“Miss Morland; do but look at my horse”: Horses’ John Thorpe Problem

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Kate Scarth is the Chair of L.M. Montgomery Studies and Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture (ACLC) at the University of Prince Edward Island. Her research focuses on English and Canadian literature written from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century and she’s particularly interested in fiction about urbanism and the environment. Her book Romantic Suburbs: Fashion, Sensibility, and Greater London (under contract with the University of Toronto Press) has a chapter on Jane Austen’s Emma and suburban space. She is also leading a digital humanities, public engagement project, which includes a mobile app and website supporting a literary walking tour of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Kate wrote a guest post for my “Emma in the Snow” series a couple of years ago, on “Highbury Heights; or, George and Emma Knightley, Suburban Developers,” and I’m very happy to welcome her back with this post on the horses in Northanger Abbey.

Kate Scarth, photo by Mike Needham

Photo by Mike Needham

John Thorpe is the co-villain of Northanger Abbey. He is the man whose avarice, then spite, leads to the lies that cause General Tilney to commit his own villainous act: throwing Catherine out and getting her as near to being the hard-done-by Gothic heroine as she ever gets. Thorpe, like Emma’s Mrs Elton, talks endlessly about carriages (his gig and horses replace her sister’s barouche landau). Their obsession with commercial goods negates actual conversation and relationships. For Thorpe, women are to be talked at about gigs and horses, while men are only potential buyers of horses and dogs. Thorpe is also a Mrs. Elton-style foil whose bad qualities actually highlight the other characters’ own shortcomings, namely their own conspicuous consumption: Isabella’s focus on a rich husband with a ritzy Richmond villa, Mrs. Allen’s dress fixation, and even the heroine’s immersion in Gothic novels. Case in point: on the way to Blaise Castle, “Thorpe talked to his horse” and Catherine “meditated” on Gothic architecture (“broken arches,” “false hangings,” and “trap-doors” [Chapter 11]).

Thorpe’s gig couldn’t go anywhere without his horses, of course (not even part of the way to Blaise Castle), and so we’re going to follow his advice and “look at [his] horse.” Horses in Austen’s novels and in the Regency period more generally are, of course, ubiquitous, but often unacknowledged. Horses do the heavy lifting whenever a person is travelling and whenever a letter is sent (in this novel, horses connect Fullerton, Bath, Northanger, Woodston, and London). Here I’ll briefly shift focus to horses with a gesture that others, like Jo Baker in Longbourn, have made with servants, other vital but liminal presences in Austen’s work.

“The boldness of his riding.” Illustration by C.E. Brock (Mollands.net).

“The boldness of his riding.” Illustration by C.E. Brock (Mollands.net).

Exceptionally in Northanger Abbey, horses are brought to the fore via Thorpe’s conversation and actions. This spotlight is undesirable, given the violence and crass commercialism with which he treats them. And yet, an animal rights narrative in Northanger Abbey emerges with Thorpe’s treatment of animals and its divergence from other characters’ and especially the successful hero-suitors’ relationships with horses.

One way that Austen champions animals is by linking the treatment of women and animals (thereby anticipating twentieth-century feminists and animal rights activists). For example, Thorpe’s gig is a Gothicized space for both Catherine and his horse. For both, the gig is a space of captivity described with Gothicized language of danger, death, and violence. Catherine’s first view of the gig is of “a most knowing-looking coachman with all the vehemence that could most fitly endanger the lives of himself, his companion, and his horse” and “the horse was immediately checked with a violence which almost threw him on his haunches” (Chapter 7, my emphasis). Later when Thorpe is driving Catherine, violence is again emphasized, as he warns, “You will not be frightened, Miss Morland…if my horse should dance about a little at first setting off. He will, most likely, give a plunge or two” (Chapter 9). Catherine “was too young to own herself frightened,” but everything goes smoothly: the never humble Thorpe assures “her that it was entirely owing to the peculiarly judicious manner in which he had then held the reins, and the singular discernment and dexterity with which he had directed his whip” (Chapter 9). Thorpe’s gig then is a Gothicized space for the horses, one in which they are forcibly and violently contained—with harnesses, reins, and whips—for most of their lives.

As well as Austen’s violent language here, carriages are also staples of the Gothic and sentimental genres, as vehicles used to kidnap heroines (Austen jokingly alludes to the typical advice a heroine would receive before heading out into the world: “[c]autions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farmhouse” [Chapter 2]). Thorpe enacts a domesticated, everyday version of the Gothic villain. He gets Catherine in his gig by lying to her, then keeps her in it through physical force (refusing to stop the gig when she asks). He also makes her a conversational captive, forcing her to listen to his insistent bragging about said gig and horse, while not considering that she might have her own conversation or ideas. This scene highlights unequal, and highly gendered, access to mobility and voice.

Thorpe’s mistreatment of horses adds a sinister layer to his behaviour towards our heroine. Indeed, his reckless driving could physically endanger her and merely riding with a man in an open carriage could damage her reputation (as Catherine’s guardians, the Allens, belatedly decide). Indeed, Thorpe does have the power to damage Catherine’s reputation (at least with General Tilney), destroy her happiness (temporarily stalling her happy ending with Henry), and open her up to physical and sexual violence (when his lies lead General Tilney to fling her out into the world).

Thorpe’s deficiencies reveal Northanger Abbey’s connection between equine care and proper masculinity. His horse obsession extends to his clothes, which resemble a groomsman’s or coachman’s, a not so subtle dig at his dubious claims to the title of gentleman. And Northanger Abbey relays a message that, unlike Thorpe, hero-gentlemen treat animals, well, gently. For example, while Austen tells us little about Eleanor Tilney’s husband, we do know that his servant left a farrier’s bill (Catherine’s imagined mysterious manuscript), reading “To poultice chestnut mare” (Chapter 22). While we see Thorpe abusing horses, in this brief glimpse of Eleanor’s future husband, Austen chooses to cast him as a man paying to ease a horse’s ailment.

Then, of course, there is Henry Tilney, the novel’s hero. On the journey to Northanger, his driving is explicitly contrasted with Thorpe’s: “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 [Catherine], or swearing at them [the horses]: so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with!” (Chapter 20). Catherine, of course, is in love, but the treatment of horses (no whips, no swearing, no disturbances) here marks the make of the man. Reinforcing Henry’s relationship with animals are the companionable dogs that are an ubiquitous highlight of the visit to his Woodston home.

Northanger Abbey shows that the conduct towards subordinates, i.e., horses, indicates how one will treat others in one’s power, including wives in the Regency period. But what if instead of thinking about how men’s conduct towards animals illuminates their treatment of women, we look at it the other way around and instead zero in on the horse’s plight? Thorpe’s horse actually has it much worse than Catherine, who unlike him and indeed unlike the typical Gothic heroine, never faces actual physical danger. While when Thorpe drives, people, himself included, are at risk, only the horses receive physical blows and so come closest to injury (Thorpe takes horses plunging to the ground as a matter of course). Catherine’s interactions with this boorish brute last only a few awkward afternoons and dances, but the horse has no such escape, does not get to retreat to idyllic Woodston. Austen presents an exemplary model of the treatment of animals in Henry Tilney, while clearly presenting animal rights as an unresolved, ongoing issue as long as the Thorpes of the world live to drive another day.

“Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe.” Illustration by C.E. Brock (Mollands.net).

“Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe.” Illustration by C.E. Brock (Mollands.net).

Fifth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Lisa Pliscou, Leslie Nyman, and Gisèle Baxter.

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