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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Emma’s Lenten giving-up of her presumptuous assumption of matchmaking

Among my circle of friends in college, comedy began and ended with the wacky brilliance of the Firesign Theatre:    Among their many brilliant verbal concoctions, “the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption of the Blinding Light” ranks very high. I never thought I’d have a chance to connect the Firesign Theatre to Jane Austen, but today is the day it has actually happened, as you’ll see, below.

In Janeites today, Jane Fox posed another one of her excellent questions:  “On first seeing Captain Tilney, Catherine Morland thinks, "[H]is air was more assuming, and his countenance less prepossessing.” From the OED, I get that by “prepossessing” JA meant: “giving a favourable first impression; attractive, pleasing." But what did "assuming" mean? Does "taking for granted that one has a right to do so and so" fit?"

Yes, Jane, subject only to this tweak: “unjustifiably taking for granted that one has a right to do so and so”.  I find your question excellent, because it points to something noteworthy in all of JA’s writing, not just Northanger Abbey. We find further evidence for ascribing your proposed meaning of “assuming” to Catherine’s take on Captain Tilney, and much more, when we turn to Emma, which contains four of the surprisingly small total of six other usages of the word “assuming” by JA in all her novels combined (the other two are in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, respectively, and are not noteworthy).

Things get more interesting when you realize, as I will now show, that all four of those usages in Emma relate directly to the “assuming” Mr. Elton! So come with me on another tour of JA’s incredibly fine workmanship in carefully crafting, as it sometimes seems to me, every single word of this 160,460-word masterpiece!

As to the first two such usages, Emma uses “assuming” exactly as you defined it, Jane, and as we today would use it-- “presuming”: first (in Chapter 15) in a verbal, and then (in Ch. 16) in an adjectival, form:

[Mr. Elton] “…Is this fair, Mrs. Weston?—Judge between us. Have not I some right to complain? I am sure of your kind support and aid."
Emma saw Mrs. Weston's surprize, and felt that it must be great, at an address which, in words and manner, was ASSUMING TO HIMSELF THE RIGHT of first interest in her [Emma]; and as for herself, she was too much provoked and offended to have the power of directly saying any thing to the purpose. She could only give him a look; but it was such a look as she thought must restore him to his senses….”


“…It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; PROUD, ASSUMING, CONCEITED; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others….”

So far, that’s pretty cut and dried, but now here’s where it gets much more interesting. In her latter two usages, she plays with shades of the meaning of “assuming” in the subtlest, most ironic, and highly thematic ways.

First, later in that same Ch. 16, as Emma reflects back on her Elton courtship snafu in a refreshingly self-critical mode, the word “assuming” might upon a quick reading appear to refer only to an error of interpretation on Emma’s part, by Emma having “taken as given” the apparent (but mistaken) fact that Elton was in love with Harriet:

“If she had so misinterpreted his feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken hers. The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, ASSUMING TOO MUCH, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.”

However, a closer reading reveals that this phrase “assuming too much” is quite ambiguous. It is equally plausible for the alert reader to detect that Emma has, by thinking of herself as “assuming too much”, unconsciously hoist herself on her own rhetorical petard. The same derogatory meaning of “assuming” that she has just applied twice to Mr. Elton, also fits Emma’s own actions to a tee! Emma seems to me to have unconsciously portrayed herself as having proudly and conceitedly PRESUMED she had the right to run everyone else’s love lives!

And here’s where that Firesign Theatre word-concoction comes in: when it comes to presumptuous assumption, Emma is every bit as guilty, albeit in a different way, as Mr. Elton, and maybe even more guilty. Elton presumes to court a woman of a higher social status, and to the snobbish heiress Emma, that is a highly blamable “assuming” on his part. But most readers today, and many even back then, would not consider that a fault at all, if (a big “if”) he actually felt strong feelings for her, and was not just a fortune hunter. Whereas Emma presumes to run the romantic life of a woman of a lower status – and that is, to most readers both then and today, a truly blamable sort of “assuming”! So what do you think? Does Emma consciously intend to blame herself for that sort of presumptuous assumption?

In either event, isn’t that nugget of irony the essence of JA’s moral objectivity and brilliant psychological insight? JA’s usage of this single word “assuming” in the above passage conveys to us the message that Emma judges Elton for being “assuming”, in an act psychologists today would call “projection”, precisely because being “assuming” is Emma’s own worst character flaw!

And then, as we move forward in the novel, it turns out that Emma has not given it up, because, after about six weeks go by in the novel’s chronology, that just happens to take us to the fourth usage, when Emma returns to the matchmaking arena. She first lights upon the bright idea of Frank as a romantic interest for Harriet, to replace Elton, in Chapter 31:

“…It was well to have a comfort in store on Harriet's behalf, though it might be wise to let the fancy touch it seldom; for evil in that quarter was at hand. As Frank Churchill's arrival had succeeded Mr. Elton's engagement in the conversation of Highbury, as the latest interest had entirely borne down the first, so now upon Frank Churchill's disappearance, Mr. Elton's concerns were ASSUMING the most irresistible form.—His wedding-day was named. He would soon be among them again; Mr. Elton and his bride…”

At first blush, it might appear that JA is just being word-playful, associating Elton a fourth and last time with that word “assuming”, but this time with a third, neutral meaning, that of Mr. Elton’s upcoming nuptials “taking on” a strong appeal for the Highbury gossip circuit. Like Shakespeare, you might say, JA just could not resist a pun, and that’s all there is to that.

But….think about it--- maybe JA intentionally inserted another one of her rare usages of “assuming” in this particular paragraph, precisely because this passage describes the very instant when Emma, after a six week period of restraint (call it her matchmaking Lent) once again becomes “assuming” and presumes to start scheming to match Harriet with Frank! I, for one, suspect the country clergyman’s daughter of this last, sly invocation of the Christian season of giving-up.

