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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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

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