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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tolerably decent, intolerably stupid & intolerably rude: my “defence” of Jane Austen’s (more than) “tolerably” witty wordplay in Northanger Abbey

The words “tolerably” and “tolerable” each appear over forty times in JA’s novels, but the word “intolerable” appears only six times total (and those 6 in only 3 of the novels), and the word “intolerably” appears only twice—both in the same novel, Northanger Abbey.

Upon initial reflection, this large discrepancy in frequency of usage between antonyms seems readily explainable, given that the words  “tolerable” and “tolerably” were actually clichés in JA’s era, frequently used by people of all levels of education and intelligence as a loose synonym for today’s colloquial “sort of”. In JA’s fictional worlds, it is a word often used as a tool for damning with faint praise---and I am sure some of you already realized that this latter sense most memorably occurs in the following passages about Elizabeth Bennet’s looks:

“…She is TOLERABLE, but not handsome enough to tempt me…”

"Mr. Darcy is not so well worth listening to as his friend, is he?—poor Eliza!—to be only just TOLERABLE."

“…Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character—there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are TOLERABLE, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I could never see anything extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is INTOLERABLE." ….”

Whereas, in contrast, “intolerable” and “intolerably” were not clichés on the tip of every tongue.

But it turns out that there is a thread inspired by these antonyms in NA, which ties together four different passages in which novels are discussed, as to which I am tolerably certain (sorry, I  couldn’t resist!) Jane Austen was having some subtle wordplay fun, which also (as with all her humor) had a deeper meaning. See what you think—to me it’s the thousand and first example of Jane Austen’s seemingly infinite capacity to use keywords as threads to unite seemingly unrelated  passages.

First, we have two conversations about reading Udolpho and other novels, which are prompted by Catherine’s obsession with Radcliffe’s novel:

Chapter 7:
"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."
"I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"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."


Chapter 14:
"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"
"Why not?"
"Because they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books."
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be INTOLERABLY stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time."

JA subtly conveys the sharp contrast between John Thorpe and Henry Tilney via the sharp contrast in their novel-reading habits, with the male suitor’s reaction to Udolpho as the litmus test of taste and intelligence. And so how brilliant of JA to take Thorpe’s lament for the recent dearth of “tolerably decent” current novels, and his contempt for Burney’s “stupid novel” Camilla, to then have Henry blend those two comments into “intolerably stupid”, as if Henry had been eavesdropping on Catherine’s conversation with Thorpe, and had wittily decided to doubly hoist Thorpe on his own dull rhetorical petard. We may wonder whether Catherine, who heard both men speak their respective speeches, noticed the echo.

Anyway, JA clearly had such a good time with those two passages, that she could not help but pop a third one in, later in that same Chapter 14, which is subliminally linked to the first two via those same keywords:

… Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, "I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London."
Miss Tilney, to whom this was chiefly addressed, was startled, and hastily replied, "Indeed! And of what nature?"
"That I do not know, nor who is the author. I have only heard that it is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet."
"Good heaven! Where could you hear of such a thing?"
"A particular friend of mine had an account of it in a letter from London yesterday. It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind."
"You speak with astonishing composure! But I hope your friend's accounts have been exaggerated; and if such a design is known beforehand, proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect."
"Government," said Henry, endeavouring not to smile, "neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much."
The ladies stared. He laughed, and added, "Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No—I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute—neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, GENIUS, and WIT."
"Miss Morland, do not mind what he says; but have the goodness to satisfy me as to this dreadful riot."
"Riot! What riot?"
"My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern—do you understand? And you, Miss Morland—my STUPID sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London—and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George's Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her STUPIDITY. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general."
Catherine looked grave. "And now, Henry," said Miss Tilney, "that you have made us understand each other, you may as well make Miss Morland understand yourself—unless you mean to have her think you INTOLERABLY rude to your sister, and a great brute in your opinion of women in general. Miss Morland is not used to your odd ways."

Henry was determined to call someone stupid again, and this time it’s his sister, whom he calls stupid twice—but of course he does not really think her stupid at all.

And so, once again, how fitting is Eleanor’s witty and good natured response to Henry’s sharp teasing, when SHE deliberately appropriates Henry’s word “intolerably”, and then (perhaps after a pregnant pause) she calls him “rude” rather than “stupid”---we realize just how close is the relationship between Henry and Eleanor, how they dance together verbally with such grace and elan!

But I did tell you there was a fourth passage that was part of this matrix, have you realized which one it is? I gave you a hint in my Subject Line when I referred to my “Defence” of Jane Austen’s wordplay.

It was while composing this post that I noticed for the first time that Henry’s mock-contempt for women in Chapter 14 included references to “genius”, “wit”, and “taste”. That’s when I realized—DOH!!!!---where had I read those same words “genius” and “wit” used together elsewhere in NA? Of course, these three passages using variants on the words “tolerably” and “stupid” were all foreshadowed by JA’s famous “Defence of the Novel” in Chapter 5, an extraordinary authorial intrusion sparked by—what else?—a discussion of Udolpho!

“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm …they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its INSIPID pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—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. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of TASTE: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

How extraordinary of JA to in effect tell us in Chapter 5 what we are going to read in Chapter 7 and Chapter 14, and to pull it off so subtly that the connection has been rarely, if ever, noticed even upon a number of rereadings of Northanger Abbey—from a quick search, I only find the ever-insightful Emily Auerbach has noticed the connection.

How tolerably witty…and certainly ingenious of the sharpest elf of all, Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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