Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 1 -2 (16 - 17)


To Janeites

May 12, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 16 (2:1): Catherine Begins to Judge as well as Feel

The difference between this chapter and the ones we have read the last few weeks will not explain the volume division of the book. Still, there is a shift in emphasis between the last few chapters we have read and these few before we move onto the Abbey.

Up to this point, Catherine has not really allowed her discomfort with Isabella Thorpe to come to the surface. She has not allowed herself to think about her and Isabella's relationship in terms other than those Isabella choses. In this chapter Isabella's conduct begins to reveal to Catherine that there is a large gap between what Isabella professes and what she really feels and thinks. Hitherto also we have been largely following inside a stream of emotions we can call Catherine. We have been led to identify with these emotions as ours, have been all anxiety, suspense, discomfort -- and relief, with her. In this chapter her inner emotional turmoil is moved somewhat away from us. It's not in order that we may see her more objectively. Rather the novelist is leading us to pay attention to Catherine's judgements of what is happening around her.

Thus we open with Catherine's response to her visit in Milsom-street. Funny. It just wasn't the joyous fulfilling experience she had been expecting. Our narrator gives the hard view to open the discourse with: Catherine's expectations had been so high, disappointment was inevitable. This is a rhetorical strategy. The idea is presented early so it may be dismissed as inadequate. Catherine senses there was something more to it than expecting too much, and, like the fundamentally instinctively sound moral type she is, she lights upon the cause: General Tilney. The more she says it could not be General Tilney's fault, the more we know she is feeling somehow the shallow and uncomfortable quality, the alienating feel of it is connected to him.

Isabella comes in with her judgement: pride, all pride. Especially that Eleanor person. She knew it all the time. Arrrogance. Now John wouldn't be that way. She and John are such feelingful people. As we have seen earlier, Catherine simply doesn't listen to this. She dismisses it as untrue. She doesn't judge why Isabella should have such an interpretation which on her emotional pulses and memories Catherine knows is a gross distortion. The reader wonders why the Thorpes are after the Morlands. (Later we will discover they think they are rich; here is a clue in the mystery structure of the novel which is not brought out sharply.) The reader may also think, Isabella is jealous as one girl often is of her friend's other girlfriend. So she pulls her down. Catherine is sure there is no insolence in her new friends. Insolence is a strong word. We wonder why Isabella used it (she feels her poverty, her low status?) We wonder if someone was insolent -- that man who could bow Catherine down the stairs so gracefully? Grace can be so beautifully insolent. The General probably was not insolent, just overbearing. Still it's a resonant word.

It is in the next two scenes, the perspective shifts. Isabella is engaged to James, and Catherine is strongly on the side of her brother. She looks out for his interests as she would her own. Maybe more strongly. Catherine says she will see how the Tilneys behave tonight. Isabella: 'Must I go?' (Oxford NA, Chapman ed, 2:1:130). Catherine, as ever unhelpful, but I thought you intended to go? Did not you intend to? Catherine just will never play these games. She is naive. I know of people who understand such games and refuse to play them in such a way as to irritate the person into understanding they know a game is being played. Catherine is too good, too kind, too innocent for that.

Now we are outside Catherine's emotions. Note in the first encounter of Catherine with the Tilneys all is concise general description. We are told:

'The evening rewarded her confidence; she was met by one with the same kindness, and by the other with the same attention, as heretofore: Miss Tilney took pains to be near her, and Henry asked her to dance (2:1, 131).

The reader can here discern that Henry and Miss Tilney were aware Catherine was made very uncomfortable and seek to make it up to her. We are left quietly to judge for ourselves. We used on Austen-l sometimes to talk of scenes in Austen's novels which are not dramatised, but are available for the reader's imagination to work on. It's the result of Austen's concision and suggestiveness. Someone could try to imagine what that dinner was like.

A new character is introduced: Captain Tilney. He has been somewhat prepared for, and he is brought forward, pat, just as he is needed. Handsome, fashionable-looking, nervy. It is in Isabella's response to Captain Tilney as opposed to her fervently averred loyalty to James and in Isabella's response to the letter telling the income she and James will have as opposed to her fervent idealistic protestions that Catherine begins to wake up.

Nancy concentrated on the beautiful interchange between Henry and Catherine which lets us know Henry is beginning to fall in love with Catherine. Values her character: 'I "only meant that your attributing my brother's wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good nature alone convinced me of your being superior in good nature yourself to all the rest of the world'" (2:16:133). Each turn in the conversation sparkles with wit and cordiality between the two spirits, with understanding (2:16:132-33).

We can here with Catherine watch Isabella's shrug as Captain Tilney approaches her. What a world of meaning in a shrug (2:I:133). Catherine is just astonished. How can this be? When Isabella comes over and attempts to denigrate and downplay her dancing -- not hypocritically, she really thinks it wonderful to call people rattles, thinks this is fun -- note how brief are Catherine's responses and to the point: '"Then why did not you?" . . . "He is very handsome indeed."' (2:16:134).

A pinprick which will become a hammer when James returns and Catherine watches Isabella's conduct towards James in public. And attempts to protect her brother. That's very interesting -- it's what Fanny Price would want to do, but not dare.

Much stronger is the slap in the face Catherine feels when Isabella responds to her father's offer of an income. The income necessary for gentility is said at the time to have been 150 - 250. This of course is fringe. 400 is good; twice as much. Plus a house. But it's not a villa in Richmond. It's revealing how the mother becomes nervous because Catherine is there. Had Catherine not been there, she knows Isabella would have flamed out. Mrs Thorpe knows Isabella has nothing, so she immediately brings out the honeyed-soothing tones and words. She tries to call Isabella to herself: 'do not let us distress our dear Catherine by talking of such things' (2:1:136). Another scene: what did they say after Catherine left? What do they talk about when Catherine is not there?

As Catherine watches, light seems to dawn for the first time. She now has a context of real things by which to judge the words. She gets the same perception of hypocrisy we have had all along, with the difference she is hurt for her brother -- and herself. She hears Mrs Thorpe apologising for her father, implying Catherine's father can be seen as stingy by saying we cannot suppose he is. Isabella is all virtue of course: 'For myself, it is nothing; I never think of myself' (2:1:136). Catherine's small burst brings her up short:

'"I am very sure," said she, "that my father has promised to do as much as he can afford."

Isabella recollected herself. "As to that, my sweet Catherine, there cannot be a doubt, and you know me well enough . . . " (2:1:136).

It's not want of money. Isabella 'hates money'. She cannot bear to wait to marry. Catherine's 'uncomfortable feelings begin to lessen' and she 'endeavours to believe' it's the delay of the marriage that bothers Isabella, endeavours 'to forget' she had for a minute seen another Isabella.

Ellen Moody

--- '"Me? -- yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible." Bravo! - an excellent satire on modern language"' Jane Austen, _NA_, Ch 16 (2:1)

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