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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mr. Allen in Northanger Abbey: Swift’s Lilliputs & the real life Bath magnate Ralph Allen

Two weeks ago, Arthur Lindley wrote the following query in Austen-L:

"I'm hoping someone on the list can help me with an eighteenth-century matter. Is there a generally recognized explanation of where Swift got the word Lilliput? I discovered recently that Ralph Allen, the friend and patron of Fielding, Pope and the Scriblerians, lived in Lilliput Alley -- now North Parade Passage -- in Bath in the 1720s, and I'm wondering if Swift borrowed the name. It is, by the way, a tiny little street, especially in relation to Allen's more famous property, Prior Park. And, no, I can't think of an Austen connection aside from the fact that she would have known Lilliput Alley too."

Arthur, sorry for the long delay in responding to your above question, I finally had a chance today to retrieve my old files about Ralph Allen—and I can tell you that there is indeed an Austen connection! Your comment has enabled me to add yet another layer of allusion in Northanger Abbey, as I will now explain.

I've been aware of Ralph Allen as a real life source for the fictional Mr. Allen in Northanger Abbey since 2008 when I read the following article: “Mapping Northanger Abbey: Or, Why Austen’s Bath of 1803 Resembles Joyce’s Dublin of 1904” by Janine Barchas  in The Review of English Studies  Dec. 2008
Barchas subsequently published a well received book about many such real life sources for characters and situations in JA’s novels, which perhaps you've heard about, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, which I heartily recommend. And here specifically is what JASNA member Brother Paul Byrd blogged a few years ago about Barchas's chapters on Ralph Allen:

"...My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage”. While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath. Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68)."   END QUOTE FROM BYRD

Building on Barchas’s discovery, my own addition to that mix back in 2009 was my assertion that Ralph Allen was one of the real life "Bluebeards" (i.e., the many ordinary English husbands who “poisoned” their wives by impregnating them, resulting in their wife’s death in childbirth) whom JA embodied in the character of General Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Which is all prelude to Arthur's very interesting question --- I had no idea till I read his post that the name Lilliput was already in use in real life when Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. It is surely no random coincidence of dates that we read the following in Wikipedia about Ralph Allen’s home ownership in Bath, at that precise moment in time that Swift was writing his most famous novel and using the name “Lilliput” so saliently in it:

“Ralph Allen’s Town House is a grade 1 listed townhouse in Bath…[he] commenced building it in or shortly after 1727, although it is unlikely he ever lived there. At the time Allen was living in LILLIPUT ALLEY, in a house of some 15 rooms, then known as "Lease 7 on the Kingston rental (Countess of Kingston on Hull)", which is now 1 & 2 North Parade Passage.” Opinion is divided as to whether John Wood the Elder designed the "Town House", however the ostentatious decoration is not a style he uses elsewhere in Bath. Richard Boyle has also been suggested as the architect. The enhanced decoration with rustication, Corinthian pillars and decorated pediment may have been incorporated purely to demonstrate the fine carving qualities of Bath Stone. John Wood the Elder, in his "Essay towards the future of Bath", says: “while Mr. Allen was making the Addition to the North Part of his House in Lilliput Alley he new fronted and raised the old Building a full Story higher; it consists of a Basement Story sustaining a double Story under the Crowning; and this is surmounted by an Attick, which created a sixth Rate House, and a Sample for the greatest Magnificence that was ever proposed by me for our City Houses.” Because of the modern use of "magnificent" it is often thought that in this passage Wood is referring to the Town House. (An observer in the 21st century would probably consider it magnificent). But elsewhere in his Essay, Wood explains that his use of magnificence refers to size. He refers to decoration as "ornament" or "dress". A closer examination of Wood's words and the number of floors in the Town House reveal that he was not referring to this building. A 6th rate house is the largest in Wood's list. The Town House does not comply with his description. Wood was talking about the House in Lilliput Alley where Allen was than living. In 1745, Allen moved to Prior Park. His brother Phillip took over the Kingston Lease and continued to run the Postal business.” END QUOTE FROM WIKIPEDIA

So, surely, as Arthur suggests, it is no coincidence that Swift, the great ironist, chose the name “Lilliput” to describe a race of very tiny people, who are dwarfed by Gulliver, when Ralph Allen’s “magnificent” Bath residence was situated, in grotesque contrast, on the very tiny “Lilliput Alley”!

