April 26, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 10: Sensitivity (I)
Here are a few thoughts on Catherine's evening at the theatre, early afternoon (she would call it morning) meeting with Miss Tilney in the Pump Room, and sudden encounter with Henry Tilney the evening following. My theme is sensitivity: what unites the incidents is Austen's sensitivity to language, and every movement of Catherine's young heart.
I know that Isabella is not in the two scenes in which she appears doing any harm to anyone; her acts are probably not that much different that what we may surmise Austen herself did when young and at a ball. One of the first of her letters to Cassandra tells us of her thrill at scandalising everyone by dancing over and over again with Tom Lefroy. But the tone or ambiance in which Austen envelopes her speech condemns her -- and on what grounds? The grounds of language. Every word Isabella utters is false, either an absurd exaggeration or hypocrisy or downright lie. She uses language to manipulate and seduce. Austen values words; she values trust; relationships must be based on quiet calm truth and no overstatement of emotions that aren't there. In her novels she again and again condemns the false use of language, dramatises the ways people use language selfishly, egoistically and finally harmfully, for if Isabella does no harm, it's merely because it's not in the moment in her interest to. It's not kind in Isabella to again assert how Henry Tilney must love Catherine. That many people might behave that way is no excuse because Austen's tone communicates an intense hardness in Isabella
There is a great sensitivity in Austen's tracing of Isabella's shifts in language as she first overplays her adoration of Catherine, accuses Catherine of being an absolute flirt (and thus by-the-bye Austen lets us know Catherine is very pretty without having to announce 50 men are following her the way Burney does). When Isabella cannot get Catherine to play the game of pretending she sees Isabella is madly in love, Isabella drops her flat.
There's also a sensitivity in letting us know it's beginning to dawn on Catherine, she doesn't enjoy herself while with Isabella, that there is a disjunction between what is professed by Isabella and what she Catherine is experiencing. For Catherine, it's isolation and indifference, on the part of both Thorpes (for the male is a boor throughout).
Then in how brief a paragraph Austen conveys the quiet meeting of Catherine and Eleanor in the next paragraph. Here the sensivity is in entering the mind of the young girl so eager for experience. She is anxious (once again) lest something prevent her from getting to the Pump room, dismayed by being cornered by Isabella, joyous at being freed because conventions allow her to renew an acquaintance. What's interesting in the meeting between Eleanor and Catherine is Austen doesn't tell us the words. No dialogue here. It doesn't matter what the words say (or their surface content); it's the motives beneath them Austen says are so unusual:
'Miss Tilney met her with great civility, returned her advances with equal goodwill, and they continued talking together as long as both parties remained in the room; and though in all probability not an observation was made, nor an expression used by either which had not been made and used some thousands of times before, under that roof, in every Bath season, yet the merit of their being spoken with simplicity and truth, and without personal conceit, might be something uncommon' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:10, 72).
How quiet is this paragraph, and how great the merit insisted upon of having one's motives reflected in one's language and nothing beyond that.
Their conversation is then revealing. Catherine's heart is in her words, and Eleanor is wiser than she. In case we don't notice how Catherine has given her eagerness to meet Henry away, and her envy of Miss Smith, the narrator hints at what Eleanor has seen:
''they parted -- on Miss Tilney's side with some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings, and on Catherine's, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them' (I:10, 73).
This time in the moment when Henry is suddenly there, asking her to dance, beyond all hope, all expectation (though, as the narrator says what she had nonetheless hungered and dressed herself for), I asked myself, Did Eleanor hint to him of Catherine's behavior? We know Henry has told Eleanor of his meeting with Catherine. Ah, some conversation has gone to which we are not privy, and we are left to surmise.
I shall divide this posting into three.
Re: NA, Ch 10: Sensitivity (II)
The sensitivity in which Catherine's longed-for meeting with Henry Tilney is bathed is one which does not come from entering into Catherine's mind. It comes from Austen's approaching the reader and seducing the reader into asking him or herself, Who has not felt thus? Who among us has not lain there all night planning what to wear? Who has not looked forward in trepidication, half hope, and half despair (one must despair lest one hope too strongly). It may be some sage relative, some wise book, has told us how useless are all our efforts to at least clothe ourselves right. As Pascal says, the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing of.
So often one finds the famous bit by Austen where she tells us how
'little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:10, 74)
The critic preaches at us, and inveighs against how femininity is constructed (doubtless like some corset which prevented women from breathing in the next century, which misshaped their growth). But we are to enter into Catherine's emotions and relive, from the point of view of disillusionment, the excitement and naivety of the girl as she ponders how to attract love and admiration. Austen tells us the following 'grave reflection' did not disturb Catherine's 'tranquillity'
'No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter' (I:10, 74).
Austen expects the reader to feel the inferences to be made about human indifference, about what makes people comfortable around others, about envy and the human desire to triumph over the those who are not 'quite' up to us. I begin to wonder if Isabella so compliments Catherine because Catherine has not quite managed the 'ton'.
And then we get the flirting dialogue between Henry and Catherine wherein Austen plays upon the analogy of dance and marriage, wherein different, wherein similar. Here too Henry plays with language -- as in a way did Isabella. The difference is in the motive. Henry seeks to play, to tease gently, to flirt and convey intriguing pictures which he lays no serious claim to beyond that of his metaphor. He is throughout tongue-in-cheek. Of course our Catherine is also our naif, but Henry allows her to prick the bubble of his conceit. It's also interesting to note that the falseness of Isabella's supposed boredom with Bath is brought back when Catherine and Henry get into real talk and she asserts truthfully 'there is much more samensess in a country life than in a Bath life.' He is amused because she tells her truths so simply. He recognises in her fresh feeling which he has, somewhere else, somehow or other, learned to appreciate. Of course he is now standing in for the older reader.
