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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Catherine Morland is supposed to be dumb.... how come JA subtly gives us evidence in NA, in many different but (mostly) inobtrusive ways, that Catherine is actually very smart?


I just noticed, today, a particularly clever example of Catherine's quick mind in Chapter 7 of NA:

[John Thorpe] took out his watch: "How long do you think we have been running it from Tetbury, Miss Morland?"

"I do not know the distance." Her brother told her that it was twenty-three miles.

"Three and twenty!" cried Thorpe. "Five and twenty if it is an inch." Morland remonstrated, pleaded the authority of road-books, innkeepers, and milestones; but his friend [Thorpe] disregarded them all; he had a surer test of distance. "I know it must be five and twenty," said he, "by the time we have been doing it. It is now half after one; we drove out of the inn-yard at Tetbury as the town clock struck eleven; and I defy any man in England to make my horse go less than ten miles an hour in harness; that makes it exactly twenty-five."

So far, this seems to just be one of many examples in NA of John Thorpe boasting about his macho toys--his horses, his carriage, etc.

But then, a short time later in that same conversation, we read this:

"Rest! He [Thorpe's horse] has only come three and twenty miles today; all nonsense; nothing ruins horses so much as rest; nothing knocks them up so soon. No, no; I shall exercise mine at the average of four hours every day while I am here."

"Shall you indeed!" said Catherine very seriously. "That will be forty miles a day." END QUOTE

Do you see the hidden humor there? Have you ever noticed that touch before? Although the narrator does not point it out, what we are being shown here is that Catherine is actually adept and quick at algebra! She has just heard Thorpe claim a _minimum_ speed of ten miles an hour for his horse, and then he talks about exercising his horse four hours every day, and Catherine, who has not been able to avoid paying attention to his braggadocio, immediately pops out the correct answer, which is forty miles a day!

Or, in mathematical terms, 4x = y, where x is the number of hours, and y is the number of miles.

Now, my Subject Line question---why JA would want to hide this example of Catherine's quick mind just beneath the surface of the text of NA?---is, of course, disingenuous, as those who follow my sort of Austenian analysis might have guessed. I do have a ready answer--and by the time you reach the end of this message, you will find that we will have arrived at the hidden "room" where lies concealed the horrid answer to the mysteries of Northanger!

Here's my answer----Catherine Morland is only supposed to be dumb if you read NA--as almost all Janeites still do---solely as a parody of the dangers of an overactive imagination in an undeveloped female mind. But...if you read one layer deeper, and read NA as an _anti-parody_ that actually asserts, in a hundred ways, both covert and overt, that female imagination needs to be active, and that the female mind has been unjustly deemed less developed than the male mind, all "computes" perfectly! ;)

And now here is the key that unlocks the door to that hidden room, and I will describe for you the path I took in getting there.

As I was writing the above argument, I noticed another even more subtle and complex detail in that example, which showed me that there was more--much more--than just female skill in algebra hidden in Catherine's ability to solve Thorpe's little equation.

To wit: I was struck by Thorpe's boast that his horse was _so_ wonderful a steed that it could not go _less_ than ten miles an hour, even when _in harness_. It reminded me---and I claim, this was JA's intention--of another sort of (alas, very common) male boasting, in which a _minimum_ of ten units of measurement is also something formidable and boastworthy--I don't think I need to spell this out any further, as I have been so detailed as to be intelligible to anyone who wishes to know what I mean! But if you want a hint, just take it from John Thorpe, who unwittingly supplies the name of the unit of measurement JA means us to detect: "Five and twenty if it is an _INCH_"!!!

And... _that_ realization immediately led me to the part that makes the sexual innuendo even more complex and significant. JA is not just covertly lampooning the proverbial male preoccupation with the size of his "gig", she is also covertly pointing out that such male preoccupation is not merely ridiculous, it is also _dangerous_! Why? Because the unfortunate consequences _for wives_ of husbands making their "horses" go so fast are not limited to a lack of female satisfaction arising from the "ride". For a feminist living in 2011, that would be bad enough---but to a feminist like JA living two centuries earlier, it was a much more dangerous ride, because the "destination" of all those rides, for all the Mrs. Tilneys of England, was serial pregnancy!

And JA shows us she means this extra layer of meaning in (at least) three ways:

First, she shows us Catherine being _confined_ to Thorpe's carriage despite her strong desire to be released so that she can return to her friends the Tilneys. If you reread that scene with this metaphor in mind, I think you will agree with me that it is quite powerful, once understood.

