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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mr. Allen's Water and Falstaff's Water

My ongoing discussion today in Janeites with Elissa Schiff led me to the following additional thoughts about the Shakespearean allusions in Northanger Abbey:

Everything we've been discussing about Mrs. Allen relates back directly to the thread I started three months ago about Mr. Allen and HIS drinking of Bath water....

...and in particular to what I wrote at the very end of that post, long before I had any idea about YOUR reasons for connecting Mr. Allen to Henry IV Part 2:

"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

And then I had a hunch that perhaps there might be something in Shakespeare's Falstaff that might have been on JA's radar screen when she seemed to suggest that Mr. Allen might be lacing his Bath water with booze, while taking baths in Bath. What I found might fit, see what you think.

First, in Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Scene 2, we have a passage that is very famous for what Falstaff says about his own wit, but which also is quite funny for the punning on "water" as Falstaff's urinary production:

Falstaff: Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to MY WATER?

Page: He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that owed it, he might have more diseases than he knew for.

Falstaff: Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent any thing that tends to laughter, more than I invent, or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.....

The association of water with health is of course very resonant with Mr. Allen's going to Bath for its waters--with an added piquant suggestion that perhaps Mr. Allen is there not only for gout, but also for the reason many other men went to Bath for centuries, as suggested in the Kitty riddle in Emma, i.e., for venereal disease.

Anyway, I love the added resonance of suggesting that what Mr. Allen's imbibing might somehow be part of a closed circuit of liquid, where he drinks what he pees, etc..

The other connection of Falstaff to water is not in the Henriad at all, but rather in the play that Shakespeare wrote at Queen Elizabeth's request, in order to revive the character of Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Act 3, Scene 3, we have a comic scene in which Falstaff winds up hiding in a basket of dirty laundry to avoid detection by the jealous Mr. Ford. Here is the watery jesting that Mistress Ford shares with Mistress Page about Falstaff:

"Go to, then: we'll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery PUMPion; we'll teach him to know turtles from jays."

And then, after Falstaff has been dumped into the Thames with the dirty laundry, Mistress Ford continues her private raillery on Sir John:

"I am half afraid he will have need of washing; so throwing him into the water will do him a benefit."

Later Falstaff reflects on this experience in the following memorable speech in Act 3, Scene 5, which again delves deeply into watery and bathing imagery:

"Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in't. Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher's offal, and to be thrown in the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I'll have my brains ta'en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new-year's gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch's puppies, fifteen i' the litter: and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking; if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow,--a death that I abhor; for the water swells a man; and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled! I should have been a mountain of mummy."

A "mountain of mummy" is, it occurs to me, Shakespeare's wonderful grotesquely comic transformation of the Ghost of King Hamlet, which is startlingly apt, because Falstaff really was, in The Merry Wives, a "ghost" who "walked again" in the world of the stage, in a performance commanded by the Queen!

And finally, Falstaff speaks specifically about combining water with booze:

"Let me pour in some sack to the Thames water; for my belly's as cold as if I had swallowed snowballs for pills to cool the reins. Call her in."

So, all in all, I'd say that it is pretty likely that JA had Falstaff very explicitly in mind when she wrote about Mr. Allen and his drinking of Bath water, and this only further bolsters the rest of the Shakespearean allusions in NA which I have been discussing with Elissa.

Cheers, ARNIE

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