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

Friday, March 28, 2014

Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe as Samuel Johnson: A Tale of Tou…rette’s

In my last post….
…I asserted that John Thorpe, the young ogre of Northanger Abbey, was actually a spot-on, multi-faceted but veiled representation of Samuel Johnson, who was the common denominator behind the following seemingly unrelated eight Austenian data points:

ONE: A joke in a Jane Austen letter JA wrote shortly after finishing Susan (the literary ancestor of Northanger Abbey), attributing authorship of a novel JA knew very well to the wrong author.
TWO: John Thorpe's complaint about "an old man playing at seesaw" in Fanny Burney's Camilla.
THREE: John Thorpe's expressing a strong opinion about Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.
FOUR: John Thorpe's taking Catherine out for a very fast ride in his carriage, and boasting about his speed.
FIVE: John Thorpe's manic logorrhea (intense verbosity and strange vocalizations).
SIX: The footnote to Northanger Abbey.
SEVEN: Henry Austen's Biographical Notice published as the intro to the First Edition of NA and Persuasion.
EIGHT: The Prince of Whales answer to the second charade in Emma.

Rather than try to squeeze all my evidence in support of all of those eight data points as to Thorpe as Johnson into one post, I will serialize my presentation, choosing one or two subtopics for each post, until I am done (thanks, Diane, for leading me to that approach!).

This post will therefore only cover the above Points Five and Seven, which, it turns out, is not short, but mostly because of several relevant quotations which back up my claims. But please keep in mind, the ultimate validity of my overall claim rests on the synergistic probative value of all of the above interconnected Data Points combined, not just one or two. They are all closely interrelated, and mutually supportive.

Data Point SEVEN: Henry Austen's Biographical Notice published as intro to NA & Persuasion includes this sentence: “Her reading was very extensive in history and belles lettres; and her memory extremely tenacious. Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse.”

I am now convinced that Henry Austen wrote Johnson into the above sentence, not because this was a true statement, but because Henry understood that John Thorpe was a representation of Samuel Johnson. That understanding must have created quite a dilemma for Henry.

Henry was Mr. Expediency, and wanted more than anything to get Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published soon after Jane’s death. There was money to be made here, and a big shot in the arm to the Austen literary brand overall. But if John Thorpe was “outed” as a mean-spirited parody of Samuel Johnson, that could damage the brand. Something had to be done, but what? The character of Thorpe could not simply be left on the printshop floor. John Thorpe was no minor character in NA by any means--he grabs hold of the stage whenever he is on it, which is in several different chapters, his interaction with the heroine is central to the action while he’s “onstage”, and on top of all that, he is one of the darkest characters to be found in any JA novel, and therefore memorable.  
Even worse, the parody of Samuel Johnson subtext is not a one-shot deal, either, it is all over the place in the characterization of Thorpe, as this series of posts will eventually cover all of them. Therefore, Thorpe-as-Johnson was a tumor which was dangerous while left in the “body” of the novel, and yet it could not be surgically removed from the novel without immediately killing the patient. He is essential to the vitality of Northanger Abbey.

What to do, then, with Henry’s worry that an alert, sensitive, and literarily sophisticated reader of NA might spot this not very flattering allusion to Johnson (and, for that matter, the other, many unflattering allusions to real persons, both famous and Austen-familial, scattered throughout NA and all of the previously published novels)? And if such a “whale” were spotted in NA, then the commentator might just blow the proverbial whistle---“Thar she blows!  Crazed, unsexed female off the starboard bow just rose from the grave like St. Swithin and attacked a defenseless male literary whale!”. You get my Mobyish drift.

This sort of hostile reaction, especially from an influential critic writing in the Critical Review, the Gentlemen’s Magazine, or the like, could’ve spelled doom for sales of NA and Persuasion, as well as hoped-for new editions of the 4 other novels. The idea that JA might have skewered Samuel Johnson, in a thinly veiled parody which (as I will detail below re Point Five) even included a very sharp-edged ridicule of Johnson’s involuntary disabilities, would not play well among such readers, especially when connected to Persuasion’s Anne Elliot’s famous critique of history having been written entirely by men.

If this was what giving the pen to a woman meant (the same male pens which skewered Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation after her death would write), then we all better make sure to keep the pen away from such female rebels for another few centuries, and maybe burn all existing copies of Jane Austen’s novels, like Sir Thomas did to all the copies of Lover’s Vows, just to be sure.

So I see Henry as he gets ready to publish in 1818, as torn between two unacceptable choices. He’s got to do something. So, in effect he threaded the needle, and (as it turns out famously and successfully) convinced the world, based on no proof whatsoever (other than JA’s two very cryptic, playful references to “Dr. Johnson” in her letters), that Samuel Johnson was JA’s favorite moral writer in prose. It was a brilliant stroke, because there was nothing obvious in JA’s writing to make it sound like protesting too much. And yet, it would plant a seed that would make it much more likely that a reader who did smell the allusion would just say, “It must be my own overactive imagination”, i.e., the very evil that NA was supposed to be a cure for. Brilliant strategy, I have to grudgingly give to Henry, even as I hate the obfuscation he achieved.