So, even on this smallest of scales, we find Emma to be an exquisitely chiseled jewel of a novel, with even such tiny details as nuances of the word “assuming” receiving such supersubtle workmanship; tiny details which, upon closer analysis, prove to carry significant thematic weight.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, October 24, 2016

Jane in Trumpland: General Tilney & John Thorpe as Austen's conjoined-twin prophetic nighmare of Donald Trump

Yesterday, Diane Reynolds wrote the following in Janeites & Austen-L:       "I saw [Michael] Moore in Trumpland via iTunes last night and thought it was excellent..there is an Austenian quality in the way he not just sides with, but deeply empathizes with, the underdog--what it feels like to be Hillary: Clinton as Fanny Price, anyone? He never evokes Austen, but shows us a woman who if she has not suffered the pains of tyranny (and perhaps she has, giving up her last name and chased back as First Lady to the tea parties) and neglect, has nonetheless been ridiculed, scorned, and misunderstood; and he casts shame on the mockers too: all done in a comic vein."

On your recommendation, Diane, I’ll see Moore’s film in the near future. I firmly believe that Hillary has had to develop layers of protective “skin” (extreme caution and calculation) to survive the furious waves of misogyny and sexism that her career of forthright, passionate expressions of feminism have long provoked. I’m reminded of how Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation was savagely assassinated in the aftermath of her awful death in childbirth, when Godwin’s memoir revealed too much about her fearless (Sir Thomas Bertram would have called it “disgusting”) independence in her life choices.

Hillary will be as great a President as Obama, who’s been pretty great. We must however expect that her presidency will be a lightning rod nationally for an uptick of misogyny, the same way Obama's two terms led to the same vis a vis white racism. When you rip off a scab covering a deep, septic abscess on the soul of a nation that has been there infecting it for centuries, there will of necessity be more pain in the short term. But in the aftermath, we will be a significantly less racist and sexist society, as children come of age in a country where a black or female face will be all they’ve ever seen in the Oval Office.

As for Trump, I had intended to write a full reply to your excellent earlier post, Diane, about him as the doppelganger of the rich, misogynistic ogre in The Great Gatsby. However I got sidetracked by attending the 2016 JASNA AGM, and so only wrote a brief reply. I am so sick of Trump at this point, but I must now respond more fully by pointing out and showing via textual quotations, that Jane Austen accurately portrayed men just like Trump in several of her novels, but in one most of all -- Northanger Abbey. By a curious twist of historical fate, in her prophetic mode, JA split Trump into two male ogres. 

First, I see half of Trump in the following six passages describing General Tilney:

ONE: An older man with an eye for young women:       “Soon after their reaching the bottom of the set, Catherine perceived herself to be earnestly regarded by a gentleman who stood among the lookers-on, immediately behind her partner. He was a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour of life; and with his eye still directed towards her, she saw him presently address Mr. Tilney in a familiar whisper. Confused by his notice, and blushing from the fear of its being excited by something wrong in her appearance, she turned away her head. But while she did so, the gentleman retreated, and her partner, coming nearer, said, “I see that you guess what I have just been asked. That gentleman knows your name, and you have a right to know his. It is General Tilney, my father.”
Catherine’s answer was only “Oh!”—but it was an “Oh!” expressing everything needful: attention to his words, and perfect reliance on their truth. With real interest and strong admiration did her eye now follow the general, as he moved through the crowd, and “How handsome a family they are!” was her secret remark.   ….The general attended her himself to the street-door, saying everything gallant as they went downstairs, admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing, and making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted. Catherine, delighted by all that had passed, proceeded gaily to Pulteney Street, walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before.”  END QUOTE  It is truly disgusting to compare the above passages in which the General’s graying good looks and graceful manners charm the naïve young Catherine, on the one hand, to the way Donald Trump switched on a dime from his crude boasting about sexual assault to Billy Bush to his smiling flattery of the soap star he has just been ogling, on the other.

TWO: A man with lots of money, who provides employment and a high standard of living to a son:

“This is a somewhat heavy call upon your brother’s fortitude,” observed the general to Eleanor. “Woodston will make but a sombre appearance today.”  “Is it a pretty place?” asked Catherine.
“What say you, Eleanor? Speak your opinion, for ladies can best tell the taste of ladies in regard to places as well as men. I think it would be acknowledged by the most impartial eye to have many recommendations. The house stands among fine meadows facing the south-east, with an excellent kitchen-garden in the same aspect; the walls surrounding which I built and stocked myself about ten years ago, for the benefit of my son. It is a family living, Miss Morland; and the property in the place being chiefly my own, you may believe I take care that it shall not be a bad one. Did Henry’s income depend solely on this living, he would not be ill-provided for. Perhaps it may seem odd, that with only two younger children, I should think any profession necessary for him; and certainly there are moments when we could all wish him disengaged from every tie of business. But though I may not exactly make converts of you young ladies, I am sure your father, Miss Morland, would agree with me in thinking it expedient to give every young man some employment. The money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing. Even Frederick, my eldest son, you see, who will perhaps inherit as considerable a landed property as any private man in the county, has his profession.”  In the heartless cad Captain Tilney, do we not have a Regency Era version of Donald Trump’s two despicable sons?

