October 5, 1997
Re: NA, Chs 1-2: The First Dramatic Scene Compared with the Six Other Novels (I of II)
In each of our group reads thus far a few people have for each book pointed out which character speaks the first dramatic line, the heroine's first line, and discussed the tone and implications of the first scene. In all five cases thus far it was found that these three opening elements mattered: a tone was set, a note, a view which was at the core of the novel's particular perspective on life. To sum up: in S&S we begin with a harsh scene whose key-note is the mean-spiritedness and outrageous hypocrisy of a married couple whose behavior towards the heroines and their mother sets the plot moving; the first speaker is John Dashwood (Penguin 1995 RBallaster, Ch 2, p 7); Elinor's first line is about Edward: "I think you will like him," said Elinor, "when you know more of him." Marianne's occurs in the absurd scene following Elinor's admission of her respect, esteem, affection for Edward:
"In a few months, my dear Marianne." said she, "Elinor will, in all probability, be settled for life. We shall miss her; but she will be happy."
P&P also begins with a pivotal married couple but while the underlying attitude towards the scene derives from gall and the ultimate perspective is saturnine, the tone of the scene is light, pastoral; it recalls Restoration comedy, and no harm is meant. The first line is Mrs Bennet's: 'My dear Mr Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?' to which very like Mr Palmer in his similarly but harsher hollow scenes with Mrs Palmer Mr Bennet says nothing: "Mr Bennet replied that he had not" (1972 Penguin, ed TTanner Ch 1, p 51) Elizabeth's first line is to her mother and it is conciliatory and reasoning: "But you forget, mama," said Elizabeth, "that we shall meet him at the assemblies, and that Mrs. Long has promised to introduce him" (Ch 2, p 54)
A couple of weeks ago someone on this list remarked that S&S and P&P are alike except one is dark and the other bright. This remark is substantiated in these openings.
Emma is a complex book, hilarious, idyllic and yet edging towards sharp depiction of misfortune which misfortune is ever avoid and whose sting is removed by the apparent or ironically imagined kindness of one character to another--most of the time. Its first scene occurs between the father and daughter; it is sweet, but lonely; they need Mr Knightley. The first line is Mr Woodhouse's and Emma's opener is her patient and publicly self-effacing response:
"Poor Miss Taylor!--I wish she were here again. What a pity it is that Mr. Weston ever thought of her!"
That MP begins with a description of a dialogue thrown into indirect speech. It occurs between Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris shows us the fundamental perspective of MP does not lie with in romance and that if heroine is important (the question of the scene is whether to take her in) and central as a perceiving consciousness, she is but one figure in a landscape. The book is named after a place. The first line too is instructive: it is Lady Bertram who gives the deciding word to take Fanny in and it comes from an impulsive if shallow kindness in her Fanny will come to learn is better than what the world generally offers: "I think we cannot do better," said she; "let us send for the child" (1966 Penguin, ed T Tanner Ch 1, p 43) Before we talk of the ironies in Mrs Norris's opening hypocritical gambit, and give her credit for Fanny's happiness at last, nay her very life (for she was weak and sickly and could have gone the way of little Mary), let us note that it is Lady Bertram who says let's do it, and then hearing what her sister really does not intend to do adds "Then she had better come to us" (Ch 1, p 46).
Fanny's first line, appropriately enough, is that of a frightened lonely child who is reluctant but grateful when the first motion of really felt concern for her as an individual is made by Edmund who finds her crying on the stairs: "My dear little cousin," said he, with all the gentleness of an excellent nature, "what can be the matter?" Although she first replies to his queries whether he can do anything for her, ""no, no--not at all--no, thank you," she changes tacks and we see a heart that can leap forward when he mentions first brothers and sisters, and then William. And then to the question whether it would make her happy to be given some paper to write to William it is "Yes, very" (Ch 2, p 52).
Jane Austen was someone who appreciated paper -- which in the 18th century was not cheap.
It might surprise those who dwell on the melancholy romantic elements of Persuasion to realize the first scene occurs between Sir Walter and Mr Clay, his rental agent (1965 Penguin, ed DWHarding, Ch 3, pp 47-53), but it should not. This is a book about the loss of a place, and it is set in a hard commercial and demanding world. The first direct dramatic speech is Sir Walter's and he addresses himself to Elizabeth: "Can we retrench? Does it occur to you that there is any one article in which we can retrench?" (ch 1, p 41)
Not that the book isn't intense romance. It was Professor Kupersmith who pointed out to us that Anne's first line reveals Captain Wentworth has remained a primary link to the world outside her home for Anne through the years which have made her (among the memorable adjectives used of her in the first sketches) "haggard:"
"The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow" (Ch 3, p 49)
She has also been studying his brother-in-law's activities:
"He is a rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he was stationed there, I believe, several years" (Ch 3, p 51)
She keeps up but with what a wrenching hopeless ache we can only guess as we listen to her father sneer at navy men. It will be a novel whose retrieval of joy is all the more poignant because it begins with a muted sense of harrowing loss.
