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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 2, 2012

The four horses of the Apocalypse in Jane Austen's fiction

The suggestion was made in Austen L this morning that the four horsemen of the apocalypse might have been a subtext in the passage in Persuasion in which Wentworth boasts about his exploits on "the dear old Asp".

I responded that I didn't think the passage about the 4 days and nights of the good old Asp was particularly _apt_ (ha ha) vis a vis the Biblical four horsemen--rather it is the following three passages, which all actually refer to four _horses_, and which all are curiously similar in content:

First, in Chapter 5, we have a description of the four _horses_ which transport Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Penelope to Bath:

"The last office of the FOUR carriage-HORSES was to draw Sir Walter, Miss Elliot, and Mrs Clay to Bath. The party drove off in very good spirits; Sir Walter prepared with condescending bows for all the afflicted tenantry and cottagers who might have had a hint to show themselves, and Anne walked up at the same time, in a sort of desolate tranquillity, to the Lodge, where she was to spend the first week...."

Next, in Chapter 18, in response to the news of Benwick's engagement to Louisa, we hear that Sir Walter asks whether four _horses_ had transported Admiral and Mrs. Croft to Bath:

"Mary need not have feared her sister's being in any degree prepared for the news. She had never in her life been more astonished. Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove! It was almost too wonderful for belief, and it was with the greatest effort that she could remain in the room, preserve an air of calmness, and answer the common questions of the moment. Happily for her, they were not many. Sir Walter wanted to know whether the Crofts travelled with FOUR HORSES, and whether they were
likely to be situated in such a part of Bath as it might suit Miss Elliot and himself to visit in; but had little curiosity beyond."

And finally, In Chapter 22, we read the description of Mary Musgrove's being transported to Bath in a carriage with four horses:

"The visit passed off altogether in high good humour. Mary was in excellent spirits, enjoying the gaiety and the change, and so well satisfied with the journey in her mother-in-law's carriage with FOUR HORSES, and with her own complete independence of Camden Place, that she was exactly in a temper to admire everything as she ought, and enter most readily into all the superiorities of the house, as they were detailed to her. She had no demands on her father or sister, and her
consequence was just enough increased by their handsome drawing-rooms."

So it seems to me that this is an intentionally repeated leitmotif of four horses, because it does not appear randomly in the text. No it only occurs three times in Persuasion, and each one involves the carriage of main characters specifically to Bath, a place as to which Anne's enduring mental image early in the novel is that of a kind of _hellish_ "white glare".

But this motif does not only appear in Persuasion. The image of four horses carrying passengers is one which appears, albeit very rarely, in other Austen novels as well, and each one is interesting to think about in relation to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse.

For starters, how about this melodramatic moment in Sense & Sensibility, as Elinor hears the sound of horses which immediately precede the shocking arrival of Willoughby at Cleveland:

"The clock struck eight. Had it been ten, Elinor would have been convinced that at that moment she heard a carriage driving up to the house; and so strong was the persuasion that she DID, in spite of the ALMOST impossibility of their being already come, that she moved into the adjoining dressing-closet and opened a window shutter, to be satisfied of the truth. She instantly saw that her ears had not deceived her. The flaring lamps of a carriage were immediately in view. By their uncertain light she thought she could discern it to be drawn by FOUR HORSES; and this, while it told the excess of her poor mother's alarm, gave some explanation to such unexpected rapidity.
Never in her life had Elinor found it so difficult to be calm, as at that moment. The knowledge of what her mother must be feeling as the carriage stopt at the door—of her doubt—her dread—perhaps her despair!—and of what SHE had to tell!—with such knowledge it was impossible to be calm. All that remained to be done was to be speedy; and, therefore staying only till she could leave Mrs. Jennings's maid with her sister, she hurried down stairs.
The bustle in the vestibule, as she passed along an inner lobby, assured her that they were already in the house. She rushed to the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby."

Is there a more melodramatic scene in all of JA's fiction?! A dark and stormy night, a mysterious unexpected arrival, dread of impending death, this is a truly apocalyptic atmosphere created by JA.

And, in MP, here is Mrs. Norris, in her characteristic histrionic narcissistic way, describing the fateful trip to Sotherton whereby Mr. Rushworth was plucked as a husband for Maria, as if she were describing the Yalta Conference attended by Stalin, Churchill and FDR:

""My dear Sir Thomas, if you had seen the state of the roads that day! I thought we should never have got through them, though we had the FOUR HORSES of course; and poor old coachman would attend us, out of his great love and kindness, though he was hardly able to sit the box on account of the rheumatism which I had been doctoring him for ever since Michaelmas. I cured him at last; but he was very bad all the winter—and
this was such a day, I could not help going to him up in his room before we set off to advise him not to venture: he was putting on his wig; so I said, 'Coachman, you had much better not go; your Lady and I shall be very safe; you know how steady Stephen is, and Charles has been upon the leaders so often now, that I am sure there is no fear.' But, however, I soon found it would not do; he was bent upon going, and as I hate to be
worrying and officious, I said no more; but my heart quite ached for him at every jolt, and when we got into the rough lanes about Stoke, where, what with frost and snow upon beds of stones, it was worse than anything you can imagine, I was quite in an agony about him. And then the poor horses too! To see them straining away! You know how I always feel for the horses. And when we got to the bottom of Sandcroft Hill, what do you
think I did? You will laugh at me; but I got out and walked up. I did indeed. It might not be saving them much, but it was something, and I could not bear to sit at my ease and be dragged up at the expense of those noble animals. I caught a dreadful cold, but that I did not regard. My object was accomplished in the visit."

We can just imagine Mrs. Norris's hushed tones as she paints a portrait of the fearsome danger she faces down in order to save Maria Bertram from the apocalypse of spinsterhood!

And finally, we have, in Emma, two usages. The first is spoken by John Knightley describing the carriage of guests to the Randalls Christmas party as if they were braving a trip down the River Styx:

""A man," said he, "must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I could not do such a thing. It is the greatest absurdity—Actually snowing at this moment!—The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home—and the folly of people's not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we
should deem it;—and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can;—here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man's house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said
and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow.
Going in dismal weather, to return probably in worse;—FOUR HORSES and four servants taken out for nothing but to convey five idle, shivering creatures into colder rooms and worse company than they might have had at home."

And then in this exchange between Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton, we have more hyperbolic exaggeration of the significance of travel by four horses:

[Mr. Weston] "Yes, they are about one hundred and ninety miles from London, a considerable journey."

[Mrs. Elton] "Yes, upon my word, very considerable. Sixty-five miles farther than from Maple Grove to London. But what is distance, Mr. Weston, to people of large fortune?—You would be amazed to hear how my brother, Mr. Suckling, sometimes flies about. You will hardly believe me—but twice in one week he and Mr. Bragge went to London and back again with FOUR HORSES."

"The evil of the distance from Enscombe," said Mr. Weston, "is, that Mrs. Churchill, as we understand, has not been able to leave the sofa for a week together. In Frank's last letter she complained, he said, of being too weak to get into her conservatory without having both his arm and his uncle's! This, you know, speaks a great degree of weakness—but now she is so impatient to be in town, that she means to sleep only two nights on the road.—So Frank writes word. Certainly, delicate ladies have very extraordinary constitutions, Mrs. Elton. You
must grant me that."

So, I think this is indeed a promising theme to explore in JA's fiction.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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