The Story Of Austen

Catherine’s case of mistaken identity by association, as it were, is the understood catalyst for the novel’s plot, since the notion that she is the Aliens’ heir explicitly motivates both Thorpe’s initial pursuit as well as General Tilney’s subsequent invitation to Northanger. Such a conjecture about a young woman’s sudden wealth from distant relations is, of course, a recurrent feature in the Gothic tales that Austen satirises. Because being mistaken for an heiress seems a typically melodramatic scenario for a Gothic heroine, Thorpe’s and the General’s motivations have never been investigated with an eye to an historical explanation. But Northanger Abbey mocks rather than imitates the Gothic novel. And Austen’s own story has a basis in fact, characteristically offering the author’s peculiar brand of realism as the antidote to all things Gothic. The real-world Mr and Mrs Ralph Allen of Bath had passed the bulk of their vast fortune to a favorite niece, Gertrude Tucker.5 Under her two married names Gertrude lived at Prior Park until 1796. That year she, too, died childless, causing the estate to transfer to another branch of the Allen family (to the heirs of the sons of Ralph Allen’s brother, Philip Allen) in line with the rules of inheritance law. There appears to have been some minor mystery about this transfer, partly because the Aliens who inherited the remaining fortune did Links Of London Bracelets not move into the family mansion at Prior Park. Relatively unknown in Bath, these distant Aliens apparently preferred country life. During the years that Austen resided in Bath, Prior Park’s future also remained uncertain; it was eventually sold out of the family in 1807, after Austen moved away.

Thorpe’s tawdry solicitousness towards Catherine is transparently motivated by the assumption that she will inherit the vast riches of an Allen fortune. I think that Austen suggests that Thorpe believes it to be the Allen fortune, just then in transition. Like Wickham and Willoughby, Thorpe is a rakish member of Links Of London Charms the predatory species of homo economicus. General Tilney, ‘misled by Thorpe’s first boast of the family wealth’, plays to this same type when he invites Catherine to Northanger in a transparent attempt to hijack her presumed fortune for his son. The joke is on them, since Austen insists that her Aliens from Fullerton have no connection whatsoever to the Aliens of Bath. Thorpe’s predation upon Catherine in the hurly-burly of the Bath marriage market is decidedly generic and his actions, so typical of the rake-as-obstacle in any romance, do not cry out for immediate explanation through an Allen-Allen connection. Yet the rapidity and inanity of his targeting the daughter of a mere country clergyman, one who while not strictly poor harbours no wealthy prospects, are explained by specific historical events of the 1790s. These events are slyly reinforced by Austen’s gestures to the name and memory of Ralph Allen throughout the story of Northanger Abbey.

The ubiquity in Georgian Bath of the lingering memory of the late Ralph Allen cannot be exaggerated. Along with Beau Nash and the two architects named John Wood (the Elder and the Younger), Ralph Allen was (and remains) among Bath’s most famous and foundational inhabitants. He figures in Bath’s history as the prime mover of the eighteenth-century wealth, vision, and city planning that raised it from a slovenly seventeenth-century village with waters for the sick to a metropolitan spa for the well-to-do. His name is associated with the pinnacle of Bath’s prosperity a heyday of trade and glamour which was drawing to a close when Austen composed Northanger Abbey. A better understanding of the Bath-centered reputation of Ralph Allen recovers the comedic force and social satire embedded in Tilney’s and Thorpe’s mistaken assessment of the heroine. More specifically still, knowledge of the high-profile architectural elements in the Bath landscape most directly associated with Allen, particularly Prior Park and his so-called Sham Castle, exerts an influence upon a reading of specific scenes in the text scenes that deftly take us past these famous places. For with a cartographer’s precision, Austen navigates her characters through Bath’s turn-of-the-century landscape, emphasising Catherine’s ignorance of the mistakes made by Thorpe and General Tilney with implied views of the real-world Allen’s visible legacy.

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