THREE: A man with lots of money who loves showing off his YUUUGE estate to young women:

“Something had been said the evening before of her being shown over the house, and he now offered himself as her conductor; and though Catherine had hoped to explore it accompanied only by his daughter, it was a proposal of too much happiness in itself, under any circumstances, not to be gladly accepted; for she had been already eighteen hours in the abbey, and had seen only a few of its rooms. The netting-box, just leisurely drawn forth, was closed with joyful haste, and she was ready to attend him in a moment. “And when they had gone over the house, he promised himself moreover the pleasure of accompanying her into the shrubberies and garden.” She curtsied her acquiescence. “But perhaps it might be more agreeable to her to make those her first object. The weather was at present favourable, and at this time of year the uncertainty was very great of its continuing so. Which would she prefer? He was equally at her service. Which did his daughter think would most accord with her fair friend’s wishes? But he thought he could discern. Yes, he certainly read in Miss Morland’s eyes a judicious desire of making use of the present smiling weather. But when did she judge amiss? The abbey would be always safe and dry. He yielded implicitly, and would fetch his hat and attend them in a moment.” He left the room, and Catherine, with a disappointed, anxious face, began to speak of her unwillingness that he should be taking them out of doors against his own inclination, under a mistaken idea of pleasing her; but she was stopped by Miss Tilney’s saying, with a little confusion, “I believe it will be wisest to take the morning while it is so fine; and do not be uneasy on my father’s account; he always walks out at this time of day.”
Catherine did not exactly know how this was to be understood. Why was Miss Tilney embarrassed? Could there be any unwillingness on the general’s side to show her over the abbey? The proposal was his own. And was not it odd that he should always take his walk so early?...She was struck, however, beyond her expectation, by the grandeur of the abbey, as she saw it for the first time from the lawn...Catherine had seen nothing to compare with it; and her feelings of delight were so strong, that without waiting for any better authority, she boldly burst forth in wonder and praise. The general listened with assenting gratitude; and it seemed as if his own estimation of Northanger had waited unfixed till that hour.
The kitchen-garden was to be next admired, and he led the way to it across a small portion of the park.
The number of acres contained in this garden was such as Catherine could not listen to without dismay, ...The walls seemed countless in number, endless in length; a village of hot-houses seemed to arise among them, and a whole parish to be at work within the enclosure. The general was flattered by her looks of surprise, which told him almost as plainly, as he soon forced her to tell him in words, that she had never seen any gardens at all equal to them before; and he then modestly owned that, “without any ambition of that sort himself—without any solicitude about it—he did believe them to be unrivalled in the kingdom. If he had a hobby-horse, it was that. He loved a garden. Though careless enough in most matters of eating, he loved good fruit—or if he did not, his friends and children did. There were great vexations, however, attending such a garden as his. The utmost care could not always secure the most valuable fruits. The pinery had yielded only one hundred in the last year. Mr. Allen, he supposed, must feel these inconveniences as well as himself.”…Having taken her into every division, and led her under every wall, till she was heartily weary of seeing and wondering, he suffered the girls at last to seize the advantage of an outer door, and then expressing his wish to examine the effect of some recent alterations about the tea-house, proposed it as no unpleasant extension of their walk, if Miss Morland were not tired. …”

FOUR: A lecherous older man with a dangerous interest in visiting, unannounced and uninvited, the bedroom of his young female houseguest in the middle of the night:         
“Catherine walked on to her chamber…Catherine thought she heard [Eleanor’s] step in the gallery, and listened for its continuance; but all was silent. Scarcely, however, had she convicted her fancy of error, when the noise of something moving close to her door made her start; it seemed as if someone was touching the very doorway—and in another moment a slight motion of the lock proved that some hand must be on it. She trembled a little at the idea of anyone’s approaching so cautiously; but resolving not to be again overcome by trivial appearances of alarm, or misled by a raised imagination, she stepped quietly forward, and opened the door. Eleanor, and only Eleanor, stood there. Catherine’s spirits, however, were tranquillized but for an instant, for Eleanor’s cheeks were pale, and her manner greatly agitated. Though evidently intending to come in, it seemed an effort to enter the room, and a still greater to speak when there. Catherine, supposing some uneasiness on Captain Tilney’s account, could only express her concern by silent attention, obliged her to be seated, rubbed her temples with lavender-water, and hung over her with affectionate solicitude. “My dear Catherine, you must not—you must not indeed—” were Eleanor’s first connected words. “I am quite well. This kindness distracts me—I cannot bear it—I come to you on such an errand!”  “Errand! To me!”  “How shall I tell you! Oh! How shall I tell you!” END QUOTE
Has the possibility ever occurred to you that it was General Tilney’s hand on the lock of Catherine’s bedroom door, but that Eleanor arrived at that very instant to intercept her father, and then Eleanor knew that she had to send Catherine away immediately, before the General could fulfill his dark intent to have his way with Catherine while she lay sleeping in his home?

FIVE: A late night devotee of paranoid right wing conspiracy theories about the "dangerous" "unpatriotic" countrymen who don't agree with his politics:     
“After an evening, the little variety and seeming length of which made her peculiarly sensible of Henry’s importance among them, she was heartily glad to be dismissed; though it was a look from the general not designed for her observation which sent his daughter to the bell. When the butler would have lit his master’s candle, however, he was forbidden. The latter was not going to retire. “I have many pamphlets to finish,” said he to Catherine, “before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.”
But neither the business alleged, nor the magnificent compliment, could win Catherine from thinking that some very different object must occasion so serious a delay of proper repose. To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets was not very likely. There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept…”
Can’t you just see General Tilney Tweeting at 3 am about Jacobin conspiracies against God and England?

SIX: A husband who did not treat his wife well: 
“Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.

And I see the other half of Trump in John Thorpe, a man who boasts about his carriages and horses as if it would impress a young woman of taste and intelligence; a xenophobe, misogynist, anti-semite; and a sexual predator who thinks nothing of falsely imprisoning a young woman in a small space from which she cannot escape. Most Janeites can readily recall the passages in NA which illustrate each of these repellant characteristics of John Thorpe.

And guess what? General Tilney and John Thorpe do converse on at least two occasions in the novel, both of them, not coincidentally, focused on their shared, sexually predatory obsession with Catherine Morland -- so Jane Austen herself already conjoined the two of them at the hip (or some nearby, undersized part of their anatomy) as a collective portrait of the ultimate sexual predator prowling the social landscape of everyday England.