Second, John Thorpe's ten miles per hour is a subliminal echo of the following passage at the very beginning of the novel:

"She [Mrs. Morland] had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number..."

As I stated in my presentation at the JASNA AGM last October, it is no accident that the spectre of death in childbirth is invoked in the first paragraph of the novel, and further that we learn that there are _ten_ Morland children. This is presented in a comic tone that lulls the reader to sleep, but the message becomes unmistakable when the covert theme of death in childbirth is developed through the character of Mrs. Tilney, and that is precisely where John Thorpe's ten miles per hour comes into play---we can all identify John Thorpe as a menacing shmuck whom any woman in her right mind would escape from, screaming for help. But JA is also telling that even dear, kind Mr. Morland, who seems the antithesis of John Thorpe, is actually much more dangerous than John Thorpe.

It was indeed the case, in JA's pre-Semmelweis England, that "anybody might expect" that Mrs. Morland might have died bringing any of those ten children into the world--and the chilling real life personal irony is that three of JA's sisters in law (two of them during JA's lifetime) actually died in childbirth _after_ giving birth to ten children!

And third, and most brilliant in its subtle punning, we have the following passage later in NA when another shmucky man, General Tilney, is boasting about _his_ male accoutrements:

"...but if he had a vanity, it was in the arrangement of his offices; and as he was convinced that, to a mind like Miss Morland's, a view of the accommodations and comforts, by which the labours of her inferiors were softened, must always be gratifying, he should make no apology for leading her on. They took a slight survey of all; and Catherine was impressed, beyond her expectation, by their multiplicity and their convenience."

Do I need to point out that the words "labours" and "expectation" are, in another context, associated with childbirth, and further that the Bible was understood by some English husbands to direct them to sire a "multiplicity" of children on their wives---which circles back to what I began this post with, i.e., Catherine Morland's demonstration that her knowledge of algebra includes an adeptness at "multiplication"!

But that would be multiplication in a very sinister equation for English wives, to wit--if an English husband gets his wife pregnant once per year, for ten years, how many pregnancies will that English wife endure, if she manages to survive them all?

Here is Catherine's (and Jane Austen's) _serious_ answer, which I hope you now read with new eyes that you did not have when you first read this passage earlier in this message:

"Rest! He [Thorpe's horse] has only come three and twenty miles today; all nonsense; nothing ruins horses so much as rest; nothing knocks them up so soon. No, no; I shall exercise mine at the average of four hours every day while I am here."

"Shall you indeed!" said Catherine very seriously. "That will be forty miles a day.

Indeed, it seemed to Jane Austen that English husbands who sired double digit children on their poor wives ("horses") took the attitude that their wives did not need any rest from pregnancy, and so they needed to be "exercised" frequently and at great length! Which gives chilling new meaning to the expression "no rest for the weary"!

And all of the above is gallows humor, because beneath all this witty humor, there is the true Gothic horror of Northanger Abbey---and it took the very active and fruitful imagination of Jane Austen to bring it all to life!

Cheers, ARNIE


Sheila said...

Hi Arnie. What struck me about your passage on the speed of John Thorpe's
horses, besides Catherine's ability to do the math, was the way her answer
reminded us and him, that she had remembered his earlier insistence on
twenty five miles as the distance, in spite of her brother's evidence to the
contrary. That Thorpe switched the distance to the actual one when there was
no danger of his losing face in front of Morland or Catherine is an
interesting thing in itself, but that Catherine would so cleverly remind him
of his earlier boast is more interesting. I've never thought of Catherine as
stupid, just as unformed. Perhaps an unformed mind, that is, one that had
not been developed to its potential, was a worse thing, in Austen's mind,
than a mind that had no potential at all.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Sheila, as usual you grasp everything immediately, and always have a valuable reaction!

I love your insight, it is spot-on, and accentuates Catherine's quiet power, she does not waste the time or energy confronting Thorpe directly on his error, instead she uses HIS absurdly high velocity to expose his absurd hyperbole -only a demented horseman would force his horse to endure 40 miles per day of exercise!

She has enlightened him, and at the same time she has allowed him to, as you say, save face.

So her mind is not unformed, it is the opposite. She shows an adept, diplomatic skill & a clever, sophisticated mind.