November 3, 1997
Re: NA, Ch 13: Pressured, Harassed, Emotionally Blackmailed
I am glad we have got to this chapter at last. I have been longing to say how in this chapter when Catherine is set up, pressured, harrassed, and then emotionally blackmailed by Isabella and her brother, her response is closely similar to that of Fanny Price when she is similarly set upon, pressured, harrassed, and then instead of emotionally blackmailed humiliated by Mrs Norris.
Some of our discussions over why Fanny refuses to act in Lover's Vows get caught up in a side issue or miss the central point of why she says no. We keep accusing Fanny of disliking plays or the theatre or home-theatricals in and of themselves, when her reason for not saying no is that at this particular time, in this particular place, with these particular people, this particular play is wholly inappropriate. This is exactly Catherine's stance. She agrees that an appointment to go for a walk is not very important; she agrees it would cost nothing for her to ask Eleanor to put it off; she is hurt when it is implied she is being spiteful, trying to ruin everyone else's time by refusing to go, and is a prig for not being more casual, easy-going, insouciant. Of course, Catherine, like Fanny, is given a personality which would find a walk with the Tilneys far more congenial than anything the Thorpes (and especially John Thorpe) would have to offer, and she has already experienced 'the joy' of spending time with Isabella and James flirting away next to her. But Catherine has promised, and she will not go back on her word. Her integrity is at stake.
Austen has emphasized that for Catherine it is a matter of remaining on moral ground and not slipping into carelessness in a couple of ways. The scene itself is thick with the hard amorality of both the Thorpes, and we feel for Catherine when all three actually begin physically to hold her back when she is told that Thorpe has run off behind her back to offer what to Miss Tilney would be a transparent lie. Then the previous scene has "upped the ante." Catherine has already snubbed them once. Austen has the double-take or repetition in order to get us to agree that the Tilneys could now genuinely look at Catherine as someone who has no consideration, is without the slightest constancy or integrity of purpose. In MP there is no need for repeated assaults on Fanny, for Austen has slowly built up the situation to include Sir Thomas's going away on a risky trip, the strained finances which led to this, Henry Crawford's ugly purposes with respect to both Julia and Maria, the play itself (which Austen expects us to know is salacious and mirrors the situation in the novel). In NA Austen must make us be on Catherine's side absolutely, and since her book is slenderer, and the matter not as grave, she resorts to putting Catherine in the situation of having already been led into snubbing the Tilneys.
In life it's not easy to say no, and saying no often gets you nowhere unless you can forcefully back it up by considerable strength of character. I was chilled the first time I read the line which suddenly informs us that John and Isabella are holding onto Catherine: "'Let me go, Mr Thorpe, Isabella, do not hold me'" (1995 Penguin p 90). How do others imagine this? I see them as grabbing her hand, holding on to her skirt, circling in on her. Here at least James backs away, and tells Thorpe to let go. We are to assume Catherine throws off Isabella's grasp?
We have talked of Austen's use of the theme of shame, embarrassment, humiliation in pivotal scenes in her books. Are there other scenes like this? Scenes where she reveals to us how interconnected people are, not solitary, not free agents in any easy sense, and where we see a central character break away from terrible pressure to do what she or he thinks is wrong? Anne Elliot breaks away from her family group on the Tuesday night of the concert to speak to Captain Wentworth, but it is from within that she is held back. No-one puts pressure on her, and it is not wrong to sit with her family. It is the only other scene in the other novels I can think of which comes up to this of Catherine--and Fanny--holding out against the local "mob."
RE: NA, Ch 12: An Image of a Heroine
To me Catherine Morland is lovable, and nowhere more lovable than when she rushes up to Henry, and demands that he forgive her. I think what I like about the scene at the theatre most is her lack of false pride, her complete transparency. Her heart is in her eyes, and to be poetic, as Henry's eyes see it, his heart begins to respond with something beginning to be love. It's funny how eager she is, how she stumbles, and Mrs Allen's dumb, "'My dear, you tumble my gown,'' is a perfect comic undercutting of a scene which could otherwise be seen as just a tad too sentimental. It reminds me of a love scene in Trollope's Dr Thorne where the presence of a donkey saves the scene from too intense an emotionalism. The donkey is bored silly. I know that in her letters Austen refers to Fanny Price with words that suggest fondness, as when an adult is fond of a child; so I am in this scene fond of the sweet innocence Catherine displays.
