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

Monday, January 29, 2018

“Poulticing” the injured “chestnut mares” (meres?) of Austen’s Northanger Abbey

It has become a mantra of mine that Jane Austen often, if not always, chose her most memorable passages as the ideal places to hide, in plain sight, “trivial” hints at alternative, subversive, significant meanings in her novels. Recently, I came across another such hint, in a guest post by Kate Scarth in Sarah Emsley’s Austen-themed blog, on the topic of horses in Northanger Abbey. My attention was caught by Scarth’s reference to an equine detail I’d never noticed before in Chapter 22 of Northanger Abbey:

“[John] Thorpe’s deficiencies reveal Northanger Abbey’s connection between equine care and proper masculinity. His horse obsession extends to his clothes, which resemble a groomsman’s or coachman’s, a not so subtle dig at his dubious claims to the title of gentleman. Northanger Abbey relays a message that, unlike Thorpe, hero-gentlemen treat animals, well, gently. For example, while Austen tells us little about Eleanor Tilney’s husband, we do know that his servant left a farrier’s bill (Catherine’s imagined mysterious manuscript), reading “To poultice chestnut mare”…While we see Thorpe abusing horses, in this brief glimpse of Eleanor’s future husband, Austen chooses to cast him as a man paying to ease a horse’s ailment.” 

I went back to the novel text to find the full paragraph containing that entry for “To poultice chestnut mare”. It’s this famous one, which describes Catherine’s stinging disappointment as she reads what is on the pages of the manuscript in the chest in her room. She’s been working herself up into an imaginative fever over the answers to murderous gothic secrets she anticipates finding there, but then is sadly deflated to learn instead that the papers seem so boringly mundane:

“[Catherine’s] greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats, and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others, penned by the same hand, marked an expenditure scarcely more interesting, in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string, and breeches-ball. And the larger sheet, which had enclosed the rest, seemed by its first cramp line, “To poultice chestnut mare”—a farrier’s bill! Such was the collection of papers (left perhaps, as she could then suppose, by the negligence of a servant in the place whence she had taken them) which had filled her with expectation and alarm, and robbed her of half her night’s rest! She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom? A corner of it, catching her eye as she lay, seemed to rise up in judgment against her. Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. To suppose that a manuscript of many generations back could have remained undiscovered in a room such as that, so modern, so habitable!—Or that she should be the first to possess the skill of unlocking a cabinet, the key of which was open to all!”

For those not very familiar with Northanger Abbey, this is the second of three familiar passages in which, per mainstream Austen scholarly interpretation, Catherine’s overheated Gothic expectations and illusions are gradually (and appropriately) extinguished by three consecutive splashes of cold water.

The first is Catherine’s disappointment upon first looking into the interior of the Abbey in Chapter 20, and finding all too modern, even antiseptic, architecture:

“The breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain; and having given a good shake to her habit, she was ready to be shown into the common drawing-room, and capable of considering where she was. An abbey! Yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey! But she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the general talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved—the form of them was Gothic—they might be even casements—but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.”

Then, after the passage with the farrier’s bill, the third is Henry’s excoriation of Catherine for her ghoulish imaginings about General Tilney, at the end of Ch. 24:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to--Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

In my 2010 JASNA AGM presentation, I argued that the third passage is the epicenter of what is actually Austen’s virtuosic ANTI-parody of the Gothic. I.e., the knowing reader is meant to see past the apparent satire of Gothic imagination, and instead grasp the tragic irony that such imaginings are all-too-apt as to the actual nightmare of ordinary English marriage for wives trapped in a ‘dungeon’, an endless cycle of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth, a nightmare cruelly ignored by the patriarchal powers-that-be.

However, before reading Scarth’s comment, I hadn’t previously considered, let alone analyzed, the subtle but strong narrative emphasis on that particular entry for “a farrier’s bill”. I now see that it’s no accident that for this entry alone are we given its actual verbiage; that we’re told that it’s on “the larger sheet, which had enclosed the rest”; and finally that it is on “its first cramp line”. By this succession of subtle hints, Austen silently hints that this is, somehow, the most prominent verbiage in all those papers; so it must carry especially significant meaning, when properly understood in all its nuances. But how to decode it?

Scarth cites this entry as evidence for John Thorpe’s cruel treatment of horses, in stark contrast to the benevolent treatment of animals by Eleanor’s secret beloved. That is certainly the case, it’s a valid interpretation, but as I will explain, there’s much more even than that in this line entry on a farrier’s bill.

In my opinion, Jill Heydt-Stevenson came very close to correctly decoding this passage in Unbecoming Conjunctions. First she analyzed it as follows: ‘This mortifying inventory gazes at her. It may be permissible to spy on the sensational, but the passage exposes how it is forbidden to look voyeuristically at the mundane, especially when it includes references to the private parts of the male body, which the language here personifies…’ She then noted the monetization of marriage which is implicit therein. And at another point in her book, Heydt-Stevenson discussed the heavy Freudian sexual significance of John Thorpe’s disturbing, even perverted, obsession with horses in Northanger Abbey. However, she didn’t connect the dots between the two—which connection, I now assert, is the key that unlocks the deeper, more significant meaning of that entry.