It's eerie to think about how apt these parallels are, and so it just provides me further confirmation that men like Trump were all over the place in Jane Austen's world – a world in which they did not have to worry about any legal consequences for their horrific acts against women-- it was all "normal", as is reflected ironically in Henry Tilney’s famous rant:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

In Austen’s England, domestic atrocities against women were an everyday occurrence, and what we’ve learned about Donald Trump in the past few weeks alerts us that it’s still all too common today, even in a country on the threshold of electing its first female President. I believe Jane Austen would be thrilled to see Hillary take on that awesome mantle, but she’d also be warning us all against complacency.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, October 10, 2016

Three Thorpes, Eleanor’s lord, & the incest “iceberg” concealed within Northanger Abbey

In followup to my two previous posts (call them Post #1 & Post #2) about the key role played by three Thorpes (Mrs. Thorpe, Isabella, & John) in both the current action and the backstory of Northanger Abbey, I have two more angles to add to this already rich and suggestive mix.

First, in Post 2, I claimed that Jane Austen’s causes John Thorpe to tell Catherine that his favorite novels are Tom Jones and The Monk, primarily because of one salient plot detail shared by those two notorious, but otherwise dissimilar, novels---a shocking disclosure of hidden INCEST, which in the Fielding’s comic novel turns out to be a false alarm, but in Monk’s Gothic chiller is seen to be actual.

With just a little Googling, I‘ve found that John Thorpe’s creepy little bookshelf is only the tip of an allusive iceberg in NA on the theme of concealed incest. As strong evidence thereof, first read the following excerpt from Susan Ford’s 2012 article “A Sweet Creature’s Horrid Novels: Gothic Reading in Northanger Abbey: which outlines the incest theme as it crops in all six of the so-called “Northanger Novels” named in Northanger Abbey:

“More often in the novels on Miss Andrews’s list, however, sexual guilt derives from the suspicion or the fact of INCESTUOUS desire. While the INCEST discovered in The Monk, in which Ambrosio rapes and murders his sister, is simpler in its definition and so more horrifying in its pleasures, these novels approach the topic most closely through the forbidden desire for a brother’s wife.  Moreover, they don’t approach too near the horrors of this safer kind of INCEST:  rather than pursuing the forbidden passions, Miss Andrews’s novels examine the consequences. In Roche’s Clermont, St. Julian’s suspicion that his half-brother Phillipe had introduced him to his wife only to disguise his own seduction of her spurred him to murder his brother. In fact, Phillipe was married to St. Julian’s wife’s sister…In The Midnight Bell, Alphonsus, “addicted to suspicion”, convinces his brother Frederic to attempt to seduce his wife Anna, in order to test both her virtue and his brother’s. In one last refinement of his plan, Alphonsus pretends to have been murdered; Anna accuses Frederic of villainy, makes her son, also named Alphonsus, swear to avenge his father’s death…
Other novels use confirmed INCESTUOUS desire as a mainspring of the plot. Eliza Parsons’s The Castle of Wolfenbach begins its narrative with a species of father-daughter INCEST, but tracks backward in time —though within the same family unit—to the desire of a brother for a sister (or sister-in-law).  The orphan Matilda flees from her uncle Weimar, who has raised her but who now attempts to seduce her, showing her indecent drawings and “for ever seeking opportunities to caress [her]”. 
Although later he denies he’s her uncle and attempts to enforce a marriage, after he’s kidnapped her and they’re attacked by pirates, he finally admits not only that he’s her uncle but that, in love with his brother’s wife (Matilda’s mother), he killed his brother “by repeated stabs”. INCEST is also the mainspring of The Mysterious Warning (also by Parsons). Ferdinand’s wife Claudina is seduced by his half-brother Rhodophil. But the family structure is even more complicated. Claudina turns out to be the half sister of Ferdinand and Rodophil’s half sister Charlotte (also known as Fatima). Again, the sins of the father create a world of fleshy complexity. In a mysterious warning, Ferdinand hears a voice urging him to “Fly, fly from her arms, as you would avoid sin and death!”. While the immediate cause for that warning is Claudina’s continuing relationship with his brother, their link through the father’s sexual adventuring, as yet unknown, is later seen as evidence of the forbidden nature of the marriage.  Further, Claudina’s father turns out to be Count M***’s brother, whom Ferdinand has rescued from a dungeon and who then becomes his best friend. In these horrid novels, even as characters roam around France, Germany, Italy, Corsica, Morocco, Turkey, and England, the world collapses: everyone is related….”  END QUOTE FROM FORD

By reading Ford’s excellent summary, I was serendipitously alerted to another wink in NA at incest in yet another novel, which I hadn’t noticed before: the “sweet creature” who first hooks Isabella Thorpe on those six INCEST-tinged Northanger Novels is “Miss Andrews”. Does that surname ring a bell for any of you? Of course, it’s the surname of one of the most famous heroines of 18th century English literature—Miss Pamela Andrews, the title character of Samuel Richardson’s first, best-selling, and enormously influential epistolary novel, Pamela. Richardson’s Pamela Andrews was so influential, in fact, that she was reincarnated in a second literary existence---and not once but twice---by Henry Fielding (yes that very same chatty author who wrote John Thorpe’s co-favorite novel, Tom Jones). First Fielding produced a short parody, Shamela, and later in his career, he did so in much longer and more serious fashion, in Joseph Andrews. And wouldn’t you know, when I found an online synopsis of Book IV, Chapter 12 of Joseph Andrews, lo and behold, there was “that incest thing” yet again!:

“The Pedlar has been researching the Booby family and has discovered that Sir Thomas bought Fanny from a traveling woman when Fanny was three or four. After the dinner at the alehouse, he offers to reveal to Fanny who her parents are. He tells a story of having been a drummer with an Irish regiment and coming upon a woman who thereafter lived with him as his mistress. Eventually she died of a fever, but on her deathbed she confessed having stolen and sold a child during a time when she was traveling with a band of gypsies. The buyer was Sir Thomas, and the original parents were a couple named Andrews who lived about thirty miles from the Squire. Everyone reacts strongly to this information; Mr. Adams falls on his knees and gives thanks “that this Discovery had been made before THE DREADFUL SIN OF INCEST was committed.”