And how does NA open? Well it too signals to us the perspective to be taken, sets the tone of the novel, and gives us the note or key on which the heroine's tune is to be played. But since showing that Austen does indeed work carefully on her openers has taken some length I will divide this posting into two and continue in a separate e-mail.
Re: NA, Chs 1-2: The First Dramatic Scene and Lines (II of II)
To continue: The opening chapter of NA tells us in every one of its sparkling lines that what we have is a satire, a literary parody of a kind. Catherine is not presented as a breathing living consciousness, but a means whereby Austen may mock the absurdities not only of sentimental and gothic romance but a false view of what girls are. We have been paying attention to the parody of the gothic, but this chapter also and equally parodies sentimental romance and false sentiment. Catherine's "occasional stupidity," her inability to be a progeny of learning before having been taught, her inability to bear the piano, and many other details are conceived against Charlotte Smith's presentation of Emmeline in the novel of the same name. So too do many of the lines of poetry mock and parody ostentatious and hypocritical pretenses of deep feeling or, as in the allusion to Gay's "The Hare and Many Friends," slyly present a hard and anything but altruisitc world which is far truer to experience though Catherine cannot see this as she judges the world by the kindness of her heart, the generosity of her temperament, and the plain-spoken sincerity of approach that she has seen in her family.
This last note, the simple truths her family members stick to throughout the narrative is hit by the first line given any character, and it is Catherine's mother who speaks first. While the satirical literary perspective is kept up, we begin to get a feel for a character we are also to believe in beginning to emerge:
"When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But [Mrs. Morland's] cautions were confined to the following points.
The means here are satirical deflation. The first scene has been this week been beautifully elucidated for us by (among others) Brooke Church Kolosa, Gina Wallace, Kathy Born, Christopher Reese, and Diane in Dallas (I missed her last name, sorry). Thus Gina:
"The deeper irony (as I read it) is that Catherine's life is so limited and her view of the world is so naive, that she is enjoying worthless activities. After all, for her first few days, she and Mrs. Allen wander around complaining that they know no one. And then they meet the thoroughly phony Thorpes."
And Brooke who after pointing out to us the sting in Henry's ironical early question to Catherine: "Are you enjoying Bath?" wrote:
"Catherine and her chaperone are crushed and ignored in the Upper and Lower rooms, so lonely for company that they leap at association with the Thorpes. Catherine spends all her time in the early part of the novel hoping to see Henry again, after having met him just one time."
To all the astute and interesting comments we have had I'd like to add fthat Catherine's first line in the novel is: "How uncomfortable it is," whispered Catherine, "not to have a single acquaintance here!" (Ch 2, p 20) How uncomfortable it is. Our heroine's first line: hmm, she is already reminding me of Fanny Price whom she resembles in a number of ways.
The scene is realistic. Up until this point we have not been led to believe in Catherine as a person. In this chapter and the following chapter our Henry Fielding like narrator (in the sense of being a vivid active presence in the book) retreats. We are left to listen, to hear, to enter into the world of a book which has suddenly an imitative of life, not a parody of other books. The movement from one mode into another is deft, and it begins as Catherine and Mrs Allen are walking together and we enter first into Mrs Allen's and then Catherine's consciousness which are fully realized.
While it is true that the mode or outlook is disillusioned, not complacent, the tone of the book is not dark or bleak in the manner of the presentation of Bath through Anne Elliot's eyes when she first contemplates going (who would listen to her, it was the choice she least wanted, she feels as desperate as Elinor in contemplating the possibility of seeing Edward in London). It is kindly. It's true Catherine and Mrs Allen are having an awful time; it is a scene of inane foolish vanity. But Catherine does not quite see it this way. She is hopeful. She really believes there is something out there in the world worth finding--and he's coming in the next chapter so the hope is validated. In addition when the narrator's voice returns the text speaks of Catherine's beautiful humility, that because she had thought so little of herself when "two gentlemen pronounce her to be a pretty girl", she "immediately thought the evening pleasanter than she had found it before--her humble vanity was contented." Unlike Anne who is 27 and has been living in an intense strain and sense of loss for years, Catherine is as yet untouched by deeper emotions, and as yet unhurt. Her outlook together with the narrator's reflection of her fond appreciation of what life does have to offer sets a tone of cheerfulness which this book also will keep up:
"she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms, and went to her chair in good humour with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention" (Ch 2, p 22).
Its tyrant (General Tilney), threatening boor (John Thorpe) and shallow malicious materialistic bitch (Isabella--she never minces extravagant words and so why should) are will not be permitted to do much harm. In fact our moral will ask whether they did not engender good when all they meant was to grasp money and prestige for themselves.