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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Eleanor Tilney as “Very Pretty Cattle”: The Grotesque Picturesque of John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey

In Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, during an outing to the scenic vistas presented by Beechen Cliff looking down on Bath, Henry Tilney famously gives the heroine Catherine Morland  “a lecture on the picturesque” in which “his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste”.  That passage memorably concludes as follows:

“Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject [of the picturesque] to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.”

Such Chapter 14 passage is the most obvious, explicit treatment of the picturesque in NA, and JA’s narrator, with typically understated and undermining irony, has it both ways. I.e., on the one hand, there is an apparent implication that Henry’s opinions on aesthetics are just too intellectually elevated for his bright but insufficiently educated young female companion to fully grasp. On the other hand, when we read, in Chapter 22, Catherine’s thoughts upon reaching Northanger Abbey….

“But now she should not know what was PICTURESQUE when she saw it. Such were her thoughts, but she kept them to herself…”

…we may wonder whether the narrator is slyly keeping to herself—but just barely—the highly subversive thought that Henry’s grandiose pontifications might just be so many castles built on intellectual sand. I.e., he has become so lost in his intellect that he has lost sight of what is (simply) beautiful-whereas Catherine retains her clear intuitive vision, and, like Miss Bates and Queen Gertrude, just sees what is.  

And JA otherwise very cleverly slips in a variety of subliminal prompts here and there via variants of the word “picture” popping up in narration and dialog, which broaden this theme of the picturesque in NA into a broader examination not merely of aesthetics but also of perception, imagination and epistemology---how we picture our world, how we know what we know. And, as I have opined on many occasions, I believe that in the end of the day, JA is wickedly suggesting to us that Catherine is the one who, like JA’s and Scott’s sharp elves, has a great deal of native ingenuity, sufficient to picture a truer version of reality to herself than Henry, for all his superior educational accomplishment.

In that broadened context re the picturesque, then, I now wish to bring to your attention another layer of meaning contained in a short passage in Chapter 11 of NA, where, I will argue, JA presents us with a disturbing, even grotesque, parody of the scene on Beechen Cliff. As I have already hinted in my Subject Line, I will show you John Thorpe in a new light, as Henry Tilney’s dark and disturbing “Hyde” to Henry Tilney’s “Jekyll” not only in obvious ways such as their radically different styles of courting of Catherine, but also in the realm of the picturesque as well.

Cutting to the chase, in Chapter 11 of Northanger Abbey, we read the following exchange between John Thorpe and Catherine Morland:

JT: "Well, I saw [Henry] at that moment turn up the Lansdown Road, driving a smart-looking girl."
CM: "Did you indeed?"
JT: "Did upon my soul; knew him again directly, and he seemed to have got some very pretty cattle too."

This entire post was actually prompted by a passing suggestion by an Austen scholar that I came across last night, regarding this Chapter 11 short passage, in which the scholar suggested that Thorpe, by "some very pretty cattle", was actually referring to the horses pulling Henry's carriage.

At first, I was absorbed in determining whether this was in fact a proper reading of Thorpe’s curious choice of words. Was "cattle" really a slang term actually used to describe carriage horses in JA's day? It seemed plausible, and it also fit with the fact that Thorpe, for all his primitiveness, nonetheless often speaks quite colorfully, sprinkling his speech with all sorts of slang, especially when speaking about his favorite subject--horses and carriages. He of all people would have been completely up to date on that subculture’s latest slang. And in that regard, I would not be surprised if someone with the OED in hand was able to confirm that this usage was out there during JA's era.

However, either way, even if that does turn out to have indeed been slang in use when JA wrote NA, I wish to suggest to you that JA deliberately chose to put that particular slang in John Thorpe’s mouth for a reason which the OED will never pick up on. I am suggesting that Thorpe, male chauvinist pig par excellence, is quite consciously, and with extreme vulgarity, referring, by "pretty cattle", not to Henry’s horses, but to Henry’s sister,  Eleanor Tilney, whose “smart” looks he has just taken note of in his first comment! In effect, Thorpe is sorta like the American cowboy in a western, who refers to an attractive woman as a  “fine filly”, but obviously, via the word “cattle”, without even the limited charm of “filly”. Thorpe buys and sells horses at the drop of a hat, and doesn’t that exact same mentality seem to inform his attitude toward women he wishes to marry?

In fact, it’s not just about the very primitive John Thorpe---as I've written in the past, there is a persistent covert theme running through all of JA's novels, in which she subliminally suggests that women in her world were treated like animals—when single, hunted like wild animal prey; and when married, kept & domesticated like farm animals. JA of course made this sad parallel overt at times in her letters---think of how she describes her pregnant-again-too-quickly niece Anna as "poor animal".

And Thorpe is exactly the kind of misogynist who pictures women this way, reducing them to the status of non-human beasts. Jill Heydt Stevenson was the first (I believe) to point out how Thorpe’s boasting about his horses has decidedly sexual connotations. However, JHS did not realize that this usage of “pretty cattle” by Thorpe is part and parcel of that same equine sexual innuendo.

I conclude by pointing out a crucial reason why JA in particular chose for John Thorpe to refer to Eleanor Tilney as “pretty cattle” as opposed to some other animal. Perhaps those of you of a scholarly bent who are already very familiar with the treatment of the picturesque in JA’s writing have guessed what I am about to point out, which is that Jane Austen’s most famous allusion to the picturesque theorizing of the giant of the field during her lifetime, Gilpin, just happens to involve actual “cattle”:

First, here is the famous passage in chapter 10 of Pride & Prejudice, in which JA invokes Gilpin:

Then taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness, and immediately said:
"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:  "No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The PICTURESQUE would be spoilt by admitting a FOURTH. Good-bye."  She then ran gaily off…

And second, here is the passage to which, as dozens of Austen scholars have long since pointed out, Elizabeth is slyly pointing in William Gilpin’s Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772:  “Cattle are so large, that when they ornament a fore-ground, a few are sufficient. Two cows will hardly combine. Three make a good group-either united—or when one is a little removed from the other two. If you increase the group beyond three; one, or more, in proportion, must necessarily be a little detached. This detachment prevents heaviness, and adds VARIETY. It is the same principle applied to cattle, which we before applied to mountains and other objects.”

So, if you had any reservations about inferring that JA might have John Thorpe speak so crudely about Eleanor Tilney as “pretty cattle”, I hope that the above, virtually explicit allusion in P&P to two women and a man as cows or cattle lays those reservations to rest.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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