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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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

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