That Henry was successful is borne out by the dozens and dozens of scholarly citations of that single sentence by generations of Austen scholars who simply take it as a given, because, basically, Henry Austen said so, and why would he lie about that?  Henry’s strategy worked so well, for 196 years, in fact, that it seems I, in 2014, am the first to make this claim that JOHN Thorpe is Samuel JOHNson (or should I say is, metaphorically speaking “Johnson’s son”?)

And now that sets the stage for the first of my evidentiary sections…

Data Point FIVE: John Thorpe's manic logorrhea and vocalizations (intense verbosity and strange sound-making).

As a result of the universal popularity of Boswell’s 1791 Life of Johnson, many knowledgeable Regency Era English readers were aware that Johnson had, throughout his entire life (died 1784) suffered from intense, multiple involuntary abnormalities in both his body movements and vocalizations.  Several modern articles and book chapters have attempted to diagnose Johnson’s condition, attributing varied medical causes thereto. The most recent, Sara Landreth’s “Breaking the Laws of Motion:  Pneumatology and Belles Lettres in Eighteenth-Century Britain”, New Literary History, Volume 43, #2  (Spring 2012), summarized Johnson’s condition thusly:

“…Johnson, perhaps more than any other writer of his age, wrestled with involuntary motion in his everyday life. Shortly after his death in 1784, an anonymous obituary fondly described Johnson’s erratic gait as a kind of perambulatory automatism: “When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet.” Johnson suffered from what Boswell called a “convulsive . . . distemper”—a disorder similar to Tourette’s Syndrome—that caused involuntary “motions and tricks”: “While talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly . . . shook [his head] in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards.”  END QUOTE

After reading the above, alert readers among you may already have guessed that one of my followup posts will connect the above description of Johnson’s “backwards and forwards” rocking physical movements with the “old man playing at SEESAW” comment by Thorpe which I flagged in point TWO, above. But that connection is for my next post-- today I want to focus on Johnson’s vocalizations. Why? Because of the eerie similarity between Johnson’s famous verbal tics and oddities and John Thorpe’s!  

First, here is the famous description by Boswell which I discussed in my post earlier this week about why Jane Austen would have seen Johnson as a “Prince of Whales”:

‘In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.' “   “END QUOTE”

And now please also read this passage from ”Samuel Johnson’s Tics and Gesticulations”  by Lawrence C. McHenry, Jr.,  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 22 #2 (1967) ppg. 152-68:

“Along with the spasmodic movements or gesticulations, the afflicted are liable to involuntary explosive utterance, in which case there is an irresistible urge to repeat sounds (echolalia), words, or phrases. Obscene words are sometimes emitted (coprolalia), but Johnson objected to obscene words and did not use them. These vocalizations are the outward verbal manifestations of inner psychic conflicts and obsessions. Boswell said that Johnson’s talking to himself was indeed one of his singularities. “ END QUOTE

And now, keep those descriptions of Johnson in mind as you read this wonderful description of John Thorpe’s speech patterns, in “The Idiolects of the Idiots” by Jeffrey Herrle in The Talk in Jane Austen (2002), at ppg. 239-40:

“Notably, Austen’s narrator conveys the rhythm and sound of Thorpe’s manner of speaking here as well as what he says. His ‘discourse now sunk from its hitherto animated pitch, to nothing more than a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met”. We get a sense that Thorpe almost speaks like the animals with which he so enjoys spending time—he yelps, squeals, and whinnies wildly when he is excited, and barks and snorts at strangers. If he is like a horse, however, he is hardly one of Swift’s Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels. He seems much more like a Yahoo.
Not surprisingly, Catherine encounters similar discourse, both in substance and in delivery, again and again. If anything, Thorpe’s speech degenerates upon further acquaintance….Catherine’s assertion of her brother’s sobriety provokes “a loud and overpowering reply, of which no part was very distinct, except the frequent exclamations, amounting almost to oaths, which adorned it.” When Catherine suggests that her brother does not have a horse and gig of his own…Thorpe “said something in the loud, incoherent way to which he had often recourse, about its being a d- thing to be miserly; …which Catherine did not even endeavor to understand.”
Thorpe’s departure from civilized discourse to a series of primordial grunts reaches its lowest point when he forces her, against her will, to go to Clifton. The credibility of his talk has by now been tarnished by his continual boasting and curt attacks on everyone else, as we as his lies about Blaize Castle and his lies to the Tilneys about Catherine’s plans. Now, however, we finally see that behind the ‘rattle’ there is something more ominous and brutal. This is, of course, already suggested with his lies and swearing—moral and social offences which clearly mark him as a menace in Austen’s world. But what happens in the carriage on the way to Clifton is nothing short of a figurative rape…”…But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on;”  I continue to find this scene the most disturbing in Austen’s work. It does however forcefully emphasize how Thorpe’s moral bankruptcy, lack of empathy, and sheer brutality manifests itself in his utterances and noises….”  END QUOTE

And there’s even more on this point, which I only became aware of yesterday, something  so amazing and validating of my claim of Thorpe as Johnson, that I am still shaking my head about it. Turns out that the door was actually wide open for Austen scholars to walk through and notice Thorpe as Samuel Johnson, had they only been up to speed on the Jane Austen Code.

