PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.31, NO.1 (Winter 2010)

“Conversation, or rather talk”: Autistic Spectrum Disorders and the Communication and Social Challenges of John Thorpe

Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer


Phyllis Ferguson (email: has been a speech language pathologist for thirty-five years and an admirer of Jane Austen’s novels for over forty.  She is the Regional Coordinator for JASNA Vancouver and the author of So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice (2007).


“[A]ll the rest of his conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns.”  (Northanger Abbey 66)


Samuel Johnson noted this crucial distinction when he described an evening by saying, “we had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed” (Boswell 333).  Jane Austen explores this habit of social life frequently in her novels through memorable characters such as John Thorpe, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Collins, and Lydia Bennet, who all talk a great deal but rarely or never truly converse.


In Northanger Abbey John Thorpe immediately floods the young woman he has just met with a verbal tsunami about his gig.  Only after speaking 199 words and asking his third rhetorical question does he pause long enough for Miss Morland to take part in the supposed conversation.  The mere eight words she achieves are immediately engulfed by forty more of his.  Similar monologues dominate his conversation when he takes Catherine Morland for a ride in his much vaunted vehicle.  The extraordinarily long sentence about horses, foxhounds, shooting parties and bold riding with which Austen conveys his talk makes clear the absence of a pause or any other opportunity to permit Catherine a turn.  Except for abruptly inquiring as to the wealth and childlessness of Mr. Allen, Thorpe makes almost no attempt to get to know any factual details about Catherine, let alone her thoughts.


Ideally a conversation is a fluid experience created by two or more people through the acts of speaking, listening and responding to what the other has said.  In the midst of a true conversation, we have all experienced the delight of laughing “How did we get onto this?” as we try to re-trace the connections that flowed organically from one topic to another.  In contrast, just talking can be more static and can turn into a monologue or two parallel monologues on each participant’s favorite topic, resulting in “talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said” (NA 32).


A key essential of a true conversation is appearing interested in the concerns of others, hence allowing time for and responding to their comments rather than continuing along with one’s own train of thought.  What is desirable is not the mechanical rigidity of being on a set of rails but rather the freedom to roam and create a new path.  We have all, however, met people with whom having a conversation is challenging and exhausting because they don’t meet us half way.  They tend to one extreme or the other:  either responding with silence and monosyllabic answers, or else going on at length with precise detail about their particular area of expertise without monitoring our responses or body language to see if their listeners are equally enthralled.


People with more than the usual challenges in communicating, socializing and feeling empathy have always existed.  Diaries, court transcripts (Houston and Frith), and novels provide examples of such behavioral and communicative difficulties in previous centuries.  To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet, in essentials, people are very much what they ever were.


One of Austen’s characters challenged by conversation is John Thorpe.  Juliet McMaster includes him in her group of “verbal aggressors,” believing that he talks “to bully and subdue” (87).  A possibly more appropriate and helpful means of understanding John Thorpe and others like him, both in fiction and real life, is interpreting his behavior as symptomatic of an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), at the Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning end of the spectrum.


Autistic Spectrum Disorders


Autism is not a single disorder but a spectrum or range of related disorders differing in severity but all affecting the varied and complex skills needed to interact socially.  They are social-communication disorders with distinctive patterns of behaviour.  The key words to note in the definition are behavior, patterns, and spectrum.


Behavior:  The medical diagnosis is based on behavioral observations in a variety of settings by a team of professionals often including a speech language pathologist.  There are currently no definitive physical tests.

Patterns:  There is no one single defining characteristic.  Like many a medical diagnosis initially it is a matter of pattern recognition involving a number of traits.

Spectrum:  This means that there is wide variation in severity amongst those with the disorder mainly because of the potential involvement of so many genes (at least up to thirty), differences in environments and other characteristics such as intelligence.


Autism was first recognized on two continents almost simultaneously but separately with papers published in 1943 by Leo Kanner in Baltimore and in 1944 by Hans Asperger in Vienna.  As described by Wing and Gould, the difficulties observed in people on the autistic spectrum tend to cluster in a triad of social impairments:


1) social interactions and relationships (including difficulties interpreting facial expressions and body language, handling the complexities of group interactions, simplistic approach to having rather than being a friend, etc.)