So, it’s now quite clear to me that Jane Austen was having a jolly good time cherrypicking from among the 18th century literature she knew so well, collecting those which had an incest subtext of some kind. Beyond that, there’s much more that could be said about these novels vis a vis the whiffs of incest in Northanger Abbey itself, but I will leave this point at that for now, so I can get on to my second one.


My Post #1 explained how I saw the following passage in Chapter 4 as a giant clue hinting (by ironic negation) at a 20-year-old backstory for the current action of the novel, revolving around Mrs. Thorpe when she was young and single:

“Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well. This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.”

At the heart of my central claim that all of Jane Austen’s novels are double stories is what I have long called The Jane Austen Code. By this I mean a wide palette of writing techniques, focused in particular on wordplay, verbal echoing, and the like. I mention that now, after requoting the above Mrs. Thorpe passage, because I detect a great deal of echoing of it in the following passage, which occurs near the other end of Northanger Abbey, in the antepenultimate paragraph of the entire novel. Please read them both a couple of times one after the other, and then I invite you to tell me if you also detect echoing:

“The marriage of Eleanor Tilney, her removal from all the evils of such a home as Northanger had been made by Henry’s banishment, to the home of her choice and the man of her choice, is an event which I expect to give general satisfaction among all her acquaintance. My own joy on the occasion is very sincere. I know no one more entitled, by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering, to receive and enjoy felicity. Her partiality for this gentleman was not of recent origin; and he had been long withheld only by inferiority of situation from addressing her. His unexpected accession to title and fortune had removed all his difficulties; and never had the general loved his daughter so well in all her hours of companionship, utility, and patient endurance as when he first hailed her “Your Ladyship!” Her husband was really deserving of her; independent of his peerage, his wealth, and his attachment, being to a precision the most charming young man in the world. Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all. Concerning the one in question, therefore, I have only to add—aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable—that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills, resulting from a long visit at Northanger, by which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures.”

Here are the noteworthy echoes I noticed:

First, this is yet another passage, strikingly similar to the earlier one about Mrs. Thorpe, in which the narrator blithely intrudes in her own drily satirical voice and simultaneously (i) hints at intriguing details regarding a secondary character (Eleanor’s new husband), but then (ii) promptly announces that she’s not going to actually provide those details after all!:
Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all.”

Such authorial intrusions are pretty rare in JA’s novels ---JA was the very opposite in this regard of Henry Fielding, who seemed never to have stifled any impulse to speak directly to the reader---and so any paragraphs where they appear are always of special interest. And the two I quoted above are no exception, as you will see…

Second, there are two unusual and suggestive words which both occur in both paragraphs:

Chapter 4: Mrs. Thorpe’s “past ADVENTURES and SUFFERINGS…

Chapter 31: Eleanor’s “habitual SUFFERING” & one of Catherine’s “most alarming ADVENTURES….”

“adventures” and “sufferings” – both common English words – perhaps this is just random coincidence? Here’s where the Jane Austen Code comes in – a quick word search of JA’s novels reveals that these two paragraphs at opposite ends of NA happen to be the only ones in all of JA’s six novels in which both of these Gothic-novel nouns occur! To me, this is a clear signal from JA that this was deliberate interchapter echoing, so written in order to prompt readers who notice it to take a closer look at Mrs. Thorpe, and to wonder why in the world JA would want us to link her to Eleanor Tilney and Eleanor’s new husband – as far as we know, they never meet during the course of the novel, and they certainly seem to be very different sorts of people.

But then, perhaps the unmarried young pre-Mrs. Thorpe might well have endured comparable sufferings as Eleanor did? I.e., in the elided story of Mrs. Thorpe’s arrival at adulthood, we hear about the “worthlessness of lords and attornies”. So, when we learn that Eleanor will be known as “Her Ladyship”, that tells us that the groom who gave her that title must be a Lord!—albeit a worthy lord, rather than a worthless one! 

So, taking this post today along with Post #1 and Post #2, I hope you’ll be inspired to undertake adventures of your own in sleuthing out hidden icebergs in JA’s fiction—the only suffering is having your curiosity piqued while you struggle to crack that part of the Jane Austen Code, and bring the iceberg to the surface where we all can see it clearly!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Art of the VERY BAD Deal, by Donald Trump (ghostwritten by Vladimir Putin)

Now that the rats are finally beginning to abandon the rapidly sinking ship of Trump's candidacy, an extraordinary irony just occurred to me --- this is 1995 all over again with Trump -- just substitute the Republican Party for the lenders and investors who financed Trump's 90's casino buying binge, and substitute the double digit electoral loss Trump might be facing at this point for the billiondollar loss from those spectacularly failed real estate ventures that Trump deducted on his 1040, and we only found out about a week ago (in what we all naively thought had to be the biggest bombshell revelation we were going to get this election cycle---WRONG!!).
Here's the best part of this analogy in the "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" --- from Trump's point of view, his own life experience has taught him that despite the seemingly desperate, weak position he appears to be in at the moment, he is actually, vis a vis his "creditors" (meaning the Republican leadership that so reluctantly embraced him after his primary victory), in a position of strong bargaining power!
That's why I think he really is very unlikely to voluntarily walk away from his candidacy --- he has nothing further to lose by carrying on, because he will whine and whine and whine about the rigged system, and he will remain very popular with his large number of deplorable followers.
But the elders of the Party of Lincoln know that united they fall, but divided they fall further. So, unless (here's my punchline) they make it worth Trump's while to resign, he won't budge, he will do what he did in 1995 and stare them down defiantly.
And what might they have to do to make it worth his while? Perhaps the Koch Brothers will have to slip the Donald a cool BILLION (or two) under the table, money which would enable him to pay off Putin & his cronies who hold him by the kahones in ways that have only been guessed at by the rest of us, and maybe have enough loose change left over to buy an upgrade of Melania when she turns 50 in 4 years.
This campaign has now finally been revealed as an extended miniseries updated version of The Sopranos....

