(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 15, 2015

“plenty of dirt” & “At once too much and too little”: veiled scatology in Austen’s satire of the Prince in Northanger Abbey

Yesterday I reported on Jocelyn Harris’s excellent recent AGM presentation about the satire of the Prince of Wales, which Harris persuasively argued was hidden in plain sight by JA in Northanger Abbey  & to a lesser extent in P&P. Before retiring, I felt compelled to review my post, as something she had presented was still tickling my subconscious, making me feel there was some further connection to my research than I had as yet understood as such.

I was drawn to what was perhaps her most persuasive textual example, in Chapter 9 of NA, when John Thorpe  “reassures” Catherine that James and Isabella won’t really be injured riding in James’s gig, even though Thorpe has just gotten through condemning that vehicle as dangerously ‘tittuppy”  and “rickety”:  

"Unsafe! Oh, lord! What is there in that? They will only get a roll if it does break down; and there is plenty of dirt; it will be excellent falling. Oh, curse it! The carriage is safe enough, if a man knows how to drive it; a thing of that sort in good hands will last above twenty years after it is fairly worn out. Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail."

Harris informed us that in early July 1788, the Prince had a carriage accident in Brighton while out driving too fast with his “wife” Mrs. Fitzherbert, as a result of which they both fell out of the carriage, but, fortunately did not sustain serious physical injury. Nonetheless, the tabloid press, particularly the caricaturists, made hay out of the accident----most memorably and satirically, as Harris displayed to the audience, in Gillray’s “The Fall of Phaeton”:


Before moving on to her next example, Harris specifically noted the most shocking and obvious detail in the above image----which, of course, is that the face of the still-falling Prince (who, like the mythological Phaeton, was the son of a “god”) is less than a foot away from landing broadside on Mrs. Fitzherbert’s fully exposed and naked butt!

I am sure Harris will, in her article, go on and give a satisfying explication of the above, including many implications arising from same. And, as I wrote yesterday, she already had me convinced at the AGM that this was indeed an intentional allusion by JA to this specific caricature.  But I also have no doubt that a number of you reading this post are, like Fanny Price, shaking your heads vigorously in strong disagreement with such a scandalous suggestion. After all, even if JA did undeniably hate the Prince Regent for how he treated so many women during his life, and even if she covertly alluded to him as the “Prince of Whales” via her carefully constructed charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, would she have gone further still, and knowingly alluded to a caricature in which such a disgusting “unbecoming conjunction” between the Prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert is so openly flaunted?

Well, I bet you guessed that my answer is “Yes, and then some!” Because it was at that moment this morning that the light bulb went on in my head, and I realized what it was that had been tickling my subconscious ever since Harris displayed the text of John Thorpe’s mad little speech at the AGM, and noted how real life and fiction had been aligned so neatly by JA. It is when Thorpe says “They will only get a roll if it does break down; and there is plenty of dirt; it will be excellent falling….”

Harris did not elaborate on Thorpe’s logic, but the most benign implication, I think it fair to say, is that Mrs. Fitzherbert’s ample female buttocks were very soft, and therefore the Prince would have “excellent falling” when he landed on them! But…there’s one big problem with that reading, which is that it ignores that Thorpe makes his prophecy of a “happy ending” (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) explicitly dependent on there being “plenty of dirt” for the Prince to land on. But how would that happen? In the spatial layout of Gillray’s careful composition, it is clear that the Prince’s face will be landing squarely on Mrs. F’s rear end, not on the ground. So, he won’t even reach all that plentitude of dirt on the road!

And that was when I instantly recollected the argument I made just over two years ago here…
…as one of a series of posts in which I demonstrated that Jane Austen used the word “dirt” a large number of times as code for “poop”, not just in NA, but in each and every one of her novels! My above linked 2013 post includes the following self-explanatory excerpt about the “dirt” in NA:

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 [followed by an extended quotation from Reeve’s book elaborating on that blanketing of sections of the real-life Bath street network in poop!]

