Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 3 - 4 (18 - 19)

To Janeites

Re: NA, Ch 19: Catherine's Response

After a brief movement away from Catherine's consciousness of what's going on around her, we move right back to live inside of her and feel what's happening from her perspective very strongly. In the previous two chapters of this volume, Austen distanced us sufficiently to allow us to concentrate on several judgements Catherine made and also presented a number of scenes which are not shaped by Catherine's perception of them but exist outside this perception. The scene where Catherine sits next to Isabella and Captain Tilney is such a one; we are made to feel intensely how Catherine is startled, upset, hurt, and even angered (for a moment), but the scene between the two people exists outside her perception of them. That's why it comes out so sharply. That's why it's fully dramatised and not put into indirect reportage speech. Everything in Chapter 19 is shaped by Catherine's intense responsiveness. It really is in texture quite like much of the text of Emma and Persuasion.

The point seems to be to make us feel the betrayal of James as Catherine feels it. It's important to realise this is just Catherine's perception. The scene with Henry functions in several ways. The most obvious is he is allowed to see yet again just how decent she is, and how she believes the rest of the world to be similarly decent. We are given yet more matter with which to understand why he is growing to love her. Perhaps the line I most identify with in the chapter is the one which occurs in the first paragraph where Catherine is thinking about Isabella's egregious flirting with Captain Tilney in front of James and James's 'grave and uneasy' face: 'Isabella could not be aware of the pain she was inflicting' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, 2:4, 149). When I was young and I would see people being mean to one another, I used to think they must not realise how mean they are. Otherwise they would not behave this way. I have revised this idea: first, it is partly they don't realise how mean they are for they don't care about it, but it is more that that don't care about it, and many people enjoy triumphing and conquering over others however it may be done. In their earlier conversation when Catherine said she could not understand how Isabella could dance with Captain Tilney nor he with her when both had said (for different reasons), they would not, Henry alluded to Catherine's way of excusing evil away, justifying it by thinking to herself how it is unconscious of itself, not deliberate.

In this conversation he brings out a few other aspects of Catherine's misapprehensions of what is happening: first, Catherine may not be understanding how James feels. It's easy enough for the reader to get his qualification of her commentary on the source of James's misery:

"' . . . I am sure [James] is very uncomfortable."

'And are you sure it is my brother's doing?'

'Yes, very sure."'

'Is it my brother's attentions to Miss Thorpe, or Miss Thorpe's admission of them, that gives the pain?'

'Is not it the same thing?'

'I think Mr. Morland would acknowledge a difference. No man is offended by another man's admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment'" (2:4, 150-51).

What's more interesting is his hint that James's gravity and uneasiness may not mean quite what Catherine assumes it means. Henry brings this out in a paragraph which also works to bring home to us just how much Catherine really cares about other people she is attached to. Henry knows that even if he manages to persuade Catherine they can do nothing, and Isabella is as much at fault as Captain Tilney, Catherine's heart will only be easy if she is made to feel her brother is not as upset as she assumes. Henry tells Catherine he and she cannot know what are the terms upon which this (and for the reader by extension) any relationship exists; we can see their mutual attachment, and both understand what is required and what can be borne. He implies that if it were any other way, they would break up.

Much wisdom here. I'm sure that like me other people on this list have come across couples whose attachment astounds us, and whose behavior in public makes little sense to us. That does not mean there is no attachment and no sense to it. Henry seems to imply James in fact enjoys the challenge and will get a kick out of laughing at Captain Tilney later. We could remember earlier dialogues between James and Isabella. In these we see he likes Isabella's insinuating flirtations, her slight insults, her challenges and mocks. That's what he is attracted to in the first place. We are not to try to reason about the basis of sexual couplings; it often has little to do with gratitude or esteem in many people. Isabella, we have been told, is beautiful too.

Nonetheless, despite Austen's determination to make us understand that Catherine is not seeing how others see the world or one another, she wants us to feel that Catherine's is the way we ought to emulate, the one in which some happiness for individuals lies. In other words, even if Catherine is incorrect about the generality of the world, her morality is the right one. This is what Gard refers to when he calls the heroes and heroines of Austen's novels part of an Úlite group whose characteristics are high intelligence, controlled sensibility, tact, loyalty and a whole bunch of values which can in a secular word be summed up as absolute integrity and shared intelligent compassion. Catherine's view is the one we are to judge Isabella and Captain Tilney from and find them wanting. This is where I think modern critics go wrong when they call Austen relativistic. Yes, she's relativistic. She sees most of the world is amoral, but she nevertheless insists on the value of morality for life not nonetheless but perhaps all the more.

The chapter is filled with good feeling in distress and wanting to act firmly on behalf of what's right. That's Catherine. Henry does not laugh at her. Perhaps (as with Fanny Price and Anne Elliot), our narrator manages in the interior monologue given to Catherine to place words here and there which make us laugh a bit fondly at Catherine. For example, when she feels sorry for 'poor Captain Tilney', for whom Catherine is 'greatly concerned,' especially when she thinks of his coming disappointment (2:4, 149). This is a curiously toned laughter. We laugh while loving her for her great concern. Too bad more people aren't like this is the melancholy moral. (The best satire has melancholy at its edge.)

None of this is to deny the chapter sparkles. It sparkles because of Austen's precise language, the sharpness and suggestiveness with which she indicates whole areas of feelings and places them. It sparkles with the give-and-take of Henry versus Catherine. Henry is the kindest of teachers. He will even relent towards his pupil, and turn about to ignore all he has said before about it not mattering for James's happiness where Captain Tilney happens to reside, to say to Catherine's 'still doubtful and grave' looks, that the Captain will probably leave Bath in a very few days. His leave of absence is about to expire. And what then? Isabella will be a mess-room joke and she will laugh at Tilney in her turn where she can (2:4, 152-53).

My favorite line in the chapter is one which reminded me of my own naivete as a girl (the one I quoted above from the first paragraph of the chapter). My favorite bit of dialogue is the following:

"'I am sure she cannot mean to torment . . . You know she must be attached to [my brother]'

'I understand: she is in love with James, and flirtd with Frederick.'

'Oh! no, not flirts. A woman in love with one man cannot flirt with another.'

'It is probable that she will neither love so well, nor flirt so well, as she might do either singly. The gentlemen must each give up a little'" (2:4, 151).

Perhaps it's better to have both experiences in a more qualified way. Who would want to love so unqualifiedly anyway? or flirt and coquet absolutely heartlessly? The gentlemen must each give up a little. So must the lady. And are not we all better off not taking things so feelingfully as our young heroine?

Ellen Moody

Reply-to: Subject: [Janeites] she will neither love so well, nor flirt so well

From: Ellen Moody

To Constanza:

You wrote asked if my commentary on Henry's remarkable use of antithesis (which recalls) a heroic couplet is my own thought or Henry's. Well the expatiation is mine, but I believe it's implicit in the language.


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Page Last Update 16 March 2003