Friday, October 7, 2016

The shocking significance of John Thorpe’s two fictional favourites in Northanger Abbey:

Diane Reynolds responded briefly to my last post, “Mrs Thorpe’s “past adventures and sufferings” are keys that unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey“…. … as follows: 

"There are many interesting catches here, especially on Mrs. Thorpe's backstory..."

Thank you very much, Diane -- I must admit that even I was surprised at how quickly and readily the various pieces of the backstory puzzle fit together, once I got going. That’s always a very encouraging indicator that I’m barking up the right tree in my literary sleuthing.

Diane also wrote: "...but I don't think it likely John Thorpe would want to marry his half sister."

You are the voice of common sense, Diane, but let me push back on that, hard, because it turns out that with your excellent instinct for brainstorming about what matters in fiction, you’ve just pointed me to yet another key to the backstory of Northanger Abbey that I sketched out in my prior post!

First, do you recall John Thorpe's favorite novels? Here is where we hear about them from him:

"[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.”

So, what might have been the reason why JA lets us know that the satanic John Thorpe has not one but two favorite novels, Tom Jones and The Monk? Austen scholars have repeatedly noted the obvious, which is that both novels were notorious for crossing into what many conservative readers deemed to be indecency, although that indecency was obviously much more the case with the darkly lurid evils depicted in The Monk than with the wittily salacious Tom Jones.

It took me a few seconds to realize that there’s one key plot point where John Thorpe’s two literary inspirations are in startling, disturbing, and very specific alignment with each other, beyond the above  general resemblance. If you will just note the portions I put in ALL CAPS in the following two Wikipedia synopses, that specific parallel will become immediately apparent to you:

First, Tom Jones:      “…Tom…is expelled from Allworthy's estate for his many misdemeanours, and starts his adventures across Britain, eventually ending up in London. Amongst other things, he…beds two older women (Mrs Waters and Lady Bellaston)…Eventually the secret of Tom's birth is revealed, after A SHORT SCARE THAT MRS WATERS (who is really Jenny Jones) IS HIS BIRTH MOTHER, AND THAT HE HAS COMMITTED INCEST. Tom's real mother is Bridget, who conceived him after an affair with a schoolmaster — hence he is the true nephew of Squire Allworthy himself…”

And second, The Monk:     “Newly arrived in Madrid, Leonella and her niece Antonia visit a church to hear the sermon of a celebrated priest, Ambrosio…The mysterious priest, who was left at the abbey as a child, delivers the sermon, and Antonia is fascinated with him…On the way home, a gypsy warns Antonia that she is about to die, killed by someone who appears to be honorable….Ambrosio grows tired of [Matilda], and his eyes begins to wander, noticing the attractiveness of other women. Ambrosio is approached by Antonia, who asks him to provide a confessor for Elvira, her dying mother, and is immediately attracted to her. He prays for Elvira, who begins to improve, and so agrees to come to visit them often, for the simple purpose of being with Antonia and hopefully seducing her. Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is.
Ambrosio continues his visits to Antonia. He asks if there is not a man whom she has ever loved, and she confesses that she loves him. Misinterpreting her, he embraces her, but she resists him, insisting that she did not love him in that way, yet the priest continues to ravish her until her mother enters. Ambrosio pretends that nothing was happening, but Elvira had already suspected his designs on her daughter and tells him that his services are no longer needed. Matilda comes to his room and tells him she can help him to gain Antonia’s charms, even though she realizes she herself no longer holds his interest, in the same way in which she was healed of the poison: witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified and rejects her suggestion. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that reveals to him Antonia bathing, he agrees. Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up Lucifer and receives his help, and they receive a magic myrtle bough, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio agrees, without, he believes, selling himself to the devil.
…Ambrosio carries out his plot to rape Antonia. With the magic myrtle bough he enters her chamber and finds her asleep. He performs the magic rite that will prevent her resistance. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira enters the room and confronts him, promising that she will make his true nature public. In desperation, Ambrosio murders Elvira without carrying out his true purpose of ravishing Antonia. He returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer. Antonia is grief-stricken at the death of her mother and alone…One night Antonia wanders into Elvira’s room and sees what she takes to be her mother’s ghost, which warns her that it will return in three nights and Antonia will die. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, Jacintha, who goes to Ambrosio, requesting him to exorcise her home. Under Matilda’s advice, Ambrosio acquires a concoction that will induce a condition appearing to be death for Antonia. While he is attending Antonia, he slips the potion into her medicine and waits. While he is waiting, he sees what he fears is, in actuality, the ghost of Elvira retreat across the room. He pursues it and discovers it is Flora, Antonia’s maid, who is spying on him on the advice of Elvira before she died. As they are speaking, Jacintha cries out that Antonia is dying, as it indeed appears. With her "dying" breath, Antonia confesses how much she admired Ambrosio and desired his friendship, against her mother’s wishes. She leaves everything to her aunt Leonella, and releases her half-uncle Cisternas from all obligations to her, though she waited for him to come rescue her from her dire straits.… When Antonia awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt Ambrosio rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape. 
Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition, and at first both proclaim their innocence, but then Matilda confesses her guilt and is condemned to be burned at the auto-da-fe. Ambrosio insists upon his innocence and is tortured…In despair, Ambrosio requests Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Yet still Ambrosio resists, hoping eventually for God’s pardon. Lucifer informs him that there is none, and Ambrosio, after much resistance, signs the contract. He is rescued from the cell by Lucifer and brought to a wilderness. LUCIFER INFORMS HIM THAT ELVIRA WAS HIS MOTHER, MAKING ANTONIA HIS SISTER, ADDING TO HIS CRIMES THE SIN OF INCEST. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio’s soul, and Matilda was his servant in the process. Lucifer then carries Ambrosio up and drops him on the rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days, dying alone and damned for eternity.”

