No one who had ever heard John Thorpe rattling away would have supposed him born to be a villain. His situation in life, the character of his mother, his own person and disposition, were all equally against him. He had a thick awkward figure, plain features, and a trifling mind. He was fond of horses and driving a gig, to the exclusion of almost all other more serious endeavors.
We tend to dismiss John Thorpe out of hand as villain material when we consider his manner and dress. Jane Austen plays with her readers’ expectations of who best fits the villain mold, however, when she brings John Thorpe and General Tilney together as strange but apparently comfortable bedfellows. General Tilney at first appears a much more likely candidate for villain. Catherine, of course, while enthralled by her gothic fantasies, sees in the General “the air and attitude of a Montoni!” (187). But that is part of Austen’s parody. John Thorpe is her villain as buffoon.1 Despite seeming quite harmless at first, just “a little of a rattle” (50), as Catherine’s brother James terms him, by the end of the novel he has become something else entirely.
John Thorpe is the true villain of Northanger Abbey—as Austen suggests through her parody of Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels. Scholars have often noted the ways that Austen’s Northanger Abbey parodies Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. But I would suggest that Austen spends at least equal time poking fun at The Italian, a later Radcliffe work. Thorpe assumes first the role of Montoni and later that of Schedoni, arch-villains in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Through Thorpe’s interactions with Catherine on the streets and in the buildings of Bath, a modern town cum health resort, Austen parodies these two works as Thorpe, an ordinary figure, essentially stalks Catherine, seducing, abducting, abandoning, and finally defaming her—challenging her to assume the role of heroine.
John Thorpe is first and foremost a villain in the guise of an ordinary man, one half of the dual parody of Radcliffean villains of which General Tilney forms the second half. A man of substance such as General Tilney would seem at first to have little in common with John Thorpe, the buffoon. But the two become greater than the sum of their parts as Austen doubles and redoubles the points of sameness and difference that mark them as stock Gothic villains. Both are ambitious, vengeful braggarts. And again and again Austen mirrors the actions of her villain-buffoon with those of the more conventional villain, General Tilney, creating multiple layers of parallel scenes. Both men attempt to control Catherine’s fate through the seduction of false flattery, and they abduct, abandon, and slander her.
John Thorpe is a measure of Catherine’s progress in learning how to form her own judgments and to depend upon her own sense of right and wrong: Catherine’s interactions with the villainous John Thorpe, more than those with the hero Henry Tilney, prove to us that Catherine has the potential to become a heroine (albeit an ordinary one). Austen creates her anti-romantic parody of the Gothic excesses of Radcliffe by pairing the consistently down-to-earth Catherine with her antithesis, the unrelentingly exaggerating John Thorpe. Catherine veers from seeing the obvious while under the spell of her Gothic horror stories. Thus she fails to recognize the threat that John represents because he is too ordinary to appear menacing.
While at Northanger Abbey Catherine, primed by her reading, imagines herself in the terror-filled role of Emily St. Aubert, heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, watching the machinations of her own personal Montoni, General Tilney. But thanks to the hidden villain in her life, John Thorpe, she eventually finds herself playing the heroine of a completely different novel: Radcliffe’s The Italian. Catherine is Ellena de Rosalba threatened by the villain Schedoni (John Thorpe) in a plot that features a wicked parent and a rebellious son. And Isabella Thorpe’s comment to Catherine early in the novel may be Austen’s way of alluding to this dimension: “‘when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together’” (40).
John’s interactions with Catherine occur in such mundane circumstances as not to appear at all sinister. But each of these ordinary occasions has serious or potentially serious consequences for Catherine. What is more, Austen uses the heightened language of gothic horror to make these interactions take on a pseudo-menacing character. Ironically John Thorpe, despite having so little apparent intelligence, wealth, or influence, is the person who alone initiates the major actions of the plot. In this sense he can be seen as a subversive figure in that he is able to control even such a seemingly powerful man as General Tilney. It is Thorpe’s interactions with General Tilney that take Catherine away from her “‘scene of public triumph’” (139) in Bath to ensconce her in Northanger Abbey and later precipitate her ignominious dismissal from there. As the narrator slyly notes, General Tilney, playing a purely reactive role, “had been scarcely more misled by Thorpe’s first boast of the family wealth, than by his subsequent malicious overthrow of it” (251).