As I read this chapter I was touched by something so sweet in Catherine's disappointments and intense sudden joys. I was meant to enter into it this way ('Every young lady may feel for my heroine in this critical moment', I:10, 74). Alas how much Catherine has to learn. General Tilney is in the background talking to John Thorpe. She notices him watching her.
So the book moves back and forth between the expected older reader and our heroine and games with words.
Any comments on the metaphor between marriage and dance with which Henry and Catherine play? It always puts me in mind of Romeo and Juliet speaking their sonnet together.
Re: NA, Chs 9-10: Clues (III)
Everyone says Emma is a mystery. Well yes, from the point of view of irony we read the book entirely differently the second time from the first. What they don't much notice is how if Emma is a mystery, NA is a mystery of a similar sort: one in which the ironies of what we are seeing only come clear on a second read (it's my theory that Persuasion was meant to work in the same way too, but Austen never got to Volume III wherein we were to learn how far Mrs Smith had the lowdown on Mr Elliot and how far she was mistaken about him -- and we about Mrs Clay). In all three of these last books (NA having been revised). clues are planted and while in the case of NA (it is only revised), the second read does not change the nuances of the central scenes, it does change our appreciation of what's going on off-stage.
I have already mentioned the little hints about Henry and Eleanor's possible dialogues about Catherine to which we are not privy. This reminds of how Emma has so many points of views and suggests novels going on off-stage (about Jane, about Harriet, about Mrs Weston -- and Mr Knightley's inmost heart).
In the conclusion of Chapters 9 & 10, Austen plants some clues most unobtrusively. General Tilney stares at Catherine. Now why should he be so interested. The narrator has told us generally speaking people are not grabbed by one another's mere appearance. He also makes her uncomfortable. He stares rudely (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:10, 80). A hint about his character; in a little while we will be told he has been talking to John Thorpe. Were we Sherlock Holmes we would tell Watson to make a note of that.
We are given some information about General Tilney's wife at the close of Chapter 9. A Miss Drummond who had a 'very large fortune' whose father gave her a large sum of money upon marriage and another for wedding clothes (I:9, 68). They were so splendid people remember seeing them in the warehouse. Where is she now? Mrs Allen cares nothing for her death and only the pearls that Eleanor has now inherited (I:9, 69). Catherine does not think she has had much information here, but later at Northanger we will learn that Miss Drummond's wealth had everything to do with why the General married her, as his handsomeness (noted at the close of Chapter 10, p 80) had a good deal to do with why she married him. A foreshadowing of the configuration of motives which lead to the marraige of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Lady Elliot (poor Miss Stevenson that was, as kindly Mr Woodhouse would say).
Clues, slipped in. There is a tragedy at the heart of Northanger, but it one that happens everyday: Mrs Tilney's . . . Most of Austen's oldest heroines are named after their mother so I suppose we might speculate we have a pair of Eleanors here, mother and daughter -- as we might in S&S (spelt Elinor). Austen must have liked the name.
April 28, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 10: Her Heart Danced Within Her
There is a sweet happiness to Catherine in these early chapters; everyone swirls around her, impinging on her consciousness but she is as yet impervious to to other presences. Perhaps that's why she's so happy. People have yet to make an impression.
No deeper adult sexual emotions have been touched.
What's delightful about Henry's assertion that the country dance is a symbol of marriage is how he parses it. The conversation is not so much poetry but an explication of poetry. It is, however, not entirely fanciful. What charms the mind is the vein of truths, of appercues running through it, both on Catherine's and on Henry's part. After all she is right: on one level marriage may be recognized as that situation as that situation in which two person go to live together without being able to separate, and where they must live in the same house. This is the equivalent of Stevenson's marriage is a sort of friendship recognised by the police. It is the outer appearance we are viewing. Dancers need only face one another on a floor for about a half hour in a great room.
Henry suggests another light. It is an engagement between man and woman for the benefit of both (this recalls Marianne's language); once pledged you must not take anyone else; you belong exclusively to one another. Is this not like a dance? And then again, very important, it is the duty of both to behave in such a way that the other person will not desire another partner, not even dream of a better one. There is truth here: too many marriages fail because many individuals have a way of not forgetting what is owed to them practically while not remembering it is their duty to please the spirit and fancy of the other too.
Henry's alarm at Catherine's stubborn refusal to accede to any of his analogies is fun. How many times one expends much breathe on an argument and the other person appears not to have listened at all. You must touch the heart, not the reason. He is, he tells her, very anxious. What then as a dancer has he to depend upon? If her ideas about what one dancer owes another are not as firm as his, he will have reason to fear every gentleman who pleases to come over to her. He asks for some assurance.
Ah, she can give very little. Thorpe is her brother's friends. However, as there are barely three young men she has any acquaintance with, he is all right.
And is this to be his security? Ah me.
She is so simple in the best sense (not having other motives in her mind which she is determined to hide), that she blurts out that he cannot have a better security since she also has no desire to talk to anyone else.
Thus he takes courage.
What delicious erotic flattery, how playfully and delicately administered. He is in fact providing the grace, the courtesy, and she the fan and the lavander water.
Henry's voice is that of the disillusioned older person and he is charmed by her truth, simplicity, and total lack of cant when she says, Who could be weary of Bath? Certainly no one who experiences feelings and thoughts with the freshness that is yet hers.
Austen originally called the book Susan. Lady Susan had not yet been written. .