So, does anyone who looks at the above really think Jane Austen, who knew all 18th century fiction like the back of her prolific hand, didn’t realize that Tom Jones and The Monk both involve incest which plays a salient role in the climax of the plot—whether in the assuaging of the fear of incest in Tom Jones which (suspiciously to my eyes) proves very conveniently unfounded, or in the actuality of brother sister incest, committed by a satanic brother on an innocent sister, in The Monk?

But I’ve got two more points to make in support of my above claim.

First, I direct your attention to Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice of sister Jane, which includes the following oft-noted disclaimer:     “She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.”

Five years ago, I argued here…  …that Henry Austen deliberated lied in the above statement, because he did not want readers to realize that Jane Austen actually was profoundly influenced by Fielding’s fiction. However, it only occurred to me today, that Henry was not just telling a general lie, he was also telling a very specific lie. To wit: the key point is that his Biographical Notice was first published as the Preface to the posthumous first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, a year after JA’s death.

So, I now believe that Henry Austen singled out Fielding’s fiction for special condemnation, precisely because Tom Jones was explicitly mentioned in Northanger Abbey, as part of a veiled incest subtext which I assert Henry Austen was very much aware of, and devoutly wished to suppress. I.e., he did not want any readers to do what I just did this morning, which is to think too much about the curious juxtaposition of John Thorpe’s two favorite novels. And this point is only enhanced when we recall that there’ve been a number of scholarly studies of Austen’s fiction outlining the pervasive brother sister incest themes in all her novels --- to which I now make this intriguing and surprising addition.

That brings me to my final point – did you happen to notice the following in the above-quoted synopsis of The Monk?:  “Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is.”

Here’s the actual passage in The Monk, in which Antonia and her mother discuss Ambrosio:

'Even before He spoke,' said Elvira, 'I was prejudiced in his favour: The fervour of his exhortations, dignity of his manner, and closeness of his reasoning, were very far from inducing me to alter my opinion. His fine and full-toned voice struck me particularly; But surely, Antonia, I have heard it before. It seemed perfectly familiar to my ear. Either I must have known the Abbot in former times, or his voice bears a wonderful resemblance to that of some other, to whom I have often listened.
There were certain tones which touched my very heart, and made me feel sensations so singular, that I strive in vain to account for them.'
'My dearest Mother, it produced the same effect upon me: Yet certainly neither of us ever heard his voice till we came to Madrid. I suspect that what we attribute to his voice, really proceeds from his pleasant manners, which forbid our considering him as a Stranger. I know not why, but I feel more at my ease while conversing with him than I usually do with people who are unknown to me. I feared not to repeat to him all my childish thoughts; and somehow I felt confident that He would hear my folly with indulgence. Oh! I was not deceived in him! He listened to me with such an air of kindness and attention! He answered me with such gentleness, such condescension!...”

Anyone who read my above-linked first post will understand that what caught my eye in the above was its striking parallel to the way the Thorpes all remark about Catherine’s remarkable resemblance to brother James, which I took as a clue to Catherine’s possible illegitimacy, even before I knew that such a parallel passage involving a concealed brother-sister relationship even existed in The Monk . So, I hope you’ll now agree that it is little wonder that John Thorpe was such a big fan of The Monk!!!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Mrs Thorpe’s “past adventures and sufferings” are keys that unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey

At the end of Chapter 4 of Northanger Abbey, we read a narrative synopsis of the Thorpe family: "Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well. This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated."

As I've previously noted (and in accord with other Austen scholars), the running joke of the wry narrator of Northanger Abbey is to state facts in the form of a negation: Catherine was not destined to be a heroine; Mrs. Morland did not die in childbirth; “Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding [Catherine], no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she once called a divinity by anybody”;  “Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero”; England is a Christian country where horrors and atrocities could not be perpetrated without an outcry from church, government, and neighborhood “spies”, etc etc.

In each case, JA is dropping an ironic hint to question the narrator’s minimizing negation, and to look behind it for its reverse ---i.e., to recognize that Catherine was actually a true heroine in her bravery, clear-sightedness, and honesty; that Mrs. Morland was a lucky outlier, compared to the many English wives who endured serial pregnancy, and did die in childbirth; and, most significantly, that England was indeed a Christian country where domestic horrors and atrocities of all kinds against women—not the lurid literal imprisonment, torture, and murder of Gothic novels, but the banal metaphorical death, confinement, and oppression, of wives and single women alike, which were everyday events, and were, appallingly, blithely ignored and rationalized by the supposed protectors of those English gentlewomen.  

This is a very effective ironic technique, which first raises as straw man the conventional wisdom about a given situation, only to promptly puncture it, and show that sometimes the seemingly absurd is real, as crystallized at novel’s end in this epigram: “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

With that brief intro, what I noticed today (which hasn’t been spotted by other Austen scholars) is how JA’s ironic narrator gives a short summary of the Thorpes early in NA, but then teasingly hints, via yet another wry negation, at what the narrator is not going to talk about: the “long and minute detail…of [Mrs. Thorpe’s] past adventures and sufferings.” The trusting reader accepts this as mere satire of the verbose, histrionic account Mrs. Thorpe gave. I imagine a film version of this scene with visuals of Mrs. Thorpe going on and on (like Miss Bates) while Catherine politely pretends to listen--but we can’t hear Mrs. Thorpe, only the narrator’s Fieldingesque voiceover delivering JA’s drily disparaging commentary.

But the suspicious reader who recognizes those other NA negations as ironic, will imagine a backstory of “worthlessness of lords and attorneys “ which “might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before”. Worthless lords and attorneys sound to me, respectively, like a rake (Henry Crawford or John Willoughby) who impregnates the future Mrs. Thorpe when she is single and naïve, and an attorney (Mr. Shepherd) a “fixer” who arranges her shotgun marriage to the late Mr Thorpe. That time period of twenty years just happens to take us back a generation, to when the main characters (Catherine, Isabella, John, Henry, and Eleanor) were all born. So we’d be “scarcely sinning” in taking JA as hinting at those sorts of “past adventures and sufferings” for Mrs. Thorpe, ones that would justify her in giving “long and minute detail” of same.

