P and NA as she wrote these late 1798 letters. She was obviously consumed with her writing at this point, so no wonder that she had so little patience for her mother's hypochondria. In fact, I wonder if Mrs. Austen's "illnesses" were exacerbated when Mrs. Austen observed Jane trying to quietly sneak off to her private workspace to write--like Lady Catherine wanting to be in on the conversation between Darcy and Lizzy at Rosings, I think that Mrs. Austen was wondering just what Jane was writing, and whether it just might have some unpleasant associations to
Mrs. Austen herself?

Thinking of Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennet as two sides of the same real life woman--a frightening thought!

Cheers, ARNIE

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