John Thorpe’s villainy begins when he seduces Catherine with his false flattery. The flattery challenges Catherine to demonstrate her clear-sighted judgment and steadiness of reason, important qualities befitting a heroine, but unlike Udolpho’s Emily St. Aubert, who has these qualities in abundance, initially Catherine fails to meet the challenge: “her judgment was . . . bought off by Isabella’s assuring her . . . that John thought her the most charming girl in the world. . . . Had she been older or vainer, such attacks might have done little; but, where youth and diffidence are united, it requires uncommon steadiness of reason to resist the attraction of being called the most charming girl in the world” (50). Emily displays just such “uncommon steadiness of reason” as she repeatedly responds with calm good sense both to the impassioned pleas of her lover Vallancourt and to the constant flattery that marks Count Morano’s courtship. Catherine here is more like Emily’s aunt, Madame Cheron, who succumbs to the unctuous flattery of Montoni just as Catherine succumbs to John Thorpe’s excessive Montoni-like compliments. It requires more experience than a few weeks in Bath can give for Catherine to become inured to flattery.
After the first Clifton fiasco, with a better understanding of John Thorpe’s character, Catherine finds his incessant flattery unappealing. But General Tilney now begins his own plan of seduction, laying it on with an equally heavy hand. When John reports to Catherine that “‘the General thinks you the finest girl in Bath’” (96), Catherine is again taken in. Here the torch is being passed from one villain to the other. Catherine, at this point, does not see either John Thorpe or the General as a dangerous foe, but her head is turned by the General’s words. Even the General’s praise of the “elasticity” (103) of her walk causes her great pleasure.
Thorpe’s second “seduction” of Catherine occurs at the cotillion ball where his role as villain/buffoon is beautifully illustrated. Austen plays up Catherine’s “agitation,” “danger from . . . pursuit,” and “agony” (74) while trying to avoid John’s notice. When John Thorpe finally does appear, however, the buffoon is paramount: “‘Hey-day, Miss Morland! . . . what is the meaning of this? . . . this is a cursed shabby trick! . . . What chap have you there? . . . Tilney . . . Hum—I do not know him. A good figure of a man; well put together.—Does he want a horse?—Here is a friend of mine, Sam Fletcher, has got one to sell that would suit any body’” (75-76).
From such mundane snatches of dialogue it would seem that John Thorpe poses absolutely no danger to anyone. Yet Henry Tilney responds to John’s interruption of their dance/contract with a pseudo-serious discourse on the duties and responsibilities of dance and marriage partners, turning John effectively into someone who is in essence tempting Catherine to commit adultery: “‘I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours’” (76). Catherine is somewhat taken aback by Tilney’s comic tirade and responds with her usual common sense: “‘But they are such very different things!’” (76).2
The two abduction scenes that Austen creates are fascinating in their points of similarity and difference. In the first, John, during the initial Clifton fiasco, runs away with Catherine over her loud and vehement objections. Again John appears as the villain-buffoon. I see Austen as the precursor of modern filmmakers as she creates this high-energy comic scene. We have Catherine eagerly looking back to catch a glimpse of Henry and Eleanor and vehemently entreating John, “‘Stop, stop, Mr. Thorpe. . . . Stop, stop, I will get out this moment and go to them’” (87). However, John “only lashed his horse into a brisker trot” (87). Now Catherine becomes more agitated and begs, “‘Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe.—I cannot go on.—I will not go on.—I must go back to Miss Tilney’” (87). At this point John, with an almost mad grin on his face, “only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on” (87). What scene of Gothic villainy is Austen parodying here?
In fact, Thorpe’s “abduction” of Catherine shares elements with both of the abductions that Ellena de Rosalba endures in Radcliffe’s The Italian. In each one Ellena is forced to leave a loved one behind as she is borne away. In the first abduction Ellena’s cries for help are “unavailing” as ruffians carry her off in a carriage “driven with great rapidity” (61). Likewise John only drives his carriage faster in response to Catherine’s pleas to stop. In the second abduction Ellena’s lover, Vivaldi, is present, although seriously wounded in battling the men sent to capture and separate the couple. Ellena, “with eyes still bent towards the spot where he lay” (191), utters piteous cries of farewell to Vivaldi as she is forced away. Of course, Catherine directs no such speeches to the Tilneys, brother or sister.
Austen takes great pleasure in turning the scene of Ellena’s second abduction on its head, when, the next evening, Catherine meets Henry at the play. In what might seem a somewhat severely sarcastic speech, Henry makes a point of thanking Catherine “‘for wishing us a pleasant walk after our passing you in Argyle-street: you were so kind as to look back on purpose’” (94). Catherine, of course, denies having done any such thing and replays the actual scene for Henry, reprising her much more Ellena-like attitude and behavior: “‘I begged Mr. Thorpe so earnestly to stop; I called out to him as soon as ever I saw you; . . . and, if Mr. Thorpe would only have stopped, I would have jumped out and run after you’” (94).