Hard to swallow? Consider, then, the scene when Catherine meets the Thorpes, earlier in Chapter 4: “hardly had [Mrs. Allen] been seated ten minutes before a lady of about her own age, who was sitting by her, and had been looking at her attentively for several minutes, addressed her with great complaisance in these words: “I think, madam, I cannot be mistaken; it is a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing you, but is not your name Allen?” This question answered, as it readily was, the stranger pronounced hers to be Thorpe; and Mrs. Allen immediately recognized the features of a former schoolfellow and intimate, whom she had seen only once since their respective marriages, and that many years ago. Their joy on this meeting was very great, as well it might, since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years….”

What was the nature of that occasion 15 years earlier when Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen last saw each other? Was the current meeting of Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen in Bath not accidental at all? That speculation in turn leads to a third suggestive passage in that same short Chapter 4:   “The Miss Thorpes were introduced; and Miss Morland, who had been for a short time forgotten, was introduced likewise. The name seemed to strike them all; and, after speaking to her with great civility, the eldest young lady observed aloud to the rest, “How excessively like her brother Miss Morland is!”
“The very picture of him indeed!” cried the mother—and “I should have known her anywhere for his sister!” was repeated by them all, two or three times over. For a moment Catherine was surprised; but Mrs. Thorpe and her daughters had scarcely begun the history of their acquaintance with Mr. James Morland, before she remembered that her eldest brother had lately formed an intimacy with a young man of his own college, of the name of Thorpe; and that he had spent the last week of the Christmas vacation with his family, near London. “

Why do the Thorpes all emphasize how closely Catherine resembles James? It sounds like “protesting too much”, which suggest that the Thorpe children were instructed by their mother to repeat this observation in unison. Is this because Catherine actually does not resemble James? And if so, is that non-resemblance due to a lack of actual biological consanguinity they don’t want Catherine to notice? I.e., what if Catherine isn’t really a biological child of Mrs. Morland after all, but is instead, the illegitimate child…of Mrs. Thorpe and an “worthless lord”?

Before you reject that out of hand, look more closely at those passages, and note that there’s still more Austenian sleight of hand going on. Although the discreet narrator of NA doesn’t point it out, this is actually a DOUBLE coincidence. Not only is Mrs. Thorpe connected to Mrs. Allen as her old schoolmate, Mrs. Thorpe is also connected to Catherine via James’s friendship with John Thorpe. This double coincidence was noted in 1996 by T. Barton:

So when Mrs. Thorpe recognizes Mrs. Allen in the Pump Room by “accident”, I ask: what if Mr. Thorpe did not randomly become friends with James at Oxford? And that speculation leads us to yet another coincidence… tucked away in the scene at the theatre in Chapter 12:       
“While talking [with Henry], [Catherine] had observed with some surprise that John Thorpe, who was never in the same part of the house for ten minutes together, was engaged in conversation with General Tilney; and she felt something more than surprise when she thought she could perceive herself the object of their attention and discourse. What could they have to say of her? She feared General Tilney did not like her appearance: she found it was implied in his preventing her admittance to his daughter, rather than postpone his own walk a few minutes. “How came Mr. Thorpe to know your father?” was her anxious inquiry, as she pointed them out to her companion. He knew nothing about it; but his father, like every military man, had a very large acquaintance.”

To recap: we now have three surprisingly interrelated connections being made, seemingly accidentally and independently, by members of the Thorpe family, each with a person a single degree of separation from Catherine: (1) Mrs. Thorpe meets Catherine’s chaperone; (2) John Thorpe meets her brother; and (3) John Thorpe meets the father of Henry & Eleanor. What’s the most probable explanation? That the Thorpes are united on a mission to establish connections with the Morland family, for some undisclosed reason. And by the way, this is another of those apparently multiple coincidental meetings which occur throughout Austen’s novels (most spectacularly in P&P, where we have a quadruple coincidence of Darcy, Wickham, Collins, and Mrs. Gardiner all “independently” connected to Elizabeth), which I’ve long asserted were not mere plotting expedience on JA’s part, but were invitations to alert readers to speculate on how such meetings might have occurred other than by accident. 

So, coming full circle, I suggest that all this coincidental ‘smoke” arises from the “family planning” hinted at in the sly narrator’s faux-dismissal of Mrs. Thorpe’s “adventures and sufferings” 20 years earlier. What seemed to be mere satire on Mrs. Thorpe is actually the key to unlock the backstory of Northanger Abbey. As Faulkner famously put it: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Or as Elissa Schiff, who rarely agrees with me, put it a few years ago in Janeites: “I think much of Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, and MP revolve around what actually did happen in the past both in the lives of our characters and their families as well as in the larger world.” 

My speculations about backstories in JA’s novels have all consistently moved toward the sort of hidden familial relationships that filled the Gothic novels that Catherine Morland imbibed—and which, as I (and JA’s NA narrator) have suggested, served her much better than has been noted by most Janeites. And so, I see a repeated pattern of concealed parent-child and brother-sister relationships woven deep into the fabric of NA, centered on Mrs. Thorpe. As with Miss Bates, it behooves us to listen, even when Austen teasingly doesn’t allow us to.

I’m certain that Jane Austen intended for her readers to speculate about what might have gone on with Mrs. Thorpe two decades earlier, the consequences of which are playing out before our eyes in the novel’s present. But we can only do this, if we first recognize that behind the novel’s apparent mockery of an overheated Gothic imagination, there’s a whispered but urgent call to recognize that the largest impediment to seeing the world as it is, is an underactive imagination, one which unsuspiciously accepts what we think we see at face value.

[Here is the link to my first followup post to the above, which adds a crucial additional key to the backstory of Northanger Abbey:  "The shocking significance of John Thorpe’s two fictional favourites in Northanger Abbey"  ]
Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter