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Monday, August 13, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 75: Mutton for Henry and his friend Tilney/Tilson

"I had a few lines from Henry on Tuesday to prepare us for himself and his friend, & by the time that I had made the sumptuous provision of a neck of Mutton on the occasion, they drove into the Court-but lest you should not immediately recollect in how many hours a neck of Mutton may be certainly procured, I add that they came a little after twelve-both tall, & well, & in their different degrees, agreable.-It was a visit of only 24 hours-but very pleasant while it lasted.-Mr. Tilson took a sketch of the Great House before dinner;-& after dinner we all three walked to Chawton Park, meaning to go into it, but it was too dirty, & we were obliged to keep on the outside. Mr. Tilson admired the trees very much, but greived that they should not be turned into money."

In the above passage in Letter 75, Jane Austen, writing from Chawton to sister CEA at Godmersham, gives a rapid fire report of the visit to Chawton Cattage by brother Henry and his friend (and banking partner), Mr. James Tilson. However, for the Janeite, there is so much more going on in that paragraph than meets the eye upon a superficial straightforward reading. Upon deeper analysis, it is seen to be a small La Brea Tar Pit containing several "bones" all pointing to the villain of Northanger Abbey, General Tilney, as I will now explain.

First, James Tilson was the husband of Frances Sanford Tilson, who bore him (in Le Faye's words) "_at_ _least_ eleven children" during a career of serial pregnancy that lasted over a decade and a half. At my 2009 JASNA AGM presentation about Mrs. Tilney, the tragic deceased heroine of Northanger Abbey, I spoke about Mrs. Tilson as a real life model for Mrs. Tilney, as I outlined last year in the following blog post:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/12/mrs-tilson-mrs-tilney-sisters-in.html

In a nutshell, Mrs. Tilson was perhaps the most vivid and persistent example from JA's own circle of friends and family of a wife turned into "breeding cow".

Second, I also claimed, in my 2009 presentation, that James Tilson was himself a real life model for General Tilney, and as evidence therefor, I pointed out that JA's statement in Letter 75 that "Mr. Tilson admired the trees [in Chawton Park] very much, but greived that they should not be turned into money"---i.e., this Philistine was ready to tear down the trees for timber in a heartbeat!-- was the real life counterpart to the following passage in Chapter 26 of Northanger Abbey, where the greedy Philistine General Tilney is ready to tear down the Woodston cottage in a heartbeat just because Catherine (his love interest) was initially not vocal enough in her praise for it, but then he instantly reverses his death sentence on the cottage when she expresses her happiness with it:

"You like it—you approve it as an object—it is enough. Henry, remember that Robinson is spoken to about it. The cottage remains."

But it was only today that i saw the _third_ bread crumb in the above-quoted text of Letter 75 linking it to Northanger Abbey:

"...by the time that I had made the sumptuous provision of a neck of Mutton on the occasion, they drove into the Court-but lest you should not immediately recollect in how many hours a neck of Mutton may be certainly procured, I add that they came a little after twelve..."

I recalled then that there was a mention of mutton being eaten in NA, and I was pleased (but not at all surprised) to discover that mutton was mentioned in Chapter 26, only a few paragraphs before the above quoted passage about General Tilney's plan to demolish the Woodston cottage:

"...And it all ended, at last, in his telling Henry one morning that when he next went to Woodston, they would take him by surprise there some day or other, and eat their mutton with him. Henry was greatly honoured and very happy, and Catherine was quite delighted with the scheme...."

So, to encapsulate this string of connections, in _both_ real life _and_ in Northanger Abbey, (1) mutton is being consumed by the "heroine" (2) with a man the heroine loves named Henry, (3) during a visit from (4) a man close to Henry (5) whose surname begins with "Til" and (6) who is quick to demolish beautiful things!

I'd say the chances of all six of those elements occurring in such close proximity in both Letter 75 and Chapter 26 are vanishingly small, and so we can see that, whether JA finalized Chapter 26 before or after June, 1811, we can safely infer that she had the one she wrote first firmly in mind when she wrote the one she wrote second!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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