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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jane Austen’s Comedy of Manures re the Odors of Westgate Buildings in Bath’s Lower Town: “It was ALMOST enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.”

Diana Birchall’s post (postulating putrid perils of pervasive pastoral poop, prompted by Elizabeth as pedestrian per P&P, & by JA as pedestrian per Letter 120) prompted me to post a perfectly panoramic pontification posthaste….

…in which I presented numerous textual examples drawn from all of JA’s novels, warranting adding  another important term in my ever-growing glossary for the Jane Austen Code:    “dirt” = “poop”.

Since then, I’ve stayed hot on the scent of still more aspects of this redolent & significant discovery, and today I’ll make that strong case stronger, and in the process also shed significant new light on how this seeming comedy of manures actually informs serious thematic aspects of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and also JA’s real life!


I reached this latest textual zone of interest by going right back to the numerous examples I listed in my last post which were concentrated in the Bath episode of Northanger Abbey, and even more specifically in Chapter 11. They told one tale--the misadventures and misprisions that Catherine Morland endures at the hands of John Thorpe, once she makes the mistake of getting into his gig with him, until she makes her safe escape from his clutches.

I will now briefly repeat those five passages in Ch. 11, omitting the comments I added for each of them in my previous post, but instead just asking you to absorb the entirety, to get the rhythm of this textual drumbeat on the same motif—“dirt” as “s-t”:

"No walk for me today," sighed Catherine; "but perhaps it may come to nothing, or it may hold up before twelve."
"Perhaps it may, but then, my dear, it will be so DIRTY."
"Oh! That will not signify; I never mind DIRT."
"No," replied her friend very placidly, "I know you never mind DIRT."
After a short pause…”

“…whether Catherine might still expect her friends, whether there had not been too much rain for Miss Tilney to venture, must yet be a question. It was too DIRTY for Mrs. Allen to accompany her husband to the pump-room…”

"Well, I saw him at that moment turn up the Lansdown Road, driving a smart-looking girl."
"Did you indeed?"
"Did upon my soul; knew him again directly, and he seemed to have got some very pretty cattle too."
"It is very odd! But I suppose they thought it would be too DIRTY for a walk."
"And well they might, for I never saw so much DIRT in my life. Walk! You could no more walk than you could fly! It has not been so DIRTY the whole winter; it is ANKLE-DEEP everywhere."
Isabella corroborated it: "My dearest Catherine, you cannot form an idea of the DIRT; come, you must go; you cannot refuse going now."

“It was now but an hour later than the time fixed on for the beginning of their walk; and, in spite of what she had heard of the prodigious accumulation of DIRT in the course of that hour, she could not from her own observation help thinking that they might have gone with very little inconvenience.”

“…Why were not they more punctual? It was DIRTY, indeed, but what did that signify? I am sure John and I should not have minded it. I never mind going through anything, where a friend is concerned…”

I just now fully appreciated the humor of “the prodigious accumulation of dirt”---if you think about it, dirt churned up from heavily trafficked streets would not accumulate prodigiously during an hour, it would be  an endless but gradual process. But the prodigious accumulation of horse manure on heavily trafficked streets, I can readily imagine all that crap accumulating prodigiously!

But that’s just icing on the cake of yesterday’s point. What I realized today was that Jane Austen did not arbitrarily decide to cluster these veiled scatological references to “dirt” in Chapter 11, when, you might think, she could just as easily have clustered them in another chapter, or even scattered them throughout the entire novel. No, she didn’t follow those other strategies, because there was something very specific about where in Bath the action was taking place during Chapter 11, which JA was subtly winking at, repeatedly---five times, in reminding her readers who knew what was what at Bath of something everybody knew!


