Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 12 - 13

To Janeites

April 30, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 12: The Strength of Sincerity

Another turn in the anxious adventures of Catherine, this time reassuring us about the value of sincerity. One of the reasons this is a hopeful book is that time and again we see people break through conventions to reach one another where they (as we say in modern slang) live. They are at first thwarted: thus justice is done to common experience. We believe. Then despite the barriers manners or mores set up, emotions break through, someone communicates the intensely well-meaning nature of his or her intentions, and all ends happily -- for the moment.

We open with our Catherine anxious as ever. She consults Mrs Allen; would there be any harm in her calling on Miss Tilney for she cannot be easy until her apparently bad conduct is explained away. The ever-obliging Mrs Allen thinks not (do not underestimate the importance of her obligingness -- I, for one, know why Mr Allen married her). With 'beating heart and anxious steps', she makes her way to the Pump- room, discovers the accurate number and trips away -- and a note is hit which tells us this child expects to be forgiven, she longs so for it. How could she not be forgiven once she has explained? (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:12, 91).

Then we get the first setback. Apparently the use of servants to proclaim you are not at home was not all that commonly done since the servant is a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps this Victorian way of cutting someone was perfected somewhat later. But Catherine 'gets it.' She is mortified. Note though that she is not angry. She is so unsure of herself, and feels so strongly about how badly she appeared, she is willing to accede the right of another to punish her. She feels resentment, but checks it. Thus does Austen continue to fill in Catherine's nature as one of deep beauty. She has humility and charity, is willing to wait and see. Not much ego here. A rare trait (I:12, 92).

There certainly is criticism of Henry Tilney. It is not harsh and can be overemphasised but it is there: he participates in the antifeminist assumptions of a number of the males (he regards his sister and eventually Catherine almost as exceptions to a rule). True he thinks most men also mostly mindless. He is strong in his self-confidence; he will gently tease someone if he thinks that someone doesn't understand the teasing (as with his parody of Mrs Allen). And in this chapter we find he was angry. I thought among Catherine's best moments was her respond to his comment in the theatre that he had no right to be angry, and therefore (by logic) couldn't be, '

"Nay, I am sure by your look, when you came into the box, you were angry.

"I angry! I could have no right."

"Well, nobody would have thought you had no right who saw your face." He replied by asking her to make room for him, and talking of the play' (I:12, 95).

Henry is too smart to argue the point. He knows that presence, facial and bodily gesture mean more than words, so he sits down and begins to be friends again. Sometimes that is the best way. (Alas, we cannot avail ourselves of this on the Net; many a quarrel on the Net would not happen were we able to ask the other person to let us sit next to him or her.)

Interesting how Austen doesn't tell us details which comedy it was. Nor which theatre. She is intent upon the inner life of Catherine. I think for the reader what makes the scene where Catherine spies Henry from a distance and longs to make him notice her (and he deliberately refuses), and then rushes up to him so affective is versions of this have either happened to us or we have seen it happen to others. One way Austen criticises the gothic and replaces it is simply to bring forth the truth (like Catherine). Her misery at the close of Chapter 11 was very real; now the parodic sentence is filled with feeling we have known or can imagine:

'And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine's portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself, if she get another good night's rest in the course of the next three months' (I:11, 90).

A bad night is what she had. How touching her complete lack of pretension, her lack of pride. She is 'restlessly miserable to go' over to Tilney; Austen gets in a dig at the nonsence of the Gothic mode:

'Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation--instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else--she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause (I:11, 93).

And gothic heroines are so stuck up :). Catherine's not and Henry can't resist her. He is stiff and we might say cruel when he keeps his face stiff and delivers an gently ironic admonishment, which nonetheless stings Catherine into:

"'But indeed I did not wish you a pleasant walk; I never thought of such a thing; but I begged Mr. Thorpe so earnestly to stop; I called out to him as soon as ever I saw you; now, Mrs. Allen, did not-- Oh! You were not there; but indeed I did; and, if Mr. Thorpe would only have stopped, I would have jumped out and run after you" (I:12, 94)

The reason we don't hold the gradualness of Henry's softening against him is that in real life we know it would not have been this easy. In real life no one probably would put themselves forward without any shield in this way; in real life people don't melt quickly. And of course Catherine does stick it to him by insisting (with her truthfulness) that she sees the anger on his face. Thus obliging him to not to hide behind a mask because she won't pretend to read the mask as other than it is.

If only the sincerity of our motives counted so much in life. They don't. And Austen has covered herself by making Eleanor as guilty as Catherine of rudeness. Henry is aware of this. Catherine spontaneously again insists Eleanor must be angry too, for Eleanor would not see her when she came to the house and then walked out directly afterwards. Tit for tat, and as Eleanor was placed in a situation she could not help, so Catherine could have been (I:12, 94). Here too Austen is as ever using an incident in several ways: we get new information about the General which reveals a instinctive utter selfishness, a disregard not just for an unknown visitor, but his daughter's feelings.

Again the message is actually reassuring. We are not to fret so anxiously when social behavior leads to misunderstandings for an explanation of one's helplessness or sincerity or sorrow over the incident makes the misunderstanding go away. But how many would be like Catherine only hurt and not 'affronted' (I:12, 94).

An old-fashioned morality is at work here: one which honours distrust of the self and its appetites. This is what we find in Catherine when she is at her best and not deluded by her books.

Ellen Moody

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