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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The two “tenfold” subtexts of John Thorpe’s “rich as a Jew” slur in Austen’s Northanger Abbey

The other day in Janeites, Nancy Mayer raised a new topic:
“I do not know that Jane Austen ever recorded her opinion of Jews. On a blog about Jews in George III's England, someone commented that she was sorry to see a bit of antisemitism from Austen.-- the line to which she objected was in NA-- John Thorpe says someone is as "rich as a Jew." I don't think it shows us anything about Austen but is supposed to show us what sort of person young Thorpe was.”

Diane Reynolds replied:
Nancy, I agree with you. I don't think John Thorpe's opinions in any way reflect those of the author! If it comes from his mouth, it means Austen is condemning the opinion.”

I have recently written in Janeites about the thread of allusion from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, drawing parallels between Bassanio, Montoni, and General Tilney & John Thorpe, respectively. Today I want to go into much greater detail about the complex allusion to Merchant that I see in NA, beginning with my response to Nancy’s comment in which I agree with Diane’s reply to her:

Indeed, when John Thorpe, one of her most odious characters – a predator and a gold-digger-- casually tosses out a vile stereotyping epithet, it most certainly does not mean that Jane Austen was an anti-Semite—as Diane points out, the context suggests the diametric opposite- i.e., that JA (rightly) was appalled by such casually expressed bigotry toward a persecuted minority in her society.

For Jane Austen to endorse Thorpe’s anti-Semitism would also run contrary to everything we know about her as a sharp critic of oppression of other vulnerable groups who, like Jews, lacked power in her England. I’ve long claimed that Northanger Abbey in particular is, at its core, an attack on one of the many ways women were oppressed in her society – the universal subjugation of English gentlewomen as breeding animals compelled to run a two-decade gauntlet of serial pregnancy and all too frequent death in childbirth.

But….JA was also intimate by instinct with Shakespeare (a sly joke, because her intimacy patently derived from a great deal of scholarly study), and so I suggest that there’s a deeper, Shakespearean reason why John Thorpe casually calls Mr. Allen “rich as a Jew”—and, behind the Shakespeare, yet another reason, having to do with Isabella Thorpe’s reference to “The Italian”, as you will see if you read along to the very end of this post.

In the first chapter of NA, Austen explicitly alerts the reader that Catherine Morland (like her creator) has profited from reading Shakespeare. As evidence thereof, JA quotes from three of his plays: Othello, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night:

“And from Shakespeare [Catherine] gained a great store of information—AMONGST THE REST, that—
   “Trifles light as air,
   “Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
   “As proofs of Holy Writ.”
   “The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
   “In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
   “As when a giant dies.”
 And that a young woman in love always looks—
   “like Patience on a monument
   “Smiling at Grief.”

But…the key words in that paragraph, for my purposes today, are “amongst the rest”, meaning the rest of Shakespeare’s plays besides those three explicitly quoted plays! Which other plays? At my JASNA AGM talk in 2010, I made the case for a global, complex veiled allusion to Hamlet, hidden in plain sight in Northanger Abbey But today I am going to make a detailed case for the additional, complex presence of The Merchant of Venice in NA as well!

Let me start by pointing out the striking echoing of specific themes and accompanying keywords in The Merchant of Venice by passages in NA:


What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:

Away, then! I AM LOCK’D IN one of them…[the casket to be chosen by her future husband]

“…[Mr. Morland] was not in the least addicted to LOCKING UP HIS DAUGHTERS…”

“Eleanor’s countenance was dejected, yet sedate; and its composure spoke her inured to all the gloomy objects to which they were advancing. Again she passed through the folding doors, again her hand was upon the important LOCK, and Catherine, hardly able to breathe, was turning to close the former with fearful caution, when the figure, the dreaded figure of the general himself at the further end of the gallery, stood before her! 



[Catherine] “…You do not know how vexed I am; I shall have no pleasure at Clifton, nor in anything else. I had rather, TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather, get out now, and walk back to them…Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a phaeton together? And then what could I do? But I had TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?”


SHYLOCK (to Bassanio)
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, But I WILL NOT EAT WITH YOU, drink with you, nor pray with you.

“…A very fine fellow; AS RICH AS A JEW. I should like TO DINE WITH HIM; I dare say he gives famous dinners."  



“Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance—perhaps nothing but a considerable HOARD OF DIAMONDS…. “



“"What! Not when Dorothy has given you to understand that there is a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. ANTHONY, scarcely two miles off? Could you shrink from so simple an adventure? No, no, you will proceed into this small vaulted room, and through this into several others, without perceiving anything very remarkable in either. In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture…


Three thousand ducats is the amount of money lent by Shylock to Antonio, and to burn that amount into the audience’s brain, Shakespeare has Shylock repeat the words “three thousand ducats” eight times, and Bassanio four times, in the play. It is the amount upon which the entire action of the play turns. So I find JA’s characteristic sly irony in referring to that same numerical amount of British currency, in her summing up of the action at the end of NA:

“…It taught [Henry Tilney] that he had been scarcely more misled by Thorpe's first boast of the family wealth than by his subsequent malicious overthrow of it; that in no sense of the word were they necessitous or poor, and that Catherine would have THREE THOUSAND POUNDS.”

So, based on the above alone, I believe I’ve made a strong case that Jane Austen meant to invoke the memory of Merchant in her readers’ minds as we read NA. But one other echo of Merchant in NA opened a door for me to an additional, earlier allusive source for NA.


The number “ten” is used, in a variety of contexts, a total of 33 times in NA, which is a frequency more than double the frequency of the number “ten” being used in any other Austen novel. This suggests a thematic meaning of some kind unique to NA.

So isn’t it curious, in light of all the other echoes I’ve listed, that, similarly, the number “ten” appears with unusual frequency for a Shakespeare play in Merchant as well:

Enter GRATIANO and SALARINO, masqued
This is the pent-house under which Lorenzo
Desired us to make stand.
SALARINO His hour is almost past.
And it is marvel he out-dwells his hour,
For lovers ever run before the clock.    [Austen alludes to this line with Catherine watching the clock]
O, TEN TIMES faster Venus' pigeons fly
To seal love's bonds new-made, than they are wont
To keep obliged faith unforfeited!

Is't like that lead contains her? 'Twere damnation
To think so base a thought: it were too gross
To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave.
Or shall I think in silver she's immured,
Being TEN TIMES undervalued to tried gold?
O sinful thought! Never so rich a gem
Was set in worse than gold.

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am: though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish,
To wish myself much better; yet, for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, TEN thousand times more rich;

What if my house be troubled with a rat
And I be pleased to give TEN thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answer'd yet?
Yes, here I tender it for him in the court;
Yea, twice the sum: if that will not suffice,
I will be bound to pay it TEN times o'er,
On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart:
If this will not suffice, it must appear
That malice bears down truth.
I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.
DUKE Get thee gone, but do it.
In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had TEN more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font.

So, was Jane Austen simply pointing to Merchant with this procession of 33 usages of “ten” in NA? I felt there must be more to it than that, and I noted that an unusually high percentage of the “tens” in NA were either spoken by or about John Thorpe. Hmmm… that led me to return to the portion of my 2012 post…
…. in which, inter alia, I identified John Thorpe as Jane Austen’s sly reworking of one of the 3 suitors whom Portia (a la Eliza Bennet and Mary Crawford) skewers with her rapier wit, as she satirically encapsulates hid foibles to Nerissa in Act 1, Scene 2:

NERISSA   But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors that are already come?
PORTIA I pray thee, over-name them; and as thou namest them, I will describe them; and, according to my description, level at my affection.
NERISSA First, there is the Neapolitan prince.
PORTIA Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts, that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with a smith.

I think it clear that the Neapolitan Prince is rebooted by Jane Austen as John Thorpe, whose equine obsession is foregrounded by Austen similarly to the way Portia skewers the Prince. But was that the full explanation for the “ten” leitmotif in NA? I felt there must be still more, and after a bit of creative word-searching, I stumbled upon an answer which caused me to hit my forehead with a “Doh!” – of course!

Jane Austen was a master wordplayer, and so I realized that she had not merely been pointing to Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince in Merchant, she was also showing her recognition, via her extensive study of Shakespeare and his sources, that Shakespeare had foregrounded the number “ten” in Merchant in order to point to a very famous work of literature from centuries before his own lifetime, in which the number “ten” was the very basis for its title – of course I am referring to Boccaccio’s Decameron which Wikipedia tells us was “a collection of a hundred tales by Boccaccio (published 1353), presented as stories told by a group of Florentines to while away ten days (the meaning of “Decameron”) during a plague. 

