Prior Park, The Sham Castle And Map-maker Mr Thorpe

It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money. Poor Catherine, unlike Austen’s Bath-savvy reader, seems utterly oblivious to Thorpe’s geographical innuendo. Contemporary maps of Bath tended to extend their shelf-life by anticipating planned developments, thus forecasting Bath slightly. This makes multiple charts essential in a mapping of Northanger Abbey. Using plans of Bath from 1794 and 1808 to roughly bookend Links London the novel’s composition, it is possible to trace Thorpe’s route and topographically gloss the encoded conversation that occurs during this drive.

Austen has the awkward pair start off in ‘silence’ from Pulteney Street, where the Aliens and Catherine reside. From that address the most direct route to the Claverton Down Road would take her characters from the corner of Pulteney Street and Sydney Place onto the quiet rural track that throughout the 1790s still lay across the open meadows connecting the Bathwick development to the parish of Widcombe. This road ran roughly parallel to the Avon and would eventually be straightened out to become Darlington Street (the 1794 map names it Sackville Street, a provisional name that was never actually used for the finished project). After the completion of the Kennet and Avon Canal portion that dissects Sydney Gardens (shown in the 1808 map), the extension of Darlington Street would direct traffic smoothly between the river and canal. The first boat trip along the Sydney Gardens portion of the canal took place in June of 1810, so the 1808 map anticipates the canal’s completion.33 Just after passing through the Turnpike Gate (around the time of the canal’s completion it was moved about 30 yards or so south, as already shown in the 1808 map), any carriage traveling along Links Of London Charms this road would be forced to come to a stop right in front of the Prior Park Gate, where a sharp left turn would have the party immediately on Claverton Down Road. Not only does this road offer the most direct route to their declared destination, but both maps show that through to at least 1808, straightened or no, it still offered the relative privacy of rural scenery craved by both John Thorpe and James Morland, who accompanies Thorpe’s sister Isabella in a second carriage.

With confident precision Austen allows that ‘a silence of several minutes succeeded their first short dialogue’. Although Thorpe has already boasted in a prior scene that his horse travels, come rain or shine, at a nippy 10 miles per hour, the text again calculates their exact rate of progress in the thoughts of an ironic narrator, focalized by Catherine, who observes of the calm horse that ‘its inevitable pace was ten miles an hour’. Thorpe’s boast and Catherine’s acceptance, of course, defy a reader’s belief, since this rate of speed was barely sustained by seasoned professionals (such as the coach that will take Catherine home at the novel’s end), and only on clear days and good roads. Indeed the Allen fortune, made from a postal route’s optimized efficiency, nicely belies Thorpe’s ambitious calculations for his mere gig. Austen puts the lie to Thorpe in the earlier scene where James contradicts his 10 miles per hour estimate for their trip from Tetbury to Bath: Thorpe insists they covered 25 miles in 2.5 hours, while James says it was 23 miles in 3.5 hours (this would give their true speed as 6.57 miles per hour). The map confirms that the distance from the top of Pulteney Street to Prior Park is no more than three-quarters of a mile, which even at the slower rate given by James would take a carriage under 7 minutes to traverse. Austen’s unusual redundancy about likely rates of speed insures that any reader familiar with Bath can mentally calculate how ‘several minutes’ of silent progress may be all that is necessary to have Catherine brought from the fictional Aliens in Pulteney Street, literally, to the gates of the real-world Allen home at Prior Park.
BOLA TANGKAS