Without further prologue, then: as my Subject Line suggests, these five passages are all veiled innuendoes pointing at the Lower Town of Bath during Jane Austen’s stays there as a very sad place for many reasons, but most dramatically and unavoidably of all, because that sector of Bath was literally blanketed by the overpowering stench of horse dung. Think I am exaggerating? Take a look at the following description, taken from a book I found today, Jane Austen in Bath: Walking Tours of the Writer's City (2006), written by a local Bath scholar, Katharine Reeve:

P. 78: “Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.” It was common knowledge that Bath had two very different faces. With damp hovels hugging the banks of the noxious River Avon, the Lower Town was a far cry from the wealth and cleanliness of the Upper Town. The Lower Town was a world of plague, beggars, and petty crime. The gutters were full of dead animals and EXCREMENT, and those from the Upper Town who ventured there complained about THE VILE SMELLS. Most visitors travelling between the Baths and Pump Room skirted the lower side of town.
Anyone taking a wrong turn could end up at Westgate Buildings. Back in 1798-1799, when writing NA, Jane would have had little, if any, knowledge of the Lower Town. But by the time she wrote Persuasion, she had a resident’s understanding of the city and could give a fuller picture of Bath. Ignoring social convention and her father’s wishes, Anne Elliot visits an old Bath schoolfriend who has fallen on hard times and is reduced to living in Westgate Buildings, a place so foul that only Anne in her enraptured state could walk through and remain oblivious to the squalor. Nearby Corn Street, known as Little ‘Ell by the locals, was reckoned to be the worst street; its crowded slums offered shared rooms with flea-ridden beds at threepence a night for the thousands of poorly paid craftsmen who made the trinkets for the luxury shops, along with the tradesmen, servants, and coachmen who flocked to Bath. Beer and gin flowed freely in the area’s many taverns. Avon Street, where prostitutes plied their trade, was the centre of the slum…”
76: The Austens moved to a spacious grand-looking house in Green Park Buildings built by John Palmer in the 1790s…positioned around…Kingsmead Fields…near the banks of the River Avon. Jane was pleased that they had managed to retain a rural aspect, which compensated for the rather less glamorous route to the Pump Room through the lower town, near the slums of Avon Street. The area offered the hard-up gentry a peaceful, respectable existence at a moderate cost…similar sized houses on the more central Gay Street cost around L150, but for that you could avoid the smell of sewage from the river in the summer. “

From the above we see that Reeve claimed that Jane Austen did allude in Persuasion to the horrid perpetual stench in the Lower Town of Bath, and she was spot on in using  as her chapter epigraph the famous narration about Anne Elliot’s buoyant mood as she leaves Mrs. Smith’s residence about “purification and perfume”. 

Reeves showed that she understood that Jane Austen was not merely (as has been suggested by other scholars) making an allusion to the potently aphrodisiac perfume of the Greek goddess Demeter. Jane Austen did that, of course, but JA also took the allusion to a more sophisticated level, by measuring the potency of that mythologically renowned perfume up against the odors of Westgate Buildings, and finding the goddess’s potions wanting, when it came to neutralization of very bad smells. Anne is feeling hopeful, magical, and powerful, but even all of those goddess-like vibes are not sufficient to perfume over and purify the stench of Westgate Gardens.

However, Reeve, not realizing that Northanger Abbey was surely revised more than once after Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801-5, and also being unaware of "dirt" as code for "poop", failed to pick up on the numerous hints at the bad smells of Bath's Lower Town in Northanger Abbey.

So what I am saying is that Reeve’s catches are significant, but when you combine Reeve’s historical data with Jane Austen’s myriad textual hints about the Lower Town in both NA and Persuasion, which I am bringing forward in this post, then it becomes crystal clear that imagery and wordplay is all of a (marvelous) seamless, majestically simple and yet profound piece!


I plan to followup with a final post on this general topic of Jane Austen’s “comedy of manures”, but for now just leave you with a number of additional textual quotations, which I believe you will be able to supply your own commentary for, based on what you’ve read in the first part of this post:

First, note these repeated references to “country air”:

NA, Chapter11: “…You are to thank your brother and me for the scheme; it darted into our heads at breakfast-time, I verily believe at the same instant; and we should have been off two hours ago if it had not been for this detestable rain. But it does not signify, the nights are moonlight, and we shall do delightfully. Oh! I am in such ecstasies at the thoughts of a little COUNTRY AIR and quiet! So much better than going to the LOWER ROOMS.
…They all spent the evening together at Thorpe's. Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and COUNTRY AIR of an inn at Clifton. Her satisfaction, too, in not being at the LOWER ROOMS was spoken more than once. "How I pity the poor creatures that are going there! How glad I am that I am not amongst them!...”

