Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 14 - 15

To Janeites

May 6, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 15: Volume's End

I wonder if anyone has thought about the divisions in Austen's novels by which I mean why a volume ends with one chapter and not another. In some of the novels, the volumes seem to me to make clear and obvious sense. Emma, Vol I is the story of Harriet & Elton climaxing in the carriage scene; Vol II begins the story of Jane. At the close of Volume I of MP Sir Thomas comes home and the play-acting ends climactically; at the close of Volume II Fanny and William are headed for Portsmouth. In others I can think up reasons why a division seems right (in S&S each division occurs at a downturn in the action; in P&P, they occur just before an upturn in the action). The division between Volume I and II in Persuasion is provided by Louisa's fall and the breakup of the Uppercross party; Volume II opens with Anne all alone, quietly packing to join Lady Russell for Bath.

I am not sure why Volume I of NA should climax in Isabella awaiting news of her engagement. After all, as we know, it's going to come to naught and the climax of this waiting period is her ugly response to the 'small' amount of money the Morland's can supply her with. One would think the natural division would be when Catherine leaves Bath for Northanger. But then the number of chapters in the volume would be uneven.

It should be remembered that although the circulating library had already begun to take its toll on the form in which a novel could be written (as Henry says they must be 3 volumes of 276 pages each), it was still not etched in cement. In the Victorian period Mudie needed the 3 volume structure to pull a profit.

This particular chapters opens with the utter hypocrisy and malice of Maria. Maria is so sorry for Anne; she will feel for her all the coming year that Anne could not come. What Austen shows us here is Maria's enjoyment lies precisely in the fact that she went and Anne didn't. Never underestimate this motive for people who travel. Why they need photographs of themselves in front of the tourist attraction? How do you define a tourist attraction? Well it's something that attracts tourists. Still Maria is beyond that. She doesn't need to have gone to Blaize.

Again and again in this book one is confronted by a paragraph on the page in which a personality is pinned on the wall for us in all its unconscious meanness and lies.

In Chapter 13 we have one of the most violent scenes in Austen; in a way this book has some of the least qualifed free-wheeling displays of the underside of personalities, the private disclosed involuntarily through public hypocrisy which is grossly obvious. Austen will return to this in Mrs Elton's speeches, but there it is more subdued and not so common across the verbal space of Emma as a whole.

Then we meet the ever-charming Isabella. Here we do have notes of sincerity. She is actually worried. Why? Because she doesn't for a moment believe the Morlands are idealistic in any way. They might reject her out of hand as she has no dowry, no connections. She expects them to. (Later she forgets how lucky she is and grows angry they don't fork out more -- how human this is too.) There are genuine notes here. Where Austen invites us to laugh at poor Catherine who now fancies herself superperceptive in discerning these notes of love, we see Isabella overspeaking out of anxiety:

'"my fortune will be so small; they never can consent to it. Your brother, who might marry anybody!" Here Catherine again discerned the force of love (Oxford _NA_, ed Chapman, I:15, 119).

Of course Isabella's wishes are so moderate all she desires is one of those 'charming little villas about Richmond.' These were known as superexpensive. To get the jokes, we have simply to accept Austen using Catherine as a naif in the manner of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels. There are notes of straightfoward sincerity. I suppose we may rejoice in this validation of celebratory moments :). Mrs Thorpe is really overjoyed. John Thorpe too is actually, insofar as this boor can be, caught up in the moment. He too would like an income from the Morlands. I like the way Catherine turns him off. Now in this scene Austen treats her realistically. We have to read with tact and go with the stream.

Last comment: I noticed for the first time that in this chapter Isabella begins to call James Morland 'Morland.' Hitherto she had called him Mr Morland. I know people will say I am making too much of a small thing and many people once engaged would have opted for dropping the man's title instead (and only called him by his first name in private). Still there's something hard in this choice of 'Morland.' It's not an insult, not a way of putting James Morland down (in the way Mrs Elton puts down Mr Knightley in front of Emma). Still it shows a lack of delicacy, of tenderness, a vulgarity in the tone of the girl's mind. Austen uses the way people address one another subtly. Isabella doesn't begin to understand what tenderness might be and how it might lead to certain delicacies in public.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 16 March 2003