2) communication (including difficulties with turn-taking, talking too much or too little, odd prosody, loud volume, tendency to be too literal, subtle problems with language processing etc.)

3) understanding/imagination (including difficulties with theory of mind or the awareness that other people have different knowledge, perspectives and emotions than does oneself).


All of these impairments lead to difficulty when someone on the autistic spectrum is required to spend time with other people.


Since this understanding of the breadth of the autistic spectrum is a relatively new, complex and rapidly developing field of knowledge, there is not yet agreement on the exact defining characteristics and divisions of autistic spectrum disorders.  Mattila compares and contrasts four sets of diagnostic criteria currently employed, including those which the American Psychiatric Association are revising in preparation for the 2013 publication of the fifth version of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).  Dr. Tony Attwood, one of the foremost experts in the field, stresses that formal criteria provide “only cursory guidelines for the diagnostic process and a superficial description of the disorder” adding that “[t]raining, supervision and extensive clinical experience . . . are essential before a clinician and client can be confident of the diagnosis” (40-41).  John Elder Robison, writing about his personal experiences with an autistic spectrum disorder, might help us better understand Austen’s fictional characters who demonstrate similar challenges:  “there is no external sign that I am conversationally handicapped.  So folks hear some conversational misstep and say, What an arrogant jerk!” (194).


Austen’s characters with Autistic Spectrum Disorders


Claire Tomalin wrote that “[s]ocial awkwardness, one of Austen’s great themes, supplies a good deal of the comedy in Pride and Prejudice, and is so fundamental to the plot that it must have been an important element from the first” (164).  In that well-known novel, as I describe in So Odd a Mixture, Jane Austen brilliantly delineates socially awkward characters who show characteristics typical of those at various places along the autistic spectrum, ranging from a woman with rigid routines, whom we never hear speak, all the way through to her cousin, whose true discomfort with social interactions in large groups results in his being condemned as rude.  As well, I recognize possible examples in some of Austen’s other novels, thus partially agreeing with Somerset Maugham’s observation that “there is no great variety in her characters.  They are very much the same persons seen from a somewhat different point of view.”  As have many other critics, he also commented that “she wrote only of what she knew” (77).


Austen lived her life immersed in her own and other large, extended families.  In contrast, in our increasingly urban lives, we meet countless people in disconnected settings often without ever encountering even one of their relatives.  Familial knowledge is particularly helpful in familiarizing someone with the subtleties and variations of the mild, high-functioning, or Asperger’s end of autistic spectrum disorders because these have a strong genetic component.  Thus some of the relatives of an individual with ASD may have an increased frequency of lesser variations or shadow symptoms of the disorder.


Austen once wrote that the interactions between three or four families constituted the ideal basis for writing novels (9 September 1814).  If, as in Pride and Prejudice, two of those extended families have some individuals with ASD, then the resultant miscommunications plus puzzling behavior equals an interesting plot.  If the characters had instead been more comfortable socially and perceptive about others, few of the action-precipitating events would have occurred.  Rather than remaining fascinating for two centuries, the result might have been a short, straightforward book about pleasant but forgettable people.


Northanger Abbey also includes a family, the Thorpes, with several members who may exhibit ASD characteristics to varying degrees.  John Thorpe, much like Mr. Collins, is initially described as having an “ungraceful form” (45).  It is immediately apparent that the words ungraceful or awkward apply to his social interactions as he appears oblivious to societal standards of dress and behavior.  Repeatedly John Thorpe exhibits theory of mind issues in that, if he has decided on a plan of action, he does not realize that he has neither clearly communicated it nor given the other person the opportunity to agree or disagree.  Minutes into their first meeting he twice tells rather than asks Catherine, “‘I will drive you up Lansdown Hill to-morrow,’” not noticing that her tentative response is made “in some distress, from a doubt of the propriety of accepting such an offer” (47).  Similarly, he is oblivious to the fact that he has not received her acceptance or made any definite plans as to timing.  When he blusters into the Allens’ residence the next morning, he is stunned to learn that Catherine is not expecting him.


