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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"I have met him forever at the Bedford": John Thorpe Channeling Shakespeare (PART ONE) and another Genius, too! (PART TWO)

Since my initial post the other day about one short, seemingly trivial speech by John Thorpe to Catherine Morland (in Chapter 12 of Northanger Abbey) ...

....I've had the first part of that speech in the back of my mind, tickling my further curiosity:

"I have met him forever at the Bedford; and I knew his face again today the moment he came into the billiard–room. One of the best players we have, by the by; and we had a little touch together, though I was almost afraid of him at first: the odds were five to four against me;
and, if I had not made one of the cleanest strokes that perhaps ever was made in this world—I took his ball exactly—but I could not make you understand it without a table; however, I did beat him..."

Today, I reached the mother lode of this passage, as my Subject Line suggests. I had no idea two days ago how rich the vein of ore actually was, but then, that seems to always happen, the longer I let the negative sit, the more of the picture hidden within it seems to emerge unbidden--courtesy of another Trojan Horse Moment provided to me by the Ulysses of fiction--Jane Austen!  Sounds grandiose, I know, but wait till you read this all, and you tell me if it isn't something really cool and really extraordinary!

To begin, the second and third sections of my above linked post were my preliminary analyses of two aspects of the above-quoted passage, i.., the gambling/odds-making aspect, and the identity of "the Bedford".  As I will demonstrate, below, they are in fact inextricably and significantly tied.

As to the odds-making aspect, in my previous post I extrapolated speculatively as follows:

" this anecdote a hint to the reader as to WHY it is that General Tilney is so greedy, so focused on the wealth of a prospective wife---does this chauvinist bully, who burns the midnight oil writing anti-Jacobin tracts, and reading dangerous subversive “trash” (like Northanger Abbey?), have a gambling addiction, one which has put him in dire land-rich but cash-poor straits??  Food for thought.

In support of my initial claims that JA lets us know about General Tilney's billiard-playing for a good reason, and not just as literary window-dressing, a closer reader reveals just how significant her reasons were. Unless Thorpe's lying, which is theoretically possible but I see no good reason to suspect he is about this, Thorpe makes a point that he has seen the General at the Bedford repeatedly, so much so that even after some lapse of time Thorpe knows his face (but, by negative implication, had not previously interacted directly with the General, or he'd know more than just his face, he'd know him personally). So the General was a seriously regular billiards player at some earlier time, and Thorpe himself must also have been a regular during the same time period, or he wouldn't have been there to observe and know the General's high reputation amongst the billiards aficionados. 

Second, the General is a seriously GOOD billiards player, that's why he gets such good odds when playing against Thorpe. And so Thorpe's defeating him was quite the major upset, just the sort of vainglory that Thorpe would revel in and boast about to Catherine. In short, Thorpe had not just beaten the odds in winning, he had beaten the best.

But then, here's the important part. The General has now lost to Thorpe, when previously he had been a billiards god, so...this hints strongly to us that the General has, like the cartoon RoadRunner, recently found himself ten feet beyond the metaphorical cliff, with no solid financial ground beneath his feet, having lost his shirt, perhaps, in recent months, by losing a lot of big bets on himself at the Bedford.  All the little details provided by Thorpe point in this precise direction, especially when the setting is given an especially vivid shade by the General's seemingly boundless greed. While not forgiving it in any way, perhaps we now better understand the General's peremptory ejection of Catherine from the Abbey when he learns that Catherine is not a rich heiress. Yes, it's easy to see him as just a one-dimensional character in this regard-a  greedy pig, who freaks out for no good reason when his greedy expectations are foiled at what seems to him to be the eleventh hour (an apt metaphor for discussions of events at the Abbey in general). But he becomes a much more complex, interesting and realistic character, if one of his real horrible secrets, one that Catherine never even dreams of, is that he's a gambler with huge debts who is desperate to get some quick infusion of cash flow, so that he can get himself out of deep debt without having to sell the Abbey or any of his other real estate holdings, or before he is publicly shamed before his entire community of gamblers and degenerate gentlemen, or both.
In that regard, who knows who he owes the money to? Was it merely the other billiard sharks who perhaps had spent years losing money to him, and now, when he's down on his skills and suddenly vulnerable, they all plan to descend on him to collect, without mercy? Or was it some Regency Era version of the Mafia, who would break his legs if he didn't repay, with high interest, the debts that they specialized in enforcing?

Now, connect the dots from this line of reasoning to my Subject Line AND to the heading I gave to this section of this post, and can you see where I'm going with this (which by the way I did not even realize when I started writing this post!)???

I think it must be obvious by now, but here's a big additional hint, courtesy of....who else? John Thorpe, in THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE of that same speech!:

A very fine fellow; as rich as a Jew. I should like to dine with him; I dare say he gives famous dinners."   See it now?




Of course Thorpe's saying the General is rich as a JEW, and then talking about wanting to dine with him, is an obvious (once you see it in the proper context and from the proper perspective, which is the whole ball of wax with pretty much all of JA's hidden meanings) allusion to the following passage in The Merchant of Venice, Act One, Scene Three:

SHYLOCK:  ....I think I may take [Antonio's] bond.
BASSANIO: Be assured you may.
SHYLOCK: I will be assured I may; and, that I may be assured,
I will bethink me. May I speak with Antonio?
BASSANIO: If it please you to dine with us.
SHYLOCK:  Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, BUT I WILL NOT EAT WITH YOU, DRINK WITH YOU, nor pray with you.

So it turns out that while John Thorpe's referring to the General as being "rich as a Jew" is on one level a gratuitous bit of anti-Semitic drivel, it is also, metafictionally, JA's klaxon, alerting the reader (via the additional large hint toward Shylock's very very famous "but I will not eat with you, drink with you" ) to look to The Merchant of Venice through the lens of money-lending going on offstage in Northanger Abbey, and good insights into JA's shadows will ensue!

There is much much more to say on this subject, but I have no time to write it all up right now, so I will leave that for Part Two, when I do have the chance, at which point I will expand on the above, and then turn to the topic of that additional Genius I alluded to in my Subject Line, which, it turns out, is part and parcel of this same matrix of meaning, courtesy of the greatest literary billiards player of all time, Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

P.S.: I just checked my files and I see that I realized the allusion to The Merchant of Venice in that passage of Northanger Abbey back in 2010, but then forgot about it entirely, so that I "rediscovered" again today, but this time with lots of supporting context to make it clearer why it's there in the first place!

P.S.: I just checked my files and I see that I realized the allusion to The Merchant of Venice in that passage of Northanger Abbey back in 2010, but then forgot about it entirely, so that I "rediscovered" again today, but this time with lots of supporting context to make it clearer why it's there in the first place!

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