April 29, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 11: 'But Mr Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip . . .'
In his The Pride of the Moment John Dussinger argues that one source of the fertility of Austen's books -- why we see so much in them -- is that she is continually taking small incidents, the gestures of everyday life, the comments people make to one another as part of a routine or a special occasion, and shaping them into a pattern which may be read as indicative of a type of person, moral outlook, social strata, brute fact of life, or fictional device. He analyses at length the scene in MP where Fanny, her brother William, Mary, Henry Crawford and Lady Bertram play Speculation. Each move each character makes, each gesture, what they say defined them and opposing attitudes towards life which in the context of the novel's other scenes and stories have many meanings. So too this scene of Catherine anxiously waiting the arrival of her friends for an appointment, seemingly disappointed, and then tricked into not waiting and as a consequence leaving an impression of discourtesy, disloyalty, indifference. Which terrible moment is then followed by the inevitable disappointment of reality as opposed to what our imagination may have conjured up as this great happiness. This inference goes well beyond the difference between what we experience in books and what we experience in real life.
This time round I was in a mood to feel on my pulse the laughter of John Thorpe as Catherine begs him to turn round. She has now realised he outright lied to her about the Tilneys. (As we know several times: the story of the phaeton; of the lovely lady; of the Tilney destiny, Wick Rock;of Blaise Castle, all all lies.) She begs him to let her out (this could be a girl in someone's car today); not only does he speed up, he laughs: '
"Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe. I cannot go on. I will not go on. I must go back to Miss Tilney." But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on . . .' (Oxford NA, Chapman ed, I:11, 87).
I will be told this is such a small thing. Is it? In its immediate effect, but the motive and character behind it will behave this way in larger matters too. He is enjoying her distress and his power over her.
Even better is his ability to produce the bare-faced lie after he has been found out:
Thorpe defended himself very stoutly, declared he had never seen two men so much alike in his life, and would hardly give up the point of its having been Tilney himself (I:11, 87).
As we all know, they'll say anything to see if it'll pass muster. As long as you keep repeating it loudly; that seems in fact to be Isabella's technique; drown out the opposition.
The scene rings true because I assume if it has not happened to many of us, we have seen versions of it happen.
Re: NA, Ch 11: Phantasmagoria of Real and Gothic Longings
The chapter opens with Catherine's desire to make nature do what she wants, and Mrs Allen's willingness to wish it were so. Ah, and how many of us have also gone through this:
'The morrow brought a very sober-looking morning, the sun making only a few efforts to appear, and Catherine augured from it everything most favourable to her wishes. A bright morning so early in the year, she allowed, would generally turn to rain, but a cloudy one foretold improvement as the day advanced. She applied to Mr. Allen for confirmation of her hopes, but Mr. Allen, not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine. She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen's opinion was more positive. "She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the clouds would only go off, and the sun keep out"' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:11, 82).
Then we get Catherine switching round to disappointment, and her obliging echo in response:
'At about eleven o'clock, however, a few specks of small rain upon the windows caught Catherine's watchful eye, and "Oh! dear, I do believe it will be wet," broke from her in a most desponding tone.
My laughter was rueful, that of someone who identifies and is therefore amused. How irritating people like Mrs Allen really are; yet in mindlessly chiming in, they mean only to be sociable, do they not? Like chimpanzees who groom one another all the live long day.
As the rain goes faster, if not thicker, Catherine declares how she 'hates' the sight of an umbrella, and here are four. Indeed, says Mrs Allen, umbrellas are 'disagreeable things' and she prefers a chair. Anyone would have thought it would be fine; after all, it began grey. Yes indeed says the faithful Mrs Allen who does stop to consider the perplexity of Mr Allen's not liking to wear his great coat. The inconsequence of this is central to all wacky comedy.
We are not permitted quite to regard Mrs Allen as a puppet, for the woman who at twelve says it looks bad, my dear, is a real woman. We are given enough to assume she actually has a thought in what passes for a brain in her head. Then the great analogy: Catherine remembers what beautiful weather they had in _Udolpho_the night Mr St. Aubin died:
'"Oh! That we had such weather here as they had at Udolpho, or at least in Tuscany and the south of France!--the night that poor St. Aubin died!--such beautiful weather!"' (I:11, 83).
The reason Thorpe can trick Catherine, the thing that clinches her willingness to go in addition to her thinking her friends had flat-left her, are the visibilia she has dreamt of in Radcliffe. As we read the alluring dialogue, with Catherine an innocent Eve and Thorpe her willing tempter, we are to see how eager she is, and not despise her altogether:
'"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"
Yes dozens and dozens of labyrinthine corridors, all gloomy with decay and strange sounds. I think we should see two meanings in the literal moralising in her later meditation while sitting helplessly next to the small-minded boor, Thorpe, that
'rather than be disappointed of the promised walk, and especially rather than be thought ill of by the Tilneys, she would willingly have given up all the happiness which its walls could supply--the happiness of a progress through a long suite of lofty rooms, exhibiting the remains of magnificent furniture, though now for many years deserted--the happiness of being stopped in their way along narrow, winding vaults, by a low, grated door; or even of having their lamp, their only lamp, extinguished by a sudden gust of wind, and of being left in total darkness' (I:11:88).
Yes a lesson is taught about priorities and realities. But look how long is the sentence which lingers over each detail, how we are brought into the gothic world which Catherine would, says she, rather set aside for a real friend. A secondary meaning plays through the words: the allure of the picture still.
One of my favorite passages in NA occurs here. Admittedly I have many favorites: I like this novel more each time I read it. Maybe it's growing older and entering into the young girl's innocence with a kind of rueful sorrow that she will have to grow up. Like Colonel Brandon who says of Marianne to Elinor, he had rather Marianne stay in her illusion than find out certain kinds of truths and this affect her from within, maybe in dreams I had rather Catherine stay so filled with anticipation of joy, with her illusions of good people. It's the one just before John Thorpe crudely alerts her to the Tilneys staring at her from the sidewalk:
'she meditated, by turns, on broken promises and broken arches, phaetons and false hangings, Tilneys and trap-doors' (I:11, 87).
It's not just a phantasmagoria of the gothic swimming playfully through her mind. Each thing is broken or false, dangerous while alluring: trapdoors and Tilneys, the romantic brother and sister whom late in the novel Mrs Morland says refers to as from a rather strange family, my dear. It's no wonder the gothic is still with us.
Re: Udolpho: The Heroine's last name
On the last name of the heroine of Udolpho: I went to my two copies of Udolpho and found the name is St Aubert. Why St Aubin? I am going to suggest that like Homer, Jane can nod. Austen herself forgot the last name of Emily's father. In my Oxford copy, Chapman, tactful man that he is, overlooks the slip. Perhaps other editors fail to notice it?