To wit: just as John Thorpe treats women and horses alike as objects of his physical abuse, I believe that the “chestnut mare” who was “poulticed” was meant by JA to suggest not merely Eleanor’s chestnut mare, but also Eleanor herself! Let me explain.

First, we know that Eleanor is not fair-haired, from the following mean girl comments by Isabella Thorpe:
“Oh! They [Henry and Eleanor] give themselves such airs. They are the most conceited creatures in the world, and think themselves of so much importance! By the by, though I have thought of it a hundred times, I have always forgot to ask you what is your favourite complexion in a man. Do you like them best dark or fair?”   “I hardly know. I never much thought about it. Something between both, I think. Brown—not fair, and—and not very dark.”  “Very well, Catherine. That is exactly he. I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney—‘a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.’ Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion—do you know—I like a sallow better than any other. You must not betray me, if you should ever meet with one of your acquaintance answering that description.”

And then, much later in the novel, as Catherine gazes up at the portrait of the late Mrs. Tilney:
“It represented a very lovely woman, with a mild and pensive countenance, justifying, so far, the expectations of its new observer; but they were not in every respect answered, for Catherine had depended upon meeting with features, hair, complexion, that should be the very counterpart, the very image, if not of Henry’s, of Eleanor’s—the only portraits of which she had been in the habit of thinking, bearing always an equal resemblance of mother and child. A face once taken was taken for generations. But here she was obliged to look and consider and study for a likeness. She contemplated it, however, in spite of this drawback, with much emotion, and, but for a yet stronger interest, would have left it unwillingly.”

There is a subtle suggestion in Mrs. Tilney’s not resembling either Henry or Eleanor, that Eleanor’s complexion and hair color are somewhere in the middle between Mrs. Tilney’s fairness and Henry’s darkness—and that medium would be…chestnut coloration!

And there is one more huge hint of an association of Eleanor with a “chestnut mare”, as Catherine worriedly waits for Henry and Eleanor to visit her as agreed, and attempts to stave off the pressuring Thorpes:

“I cannot go [to Blaize Castle], because”—looking down as she spoke, fearful of Isabella’s smile—“I expect Miss Tilney and her brother to call on me to take a country walk. They promised to come at twelve, only it rained; but now, as it is so fine, I dare say they will be here soon.” “Not they indeed,” cried Thorpe; “for, as we turned into Broad Street, I saw them—does he not drive a phaeton with bright chestnuts?” “I do not know indeed.” “Yes, I know he does; I saw him. You are talking of the man you danced with last night, are not you?” “Yes.”  “Well, I saw him at that moment turn up the Lansdown Road, driving a smart-looking girl...”

Which raises another question-- was it Henry with Eleanor in that phaeton drawn by two chestnut mares, or Eleanor’s future husband? I think, the latter!

But, putting that detail aside, I want to now zero in on what I consider the key point, if we really run with the idea of Eleanor as symbolized by the chestnut mare who is treated with a ‘poultice”. The entry is written on ‘the first cramp line’, and that conjures up for me a narrow space at the top of a lined invoice, in which there is very little room to write, hence a “cramped” handwriting is required.

But Jane Austen, like Shakespeare, never saw a pun she did not like, and so I immediately noted that “cramp”, in Jane Austen’s time as well as our own, referred to a muscle-tightening spasm, the kind which afflict athletes in hot weather, but also, far more significantly vis a vis the pregnancy/childbirth theme of Northanger Abbey which I addressed the JASNA AGM about! 

And guess what---healing cramps is precisely what poultices were designed for (there are numerous concoctions to be found in contemporary veterinary guides) in Jane Austen’s era: both the cramps in horse’s hooves (as the farrier’s bill suggests), but also for the cramps suffered by women as a result of their bodies being the “phaetons”, so to speak, of reproduction for the human race!

And last but not least, thinking about cramps, and also wounds (another ailment for which poultices were applied to both horses and humans in that era), I was then immediately reminded of yet another famous passage in Northanger Abbey, about the collective injured female body, which novels written by women were uniquely responsive to:

“Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding…Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language….”

I would not dare to attempt any further explanation of why I believe that the above passage is the very one which Jane Austen wished her readers to eventually think of, when they read that farrier’s bill entry on “poultice chestnut mare” (or should I say, “mere”, for all the mothers who, like Mrs. Tilney, suffered). The ultimate Gothic horror was the one suffered by women in their daily lives as the “poor animals” of English society, and Jane Austen’s novels were themselves intended as “poultices’ for the psychic wounds which accompanied the physical.

Cheers, ARNIE

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