Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 12 - 13

To Janeites

May 4, 1999

Re: NA, Chs 13: Driven Wild with Frustration

Chapter 13 gives us a scene many of us may have endured or watch another endure: pressure is applied to Catherine, ruthless, exploitative, selfish and obtuse pressure. I am sure many of us have found ourselves surrounded by self-professed friends and family members and found ourselves driven wild by frustration with their demands, manipulative comments, and grasping appeals. The sense of Catherine's breathless- ness before the assault is strong. Oh it would be so easy if you wanted to go with us. You must not like or love me. I would do this for you. When you attempts a compromise (we can do it another day), it's oh no, I cannot say I will be free. And then the cold shoulder. What do you do when everyone says you're wrong and you know you're right (or at least think so). The catch in the scene is Austen shapes it so that we know the others have nothing beyond their appetite to serve.

Each turn in the pulsation of such a scene is traced, given life, etched concisely. Austen does not spare us one weapon that can and is often used in such scenes. Perhaps the worst for Catherine is her brother's obtuse disloyalty to her: 'you once were the kindest, best-tempered of my sisters' (Oxford _NA_, ed Chapman, I:13, 100). Thanks, James. Catherine's heart swells as Isabella piles it on further: "I suspect there is no great struggle' (I:13:100).

Then the great moment when we realise where Thorpe has been. He has gone behind Catherine's back to tell the Tilneys she has sent him to break the appointment. It seems she was previously engaged. Who has not had something like this happen to him or her? I have. Well Catherine is the true heroine. She does not yield. It is also psychologically convincing. By this time Austen has whipped our feelings up into a near explosion. It is pointed out to her Thorpe has made all right, and she almost blurts out how does she know he has not lied again. She stops herself in time.

But now she must run after her new friends and explain, and she finds herself held down. Nothing beyond the Thorpes. Here Austen gives us the reality of oppression the Gothic is too callow to tell. I will give it to James he tells them to let go, and Catherine flies off. Her thoughts are unclear; she cannot get herself to understand the amorality of what she has just experienced; she tells herself she has actually been withstanding something she wanted (to go to the silly castle), and she begins to quicken her pace, until she runs, apparently nearly knocks poor William down, and goes up and offers her frantic explanation:

'Her explanation, defective only in being -- from her irritation of nerves and shortness of breath -- no explanation at all, was instantly given. "I am come in a great hurry -- It was all a mistake -- I never promised to go -- I told them from the first I could not go. -- I ran away in a great hurry to explain it. -- I did not care what you thought of me. -- I would not stay for the servant"' (I:13, 102).

Again we have the hint that Eleanor had no animus, but Henry might have. Again candour wins out and we are reassured, though there is the pinprick of the General seeming to want to fire William. As I read Austen's description of the General walking Catherine down the stairs, and 'making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted' (I:13, 103), I wondered if Austen was remembering Johnson's comment on Chesterfield in his letters: that 'he has the manners of a dancing-master and the morals of a whore.'

And then the curious coda. Catherine longs to be justified and goes to Mr Allen to get from him some acknowledgement that she has done right. How fascinating that he doesn't listen to her quite. Instead of telling her that she was right to keep her appointment, he goes on about what concerns him: these gaddings about in open carriages can come to no good. What does Mrs Allen think about it? The ever faithful Mrs Allen then produces her take: indeed not, open carriages are 'nasty things': 'A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them' (I:13, 104). Impeccably so. Has anyone ever thought about the impossibility of communicating your thought to other people? How they are always to the left or right of what you are saying.

Mr Allen persists, and gets his wife to say she does disapprove of young people gadding about. So Catherine says, Why, madam, why did you not say you disapproved. Mrs Allen reminds me of Lady Bertram. Ever the quiet unanswerable remark: well, young people don't like to be thwarted'. She does not hear the comment, well this was of real consequence and my dress was not. If it's of real consequence, well then had they not better tell Isabella and her mother? Mr Allen thinks not; tell people things they don't want to hear, and you will be getting only 'ill-will' (I:13:105). How much Catherine has yet to learn. How much Austen knows.

A strong chapter. How do you discuss it to another? How do you point out that this is what life is, this is important, this kind of bullying, this central lack of communication. Especially to someone who in life would probably have enacted the parts of the Thorpes, accepts what people do no matter what it is because they do it regularly -- and anyway will take offense should you bring it up in any uncomfortable fashion.

I am finding myself more strongly engaged by book than I have been in years.

Ellen Moody

Nancy wrote:

"The scene in which the group pull at Catherine is one that rouses anger in me. I want to bash them all with my parasol . . ."

This scene is just so life-like, so real. There is not a false note hit. Burney shows similar scenes of realistic harassment and desperation.


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