The second time Catherine is abducted, General Tilney is in the driver’s seat, figuratively speaking. Catherine’s very ordinary journey to Northanger Abbey in the Tilneys’ carriage is described in minute detail. This second abduction scene reverses most of the elements of John Thorpe’s abduction of Catherine. Catherine had been eager to join the Clifton excursion because of the promise that she would get to see Blaise Castle, but the “Gothic” Blaise Castle was merely a chimera. Now she is equally eager to begin this journey to Northanger with the lure of seeing the abbey, a true Gothic structure: “Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney” (141). No struggling abductee now, the complicit Catherine sits quietly in the General’s coach. And instead of horses lashed into a gallop, we see the chaise-and-four “set off at the sober pace in which the handsome, highly-fed four horses of a gentleman usually perform a journey of thirty miles” (155). Henry, far from fading into the distance as Catherine is driven away by a rival, is always visible driving his curricle behind the chaise.
Austen adds another element of identity that reinforces the parallels between John Thorpe and the General. Midway on their journey the General proposes that Catherine “tak[e] his place in his son’s curricle for the rest of the journey” (156). Lest we fail to recall a similar scene with Thorpe, Austen has Catherine refresh our memory: “The remembrance of Mr. Allen’s opinion, respecting young men’s open carriages, made her blush at the mention of such a plan, and her first thought was to decline it; but her second was of greater deference for General Tilney’s judgment; he could not propose any thing improper for her” (156). But of course he can, and does.
How can this quiet scene ever be considered abduction? We soon learn that General Tilney has lured Catherine away from the protection of her friends in Bath to Northanger Abbey in the hope of gaining control of her fortune through her marriage to his son Henry. And less than two weeks later we find Catherine, solitary and almost penniless, dismissed from the Abbey and left to find her own way home.
Catherine, of course, has already endured an earlier scene of abandonment at John Thorpe’s hands. After seducing Catherine with his flattery, John abandons her—in the Upper Rooms. He had solicited Catherine’s hand for the first dance, but then carelessly left her stranded in true villain fashion. With phrases borrowed from the Gothic novelist’s arsenal, the narrator takes pains to explain how Catherine, “disgraced in the eye of the world, . . . wear[ing] the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement” (53), must strive valiantly to overcome the predicament in which he leaves her: “Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips” (53).
When we fast-forward to the second time that Catherine faces abandonment, this time at the hands of General Tilney, we find that the real has trumped the imaginary. The narrator doesn’t need to resort to exaggeration to convince us of how bad Catherine’s situation is, “turned from the house, and in such a way! . . . the abruptness, the rudeness, nay, the insolence. . . . [I]t was mortifying and grievous” (226). Yet Catherine, though feeling justifiably resentful, has the greatness of heart to swallow her pride and agree to Eleanor’s request to send a clandestine note to assure Eleanor of her safe return home. She recognizes that in being forced to convey the rude message from her father, Eleanor is suffering almost as much as Catherine.
The real “horrors” that Catherine faces in this scene and its aftermath place John Thorpe squarely in the villain’s role. He has been the cause. In a final act of revenge he slanders Catherine and her whole family, hoping to ruin Catherine’s prospects forever. Meeting General Tilney by chance in London, he deliberately incites him with rage against the innocent Catherine. “[I]rritated by Catherine’s refusal, . . . [Thorpe] hastened to contradict all that he had said before to the advantage of the Morlands;—confessed himself to have been totally mistaken in his opinion of their circumstances and character, misled by the rhodomontade of his friend to believe his father a man of substance and credit. . . . They were, in fact, a necessitous family; numerous too almost beyond example; by no means respected in their own neighbourhood …; seeking to better themselves by wealthy connexions; a forward, bragging, scheming race” (246).
If this vilification weren’t enough to squelch the General’s desire to acquire Catherine as a daughter-in-law, Thorpe even caps his abuse by inventing a fictitious heir to the Allen’s fortune. When the “terrified General pronounced the name of Allen with an inquiring look” (246), Thorpe claims to know “the young man on whom the Fullerton estate must devolve” (247). Thus, even though the General has initially been the victor, successfully wresting Catherine from Thorpe’s grasp, through his own rodomontade Thorpe now outfoxes the General.
In the resolution to Jane Austen’s Gothic narrative, Thorpe now seems more like Schedoni, Radcliffe’s villain in The Italian. Schedoni, an irascible monk, deliberately turns Vivaldi’s mother, the proud Marchesa, against Ellena in order to take revenge on Vivaldi, who has affronted him. Likewise Thorpe acts in revenge. Thorpe, in essence, is using the General to do his dirty work. Like Schedoni, Thorpe uses vilification and defamation of character to try to destroy Catherine’s prospects and separate her forever from Henry.
