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Friday, September 2, 2016

Jonathan Swift, Yahoo John Thorpe, & Master Tilney in Northanger Abbey

This is the third post (with one more to following within a few days) of mine about the veiled allusion to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that I see in Northanger Abbey. Today I will focus on JA’s wordplay in NA, by which I claim she subliminally but unmistakably pointed to Swift’s famous novel:


In my first post in this thread, I argued that JA’s ironic 1799 epistolary comment to her sister about “the Judgement of a Yahoo” in referring to the horse-obsessed Mr. Evelyn, was a wink at the character of John Thorpe in NA. Surely Thorpe was already present in the 1798 Susan, the first version of Northanger Abbey that JA had sold for 50 pounds to the publisher Crosby a year earlier. Susan of course was never published, and, alas, no trace of its manuscript remained in existence, after JA significantly revised it during the final decade of her life.

It occurred to me yesterday to check the text of Northanger Abbey for usages of the word “judgment”, and that turned out to be a shrewd hunch, as I found not one but three passages in which “judgment” is indeed directly and significantly connected to the Yahoo-like Mr. Evelyn’s fictional double, John Thorpe:

Chapter 7: Right after John Thorpe displays his crude tastelessness by dissing Burney’s Camilla, we are treated to examples of his boorishness toward his family, and it is in reaction thereto that we read the narrator’s ironic reference to “her [Catherine’s] judgment” of the Yahoo-like John Thorpe being “bought off” by Isabella’s rosy-colored reframe of her brother’s dreadful manners (remarkably similar to what we witness in the U.S. political news on a daily basis):      
 “This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe's lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son, as they met Mrs. Thorpe, who had descried them from above, in the passage.  [Thorpe] "Ah, Mother! How do you do?" said he, giving her a hearty shake of the hand. "Where did you get that quiz of a hat? It makes you look like an old witch. Here is Morland and I come to stay a few days with you, so you must look out for a couple of good beds somewhere near."
And this address seemed to satisfy all the fondest wishes of the mother's heart, for she received him with the most delighted and exulting affection. On his two younger sisters he then bestowed an equal portion of his fraternal tenderness, for he asked each of them how they did, and observed that they both looked very ugly. These manners did not please Catherine; but he was James's friend and Isabella's brother; and HER JUDGMENT WAS FURTHER BOUGHT OFF by Isabella's assuring her, when they withdrew to see the new hat, that John thought her the most charming girl in the world, and by John's engaging her before they parted to dance with him that evening…”

Chapter 9: Here we get our most extensive view of Thorpe’s “expertise” on horses, and that is when Thorpe boasts about “his judgment” in foretelling the winners of horseracing matches. This is the passage which, I claim, JA must in particular have had in mind when she referred to “the judgement of a Yahoo” while wryly describing the real life Mr. Evelyn’s horse obsession:    
“Thorpe's ideas then all reverted to the merits of his own equipage, and she was called on to admire the spirit and freedom with which his horse moved along, and the ease which his paces, as well as the excellence of the springs, gave the motion of the carriage. She followed him in all his admiration as well as she could. To go before or beyond him was impossible. His knowledge and her ignorance of the subject, his rapidity of expression, and her diffidence of herself put that out of her power; she could strike out nothing new in commendation, but she readily echoed whatever he chose to assert, and it was finally settled between them without any difficulty that his equipage was altogether the most complete of its kind in England, his carriage the neatest, his horse the best goer, and himself the best coachman.
"You do not really think, Mr. Thorpe," said Catherine, venturing after some time to consider the matter as entirely decided, and to offer some little variation on the subject, "that James's gig will break down?"
"Break down! Oh! Lord! Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it. The wheels have been fairly worn out these ten years at least—and as for the body! Upon my soul, you might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch. It is the most devilish little rickety business I ever beheld! Thank God! we have got a better. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds."            "Good heavens!" cried Catherine, quite frightened. "Then pray let us turn back; they will certainly meet with an accident if we go on. Do let us turn back, Mr. Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him how very unsafe it is."          "Unsafe! Oh, lord! What is there in that? They will only get a roll if it does break down; and there is plenty of dirt; it will be excellent falling. Oh, curse it! The carriage is safe enough, if a man knows how to drive it; a thing of that sort in good hands will last above twenty years after it is fairly worn out. Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail." 
Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead…He told her of horses which he had bought for a trifle and sold for incredible sums; of racing matches, in which HIS JUDGMENT HAD INFALLIBLY FORETOLD the winner…”

Chapter 16: Finally, here Isabella Thorpe unsuccessfully attempts to diminish Henry in Catherine’s eyes, and pushes John forward as an alternative suitor. Next, Catherine points to General Tilney’s civility and attention toward herself; whereupon Isabella starts to cite “John’ s judgment” of the General, but gets no further, because Catherine, who clearly no longer has the patience to hear John’s judgment of anything, peremptorily cuts Isabella off!:
[Isa.] "How contemptible! Of all things in the world inconstancy is my aversion. Let me entreat you never to think of [Henry] again, my dear Catherine; indeed he is unworthy of you."     [Cath.] "Unworthy! I do not suppose he ever thinks of me."
[Isa.] "That is exactly what I say; he never thinks of you. Such fickleness! Oh! How different to your brother and to mine! I really believe John has the most constant heart."          [Cath.] "But as for General Tilney, I assure you it would be impossible for anybody to behave to me with greater civility and attention; it seemed to be his only care to entertain and make me happy."
[Isa.] "Oh! I know no harm of him; I do not suspect him of pride. I believe he is a very gentleman-like man. John thinks very well of him, and JOHN’S JUDGMENT—"               [Cath.] "Well, I shall see how they behave to me this evening; we shall meet them at the rooms."