Other even more uncomfortable miscommunications occur.  Very publicly at the pump rooms, he not only misses the fact that Catherine has not agreed to dance with him but accosts her about it in an ungentlemanly manner:


Scarcely had [Henry and Catherine] worked themselves into the quiet possession of a place, however, when her attention was claimed by John Thorpe, who stood behind her.  “Hey-day, Miss Morland!” said he, “what is the meaning of this?—I thought you and I were to dance together.”

“I wonder you should think so, for you never asked me.”  “That is a good one, by Jove!—I asked you as soon as I came into the room, and I was just going to ask you again, but when I turned round, you were gone!—this is a cursed shabby trick!”  (75)


Due to her avoidance of eye contact and her pretending not to hear when he speaks to her, Thorpe has not actually received a positive response from Catherine.  He doesn’t notice, partly because his limited theory of mind doesn’t stretch to the possibility that his desire to dance might not be mutual.



On yet another occasion he neither notices nor repairs a crucial communication breakdown.  When he takes his leave of Catherine prior to going to London, he embarks on the following disjointed exchange:


“Well, Miss Morland,” said he, on finding her alone in the parlour, “I am come to bid you good bye.”  Catherine wished him a good journey.  Without appearing to hear her, he walked to the window, fidgetted about, hummed a tune, and seemed wholly self-occupied.

“Shall not you be late at Devizes?” said Catherine.  He made no answer; but after a minute’s silence burst out with, “A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul!  A clever fancy of Morland’s and Belle’s.  What do you think of it, Miss Morland?  I say it is no bad notion.”

“I am sure I think it is a very good one.”

“Do you?—that’s honest, by heavens!  I am glad you are no enemy to matrimony however.  Did you ever hear the old song, ‘Going to one wedding brings on another?’  I say, you will come to Belle’s wedding, I hope”

“Yes, I have promised your sister to be with her, if possible.”

“And then you know”—twisting himself about and forcing a foolish laugh—“I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song.”

“May we?—but I never sing.  Well, I wish you a good journey.  I dine with Miss Tilney to-day, and must now be going home.”  (122-23)


Based on this unpromising and unloverlike exchange, his sister reports to Catherine that she “‘gave him the most positive encouragement’” when he “‘as good as made [her] an offer’” (144).  Note also that, like Mr. Collins and some other men on the autistic spectrum, he is prepared to propose to someone he barely knows.  Maxine Aston, in The Other Half of Asperger Syndrome, observes that “[c]ourtship with men with Asperger syndrome can be short-lived if their sole desire is to find a wife. . . . If such a man believes he has found a suitable partner who has all the qualities he is looking for, then the topic of marriage may enter the conversation quite early on” (31).


Due to his limited theory of mind John Thorpe is unaware how little he knows Catherine’s personality so assumes that her thoughts must be almost identical to his.  Therefore, he tells Catherine, “‘I have a notion, Miss Morland, you and I think pretty much alike upon most matters’” (124).  Similarly, Mr. Collins saw Charlotte Lucas as part of himself rather than as an individual, proudly boasting, “‘My dear Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking” (PP 216).  Since Thorpe truly does believe that he has made dates with Catherine for a drive, a dance, and a wedding, he is genuinely confused and aggrieved when she has different perceptions.  Many on the autistic spectrum are similarly puzzled and hurt as they try to navigate what to them feels like an unpredictable social minefield.


In addition to these issues of social understanding, Thorpe frequently has difficulty modulating the volume of his voice, another problem for some on the autistic spectrum.  He also has signs of an accompanying language learning disability as Austen portrays him with the vestiges of language formulation problems.  On their first carriage ride, he makes Catherine “a loud and overpowering reply, of which no part was very distinct” (64).  On their second, he “said something in the loud, incoherent way to which he had often recourse” (89).  Although at times he offers simple lies deliberately in order to obtain his own way without regard for the effect this has on others, at other times these may partially be due to his low need for accuracy, a characteristic of many with language processing issues.  This trait is apparent right from his first comments when he argues both foolishly and for no personal gain as he tosses numbers about as to how quickly his horse travelled to Bath.