So…I think it must be obvious that I have expanded my claims from 2013, and now see Thorpe’s reference to “plenty of dirt” in Chapter 9 (i.e., only 2 chapters earlier than all of the above previously quoted examples from Chapter 11) as Jane Austen’s deliberate reference to Mrs. Fitzherbert’s butt—or, more specifically, to the unpleasant, albeit soft, contents of her butt, which the Prince’s face will very shortly encounter there upon landing!  I.e., that whole series of references to “dirt” as “poop” in Chapter 11, I now see, have actually been slyly introduced by Thorpe’s reference in Chapter 9—but it is only fully visible to those readers who are aware of Gillray’s caricature and that specific detail!

And to bolster this point---when you think about it, one of the most famous factoids about the Prince, which Jane Austen and all of Great Britain would have been aware of from 1795 onward, and which many Janeites are aware of in 2015, was how, when he first met his fiancée, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795, he was appalled at her awful personal hygiene “down below”—in fact, it made it nearly impossible for the normally randy Prince to bring himself to consummate the marriage.

Now, while Gillray, presumably lacking the gift of psychic foresight, would have had no idea in 1788  that the Prince would take his famous tumble in 1795, Jane Austen, looking back as she wrote and rewrote NA at least three times between 1798 and 1816, would certainly have noticed, and would, I argue, have opportunistically taken full advantage of the lucky intersection of Gillray’s dirty mind with the Prince’s later, dirty nuptial Gothic horror.

So, please step back and reflect on all you’ve just read, above. What were the chances that Jocelyn Harris, finding Gillray’s “Fall of Phaeton” without, I am sure, the slightest awareness of what I had written two years ago in my blog about “dirt” as code for “poop”, would unwittingly lead me to such a dramatic epiphany, which would then confirm both my earlier interpretation and also her current one? Vanishingly small!

And that’s not all. I quickly sleuthed out that there are three more very specific winks by JA in NA at the scatology of Gillray’s “Fall of Phaeton”:

ONE: Jane Austen concentrated her usage of the word “phaeton” in FOUR usages in that same “dirty” Chapter 11—obviously not a coincidence!:

"Not they indeed," cried Thorpe; "for, as we turned into Broad Street, I saw them—does he not drive a PHAETON with bright chestnuts?"….Thorpe talked to his horse, and she meditated, by turns, on broken promises and broken arches, PHAETONS and false hangings, Tilneys and TRAP-DOORS….“…I had rather, ten thousand times rather, get out now, and walk back to them. How could you say you saw them driving out in a PHAETON?" Thorpe defended himself very STOUTLY, declared he had never seen two men so much alike in his life, and would hardly give up the point of its having been Tilney himself…..
"Oh! Mr. Tilney, I have been quite wild to speak to you, and make my apologies. You must have thought me so rude; but indeed it was not my own fault, was it, Mrs. Allen? Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a PHAETON together? And then what could I do? But I had ten thousand times rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?"

And I see JA winking one last time at the equipage of the Prince and his entourage near the end of novel: 

“A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of NOBLE RELATIONS IN THEIR SEVERAL PHAETONS, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows.”

TWO: In NA, there are, I have long believed, two sexual double entendres on Isabella Thorpe’s “cheek”—which may innocently be the cheeks on her face, but also scandalously may equally plausibly be the cheeks that comprise her butt!—Now I see that they do not stand alone, but are part of the much larger, “dirty” matrix I’ve been outlining:

Chapter 10:
"Oh, yes you would indeed; I know you better than you know yourself. You would have told us that we seemed born for each other, or some nonsense of that kind, which would have distressed me beyond conception; my CHEEKS would have been as red as your roses; I would not have had you by for the world."
"Indeed you do me injustice; I would not have made so improper a remark upon any account; and besides, I am sure it would never have entered my head."
Isabella smiled incredulously and talked the rest of the evening to James.