Now, I suggest that part of the way Austen showed her recognition of the Boccaccio behind the Shakespeare, was via a sly double meaning in Isabella’s above-quoted line:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of TEN or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“The Italian” seems at first to refer only to the title of Radcliffe’s second most famous gothic thriller. But it also, especially when you see it in the same sentence as the number “ten”, can plausibly be seen to refer covertly to Boccaccio --- who was of course, “the Italian” author who wrote the Decameron!

Okay, I am sure some of you are thinking that my imagination has been overstimulated, like Catherine Morland’s, and that I’ve just gone too far in ascribing to Jane Austen such a level of knowledge of Boccaccio’s ten days of tales, some of them famously bawdy. The evidence I’ve presented is just too thin, right?

Well, here’s the coup de grace. Just read the first story told on the sixth day of the Decameron, and you tell me whether the “gentleman” in Boccaccio’s tale doesn’t just leap out of his saddle and into your imagination as the literary “predecessor” of both Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince and Austen’s John Thorpe!:

“A gentleman engageth to Madam Oretta to carry her a-horseback with a story, but, telling it disorderly, is prayed by her to set her down again”
"Young ladies, like as stars, in the clear nights, are the ornaments of the heavens and the flowers and the leaf-clad shrubs, in the Spring, of the green fields and the hillsides, even so are praiseworthy manners and goodly discourse adorned by sprightly sallies, the which, for that they are brief, beseem women yet better than men, inasmuch as much speaking is more forbidden to the former than to the latter. Yet, true it is, whatever the cause, whether it be the meanness of our understanding or some particular grudge borne by heaven to our times, that there be nowadays few or no women left who know how to say a witty word in due season or who, an it be said to them, know how to apprehend it as it behoveth; the which is a general reproach to our whole sex. However, for that enough hath been said aforetime on the subject by Pampinea, I purpose to say no more thereof; but, to give you to understand how much goodliness there is in witty sayings, when spoken in due season, it pleaseth me to recount to you the courteous fashion in which a lady imposed silence upon a gentleman.
As many of you ladies may either know by sight or have heard tell, there was not long since in our city a noble and well-bred and well-spoken gentlewoman, whose worth merited not that her name be left unsaid. She was called, then, Madam Oretta and was the wife of Messer Geri Spina. She chanced to be, as we are, in the country, going from place to place, by way of diversion, with a company of ladies and gentlemen, whom she had that day entertained to dinner at her house, and the way being belike somewhat long from the place whence they set out to that whither they were all purposed to go afoot, one of the gentlemen said to her, 'Madam Oretta, an you will, I will carry you a-horseback great part of the way we have to go with one of the finest stories in the world.' 'Nay, sir,' answered the lady, 'I pray you instantly thereof; indeed, it will be most agreeable to me.' Master cavalier, who maybe fared no better, sword at side than tale on tongue, hearing this, began a story of his, which of itself was in truth very goodly; but he, now thrice or four or even half a dozen times repeating one same word, anon turning back and whiles saying, 'I said not aright,' and often erring in the names and putting one for another, marred it cruelly, more by token that he delivered himself exceedingly ill, having regard to the quality of the persons and the nature of the incidents of his tale. By reason whereof, Madam Oretta, hearkening to him, was many a time taken with a sweat and failing of the heart, as she were sick and near her end, and at last, being unable to brook the thing any more and seeing the gentleman engaged in an imbroglio from which he was not like to extricate himself, she said to him pleasantly, 'Sir, this horse of yours hath too hard a trot; wherefore I pray you be pleased to set me down.' The gentleman, who, as it chanced, understood a hint better than he told a story, took the jest in good part and turning it off with a laugh, fell to discoursing of other matters and left unfinished the story that he had begun and conducted so ill."

Just think of Jane Austen laughing her head off as she brilliantly parodied Boccaccio’s small tale with the episode in which Catherine is virtually abducted by Thorpe in his carriage and is held as a captive audience to his boastful drivel, until we read:

““Good heavens!” cried Catherine, quite frightened. “Then pray let us turn back; they will certainly meet with an accident if we go on. Do let us turn back, Mr. Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him how very unsafe it is.”

So I hope you’ll now agree that Jane Austen had indeed read “the Italian” master Boccaccio, and also the man from Stratford, very closely indeed, and then reflected her understanding of Shakespeare’s borrowing from Boccaccio, in her “tenfold” subtext in NA. And, last but not least, the Boccaccio allusion in NA is not entirely a laughing matter --- just as Boccaccio’s tales were told during a “plague”, so too did Jane Austen write her novel during a “plague”—the epidemic of death in childbirth among English gentlewomen, as symbolized by the ghost of Mrs. Tilney.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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