However, there is another prominent characteristic of Thorpe’s speech, his making of noises, which is not typical of an autism spectrum disorder but rather of a related condition, Tourette’s Syndrome, a childhood onset neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by multiple motor tics as well as vocal tics or noises.  In a recent article in the Tourette Syndome Foundation of Canada newsletter, Professor Mary Robertson reported studies indicating that, although Tourette’s Syndrome has an incidence rate of only 1% among the general population, it is present in 6-11% of people on the autistic spectrum.


John Thorpe’s speech is characterized by a number of vocal tics and noises.  There are references to his “frequent exclamations, amounting almost to oaths” (64) and to how he “made odd noises” (87) as well as to his swearing, such as his opinion of “its being a d—— thing to be miserly” (89).  Coprolalia, or uttering swear words, is a type of tic observed in 10-15% of those with Tourette’s Syndrome, especially when they are excited or anxious.  In mild cases it usually starts to be reduced in frequency in the late teens or early adulthood, so the fact that John Thorpe continues to use such language even when around young women is an indication of the severity of his case and the fact that he is too socially unaware to try to modulate this tic in their company.


Family influences and symptomology


The most noticeable aspects of Thorpe’s social awkwardness could have been slightly modified, with persistence and patience, by the influence of family members who appropriately modeled and encouraged acceptable behaviour.  We know nothing of his father or brothers (if any), but his mother and eldest sister are not able to help him as they show possible shadow symptoms of some similar difficulties


As noted previously, his mother, as a talker, is far more ready to give than to receive information.  She spends time with Mrs. Allen “in what they called conversation, but in which there was scarcely ever any exchange of opinion, and not often an resemblance of subject, for Mrs. Thorpe talked chiefly of her children, and Mrs. Allen of her gowns” (36).  Assuming that the rest of the world is fascinated by one’s offspring, is a not uncommon trait.  More seriously, given that she makes no attempt to correct his behavior, she is portrayed as oblivious to the inappropriateness of her son’s manner of speaking to both herself and his sisters.


“Ah, mother! how do you do?” said he, giving her a hearty shake of the hand:  “where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?” . . . And this address seemed to satisfy all the fondest wishes of the mother’s heart, for she received him with the most delighted and exulting affection.  On his two younger sisters he then bestowed an equal portion of his fraternal tenderness, for he asked each of them how they did, and observed that they both looked very ugly.  (49)


Not only does Mrs. Thorpe not intervene in his insensitivity to his younger sisters, but she is at times similarly insensitive as when she joins in keeping the news of an engagement in the family from them.


Mrs. Thorpe and her son . . . were allowed to join [Catherine and Isabella’s] counsels, and add their quota of significant looks and mysterious expressions to fill up the measure of curiosity to be raised in the unprivileged younger sisters.  To Catherine’s simple feelings, this odd sort of reserve seemed neither kindly meant, nor consistently supported.  (120-21)


Although only two small incidents, these are examples of the challenges of parenting for those who are even slightly on the autistic spectrum.  Parents often find it difficult to assist those of their children with ASD in improving their social skills.  In addition, such parents may repeatedly have a painful and negative impact on the self-esteem and happiness of their neurologically typical offspring.


Current research indicates that the risk of a sibling of someone with autism having the disorder is 22-fold higher than in the general population (Constantino et al.).  Again, although to a milder degree than her brother, given that she is able to make a better first impression, Isabella Thorpe repeatedly shows difficulties with empathy and theory of mind.  These may be due to the interaction between some innate mild traits of ASD and her environment.  Not only do her mother and brother fail to model appropriate behaviour, she is also one of six young adult children of a widow and thus under real pressure to look out for her own best interests.


In a manner that is childlike for her twenty-one years, Isabella uses the same rapid, undiscriminating approach to acquiring close friends as her brother and Mr. Collins do when settling on a bride.  Her emotions skim along the surface rather than have any depth:  “The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness, that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves” (36-37).  As Lady Catherine de Bourgh announces that “‘I believe nobody feels the loss of friends so much as I do’” (PP 210), Isabella also shows almost no awareness of the strength and validity of other people’s emotions, declaring, “‘I believe my feelings are stronger than any body’s’” (98).  Once again, as when Lady Catherine assumes that Elizabeth knows why she has descended on Longbourne, Isabella exhibits difficulty with theory of mind, not realizing that others have different perspectives and knowledge than she does herself.  Having received a letter from her brother, Isabella plunges into the following conversation with the bewildered Catherine:


“I have just had a letter from John;—you can guess the contents.”

“No, indeed, I cannot.”

“My sweet love, do not be so abominably affected.  What can he write about, but yourself?  You know he is over head and ears in love with you.”

“With me, dear Isabella!”  (144)


Tellingly, like her brother and like so many of Austen’s characters with varying manifestations of ASD traits, Isabella rarely remembers that a true conversation requires listening as well as speaking.  Vainly does Catherine try to convey that her feelings for John Thorpe have never been romantic but Isabella “continued . . . without at all listening to her” (146).


Gradually, Catherine begins to realize that this initially civil and amiable appearing young woman can be “strange and unkind . . . , ungenerous and selfish, regardless of every thing but her own gratification” (98).  Her relationship with Isabella is painfully different from the seventeen-year-old Catherine’s previous experiences in her honest, practical, and caring family circle in Fullerton.  Similarly, nothing in his past has prepared her oldest brother for such insensitivity.


Such miscommunications puzzle both those on the autistic spectrum and the people who share their lives.  Authors may simply use the actions and words of such characters to contribute interesting twists in plot.  However, in Jane Austen’s case this strategy may, at a profoundly deep level, contribute to the intense bond that we readers often develop with each of her main characters or heroines.  Unlike so many others in that young woman’s life, we understand and empathize with her thoughts and emotions, feeling that we, and we alone, stand mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart with Catherine or with Anne or with Elizabeth.


As Eva Brann wrote about Austen’s work, “Nothing can be clearer than this—the novels are themselves imitations of life and contain imitations of human beings, especially of human beings in society, conversing” (205).  It is my hope that twenty-first-century information about the communication issues inherent with autistic spectrum disorders provides a useful lens through which to understand more about some of the fascinating and true-to-life characters Jane Austen created.



Works Cited


Aston, Maxine.  The Other Half of Asperger Syndrome.  London: National Autistic Society. 2001.

Attwood, Tony.  The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome.  London: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.

_____.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W.Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-34.

Boswell, James.  The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.  1791.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  London: Oxford UP, 1980.

Brann, Eva.  “The Perfections of Jane Austen.”  A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  200-12.

Constantino, John, Yi Zhang, Thomas Frazier, Anna M. Abbacchi, and Paul Law.  “Sibling Recurrence and the Genetic Epidemiology of Autism.”  American Journal of Psychiatry 167.11 (Nov. 2010): 1349-56.

Ferguson Bottomer, Phyllis.  So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice.  London: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

Houston, Rab, and Uta Frith.  Autism in History: The Case of Hugh Blair of Borgue.  Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

Mattila, M. L., et al.  “An Epidemiological and Diagnostic Study of Asperger Syndrome according to Four Sets of Diagnostic Criteria.”  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 46.5 (2007): 636-46.

Maugham, W. Somerset.  “Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.”  A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  70-82.

McMaster, Juliet.  “Mrs. Elton and Other Verbal Aggressors.”  The Talk in Jane Austen.  Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.  Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002.  73-89.

Robertson, Mary M.  “The International Prevalence and Epidemiology of Tourette Syndrome: A Summary.”  The Green Leaflet: Newsletter of the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada 34 (2010): 1-3.

Robison, John Elder.  Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.  New York: Three Rivers P, 2007.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  London: Viking, 1997.

Wing, L., and J. Gould.  “Severe Impairments of Social Interaction and Associated Abnormalities in Children: Epidemiology and Classification.”  Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia 9 (1979): 11-29.


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