Chapter 18:
Catherine, looking up, perceived Captain Tilney; and Isabella, earnestly fixing her eye on him as she spoke, soon caught his notice. He approached immediately, and took the seat to which her movements invited him. His first address made Catherine start. Though spoken low, she could distinguish, "What! Always to be watched, in person or by proxy!"
"Psha, nonsense!" was Isabella's answer in the same half whisper. "Why do you put such things into my head? If I could believe it—my spirit, you know, is pretty independent."
"I wish your heart were independent. That would be enough for me."
"My heart, indeed! What can you have to do with hearts? You men have none of you any hearts."
"If we have not hearts, we have eyes; and they give us torment enough."
"Do they? I am sorry for it; I am sorry they find anything so disagreeable in me. I will look another way. I hope this pleases you" (TURNING HER BACK on him); "I hope your eyes are not tormented now."
Catherine heard all this, and quite out of countenance, could listen no longer…

I am also still ROFL at the references in both of these seemingly unrelated passages to (a) a young woman’s objections to something improper being “put into her head”, which is a 180 degree reversal of the imminent and highly improper insertion of the Prince’s head into a private place where the sun does not shine, and (b) the idea of Isabella’s teasing Captain Tilney by showing him the edge of her butt, which would indeed, in a sexual sense, be, as JA’s witting narrator observes, “at once too much and too little”! And I also believe that latter wit was inspired by those very same lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which Gillray chose to insert at the bottom of his caricature:  

“ Th’ imaginary Bride with Beauty glows  For Envy Magnifies What e’er she shows”

I.e., JA deliberately took those Ovid lines out of context, and played with them wittily, as only she could, in order to once again point the reader back to Gillray’s  caricature, as well as tapping into Ovid’s tale of a jealous sister (which is exactly the emotion Catherine is feeling toward Isabella in that latter scene)!

THREE: Most amazingly of all, I think, it turns out there was yet another famous depiction of the “Fall of Phaeton” in the zeitgeist of Georgian England, seen here…
“The Fall of Phaeton” 1780 which George Stubbs, Wedgwood’s master artist, depicted the runaway carriage carrying Phaeton to his doom. And, in that regard, would you believe that I found the following link this morning, that, for reasons having no apparent connection to the Prince or “dirt”, was independently connected by another Austen scholar, Laura Boyle, to….Northanger Abbey!:

by Laura Boyle, 6/20/11:
[First Boyle quotes from Chapter 22 of NA: “The elegance of the breakfast set forced itself on Catherine’s notice when they were seated at table; and, luckily, it had been the general’s choice. He was enchanted by her approbation of his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden or Sêvre. But this was quite an old set, purchased two years ago. The manufacture was much improved since that time; he had seen some beautiful specimens when last in town, and had he not been perfectly without vanity of that kind, might have been tempted to order a new set. He trusted, however, that an opportunity might ere long occur of selecting one — though not for himself. Catherine was probably the only one of the party who did not understand him.”]

Then Boyle wrote: “It is often remarked that Jane Austen made no reference to current events in her work; and yet, it seems that the quote above must refer to the many improvements in English pottery introduced by Josiah Wedgwood and his descendants. Let us examine the many advances Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) brought to English pottery in Staffordshire. Wedgwood introduced a superior inexpensive clear-glazed creamware pottery in 1764. The excellence of his product soon attracted a wide market for Wedgwood pottery. When George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, ordered a tea set Wedgwood rechristened creamware as Queen’s ware in the first celebrity marketing campaign.… Artists employed by Wedgwood Potteries produced many famous design motifs. …In 1780, artist George Stubbs, known for his remarkable renderings of horses, created the “Fall of Phaeton.”

So, I suggest, as my final observation, that Jane Austen has General Tilney boast about his expensive breakfast set precisely so that she can ping the memory of readers familiar with Stubbs’s famous design, and thereby connect the dots  back to Gillray’s caricature, John Thorpe’s plentitude of dirt, and Isabella’s blooming cheeks!

And there I will finally stop my carriage, and give my “horses” a rest—hope you enjoyed the ride…..and that the only thing that fell by the wayside were any illusions you may have had that Jane Austen was not ten times more sophisticated and clever at sexual innuendo than even Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: