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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“I have met him forever at the Bedford…one of the cleanest strokes ever was made in this world—I took his ball directly”: The Subtly Mysterious John Thorpe




During the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle nuances of JA’s characterization of John Thorpe. You might think there’s not much worth looking at closely, but in this monster of crude narcissism, I suggest she gives us lots to notice just beneath the surface. A great example is in Chapter 12 of NA, when Thorpe says the following to Catherine about General Tilney:
"I have met him forever at the Bedford; and I knew his face again today the moment he came into the billiard–room. One of the best players we have, by the by; and we had a little touch together, though I was almost afraid of him at first: the odds were five to four against me; and, if I had not made one of the cleanest strokes that perhaps ever was made in this world — I took his ball exactly — but I could not make you understand it without a table; however, I did beat him..."
That is a passage I never paid any attention to before, but when I did, today, I found all sorts of stuff of interest to the inquiring minds of serious Janeites.


FOREVER: First, I was struck by how 21st century John Thorpe sounds, using “forever” as a slangily hyperbolic synonym for “repeatedly & over a long time”, especially among young people. We all knew thatThorpe was fond of slang terms like “quiz”, but it’s remarkable to see modern slang coming out of his mouth. JA kept her ear finely tuned to the vocabulary of different sectors of her society, so she could capture character by the kinds of words her characters speak and think.


FIVE TO FOUR ODDS: Second, I wondered about how odds were set in a game of billiards in those days. I found the answer in the following colorful passage from Thackeray’s “Cox’s Diary”:
“Afterwards, down we went to billiards…. Well, we went to play. "FIVE TO FOUR on Coxe," screams out the Count.—" Done and done," says another nobleman. "Ponays," says the Count.—"Done," says the nobleman. "I vill take your six crowns to four," says the Baron.—" Done," says I. And, in the twinkling of an eye, I beat him; once making thirteen off the balls without stopping.
…"I'll take your seven to four, in tens," said I to the Baron. "Give me three," says he, "and done." I gave him three, and lost the game by one. "Dobbel, or quits," says he." "Go it," says I, up to my mettle: "Sam Coxe never says no;"—and to it we went. I went in, and scored eighteen to his five. "Holy Moshesh!" says Abednego, "dat little Coxsh is a vonder! who'll take odds?"
"I'll give twenty to one," says I, "in guineas."
"Ponays! yase, done," screams out the Count.
"Ponies, done," roars out the Baron: and, before I could speak, went in, and—would you believe it?—in two minutes he somehow made the game!”

So, assuming things hadn’t changed amongst gamblers between the Regency Era  and a half century later, there must have been a crowd of onlookers at the billiards game between Thorpe and the General, at which one of the bettors called out “5 to 4” odds against Thorpe’s great “stroke”.
Another wrinkle of this seemingly throwaway information just occurred to me---is this anecdote a hint to the reader as to why it is that General Tilney is so greedy, so focused on the wealth of a prospective wife---does this chauvinist bully, who burns the midnight oil writing anti-Jacobin tracts, and reading dangerous subversive “trash” (like Northanger Abbey?), have a gambling addiction, one which has put him in dire land-rich but cash-poor straits??  Food for thought.


 THE BEDFORD: Third, apropos Thorpe’s reference to the Bedford, perhaps you all assumed, as I did at first, that it was a club in Bath where Thorpe had been meeting the General during the current season in Bath. However, that is clearly not the case. First, see what Nancy wrote in 1999:

“The editor of this edition of NA, Claire Grogan, glosses the Bedford: The Bedford Coffee House near Covent Garden, London, was a regular haunt of David Garrick, William Collins, Henry Fielding, Alexander pope. Sheridan and Horace Walpole.”  Now, I ask you does John Thorpe seem the sort of person who would be going to a coffee house frequented by the literary set? Would the general? if he ever went to London? Why would he? There was a club and a hotel for the military gentlemen. It just does not seem something that either gentleman would do-- go to London from Oxford or Bath enough to be known.
However, there is another explanation of the term which finds more favor in my eyes and that is the Bedford Hunt. It is also called the Oakley now but it was sponsored by the Duke of Bedford from his place Woburn near Leighton Buzzard In 1790 the Duke of Bedford—who had inherited the dukedom at six, and was now only about 26. The new kennels and the hunting were written
up in Sporting Magazine.”  END QUOTE

I suggest that JA indeed meant to wink at that London literary club—after all, doesn’t the General attend the performance (of Hamlet, I claim) at the theatre? And doesn’t John Thorpe read literature? Fielding, Burney, & Lewis, for starters. And he is a college man, after all, and he expresses more opinions about literature than most Austen characters. So even if we may not agree with his opinions, the point is that John Thorpe believes himself to be a literary critic, so he’d be there in the Bedford Club, opining away.


THE CLEANEST STROKE: Fourth and last, I have found that John Thorpe is incapable of saying anything anywhere in the novel that is NOT a sexual double entendre, and this is yet another example. In this passage, his reference to “one of the cleanest STROKES that perhaps ever was made in this world—I took HIS BALL exactly” is extraordinarily suggestive, indicating that John got a distinctly sexual charge out of his billiards victory over the General.  

And, by the way, this was not Thorpe’s first sexualized usage of the word “stroke”.  JA used the word only seven times in all six novels combined, and so it’s noteworthy that Thorpe speaks two of them. Look at this earlier one from Chapter 7:

"You have lost an hour," said Morland; "it was only ten o'clock when we came from Tetbury."
"Ten o'clock! It was eleven, upon my soul! I counted every STROKE. This brother of yours would persuade me out of my senses, Miss Morland; do but look at my horse; did you ever see an animal so made for speed in your life?"

Jill Heydt-Stevenson insightfully described the many sexual innuendoes of Thorpe’s equine  obsession, and so I add to her insight this additional wrinkle on the word phallic “stroke” in those two passages, one of them horse-related.

And so, in conclusion, you see these four wrinkles hidden in that one short speech, which go a long way toward illustrating why one can read JA’s novels a tenth or twentieth time and still find amazing new things in them—in fact, I’d say the odds are a whole lot better than five to four in favor of that happening every time you reread one of them! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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