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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Horrid Mr. Thorpe of Northanger Abbey & his Heretofore Unacknowledged “Father”, the Horrid Mr. Bellamy in Fanny Burney’s Camilla: & Lord Brabourne, The Improbably Ultra-Sly Sharp Elf?

In Chapter 7 of Northanger Abbey, we read the following exchange between Catherine Morland and John Thorpe about contemporary novels:

“…[Catherine] ventured at length to vary the subject by a question which had been long uppermost in her thoughts; it was, "Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."
"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."
"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant."
"Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it."
"I have never read it."
"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."
This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe's lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son, as they met Mrs. Thorpe, who had descried them from above, in the passage.”  END QUOTE

That reference to Fanny Burney’s Camilla (published in 1796, fittingly not long before the action of Northanger Abbey begins in 1798) has been universally understood, by all Austen scholars who have discussed it, to be evidence of Thorpe’s primitive, prejudiced view of good literature, but nothing more.

That narrow interpretation is of course encouraged, upon a rereading of Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen’s own reference to Camilla in Chapter 5, in a famous authorial intrusion which  condemns Thorpe in advance for the wrong-headed verdict he will hand down on it two chapters later:

“…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.”  END QUOTE

Today, I have one straightforward addition to bring to the table of Austen scholarship on this subject of the Austenian allusion to Camilla in Northanger Abbey. But in addition, as my Subject Line suggests, I may not be the first reader of Northanger Abbey and Camilla to detect this cover allusion—that honor might just belong to a very unlikely reader…..Lord Brabourne! Read on for the details…
I.e., it turns out, as my Subject Line suggests, that the character of John Thorpe owes much to the character of Alphonso Bellamy in Camilla. So that, with classic Austenian irony, his dismissal of Camilla as “horrible” can be seen by the knowing reader as his failure to see himself in the character of Bellamy.

Here is what seems to me to be an excellent Wikipedia synopsis of Bellamy’s character in Camilla:

“Nicholas Gwigg (Alphonso Bellamy): the younger son of the master of a great gaming-house. In his first youth, he had been utterly neglected, and run wild; but his father afterwards becoming rich, had bestowed on him as good an education as the late business with which it had begun could possibly give (it was pity, perhaps, that the education did not include morals). He tried gaming, but spending as fast as he earned, he acquired nothing; and once, in a tide of disfavor, he had cheated, and been found out. His father dead, his elder brother passive, he went to London, hoping to elope with some heiress by relying on his handsome face and lots of compliments. In the process he changed his name to Alphonso Bellamy. He had first met with the beautiful Mrs. Berlinton, and though this would not make him any money, her romantic turn of mind and loveliness tempted him to a scheme yet darker. They had exchanged letters with each other after she left, and soon after he forced Eugenia to marry him by shocking her gentleness of disposition with a suicidal threat. He treated her cruelly, yelling at her and trying to force her to write to her uncle for money, and continuing his heinous correspondence, and even meeting with, Mrs. Berlinton. Several unpleasant debts of honor being claimed, he had tried to force Eugenia to write to her uncle for money by putting a gun to her head and saying he would kill himself immediately after she was dead. Terrified, she was beginning to agree, when the alarmed postillion shouted out, "Hold, villain! or you are a dead man!" His hand shook—the gun went off—and he dropped dead. His behavior to Eugenia throughout was selfish, unfeeling, and brutally cruel. At first, Eugenia really believed in his passion for her, and though refusing to accept it, she sincerely pitied him and would not suspect him. After the marriage, she found out what he was really like, but refused to persecute him in court ("Solemn has been my vow! sacred I must hold it!")”

Fortune hunter, cruel, emotional blackmailer, gambler, insensitive—he is the very “twin” of John Thorpe. However, whereas Burney ends her nasty villain’s life by a suicide, Jane Austen, black humorist and realist that she is, lets Thorpe survive to fortune-hunt again.

I conclude this section of my post by asserting that Jane Austen meant for the reader who catches the Bellamy subtext of Thorpe’s primitive character to also think of another, even more famous literary character, another brutal, primitive, dangerous male beast who has a place in the lineage of John Thorpe. Courtesy of Oscar Wilde:

“The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”

We might say that Thorpe rages at the realism of Camilla as a mirror which reflects his own very real horridness back at him in a very unflattering light!

