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

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mrs Thorpe’s “past adventures and sufferings” are keys that unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey

At the end of Chapter 4 of Northanger Abbey, we read a narrative synopsis of the Thorpe family: "Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well. This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated."

As I've previously noted (and in accord with other Austen scholars), the running joke of the wry narrator of Northanger Abbey is to state facts in the form of a negation: Catherine was not destined to be a heroine; Mrs. Morland did not die in childbirth; “Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding [Catherine], no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she once called a divinity by anybody”;  “Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero”; England is a Christian country where horrors and atrocities could not be perpetrated without an outcry from church, government, and neighborhood “spies”, etc etc.

In each case, JA is dropping an ironic hint to question the narrator’s minimizing negation, and to look behind it for its reverse ---i.e., to recognize that Catherine was actually a true heroine in her bravery, clear-sightedness, and honesty; that Mrs. Morland was a lucky outlier, compared to the many English wives who endured serial pregnancy, and did die in childbirth; and, most significantly, that England was indeed a Christian country where domestic horrors and atrocities of all kinds against women—not the lurid literal imprisonment, torture, and murder of Gothic novels, but the banal metaphorical death, confinement, and oppression, of wives and single women alike, which were everyday events, and were, appallingly, blithely ignored and rationalized by the supposed protectors of those English gentlewomen.  

This is a very effective ironic technique, which first raises as straw man the conventional wisdom about a given situation, only to promptly puncture it, and show that sometimes the seemingly absurd is real, as crystallized at novel’s end in this epigram: “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

With that brief intro, what I noticed today (which hasn’t been spotted by other Austen scholars) is how JA’s ironic narrator gives a short summary of the Thorpes early in NA, but then teasingly hints, via yet another wry negation, at what the narrator is not going to talk about: the “long and minute detail…of [Mrs. Thorpe’s] past adventures and sufferings.” The trusting reader accepts this as mere satire of the verbose, histrionic account Mrs. Thorpe gave. I imagine a film version of this scene with visuals of Mrs. Thorpe going on and on (like Miss Bates) while Catherine politely pretends to listen--but we can’t hear Mrs. Thorpe, only the narrator’s Fieldingesque voiceover delivering JA’s drily disparaging commentary.

But the suspicious reader who recognizes those other NA negations as ironic, will imagine a backstory of “worthlessness of lords and attorneys “ which “might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before”. Worthless lords and attorneys sound to me, respectively, like a rake (Henry Crawford or John Willoughby) who impregnates the future Mrs. Thorpe when she is single and naïve, and an attorney (Mr. Shepherd) a “fixer” who arranges her shotgun marriage to the late Mr Thorpe. That time period of twenty years just happens to take us back a generation, to when the main characters (Catherine, Isabella, John, Henry, and Eleanor) were all born. So we’d be “scarcely sinning” in taking JA as hinting at those sorts of “past adventures and sufferings” for Mrs. Thorpe, ones that would justify her in giving “long and minute detail” of same.

Hard to swallow? Consider, then, the scene when Catherine meets the Thorpes, earlier in Chapter 4: “hardly had [Mrs. Allen] been seated ten minutes before a lady of about her own age, who was sitting by her, and had been looking at her attentively for several minutes, addressed her with great complaisance in these words: “I think, madam, I cannot be mistaken; it is a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing you, but is not your name Allen?” This question answered, as it readily was, the stranger pronounced hers to be Thorpe; and Mrs. Allen immediately recognized the features of a former schoolfellow and intimate, whom she had seen only once since their respective marriages, and that many years ago. Their joy on this meeting was very great, as well it might, since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years….”

What was the nature of that occasion 15 years earlier when Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen last saw each other? Was the current meeting of Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen in Bath not accidental at all? That speculation in turn leads to a third suggestive passage in that same short Chapter 4:   “The Miss Thorpes were introduced; and Miss Morland, who had been for a short time forgotten, was introduced likewise. The name seemed to strike them all; and, after speaking to her with great civility, the eldest young lady observed aloud to the rest, “How excessively like her brother Miss Morland is!”
“The very picture of him indeed!” cried the mother—and “I should have known her anywhere for his sister!” was repeated by them all, two or three times over. For a moment Catherine was surprised; but Mrs. Thorpe and her daughters had scarcely begun the history of their acquaintance with Mr. James Morland, before she remembered that her eldest brother had lately formed an intimacy with a young man of his own college, of the name of Thorpe; and that he had spent the last week of the Christmas vacation with his family, near London. “

Why do the Thorpes all emphasize how closely Catherine resembles James? It sounds like “protesting too much”, which suggest that the Thorpe children were instructed by their mother to repeat this observation in unison. Is this because Catherine actually does not resemble James? And if so, is that non-resemblance due to a lack of actual biological consanguinity they don’t want Catherine to notice? I.e., what if Catherine isn’t really a biological child of Mrs. Morland after all, but is instead, the illegitimate child…of Mrs. Thorpe and an “worthless lord”?

Before you reject that out of hand, look more closely at those passages, and note that there’s still more Austenian sleight of hand going on. Although the discreet narrator of NA doesn’t point it out, this is actually a DOUBLE coincidence. Not only is Mrs. Thorpe connected to Mrs. Allen as her old schoolmate, Mrs. Thorpe is also connected to Catherine via James’s friendship with John Thorpe. This double coincidence was noted in 1996 by T. Barton:

So when Mrs. Thorpe recognizes Mrs. Allen in the Pump Room by “accident”, I ask: what if Mr. Thorpe did not randomly become friends with James at Oxford? And that speculation leads us to yet another coincidence… tucked away in the scene at the theatre in Chapter 12:       
“While talking [with Henry], [Catherine] had observed with some surprise that John Thorpe, who was never in the same part of the house for ten minutes together, was engaged in conversation with General Tilney; and she felt something more than surprise when she thought she could perceive herself the object of their attention and discourse. What could they have to say of her? She feared General Tilney did not like her appearance: she found it was implied in his preventing her admittance to his daughter, rather than postpone his own walk a few minutes. “How came Mr. Thorpe to know your father?” was her anxious inquiry, as she pointed them out to her companion. He knew nothing about it; but his father, like every military man, had a very large acquaintance.”

To recap: we now have three surprisingly interrelated connections being made, seemingly accidentally and independently, by members of the Thorpe family, each with a person a single degree of separation from Catherine: (1) Mrs. Thorpe meets Catherine’s chaperone; (2) John Thorpe meets her brother; and (3) John Thorpe meets the father of Henry & Eleanor. What’s the most probable explanation? That the Thorpes are united on a mission to establish connections with the Morland family, for some undisclosed reason. And by the way, this is another of those apparently multiple coincidental meetings which occur throughout Austen’s novels (most spectacularly in P&P, where we have a quadruple coincidence of Darcy, Wickham, Collins, and Mrs. Gardiner all “independently” connected to Elizabeth), which I’ve long asserted were not mere plotting expedience on JA’s part, but were invitations to alert readers to speculate on how such meetings might have occurred other than by accident. 

So, coming full circle, I suggest that all this coincidental ‘smoke” arises from the “family planning” hinted at in the sly narrator’s faux-dismissal of Mrs. Thorpe’s “adventures and sufferings” 20 years earlier. What seemed to be mere satire on Mrs. Thorpe is actually the key to unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey. As Faulkner famously put it: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Or as Elissa Schiff, who rarely agrees with me, put it a few years ago in Janeites: “I think much of Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, and MP revolve around what actually did happen in the past both in the lives of our characters and their families as well as in the larger world.” 

My speculations about backstories in JA’s novels have all consistently moved toward the sort of hidden familial relationships that filled the Gothic novels that Catherine Morland imbibed—and which, as I (and JA’s NA narrator) have suggested, served her much better than has been noted by most Janeites. And so, I see a repeated pattern of concealed parent-child and brother-sister relationships woven deep into the fabric of NA, centered on Mrs. Thorpe. As with Miss Bates, it behooves us to listen, even when Austen teasingly doesn’t allow us to.

I’m certain that Jane Austen intended for her readers to speculate about what might have gone on with Mrs. Thorpe two decades earlier, the consequences of which are playing out before our eyes in the novel’s present. But we can only do this, if we first recognize that behind the novel’s apparent mockery of an overheated Gothic imagination, there’s a whispered but urgent call to recognize that the largest impediment to seeing the world as it is, is an underactive imagination, one which unsuspiciously accepts what we think we see at face value.

[Here is the link to my first followup post to the above, which adds a crucial additional key to the backstory of Northanger Abbey:  "The shocking significance of John Thorpe’s two fictional favourites in Northanger Abbey"  ]
Cheers, ARNIE

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