A frustrating aspect of this scene is we are not told what play they saw. That is very like Austen. It doesn't matter which play it was; what matters is that it did hold Catherine for 4 acts. This way her misery is not unrealistically theatricalized--though the poor child didn't sleep the night before, and then was herself apparently snubbed in return by Eleanor. The parallel apparent snubbing also softens our perception of Catherine's so-called crime. These things happen. The first time I read the scene where Catherine sees Eleanor come out afterwards I did suspect that Eleanor too had been driven to appear to snub a girl she wanted to be friends with. That Catherine herself does not think to bring it up as an offense to herself, but rather simply uses it as evidence that the Tilneys were mad at her, justifiably until she can tell them "all," to me is part of what makes her character attractive. She does not hold grudges. She does not look to use every little bit of someone's behavior to her advantage as if feelings were blocks in some game of competition in which one person is ever seeking the advantage of another. Alas this is all too common. Catherine is better than this--as are a number of Austen's heroines. Now Emma would understand the game and see it being played, and decide whether she ought to play depending on the merits of her "opponent." But I digress.
The second half of this chapter begins the "mystery" element in this novel. Here is our structure which is like Emma and what Persuasion was meant to be had we had the 3rd volume.
Catherine sees the handsome general from afar. He has noticed his son is attracted to this girl. We only see what Catherine sees which is John Thorpe talking to the general. Now in the next chapter we will see the General so amazingly taken with Catherine. We may surmize he thinks she's got money. But we don't know that. We only learn this at the end of the novel--after the proposal. This is a similar ploy though in a simpler way to our not knowing Frank and Jane are engaged. Structurally the two secrets work out in the same way. On the second read we will read the scenes of his book differently--or at least with sure knowledge of the general's motives. Austen is getting the best of both worlds in NA and Emma: suspense the first time and dramatic irony for each read afterwards. This is the way we were to read Persuasion: there is a secret between Mr Elliot and Mrs Clay we don't know about and we are reading scenes whose full truth or interpretation we will never have (the night Anne comes to the Bath, the encounter at Lyme and so on).
Henry is said not be conventionally handsome; he is debonair and witty and we think him handsome after a while, but he is described as plain; it's his brother who is handsome--Austen does not always make her attractive men conventionally handsome--think of Henry Crawford, small and "black." So too is Catherine not dazzlingly beautiful; like Fanny she grows into beauty as the hero falls in love with her. Anne Elliot too has lost her conventional beauty--and Marianne. I find this interesting.
November 4, 1997
RE: The Difficulty of Saying No and Yielding in Austen's Novels
John Hopfner has brought forward another two scenes where we find an Austen heroine under considerable pressure refuse to acquiesce, refuse to go along either because in the immediate or in the long range sense it's the easiest and most convenient thing to do. As John points out, Anne Elliot's refusal to put off her visit to Mrs Smith is not as dramatic as Catherine Morland's refusal to put off her walk with the Tilneys, but what is at stake is the woman's promise to a friend, and the techniques used to break her spirit are analogous. Similarly, it would be easier for Elizabeth to yield to Lady Catherine in the short run (as it would be easier for Fanny Price to yield to everyone in Mansfield Park), but in the long run both feel they will pay dearly in self-respect and peace of mind. We should remember here that the scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine occurs before Darcy proposes; Elizabeth calls him "teasing, teasing man;" Elizabeth cannot suppose he would marry the sister of the girl for whom he had to buy a husband.
"I wonder: can we use such a yardstick to help explain why Elinor is a 'better' character than Marianne in S&S? (What I have in mind here is that, while I'm quite sure Marianne has the stomach to say "no" if asked to break a prior commitment, I'm not sure she'd be equally proof against such invitations regardless of their source.)"
Although I can't think of a scene of Elinor holding out against specific pressure, the novel as a whole shows her standing firm against continual assaults to her integrity. In a curious twist we could say her keeping Lucy's secret to herself, her persisting in loving Edward without demanding anything for it, her willingness to offer a position to him which could enable him to marry Lucy is an instance of this holding out against terrific pressures. Even Lucy is impressed.
That Marianne would not have held out against Willoughby even after his letter is suggested by her response to Mrs Jenning's bringing in the mother's letter. She imagines it is from Willoughby and will be followed by himself, and is ready to jump into his arms. I also see the parallel between her and the two Elizas as suggesting she too was susceptible in the right place and time. No mother, no sister, no world of barriers around them, and she might have gone the way of the woman Brandon sees in her everytime he looks at her.