There is much more that could be said in parsing the details of this allusion, but I leave that pleasure to those who love both Burney and Austen enough to want to invest the time to suss all of it out.


The remainder of this post will concern the intriguing possibility that I am not the first scholar reading Northanger Abbey to find this covert allusion to Alphonso Bellamy in John Thorpe. Lord Brabourne, in his 1884 edition of Jane Austen’s letters, in one of his editorial comments, praises his great-aunt’s matchless ability to retain reader interest even with a minimal amount of incident and plot twisting, and then contrasts Jane Austen’s writing to that of Fanny Burney, as follows:

“To t[JA’s] standard Miss Burney never seems to me to approach, or to come within a mile of Jane Austen, whilst in some instances she approximates both to the vulgar and the horrible, neither of which is to be found in the pages of the immortal Jane. The scenes in 'Evelina' in which the unfortunate Madame Duval is victimised by the French-hating Captain Mirvan (a character to read of which makes an Englishman blush for his nationality), the courtship of Mr. Dubster, and the whole character of Mrs. Mittin in 'Camilla,' as well as the eccentricities of Mr. Briggs in 'Cecilia,' certainly savour of vulgarity, whilst THE ‘HORRIBLE’ IS EXEMPLIFIED BY the suicide of Mr. Harrell in 'Cecilia’, THE DEATH OF BELLAMY IN ‘CAMILLA,’' and sundry other harrowing passages which season Miss Burney's performances.”

Pretty much all Janeites would take Lord Brabourne at face value, and infer that

ONE: Lord B. has used the word “horrible” to describe the death of Bellamy in ‘Camilla’, in comparing that scene to scenes in novels by his aunt such as Northanger Abbey, without any conscious awareness of the allusion to Bellamy in the character of Thorpe which I have laid out, above, and

TWO: Lord B. was totally sincere in his harsh judgment on Burney’s literary merits.

But…there’s more than a small chance, I’d suggest, that Lord Brabourne was a super sly elf who knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote his above comments. How could that possibly be argued?

Well, by reminding you of two curious facts relative to John Thorpe which I have already presented earlier in this post:

ONE: “horrible” is a variant of “horrid”, which is the very word that John Thorpe, who I’ve claimed is modeled on Burney’s Bellamy, uses to describe Camilla as I will now re-quote in relevant part:

"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the HORRIDEST nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."

That’s suspicious enough standing alone, but now add this strangeness:

TWO: Jane Austen, in Chapter 5, pre-condemned John Thorpe for the sin, committed by him in Chapter 7, of dismissing Fanny Burney’s novels, including Camilla specifically. But guess what—isn’t that exactly what Lord Brabourne has done in the above-quoted editorial comments? He has ripped Fanny Burney’s writing as both “vulgar” and “horrible”! I.e., he has done precisely what Jane Austen herself condemned in Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey.

So smoke starts to come out of our ears as we contemplate a paragraph of literary criticism in which Lord B. is both a staunch advocate for his great-aunt, while in the next breath he commits the cardinal sin of literary criticism, in obvious violation of Jane Austen’s literary manifesto.  There could not be a more egregious inconsistency, and in the most specific way possible.

So….unless this is all a massive Trojan Horse Moment on Lord B.’s part, in which a subconscious Freudian awareness of Thorpe’s debt to Bellamy leaks through into a sincere condemnation of Burney, I’d say it is much more likely that Lord Brabourne was actually consciously emulating his great-aunt, paying her the worthiest sort of homage, by making a sly, learned, but totally covert allusion to Jane Austen’s having used Bellamy as a model for Thorpe, and JA’s having tied that modeling to her very famous call to arms on behalf of female authors.

And…that tickled my memory to my post 4 months ago….

…in which I took note of Lord Brabourne’s having, elsewhere in his 1884 edition of the Letters, recounted a strange, seemingly satirical, anecdote about Frank Austen and “sharks of the blue species”. At that time, I just could not imagine that Lord Brabourne was “in on the joke”.

But now, in light of this Burney-Austen shenanigans, I am really beginning to wonder about Lord Brabourne…..I’m wondering whether, despite the truly horrible Victorian-prudery-driven deletions by him of “vulgar” material from some of JA’s letters, he might nonetheless have been a clever enough reader of JA’s fictions to realize that there were matters in them, like the covert allusion to Camilla’s Alphonso Bellamy in Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe, which were worthy of the sincerest form of flattery, i.e., imitation!   

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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