Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 14 - 15

To Janeites

November 10, 1997

Rw: NA, Ch 14: A Conversation Piece in the Countryside

acheverell Sitwell has two books on 18th century paintings in one of which he identifies a type he says was popular from the mid- through the later 18th century: the conversation piece. We find these from gussied-up versions in the grandiose oil painting-of-the-family style to the humble engraved or woodcut illustrations in a mere novel. Often the "conversation" is depicted in a drawing room, and in such pictures the figures are usually large and gesticulate for all the world as if they were on a stage--the spacial configuration, frame, theatricality of gestures all tell us that the painter is imagining the scene in terms of the popular stage of the period--which had a proscenium arch and curtain. The later 18th and early 19th century French painters were still doing this, only their figures were drawn from Greek and Roman legends; Even Henry Fuseli departs not from the convention.

In England though, or so it seems to me, the conversation piece takes a particular turn often identified with the picturesque: the figures grow very small and are placed in natural landscape. They point and gesture, carry walking sticks, but also books, and materials for drawing with, sometimes baskets with food, and all these appurtenances grow tiny with them. Admiral Tilney looks at one such picture in a shop in Bath where he remarks that such a frail boat would never outlast the first rainstorm. I like to think of Austen's depiction of the Tilneys' country walk at Beechen Cliff as letting us in on what we are to suppose the people are talking about.

Let me divide the conversation up into 5 phases and throw out some comments to see if anyone would like to respond. First, there is the discussion of who reads novels and what kind of person enjoys Mrs Radcliffe's gothic romances. We have discussed this earlier, so I pass over it with merely asking if others agree with Henry Tilney--and through him Austen. Do men equally enjoy novels? How far are both sexes hypocritical about their pleasures? Which of us is engaged deeply by gothic romance? A few people said they had enjoyed The Italian and some part of Udolpho. Would anyone else like to comment on these older or 19th or 20th century gothic romances? For myself I think Radcliffe taught Austen how to slow time down and enter into the consciousness of a character seriously in such a way as still to remain detached as a third person narrator; she also taught her how to work suspense, and gave her hints on placing a character in a moving landscape.

This shades into Henry's insistence that we use words meaningfully. It is presented teasingly, but the content reminds me of Marianne's complaint to Edward Ferrars. Words become counters, empty noises and buzz-words because all too often the average person does not engage deeply with experience through his intellect or imagination. The word in question is "nice;" words which are similarly scattered through conversations today like so much blather are "amazing" (Henry says this one was a noise then too), "incredible," "awesome," "wonderful." I will remark the word Henry subjects to considerable punishment is in the French "beau" ("belle")--it is still overused today.

From cliches, our three friends proceed on to a perceptive commentary on the close relationship between history and fiction. Through her characters Austen points out to us history is as much a narrative as fiction, that narration is an art whose expansion and dramatic vitality demands imaginative realization. She argues the difference between the two is not so much that one is true and the other false as that one founds itself on written records (themselves all we have to go on, but not unassailable) and the other (I must here fill out the dialogue from Austen's narrator in Chapter 5), and the other a "thorough knowledge of human nature." She also points to another difference: history dwells on public life, public events, and is (we would say therefore) all about men; the novel's province is private experience, the inward, what doesn't reach the newspapers, but what is of equal (perhaps some of us would say more) importance. I will content myself with quoting but two paragraphs of this phase of the talk. Eleanor has just said she is fond of history, and Catherine responds she wishes she were too:

" I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all--it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs--the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history--and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made--and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great" (1995 Penguin, Butler ed, p 97).

They then proceed to discuss whether learning to read is a torment to children, and the fact that many an author finds his book used in ways he never imagined it would be. Catherine is of the opinion that if the torment is worth it (and who among us doubts that?), it is a torment still, especially to the teacher or mother who has to labor with slow minds (pp 97-8). Now there I'm with her. This province of womankind (nursing was another), teaching is touched upon lightly but enough is given to suggest the average woman's life, whether as mother, aunt, sister, or governess, is one filled with endless exhausting irritating tasks that demand you plague another. I can't help quoting this ironic maxim about teaching: "Never try teaching a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig." One can also quote Charlotte Bronte on the tortures of teaching the "hopelessly dull," "wholly untaught," "with faculties quite torpid;" or Emma and Elizabeth Watson who seem to think starvation, marriage with anything preferable to spending your life demanding intellectual effort and achievement from others.

An interest here is how light is Austen's touch: that's where she fools people. They respond to the tone and don't pay attention to the surface words very much, much less their implications. She is more deeply emotional than she lets on. Satirists are.

The final phase of the conversation I want to deal with is concluded by Austen's ironic reference to a sister-author, Burney ("The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author"). By a sort of twist she claim she must qualify this and do justice to men by adding:

"that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance" (p 99)

How good of her, gentlemen. She avers there is a portion of men who want nothing more than ignorance. Imbecillity would in fact defeat, frustrate them, for what they like to do best is become their lady's guide, her teacher, her oracle. How can a Mr Bennet teach a Mrs Bennet since she is beyond instruction. Ah, now there was the real rub. A Mr Allen will be content with a cow, but a clever man, a man with taste and imagination and sensibility and sensitivity wants a congenial mind he can turn into a version of his own. I can vouch for the truth of this.

The teaching that goes on is a lesson in the picturesque, and constitutes a concise review of all the positions, definitions and shades of meaning as well as exemplifying the discourse with a suggestively lovely sentence, the kind of simple statement which lets us minds share some general vision with her, and which closes with a delicious joke:

"The Tilneys were soon engaged in another on which she had nothing to say. They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing--nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day."

And then after Austen's qualification of her sister-novelist's too blunt or broad or insufficiently subtle criticism of men who prefer women who exhibit various kinds of "natural folly," the joke:

He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances--side-screens and perspectives--lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape" (pp 98-9)

I have not discussed the confusion of understanding Henry picks up upon in Catherine's question to Eleanor about whether she has heard of the latest horrid romance to come out, but I take this to be part of the antifeminist thread Tilney does at times exemplify and is not my business here, which is simply to expatiate and throw out comments on what I found delightful. Look how much Austen has covered in a mere half a chapter of what is "only a novel." Philosophers and literary critics today have little to teach her about hypocrisy, vanity, the misuse of language, what genres really are, men and women--or the picturesque, on which she was an adept. And historians have little to teach her about violence (evoked in the second half of the chapter)--or, for that matter, mindless envy, transparent spite, and ceaseless malice which if I read this novel at least aright she appears to have scorned and/or loathed.

Ellen Moody

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