April 9, 1999
Re: Ch 2: NA: A Satire on Gothic Romance, Gay & Disillusioned Story
I suggest we are intended to read Mrs Morland's statement to Catherine not psychologically, not realistically, but as a satire on what mothers in Gothic novels are given to say to heroines upon their first setting out in life. Austen exaggerates Mrs Morland's lack of emotional affect in order to send up the gross exaggeration of sentimentality and awe one finds in gothic romances. Look at the paragraph in which the remark occurs:
"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 knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations. Her cautions were confined to the following points. "I beg, Catherine, you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the rooms at night; and I wish you would try to keep some account of the money you spend; I will give you this little book on purpose" (Oxford NA, Chapman I:2, 18-19).
The remark is set up to contrast with what we normally read in books. The joke is against the notion of violent noblemen waiting at every young girl's door, panting to run away with her.
In NA Austen moves between a story embedded in psychological realism and a story which is a literary send-up of a popular genre of the day. In this opening, again at the Abbey, and towards the end of the novel, the parody of a genre is uppermost. As we get into the novel and in its moving and central scenes, we are to read it humanly and identify with the characters as if they were believable real individuals. Think of the way the characters in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm talk to one another; in the opening of that book all the characters are very funny; they make absurdly parodic statements of types of fiction (specifically of the Mary Webb/Thomas Hardy school of rural primitivism); as the book progresses, things get more real, and we merge into the book as if we were in a simulacrum of the real world.
Mr Allen's checking Henry out is part of the movement into realism.
Austen also makes fun of all sorts of things. The book is free-wheeling: Mrs Allen functions as a mock on a certain type of women; realistically, she is Catherine's one chance to go to Bath. And no harm will probably come to Catherine. Then there is Mrs Allen's meeting with Mrs Thorpe. They fall into one another's arms -- having not missed one another one little bit for years and years. But now they are in need of distraction and someone to be with. Nonetheless neither pays real attention to the other or believes her stories. They are not naive, just mindless.
How gay and sparkling the opening scene between Henry and Catherine is. There is a polish and verve to the lines, a concision that is very attractive. At the same time too that Catherine is all agog at the ball, though desperately for company and mortified they have none, that she is blissful at a small compliment, and entranced by Tilney, the narrator lets us know how stale and dull the crowd really is, how empty of meaning this round of behavior. Through the narrator's eyes, Bath reminds me of how Pope talks of aging haunted beauties making their endless rounds in crowds. I also noticed how exquistely accurate a feel Austen gave us of the movement of the two women through the crowd, how they climb up to a bench, look out below, are pushed on, end up at the edge of a table, how she brings Mr Allen from another room over. This disposition and in-depth description is no easy thing to achieve -- and in so few words, so lightly, so easily.