Another scene of holding out against intense pressure to do the selfish or convenient or easy thing is Fanny's refusal to allow Sir Thomas to tell Henry Crawford he may woo (and by implication) easily win her for his wife.
Can anyone think of any others?
As opposed to these heroines, we have Harriet who as changeable as the wind. She falls in with whatever's on offer. Can anyone think of any scenes beyond that of Harriet allowing Emma to shape her response to Martin's letter in which we see Austen present casualness, ease, insouciance, carelessness, and yielding as self-destructive.
November 5, 1997
RE: NA: An Image of Catherine Morland and Fanny Price
On looking at the pictures the Oxford Classics paperback people picked for the frontispieces for Burney's novel, especially that chosen for Cecilia, The Hon. Frances Duncombe by Gainsborough, I began to think how do I really picture Austen's heroines. Not what modern actress ought to play them, but what contemporary picture seems closest to Austen's conception. One popped into my head for Catherine Morland and Fanny Price--together. It is Gainsborough's portrait in oils called _Elizabeth and Mary Linley_ (c 1772) which depicts two girls in their late teens (perhaps one might be 20 or so, but not more). They are depicted against a flowery landscape which is conceived of as a stage. Elizabeth Linley leans on the shoulder of Mary who holds a book of music. Elizabeth who leans lightly on her sister embodies my idea of Fanny Price. She is looks away from us in a dreamy kind of way. She has very light skin, a blush color, long brown hairs, and a delicate pretty but not baby like or sweet face. Her body is posed tight, held, and she has an alert muscular air, a kind of strong sinews while she rests. She has a sharp nose, and a quickness to the eyes too. Mary looks directly at us in what the 18th century would have called a pert way; she has a heart-shaped face, a chin almost pointed. Her youthful gaze which seems so expectant, eager is perfect for Catherine Morland.
RE: NA, Chs 12-13: Eleanor Tilney
I wish that we were given much more of this character. In the scene she refers to Eleanor's comment as reported by Henry shows she felt as strongly as Catherine about being coerced (and in Eleanor's case she really is a powerless instrument of her father's):
"I was not within at the time; but I heard of it from Eleanor, and she has been wishing ever since to see you, to explain the reason of such incivility; but perhaps I can do it as well. It was nothing more than that my father--they were just preparing to walk out, and he being hurried for time, and not caring to have it put off--made a point of her being denied. That was all, I do assure you. She was very much vexed, and meant to make her apology as soon as possible."
Then we get the evidence that Eleanor had been willing to trust to Catherine's "good intentions," while Henry had not:
Catherine's mind was greatly eased by this information, yet a something of solicitude remained, from which sprang the following question, thoroughly artless in itself, though rather distressing to the gentleman: "But, Mr. Tilney, why were you less generous than your sister? If she felt such confidence in my good intentions, and could suppose it to be only a mistake, why should you be so ready to take offence?"(1995 Penguin Butler ed ch 12, p 85).
Henry parries this question. I would say he was not so ready because he is depicted as quick on the drawer, impulsive, passionate in his way, and rigid too, also at times distrustful of women, and--consider his response to Thorpe during the dance--jealous.
In these chapters we see Catherine begin to distance herself from Isabella and glimpse her illimitable hypocrisy. In part this education does stem from her beginning an acquaintance with Eleanor, in part sheerly from inferrring from the events that are happening to Catherine.
But Eleanor does not disappears altogether in Northanger Abbey. I agree she's not there enough, not a sufficiently felt or individualized presence. But I would argue her presence is more in evidence and more centrally a part of Catherine's experience than at Bath. It is Eleanor who communicates the melancholy of her life and a life at this Abbey to Catherine; it is through Eleanor's simple true but not exaggerated words that Catherine infers (rightly as far as this goes) that Mrs Tilney had married unwisely and been unhappy. The later analogue is Anne Elliot's mother who we are told was captivated by Sir Walter's looks (a parallel to Mrs Bennet); Mrs Tilney's story is the sadder. We are told she was sold by her father to this man. We must suppose she was in love, but we are not told this. It is the sum she took with her from her father to her husband that is emphasized by Mrs Allen's words. It is her unhappiness Eleanor Tilney conveys.
But perhaps we should wait until we get there for this debate.