November 13, 1997
Re: NA, Ch 15: Disconjunctions
The second of this week's chapters forms a coda for the end of volume one. We have a proposal and an acceptance. We don't know that James and Isabella will not marry and live as happily ever after as anyone ever does. James has not yet named the sum the old man can cough up. Catherine too seems to be settling nicely (Henry Tilney would not approve, but what care I?) into her friendship with the Tilneys. The General is encouraging his son. Maybe he's not the most comfortable man one ever met-- but there are no storms on the horizon. In fact this turn is a movement upward.
Compare P&P and S&S. At the close of Volume One of S&S, we find Lucy devastating Elinor with the news of her secret 4 year -- long engagement to Edward. At the close of Volume Two Marianne is a nervous wreck (a stronger devastation has occurred) and now Lucy is invited to stay with the Dashwoods and Edward. As the next volume opens, we have a sudden great turning point when Anne Steele spills the beans to Fanny Dashwood, and "all hell breaks loose" in Hanover Square. At the close of Volume One of P&P Bingley and Company have absconded. Collins is to marry Charlotte, and all the consolation Mr Bennet can think of is perhaps Mrs Bennet will die first. By the close of Volume Two Wickham is exposed, Lydia gone off to Brighton, and Elizabeth and Darcy having apparently come nearly to blows, we are suddenly set for a humilation for our heroine at Pemberley. As we all know, there is then a great shift in Darcy's behavior.
P&P and S&S are very closely similar books in all sorts of fundamental ways. This third book of NA is different. Why? What other book has two volumes? Persuasion_. How does Volume One end? There is the fall of Louisa, but there is an upsweep for Anne as no less than three possible lovers are on stage (Captain Wentworth suddenly realizes Anne's value as he watches Mr Elliot appreciate her, and Captain Benwick is certainly sniffing around). She is on her way to Bath. She is prettier. No longer ignored. Asserting herself a bit. Is this not an upsweep like this in NA. Not only are Northanger Abbey and Persuasions, books on Bath, they are structurally and emotionally similar.
Other points of interest in Chapter 15: we have the problem of a gap in Austen's intentions towards Catherine. Suddenly Catherine plays both the naive in her conversation with Isabella and we are to laugh at her, while she is the realistic heroine who is growing up. All the jokes about Catherine discerning the force of love in Isabella's total hypocrisy belong to Catherine as Gullible. But her understanding of the hypocrisy and heart-burning jealousy of Isabella's sisters and her guarded response to Thorpe's attempt somehow to get her allow his attentions so he may charge her with encouraging him and somehow that way win her show a sharp and self-possessed young woman. At the same time we are told Catherine listened with "heartfelt satisfaction" to the information that the Thorpes and her brother had got nowhere near Blaize Castle.
And then despite the upsweep or comic feel of the close of this volume, there is the caustic presence of the narrator who gives us one of my favorite pictures of family harmony in Austen:
"in schemes of sisterly happiness the hours flew along. Mrs. Thorpe and her son, who were acquainted with everything, and who seemed only to want Mr. Morland's consent, to consider Isabella's engagement as the most fortunate circumstance imaginable for their family, were allowed to join their counsels, and add their quota of significant looks and mysterious expressions to fill up the measure of curiosity to be raised in the unprivileged younger sisters. To Catherine's simple feelings, this odd sort of reserve seemed neither kindly meant, nor consistently supported; and its unkindness she would hardly have forborne pointing out, had its inconsistency been less their friend; but Anne and Maria soon set her heart at ease by the sagacity of their "I know what"; and the evening was spent in a sort of war of wit, a display of family ingenuity, on one side in the mystery of an affected secret, on the other of undefined discovery, all equally acute" (1995 Penguin, Butler ed., p 108).
When I read this, I also think of people I have known and family circles I have been in attendance upon. I have seen people behave like this, keep secrets from one another. I have always wondered why an adult will lie to a child unnecessarily or or someone in a family who is among the older ones lie to someone in a family who is among the younger again unnecessarily or when the next day the lie will be transparent. Is it some curious assertion of power? My husband always says that people have a tendency to impute conspiracy or malice when there is merely incompetence. But Austen's passage is not pointing to simple stupidity. Now the word spite is never used, but to me it leaps to mind. I infer it. She has brought out this lurking element in the mix. Ah a family party, the hours just flying along.
And the reason for Austen's cautious estrangement are not there for Mary.