Specifically, there is a true textual smoking gun connecting John Thorpe with Samuel Johnson, in regard to their peculiarly similar ways of speaking, a clue which JA subtly hid in plain sight in Northanger Abbey, which had “Samuel Johnson” written all over it!

I first became aware of this clue yesterday when I came across Phyllis Bottomer’s article is in Persuasions Online Vol. 31  (2010) entitled “Conversation, or rather talk”: Autistic Spectrum Disorders and the Communication and Social Challenges of John Thorpe”.  Phyllis, whom I first met at the Chawton House Austen “Woodstock” in July 2009, has made a very recognizable name for herself in Austen critical circles during the past 5 years with her controversial claims that various characters in JA’ s novels, mostly famously Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins, were JA’s finely observed, clinical depictions of actual physical conditions which we refer to today as being on the autistic spectrum. Phyllis is also one of the Austen scholars whom Deborah Yaffe portrayed in Among the Janeites, where I was honored to be portrayed as well.

So what was it I saw in Bottomer’s article that points to Samuel Johnson?—it actually is right there in her article title “Conversation, or rather talk”, which she goes on to explain as follows in her very first paragraph:

“[A]ll the rest of [Thorpe’s] conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns.”  (Northanger Abbey 66).  Samuel Johnson noted this crucial distinction when he described an evening by saying, “we had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed” (Boswell 333). “

What Bottomer did not realize, however, was that this parallel was not a mere coincidence that would make a nice opening epigram for her article, but that JA had deliberately almost (but not quite) literally quoted that very same, famous epigram of Johnson’s in Catherine’s narrated thoughts about John Thorpe!

And why would JA virtually quote Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum about the difference between real conversation, and mere talk? In the context of the above eight Data Points all pointing to John Thorpe as Samuel Johnson, that “setting casts a different shade” on this veiled quotation, and makes it clear that this is an ironic allusion to Johnson. I.e., it is classic Austenian irony of reversal of expectation, that the very character in NA who represents Samuel Johnson, advocate for real conversation and not mere talk, is the very character who best illustrates the absence of true conversation— Jane Austen was in effect saying about Samuel Johnson that he talked the talk, so to speak, but did not walk the walk.  And that cliché just happens to fit perfectly with the very real and very famous difficulties that Samuel Johnson had with both talking and walking, as my earlier quotations illustrated!

And I also went back to Herrle’s article and saw that he had, in 2002, been eight years ahead of Bottomer in flagging, without really understanding the significance of, that veiled quotation of Johnson by JA’s narrator describing Thorpe. Here’s how Herrle put it then:

“Samuel Johnson, JA’s favourite moralist, once remarked that ideal conversations are ones in which ‘there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments’ (Boswell 623). There is, of course, much evidence to suggest that JA inherited this ideal of conversation. We get an inkling of this when Austen’s narrator in NA remarks that Mrs. Allen spent most of the day ‘ by the side of Mrs. Thorpe, in what they call conversation, but in which there was scarcely ever any exchange of opinion, and not often any resemblance of subject.’ becomes readily apparent why Austen’s heroines find Thorpe and Collins so unsavoury. Too self serving and egotistical to listen sympathetically to others and to exchange ideas, Thorpe and Collins exhort, denounce, and proclaim their own personal enthusiasms and desires, but never converse. Austen herself makes the distinction between talk and conversation with Thorpe, remarking that ‘all the rest of his conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns’ . …”

So it seems that Herrle was the first to experience a Trojan Horse Moment about that same veiled quotation, as he, like Bottomer, just could not imagine that JA would allude in so sly and outrageous a manner, JA was content to create a subliminal echo, and leave it to the few to realize that this was more, and that it was, arguably, the most telling textual hint in all of NA of John Thorpe as Samuel Johnson.

And again, it’s so ironic, because in effect, JA has her wise young heroine perceive a young Samuel Johnson as doing exactly the opposite of what the real Samuel Johnson purported to advocate for. I.e., this was exactly the sort of unconscious hypocrisy that JA exposed everywhere in her novels, but I am gratified to see that my sense of JA doing this with Samuel Johnson has now been so dramatically vindicated.

So in conclusion, I say that the above is very strong evidence that Samuel Johnson’s symptoms, which Landreth’s article makes me think was likely Tourette’s rather than Asperger’s, but in the end, that call is less significant than that what syndrome afflicted, indeed tormented, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen chose to mimic it in the character of John Thorpe.  And will now wrap up this post by directing those of you wishing for more detail to Herrle’s and Bottomer’s articles if you want to read some more interesting analysis of John Thorpe’s verbal behavior, and to Landreth and McHenry’s articles, for more good stuff about Johnson’s verbalizations.

I’ll be back in a day or two with the next post in this series, which will cover the Fanny Burney connection to all of this, which will cover Data Points ONE and TWO!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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