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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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 

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