Austen makes Catherine’s lonely journey from Northanger a mirror of the earlier abandonment Catherine faced at Thorpe’s hands in the upper rooms. As Catherine approaches Fullerton, the narrator compares her sad and solitary homecoming to that of more successful heroines “returning . . . in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess” (232) and comments, “But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace” (232), repeating phrases from the earlier scene in the upper rooms when Catherine felt “disgraced in the eye of the world” (53). Yet this statement may blind us to the fact that Catherine herself has displayed real fortitude and even something verging on heroic grandeur in the paragraphs preceding the narrator’s ironic comments. Though she still worries, as in the earlier scene, that she will “wear the appearance of infamy while . . . the misconduct of another [is] the true source of her debasement” (53), now she is concerned more about harm that may befall her friends than for her own suffering: “What had she to say that would not humble herself and pain her family; that would not . . . extend an useless resentment, and perhaps involve the innocent with the guilty in undistinguishing ill-will?” (231-32). These are the thoughts of a real heroine who is learning how to conquer self. And again it is John Thorpe, the proximate cause of Catherine’s predicament, who has provided the opportunity for these noble feelings to surface.
At this point Austen brings Northanger Abbey to its conclusion, ending her text by throwing out a parting salvo at Radcliffe and her “horrid” Gothic novel The Italian. Claudia Johnson discusses this conclusion in relation to Radcliffe’s works in general and notes that Austen “turns Radcliffean conclusions, which labor to undo disturbing and subversive implications, back on themselves” (47). Radcliffe’s work was published while Austen was first drafting Northanger Abbey, then entitled Susan, in 1797. In Northanger’s last chapters we learn that Henry has deliberately disobeyed the express wishes of General Tilney, who is acting in response to the damning accusations he has just heard from Thorpe (in his Schedoni character). Henry angrily breaks with his father before riding off to find and propose to Catherine. Similarly in The Italian Vivaldi spends the greater part of the novel valiantly seeking Ellena, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight, though he knows that both his parents disapprove. Vivaldi continues to pursue Ellena, even after his mother the Marchesa, incited by damning accusations made against Ellena by the scheming Schedoni, forbids him even to think of her. Thus the narrator’s final sentence in Northanger Abbey, questioning the “tendency” of the novel, can be read also as a critique of The Italian: “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (252).
And John Thorpe, pampered son of an indulgent mother, has been the “ordinary” villain responsible for the whole Northanger debacle.
1. Thorpe’s role as villain has been critiqued from various perspectives. In Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel Claudia Johnson describes Thorpe as Northanger’s anti-villain and emphasizes his role as bully: “Bullying of various sorts is rampant. . . . When mere lying and abduction are not apropos, James and the Thorpes join forces to compel Catherine to surrender her power of refusal” (36). Judith Wilt calls John Thorpe Catherine’s “stupid and brutal suitor” (133), the equivalent of Count Morano, Emily St. Aubert’s “stupid and brutal suitor” in The Mysteries of Udolpho (132). Sarah Emsley, agreeing with Marilyn Butler, notes that “villains in Northanger Abbey, especially General Tilney and John Thorpe are admirably subtle” (55). Alistair Duckworth sees Thorpe as a “grotesquely comic anti-villain” (84), and Marvin Mudrick discusses how Austen “demonstrates what villainy is like when transferred to the everyday, middle-class, social world” (46). Marilyn Butler points out that Thorpe can be read as “a burlesque version of the Richardsonian villain who abducts the heroine in a carriage” (xxiii).
2. This scene has its close parallel in the seduction of Isabella carried out by Henry’s brother Frederick. Frederick Tilney’s pursuit of Isabella (or are the roles reversed?) gives this speech of Henry’s an ironic twist. At one point Catherine clearly considers Captain Tilney a villain. But Frederick’s interaction with Isabella is only a flirtation, at least in his eyes, since he certainly does “‘not chuse to . . . marry’” and so, according to his brother, should “‘have no business with the partners . . . of [his] neighbours” (76). Claudia Johnson discusses Frederick Tilney’s “interference with the . . . marital plans of Isabella Thorpe and James Morland” in relation to “the serious subjects [Henry] Tilney flippantly raises,” mentioning only briefly John Thorpe’s interference that occasions the speech (43).
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 3rd ed. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1969.
Butler, Marilyn. Introduction. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Marilyn Butler. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
Emsley, Sarah. Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian or the Confessional of the Black Penitents: A Romance. Oxford: OUP, 1968.
_____. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford: OUP, 1998.
Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, & Lawrence. Princeton: PUP, 1980.