(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Allen's Glass of Water: Cheers!

Yesterday, Alicia Alvarez posted the following in Austen-L in response to my challenge to find the pun in the passage in NA when Henry Tilney gets Catherine Morland really revved up during their carriage ride from Bath, about going to a real Abbey:

"I thought you were going to say "raising spirits" as in giving a toast, because of the proximity to the word "cordial"."

I had been looking for someone to pick up on the ghostly punny connection between "raising spirits" and "haunted", but was very pleased to be surprised by the possibility of a SECOND pun, having to do with "spirits" as alcoholic beverages, and so I replied thusly yesterday evening:

"Alicia, that never occurred to me, but I think you are onto something, although at first blush I can't think of what it might mean in terms of the story and/or themes of NA. We might also take a second look at the following: "Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and DROPS a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call."

The word "drops" suggests a drink, especially a cordial that would be sipped rather than swigged---and what does a domestic on call bring you? A drink! But....having said all that, the challenge is to figure out what it might mean, because if it doesn't mean something, it's just a pun, and I don't think JA was content with "mere quibbles". " END OF MY PREVIOUS POST

Now I woke up today thinking that JA never wasted a pun, and so I had to figure out the significance of what Alicia's sharp eye had caught. It occurred to me, after sleeping on the question, that it would be a very good idea to check to see whether there are explicit references to drinking alcoholic beverages in NA, and here is what I found in Chapter 3, describing Catherine's experience immediately after her first evening of dancing with Henry Tilney in Bath--it turns out to be the first link in a very elaborate chain of not-so-veiled allusory sendup of the drinking of alcohol consumption in NA:

"Whether she thought of him so much, WHILE SHE DRANK HER WARM WINE AND WATER, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her."

Now that is VERY interesting in terms of what Alicia picked up on, because there is a strong suggestion here (and elsewhere in the novel) of Catherine engaging in erotic slightly S&M-tinged dreaming "informed" by her Gothic reading, which fits perfectly with the very passage we've just been looking at with the pun on "spirits", when Henry actively inflames Catherine's gothic imagination still further.

So the wine and Henry's provocations seem to work hand in hand toward the common goal of getting Catherine "in the mood". How does the joke go? "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!"

But that is not close to the only reference to alcohol consumption in NA. In Chapter 9, there is, if I am not mistaken, by far the MOST elaborate discussion of drinking in all of JA's novels. Catherine finds herself being driven around by John Thorpe in his gig, and is pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it feels (today, we might even say that Catherine, still the physically fearless country girl who played base ball, was enjoying the "buzz" or "high" of riding around in the open air in a briskly moving gig), when the following conversation ensues, which has previously often been noticed by scholarly and amateur Janeites alike not for its references to alcohol but for Thorpe's casual anti-Semitism.

But today, I invite you to consider how this passage might shed light upon the small mystery of "raising spirits", "drops", and "cordials":

A silence of several minutes succeeded their first short dialogue; it was broken by Thorpe’s saying very abruptly, “Old Allen is as rich as a Jew — is not he?” Catherine did not understand him — and he repeated his question, adding in explanation, “Old Allen, the man you are with.”

“Oh! Mr. Allen, you mean. Yes, I believe, he is very rich.”

“And no children at all?”

“No — not any.”

“A famous thing for his next heirs. He is your godfather, is not he?”

“My godfather! No.”

“But you are always very much with them.”

“Yes, very much.”

“Aye, that is what I meant. He seems a good kind of old fellow enough, and has lived very well in his time, I dare say; he is not gouty for nothing. Does he drink his bottle a day now?”

“His bottle a day! No. Why should you think of such a thing? He is a very temperate man, and you could not fancy him in liquor last night?”

“Lord help you! You women are always thinking of men’s being in liquor. Why, you do not suppose a man is overset by a bottle? I am sure of this — that if everybody was to drink their bottle a day, there would not be half the disorders in the world there are now. It would be a famous good thing for us all.”

“I cannot believe it.”

“Oh! Lord, it would be the saving of thousands. There is not the hundredth part of the wine consumed in this kingdom that there ought to be. Our foggy climate wants help.”

“And yet I have heard that there is a great deal of wine drunk in Oxford.”

“Oxford! There is no drinking at Oxford now, I assure you. Nobody drinks there. You would hardly meet with a man who goes beyond his four pints at the utmost. Now, for instance, it was reckoned a remarkable thing, at the last party in my rooms, that upon an average we cleared about five pints a head. It was looked upon as something out of the common way. Mine is famous good stuff, to be sure. You would not often meet with anything like it in Oxford — and that may account for it. But this will just give you a notion of the general rate of drinking there.”

“Yes, it does give a notion,” said Catherine warmly, “and that is, that you all drink a great deal more wine than I thought you did. However, I am sure James does not drink so much.”

This declaration brought on a loud and overpowering reply, of which no part was very distinct, except the frequent exclamations, amounting almost to oaths, which adorned it, and Catherine was left, when it ended, with rather a strengthened belief of there being a great deal of wine drunk in Oxford, and the same happy conviction of her brother’s comparative sobriety. END OF PASSAGE IN CHAPTER 9 OF NA

So, does this shed any light on how the drinking of alcohol in some way relates to the plot and characterizations in NA? It seems like an awful lot of words to devote to the drinking habits of Mr. Allen, John Thorpe and James Morland, and it does not seem at all accidental to me that the pun that Alicia noticed occurs in the one and only JA novel that contains such an elaborate discussion of drinking.


