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Mapping Northanger Abbey

By Author: Mark Gary
Total Articles: 61

James Joyce famously boasted that turn-of-the century Dublin might forever be reconstructed from the details in his Ulysses (1922). As a result, scholars take Joyce's spatial descriptions seriously more so than anyone has hitherto taken Jane Austen's descriptions of Bath in Northanger Abbey (1818). Yet Austen, too, engineers a reading of her text that rewards, perhaps even demands, an intimate knowledge of a city's architectural environs and local history. Clocking her characters with precision through the streets of Bath, Austen at several points in Northanger Abbey even provides the rates of speed at which her carriages travel. Armed with speeds, duration, and cartographic particulars, an Austen reader can reconstruct the passing scenery of a carriage ride through Bath's landscape a landscape in which, it turns out, the historical associations of certain structures elicit specific interpretations of conversation and character. Some Joyce scholars have timed the flow of the Life to prove that, after a so-called throwaway ends up in the river, the exact rate of the current has been taken into account by the author when the paper drifts past in a later scene. Joyce, of course, bragged that the puzzles of Ulysses would keep scholars scrambling for centuries. It seems that, in view of Austen's similar penchant for wordplay, historical accuracy and cartographic precision, we may be further behind schedule on solving her Links Of London puzzles than on his. Using plans and guidebooks of Bath from the years in which Austen composed her novel, this essay maps several scenes in Northanger Abbey in an effort to decipher the historical puzzle behind the story's Mr and Mrs Allen and their presumed fortune.

Befitting a book filled with fakes and follies, Northanger Abbey starts with a counterfeit. Almost instantaneously upon her arrival in Bath, the unpretentious Catherine Morland gets mistaken for an heiress. It is not just Links Of London Bracelets the buffoonish young John Thorpe who makes this error but also, largely due to Thorpe's influence, the more experienced General Tilney all because of something suggested by a name. The surname these men seize upon is not Catherine's own but that of her guardians in Bath, a Mr and Mrs Allen. The reader knows Mr Allen to be a well-to-do landowner 'who owned the chief of the property about Fullerton' the small fictional Wiltshire village where the Morlands live. His wealth, in other words, is relative and confined to that locale. The childless Aliens, the narrator reveals in the opening chapter, head for Bath to treat Mr Allen's 'gouty constitution'. They kindly take young Catherine, the daughter of their local clergyman, in tow. Yet when these rather ordinary Aliens arrive in Bath with their young charge, men such as Thorpe assume 'old Allen is as rich as a Jew' and that Catherine is his goddaughter and the likely heir to his vast fortune.

This assumption, if made during the years Austen drafted her novel (Cassandra dated it to 1798 and 1799), has legs. It is possibly significant that Austen never provides her Aliens with first names, keeping them at a deliberate remove. For the Allen name, common enough in Britain as a whole was in the context of turn-of-the-century Bath particularly potent. Ralph Allen (1693-1764), postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul and builder of Prior Park and its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath's most famous historical personage. His was not a narrow sort of celebrity. Ralph Allen was a nationally recognized figure and often referred to simply as 'the Man of Bath'.Without question this Mr Allen was Bath's richest inhabitant to date. Significantly, the real-world fortune that Allen had amassed was in transition during the novel's composition. The immense wealth that had been held by a distant niece, Gertrude Tucker, for over three decades, reverted to the Allen family name upon her death in 1796.

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