Friday, 1 July 2016

Jane Austen's John Thorpe in 'Northanger Abbey'

Jane Austen's portrayal of John Thorpe, the complete boor, is masterly. He is 

a stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy.


His conversation consists of boasts, lies and exaggerations, mainly about his horse and gig or his prowess at billiards or drinking. He is the type of man known until recent times as a 'rattle'; and Catherine, coming from a plain, truthful family, had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead

His attitude to Catherine is bullying and proprietorial. He informs her he will take her out in his gig and that he will dance with her, offering her no choice. He insists on her joining the others for a drive to Claverton Down, just when she intends a quiet morning with a book, followed by a meeting with Miss Tilney in the Pump Room. 

But she learns gradually how to evade such a man. 

At first, when she has agreed to go for a walk with the Tilneys, Thorpe tricks her into going instead with James, Isabella and himself for a drive, ostensibly to Blaize Castle, which she expects to find on a level with Otranto. Thorpe has lied to her that it is the 'oldest in the kingdom', whereas it is a comfortable folly-dwelling erected at Henbury as part of a landscaped garden in 1766.

In complete contrast, she later has the pleasure of being driven by Henry in his curricle on the way to Northanger Abbey. That ride is bliss.

A very short trial convinced her that a curricle was the prettiest equipage in the world; ... so nimbly were the light horses disposed to move ... But the merit of the curricle did not all belong to the horses; – Henry drove so well, – so quietly – without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them; so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with! ... To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world.

Thorpe plans also to whisk Catherine off for a drive to Clifton, regardless of her wishes, at the very time the Tilneys have again agreed to go with her for a walk. Thorpe lies cruelly to get his own way. He tells the Tilneys Catherine has 'recollected a prior engagement of going to Clifton with us tomorrow'. This time Catherine has had enough.

There follows the altercation which comes closest to violence of any in a major Jane Austen novel. Catherine has to wrench herself away from the physical restraint of her brother and Isabella in order to chase after the Tilneys and put things right.

Thorpe is also sadly wanting when put to one of Jane Austen's favourite tests, that of literary taste. I never read novels; I have something else to do. He claims to have read Camilla and The Monk but seems to have gained nothing from them. He shows his ignorance by praising Mrs. Radcliffe while not knowing that she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Lewis's The Monk (1796), by the way, written by the twenty-year-old Matthew Lewis, is an amazing patchwork of horror stories. 

Thorpe's marriage proposal, such as it is, reflects his boorishness. He conveys it in a letter to his sister Isabella rather than speaking to Catherine himself. Presumptuously and quite falsely, he says that he as good as made you an offer, and that you received his advances in the kindest way; and now he wants me to urge his suit, and say all manner of pretty things to you. The 'offer' Thorpe originally made was in these words, spoken after his sister became engaged to Catherine's brother: A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul ... What do you think of it, Miss Morland? 

Both the Thorpes treat Catherine badly at the first dance in the Upper Rooms. John, having engaged her for the first two dances, disappears into the card room to talk of horse and dog sales. Waiting for him, Catherine is obliged to decline the offer of a dance with Henry Tilney. Isabella, who claims that she would not leave Catherine unattended 'for all the world', does so three minutes later.

However, as Jane Austen's minor characters often do, John Thorpe has an important effect on the plot. It is he who gives the General the two contrasting opinions of Catherine’s wealth. Through John Thorpe and James Morland, Jane Austen skilfully moves her story along. The timing and nature of their interventions facilitate or impede Catherine's progress. Thorpe's chat with General Tilney in the box at the theatre proves important and his report of their discussion (saying with his usual exaggeration that the General thinks Catherine 'the finest girl in Bath') also puts Catherine at her ease about a first meeting with him.