And now, maybe Sir Walter is not just being a snob, he just is using the nose that God gave him!:

Chapter 17: She only consulted Lady Russell, who entered thoroughly into her sentiments, and was most happy to convey her AS NEAR to Mrs Smith's lodgings in WESTGATE BUILDINGS, AS ANNE CHOSE TO BE TAKEN….Anne had called several times on her friend, before the existence of such a person was known in Camden Place. At last, it became necessary to speak of her. Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mrs Clay, returned one morning from Laura Place, with a sudden invitation from Lady Dalrymple for the same evening, and Anne was already engaged, to spend that evening in Westgate Buildings…. "WESTGATE BUILDINGS!" said he, "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that REVOLTS other people, LOW company, paltry rooms, FOUL AIR, DISGUSTING associations are inviting to you. But surely you may put off this old lady till to-morrow: she is not so near her end, I presume, but that she may hope to see another day. What is her age? Forty?"… "WESTGATE BUILDINGS must have been rather surprised by the appearance of a carriage drawn up near its pavement," observed Sir Walter. "Sir Henry Russell's widow, indeed, has no honours to distinguish her arms, but still it is a handsome equipage, and no doubt is well known to convey a Miss Elliot. A widow Mrs Smith lodging in WESTGATE BUILDINGS!

Chapter 18: Anne was too much engaged with Lady Russell to be often walking herself; but it so happened that one morning, about a week or ten days after the Croft's arrival, it suited her best to leave her friend, or her friend's carriage, in the LOWER PART OF TOWN, and return alone to Camden Place, and in walking up Milsom Street she had the good fortune to meet with the Admiral. 


Read these with new eyes, realizing that the unspoken subtext of it all is the bad smell in the Lower Town of Bath, with Westgate Buildings the epicenter of those obnoxious odors:

Letter 29 1/3/01: There are three parts of Bath which we have thought of as likely to have houses in them -- Westgate Buildings, Charles Street, and some of the short streets leading from Laura Place or Pulteney Street. Westgate Buildings, though quite in the lower part of the town, are not badly situated themselves. The street is broad, and has rather a good appearance. Charles Street, however, I think, is preferable. The buildings are new, and its nearness to Kingsmead Fields would be a pleasant circumstance. Perhaps you may remember, or perhaps you may forget, that Charles Street leads from the Queen Square Chapel to the two Green Park Streets.
The houses in the streets near Laura Place I should expect to be above our price. Gay Street would be too high, except only the lower house on the left-hand side as you ascend. Towards that my mother has no disinclination; it used to be lower rented than any other house in the row, from some inferiority in the apartments. But above all others her wishes are at present fixed on the corner house in Chapel Row, which opens into Prince's Street. Her knowledge of it, however, is confined only to the outside, and therefore she is equally uncertain of its being really desirable as of its being to be had. In the meantime she assures you that she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street, although you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it which was rather expected.
We know that Mrs. Perrot will want to get us into Oxford Buildings, but we all unite in particular dislike of that part of the town, and therefore hope to escape. Upon all these different situations you and Edward may confer together, and your opinion of each wil be expected with eagerness.

Letter 31, 1/16/01: Miss Lyford was very pleasant, & gave my mother such an account of the houses in Westgate Buildings, where Mrs. Lyford lodged four years ago, as made her think of a situation there with great pleasure; but your opposition will be without difficulty, decisive, & my father in particular who was very well inclined towards the Row before, has now ceased to think of it entirely. At present the Environs of Laura-place seem to be his choice. His views on the subject are much advanced since I came home; he grows quite ambitious, & actually requires now a comfortable & a creditable looking house.

I love the irony in that last sentence- Revd. Austen has shockingly decided that the family should live in a comfortable house, and an integral part of comfort would be a home where it didn’t stink to high heaven all the time!
Cheers, ARNIE
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