Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 10 - 11

Re: NA, Ch 11: Real Misery

When I first read Chapter 11, when after at long last again meeting Henry Tilney, and actually making an appointment to meet him and his sister on the following day to go for a walk in the country, the two Thorpes combine together with James, to pressure Catherine into ignoring the appointment, and she finds herself actually in the position of snubbing her new friends, I was so uncomfortable and wretched--well it was almost as bad as Box Hill.

Unlike the later repeat in which Isabella and James lean heavily on Catherine, Thorpe is the central heavy. He lies to her in order to get her to break her appointment, and then, when she sees the Tilneys and realizes how she has been meanly tricked, he prevents her jumping out of the carriage by making his horse gallop more quickly. He then laughs at her, enjoys her squirming helplessness, her real agony. And then of course the day is no fun. How can it be with people like the Thorpes? Catherine sees no castle. Then she comes home to be told she was wrong to go. I remember being made to feel all the shame, anxiety, misery, and helplessness Catherine goes through. It was all so vivid to me; it was just the sort of thing that could happen--and versions of it had happened to me, except of course I was the one who was snubbed, and not so innocently.

Rereading it now years later I still find myself distressed for Catherine. Each stroke is done so accurately; it is all so believable; it moves slowly the way daily time feels yet all of a sudden there one is in the carriage, unable to get out, and then back home again, like some bad dream you now have to go to sleep on. One of the reasons I think this book was rewritten well after 1809 (when Austen obtained the manuscript again) and perhaps as late as 1816 is the dialogue and movement, the sense of the close words in a room against a large sweep of a world itself, itself against the landscape of Somerset is much more mature than S&S, or P&P. In its ability to convey nuance it is the equal of Emma. Someone said a couple of weeks ago how she always found it hard to read this novel, she felt so embarrassed for Catherine (especially at the Abbey), I feel this strong sense of emotional distress from this chapter.

And yet, what is it? She had an appointment to go for a walk. It had rained. The Tilneys were late. In a way their lateness can provide an excuse for her. She thought they were not coming. And even if her excuse is not solid, her leaving them flat is not the end of the world. Her being mislead is not unforgiveable, her conduct anything but irretrievable: she's done no harm, uttered no malice, hurt no-one with deliberate intent. I think even then I was aware of this paradox: that the evils we experience in our daily life most deeply are rooted in small things, and that despite their being so small and in a way silly they count. From small things large consequences often flow.

Another perspective on this scene hit me later on, it is the one which critiques the gothic. On another list John Mize and I are on together, he remarked:

"It's difficult for me not to be unfair to sensational and supernatural tales. To me gothics and horror stories seem something of an evasion. In them evil is lurid, glamorous and larger than life, while actually evil is usually prosaic and banal."

In the context of Austen's satire on gothic romance and sentimental excess, the point of this day's sad events is to show us prosaic and banal evil--John Thorpe is the world's norm, and he can be in his way productive of real evil, real hurt, real harm. Isabella Thorpe too in this chapter stands for the real evil of this world: hers is a cold heart as she plays away her game of commerce indifferent to Catherine, with no real notion of what tenderness is. She is a mockery of it.

But there's a curious undercurrent here. In a way the gothic romance is validated insofar as it insists on the importance of feelings, of the imagination, of sensitive awareness, of the heroine's perspective, and of her as trapped by conventions and attitudes. She is after all trapped and abducted. The strong feeling of the chapter itself makes me feel Austen is showing her fellow authors this is how you do it, not by setting forth castles, moats, trapdoors, and broken arches.

Ellen Moody

October 31, 1997

Re: NA, Ch 11: Embarrassment

This is written in response to Victoria: I would say the first time I read NA I didn't enjoy Catherine's anxiety at all. It was not distanced from me. However, since it is soon resolved by her eager earnest explanation and Henry's realization that no deliberate snub was intended, I was soothed. The realism of the book also conveyed a subtextual message that nothing irretrievable had happened. On the second occasion when Catherine is really set upon by the Thorpes and her brother I remember again feel very tense, and then much relieved when she held out. The country walk told me all was well. All the above was of course the first read. On the second read I experienced the anxiety again--as I have since--but since I know it will soon be resolved, and importantly that it will be resolved because nothing bad has happened, I do experience the "one-step removed feeling" you so aptly describe.

However, this was not the case with Emma. It was not until recently that I could read this scene with calmness, without wincing and certainly it is resolved in an even shorter time since Emma immediately goes off to visit Miss Bates and is forgiven, and then meets Knightley back at Hartfield and again is forgiven. So it's not just a matter of things being reconciled quickly and no real harm coming to everyone. The difference for me is that Emma meant to wound and wounded, and Catherine didn't mean to and couldn't wound the Tilneys in the way Emma wounded Miss Bates. They are young, healthy, rich--everything, as Knightley reminds Emma, Miss Bates is not. For a long time I thought what upset me was my pity for Miss Bates; now I realize it's that I identify with Emma in that scene to some extent, and I am as much embarrassed for Emma and deeply ashamed of her (and therefore by extension myself as I read) as I am hurt for Miss Bates.

By-the-bye the reason I can read this scene more calmly now is that since our last group read I have become aware that Emma did not sin that badly; rather she is made to feel deeply mortified because Knightley sees what she did as cruel, and makes her feel she has deeply humiliated Miss Bates. I have become aware that we have here a triangle and it's Knightley's feeling about this scene perhaps as much or more than Miss Bates's feeling that guides my perception of the scene.

Ellen Moody

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