But that’s not all---it turns out that there is a further Jane Austen connection in all of this! I first asserted in 2006 that John Thorpe (the character in Northanger Abbey who, as Barchas pointed out, speaks about Mr. Allen’s great wealth, and seems to direct Catherine to Ralph Allen’s house in Bath) was in part based on yet another real life person. Specifically, I wrote the following back in 2006 in Janeites:

“From JA’s 06/19/1799 letter to Cassandra:    "[Brother Edward Austen Knight] made an important purchase Yesterday; no less so than a pair of Coach Horses; his friend MR. EVELYN found them out and recommended them, and IF THE JUDGEMENT OF A YAHOO CAN EVER BE DEPENDED ON, I suppose it may now, for I believe Mr. Evelyn has all his life THOUGHT MORE OF HORSES THAN OF ANYTHING ELSE."   It has been pointed out by Jocelyn Harris [in Jane Austen’s Art of Memory] that Mr. Thorpe from Northanger Abbey pretty much fits the definition of a Yahoo to a tee, and that this passage from her letter, perhaps written right around the time she was writing Northanger Abbey, indicates that the real life Mr. Evelyn was a model for Mr. Thorpe's character….That is so characteristic of her mode of allusion--she didn't wave any flag to say, here is an allusion to Gulliver's Travels, but she set it up by making Thorpe be like a Yahoo, and then having him talk about horses! Also, Austen used the word "swift", or a variant of "swift" only 6 times altogether in her novels....and 5 of them occur in Northanger Abbey! Not a coincidence!”

So, we know from the above passage in JA’s June 1799 letter (written when JA was still living in Steventon—the move to Bath was still nearly two years away)---not coincidentally a mere one year after she completed Susan, the first (never published and no longer existing) version of Northanger Abbey ---- that she and her sister were both familiar enough with Gulliver’s Travels at that time, so that JA’s reference to the horse-obsessed Mr. Evelyn as a Yahoo would be understood by CEA without explanation.

Which, uniting the above two streams of allusion, tells me that Jane Austen intended John Thorpe to be understood by her literary readers as a kind of inadvertent oracle in Northanger Abbey, who not only represents, in a general way, the primitive humanoid Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, but goes further, and  zeroes in even more precisely on Jonathan Swift’s veiled allusion to the real life Ralph Allen in Gulliver’s Travels.

I’m no Swift scholar, so I’ll look forward to hearing what they might make of this intriguing allusive mix vis a vis Gulliver’s Travels. But, vis a vis Northanger Abbey, I am certain that this all warrants a much closer look at the character of Mr. Allen. I don’t believe that JA’s sole purpose in connecting Mr. Allen to the real life Ralph Allen was to explain why John Thorpe believes Mr. Allen is so very rich. I think we’re meant to dig deeper, and in particular to wonder about undisclosed familial relationships among the Allens, the Morlands, the Thorpes, and the Tilneys—relationships which Catherine is unaware of, but which may well be driving crucial aspects of the plot of the novel.

For example, I just found the following very interesting biographical data about Ralph Allen:
“Ralph Allen and Prior Park”
“…At the age of 19, on 13th February 1712, Ralph Allen became the Deputy Postmaster of Bath. In 1715 Ralph Allen learned of a Jacobite plot and wrote to Major GENERAL George Wade about it. Wade was sent to Bath, which was strongly Jacobite, in command of two regiments of dragoons. He found eleven chests of firearms, swords, cartridges, three pieces of cannon, one mortar, and moulds to cast cannon, which had been buried underground….It has also led certain sources (inc. R. E. M. Peach) to state that [Ralph Allen] married the GENERAL’s daughter Miss Jane Erle. There is no evidence of this and, indeed, Wade who died unmarried left four illegitimate children, George, John, Jane and Emilia and his will refers to his daughter as Mrs. Erle. One reason this idea may have arisen is that in the short book Ralph Allen and Prior Park, by Robert Francis Kilvert (1857) he has an Appendix that purports to be from Richard Jones’ (Ralph Allen’s Clerk of Works) diary and states “Married Wade’s bastard daughter”.

I have long been of the opinion that General Tilney does not show such strong attentions to Catherine on son Henry’s behalf, but on his own behalf! So, now, in light of the above biographical data about the real life Ralph Allen and the general’s illegitimate daughter he appears to have married, I think that JA meant to suggest that General Tilney suspects that Catherine is Mr. Allen’s illegitimate daughter (believing that Mr. Allen takes Catherine to Bath for that reason), and that is why he (and John Thorpe for that matter) are both so interested in Catherine.  

Cheers, ARNIE

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