In my previous post, I suggested that at the heart of the allusion to Gulliver’s Travels in Northanger Abbey  there are strong intentional parallels between the reverential attitude of Catherine toward Henry and Eleanor Tilney, on the one hand, and the reverential attitude of Gulliver toward his  Houyhnhnm equine master, on the other.

On another hunch, I searched to find the uses of the word “master”, as well as of the word “swift” (or its variants) in NA. These hunches also turned out to be spot-on, and I’ll show you the relevant passages in NA in a moment. But first I must point out that there are five usages of “swift” words in NA. This does not sound like very many, until you learn that there is only one other usage (in Emma) of “swift” in all five other Austen novels combined, and none at all in JA’s surviving letters! That tells us that “swift” was not part of JA’s working lexicon, and therefore those five usages in NA were deliberate and special, and almost certainly her playful winks at the surname of Jonathan Swift, the author she was emulating in NA!:

Chapter 2: As for Mr. Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protegee, Mrs. Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as SWIFTLY as the necessary caution would allow…

Chapter 9: "You will not be frightened, Miss Morland," said Thorpe, as he handed her in, "if MY HORSE should dance about a little at first setting off. He will, most likely, give a plunge or two, and perhaps take the rest for a minute; but he will soon know HIS MASTER. He is full of spirits, playful as can be, but there is no vice in him."  Catherine did not think the portrait a very inviting one, but it was too late to retreat, and she was too young to own herself frightened; so, resigning herself to her fate, and trusting to the animal's boasted knowledge of its owner, she sat peaceably down, and saw Thorpe sit down by her. Everything being then arranged, the servant who stood at the HORSE's head was bid in an important voice "to let him go," and off they went in the quietest manner imaginable, without a plunge or a caper, or anything like one. Catherine, delighted at so happy an escape, spoke her pleasure aloud with grateful surprise; and her companion immediately made the matter perfectly simple by assuring her that it was entirely owing to the peculiarly judicious manner in which he had then held the reins, and the singular discernment and dexterity with which he had directed his whip. Catherine, though she could not help wondering that with such perfect command of his HORSE, he should think it necessary to alarm her with a relation of its tricks, congratulated herself sincerely on being under the care of so excellent a coachman; and perceiving that the animal continued to go on in the same quiet manner, without showing the smallest propensity towards any unpleasant vivacity, and (considering its inevitable pace was ten miles an hour) by no means alarmingly fast, gave herself up to all the enjoyment of air and exercise of the most invigorating kind, in a fine mild day of February, with the consciousness of safety…
And she would neither believe her own watch, nor her brother's, nor the servant's; she would believe no assurance of it founded on reason or reality, till Morland produced his watch, and ascertained the fact; to have doubted a moment longer then would have been equally inconceivable, incredible, and impossible; and she could only protest, over and over again, that no two hours and a half had ever gone off so SWIFTLY before, as Catherine was called on to confirm…

Chapter 13: To such anxious attention was the general's civility carried, that not aware of her extraordinary SWIFTNESS in entering the house, he was quite angry with the servant whose neglect had reduced her to open the door of the apartment herself. "What did William mean by it? He should make a point of inquiring into the matter." And if Catherine had not most warmly asserted his innocence, it seemed likely that William would lose the favour of HIS MASTER forever, if not his place, by her rapidity.

Chapter 16: Henry smiled and said, "I am sure my brother would not wish to do that." "Then you will persuade him to go away?" "Persuasion is not at command; but pardon me, if I cannot even endeavour to persuade him. I have myself told him that Miss Thorpe is engaged. He knows what he is about, and must be HIS OWN MASTER."

Chapter 23: After an evening, the little variety and seeming length of which made her peculiarly sensible of Henry's importance among them, she was heartily glad to be dismissed; though it was a look from the general not designed for her observation which sent his daughter to the bell. When the butler would have lit HIS MASTER'S candle, however, he was forbidden. The latter was not going to retire. 

Chapter 26: The room in question was of a commodious, well-proportioned size, and handsomely fitted up as a dining-parlour; and on their quitting it to walk round the grounds, she was shown, first into a smaller apartment, belonging peculiarly to THE MASTER of the house, and made unusually tidy on the occasion; and afterwards into what was to be the drawing-room, with the appearance of which, though unfurnished…

Chapter 24: At that instant a door underneath was hastily opened; someone seemed with SWIFT steps to ascend the stairs, by the head of which she had yet to pass before she could gain the gallery. She had no power to move.

Chapter 29: With these feelings, she rather dreaded than sought for the first view of that well-known spire which would announce her within twenty miles of home. Salisbury she had known to be her point on leaving Northanger; but after the first stage she had been indebted to THE POST-MASTERS for the names of the places which were then to conduct her to it; so great had been her ignorance of her route. She met with nothing, however, to distress or frighten her. Her youth, civil manners, and liberal pay procured her all the attention that a TRAVELLER like herself could require; and stopping only to CHANGE HORSES, she TRAVELLED on for about eleven hours without accident or alarm, and between six and seven o'clock in the evening found herself entering Fullerton…A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. SWIFTLY therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, and speedy shall be her descent from it.

And so there you have further evidence of Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to Gulliver’s Travels in Northanger Abbey.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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