First I wonder now for the first time about John Thorpe's insinuations that Mr. Allen--"he is not gouty for nothing"--was a daily drinker of alcohol, and that's when I found the following passage in Chapter 10:

"But nothing of that kind occurred, no visitors appeared to delay them, and they all three set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr Allen, AFTER DRINKING HIS GLASS OF WATER, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room."

Now, we do know that John Thorpe often gets carried away with his own "Gothic" fantasies about subjects like Catherine's alleged status as an heiress, and he also is the very soul and essence of macho exaggeration. And, surely if Thorpe himself drinks wine daily in sufficient quantities, this would fit very nicely with his frequent volubility, his grandiose boasting, his (very ironic) free and very liberal use of words relating to God (check it out, practically every sentence he utters contains some religious oath or another). And it also could give us cause for alarm with Catherine riding without a seat belt at high speed in his gig! And so it would make sense that Thorpe, who drinks to excess and tells himself he can hold his liquor, would have a strong motivation to want to see EVERYONE around him as also being out of control in regard to drinking--Freud calls it "projection", and JA understood that psychological mechanism very well indeed.

But can we be quite sure that Thorpe is wrong about Mr. Allen's drinking? When I read that passage in Chapter 10 about Mr. Allen drinking HIS glass of water, it has a distinctly proprietary sound, and shows an attachment and fondness for this daily habit. I wonder.....Sure, a gouty man would grow pretty attached to the curative water he drinks to help ease (or so he thinks at least) his gouty symptoms. But it's almost a Hollywood cliche to see the character with a drinking problem drinking "water" or some other innocuous sounding beverage from a flask they carry around with them. And doesn't frequent alcohol consumption aggravate gout?

And so if Mr. Allen were a closet alcoholic, he'd be very much concerned with impression management, especially with Catherine--he would not want her to get the idea, and he sees how naive and trusting she is--so what better "cover story" than to say he is drinking "water"! Suddenly, the darkly comic potential of Mr. Allen's personality come into focus--is he enough of a self-deluding rationalizer to lace his Bath water with booze? That would be positively Falstaffian! ;)


And I haven't yet gotten to James Morland. Catherine reassures herself not once but twice that however much the Oxford crowd drinks to excess, her brother James, who hews to the straight and narrow, surely does not! But again here, as in the scenes I was discussing a few days ago about Catherine's "new idea" about the "messenger from Woodston", I think the (young) lady doth protest too much once again.

It almost sounds like Catherine has (like Mrs. Norris) "made herself deaf" at the instant that Thorpe, probably slurring his words anyway because he's already pretty tipsy, tells Catherine about James's drinking at Oxford. She does not want to imagine her brother drinking to excess while away from home and pursuing his clerical studies. And yet, think about it--James is Thorpe's friend. And not just his friend--he has gotten seriously involved with Thorpe's sister! The picture begins to emerge of James, falling in with Thorpe's heavy drinking crowd, and then being "accidentally" introduced to Thorpe's sister---James at that moment would be putty in Isabella's scheming hands!

And that is not the last we hear in the novel about Isabella and alcohol. In Chapter 19 we read Henry Tilney's surprisingly gentle comforting of Catherine as he foretells the ending of the sad saga of Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe, after the Captain jilts her:

"The mess-room will drink Isabella Thorpe for a fortnight, and she will laugh with your brother over poor Tilney's passion for a month."

Catherine gratefully accepts the proffered comfort, but Henry (and we) know better regarding the future of Isabella and James as a couple, and surely JA intends the sharp irony of Isabella likely having ensnared James in the first place via alcohol-impairment, and then Isabella being hoist on her own petard, the destruction of all her hopes of ensnaring the heir of Northanger Abbey being toasted in a haze of cynical, misogynistic soldierly besottedness.

In conclusion, I can't prove any of the above, but I think I have made a pretty good prima facie case that JA has gone to a great deal of trouble to raise a reasonable doubt about Mr. Allen's, John Thorpe's, and James Morland's proclivities in regard to the consumption, whether overt or covert, of alcohol.

And so, I say, not one but THREE cheers (a salutation which itself takes on new meaning in this very special context) to Alicia, for "raising" MY "spirits" this morning!!!



Anonymous said...

But there are so many more CLEAR HINTS here that you've left unexplored. Surely the word "drops" must also refer to "drops" of laudanum, and we must remember that Jane administers her sick mother's "drops" to her (perhaps Jane is hinting at, in NA, contemplation of the POISONING of her own "fanciful and troublesome" parent with an overdose of laudanum?!). This reading becomes even more charged when we realize that "cordial" refers specifically to a drink intended to have medicinal properties. ("Will not your heart sink within you?" 'cordial' from Latin for heart = heart medicine, right?) And surely the "cabinet of ebony and gold" in the chamber described by Henry must be a liquor cabinet? And Dorothy's information that "you will not have a single domestic within call" must surely refer to call brands of liquor? Goodness me, the amazing thing is that Jane Austen managed to string along any sort of story at all, when so consumed with the superior business of injecting puns and double meanings into virtually every line! And what a nefarious character Mr. Allen is, to leave his private lodgings in Bath and go to the PUMP ROOM of all places (which I must interject is only one tiny letter away from PIMP ROOM; what can this portend?), where everyone else is drinking WATER, in order to have his "secret" alcohol fix? Brilliant!!!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Whoever you are, your comments are all (as you already knew without my telling you) first-rate and brilliant, and do indeed demonstrate that Jane Austen could pack a dozen puns and jokes into a paragraph, which would not only make us laugh, but also make us think seriously about the various human foibles being skewered.