May 17, 1999
Re: NA Ch 20: The Breakfast Table & A Curricle
We are at last off to Northanger. When I read the first three paragraphs of Catherine's arrival at the home of General Tilney, and her first attempts to fit herself in, I am struck by how believable are Austen's words. They do justice to & capture complex feelings. Here is Catherine longing, eager, all anxiety to go, and when she is confronted with what seems the 'kindest welcome' how does she feel?'
'so great was her agitation in finding herself as one of the family, and so fearful was she of not doing exactly what was right, and of not being able to preserve their good opinion, that, in the embarrassment of the first five minutes, she could almost have wished to return with him to Pulteney Street' (Oxford NA, 2:5, 154).
I have felt just such contradictory feelings.
Then there is the compensating line about how immediately Eleanor's gentle manners and Henry's smile were at work to dissipate all such uncomfortable sensations. At each juncture of each of Catherine's meetings with their father, they are hard at work providing comfort for her. They know this man. Oh do they know him. Unpleasant doesn't being to describe what he is. It's just the surface to whose who can see and feel. Really Radcliffe's Montoni (Udolpho) is not a patch on General Tilney, for General Tilney is someone we have all met.
Our Catherine is puzzled. Surely it is 'perverse' in her to find the General's intense 'anxiety' to serve her, to make sure she is comfortable as precisely that which she doesn't want. Austen makes a point Catherine can't see: the purpose of manners is to make people comfortable. General Tilney's manners are there to make an impression; he plays a role. Catherine's presence is in fact allowing him to give everyone else a hard time. If he cared for her even impersonally, this would be the last thing he would do. He is placing her in an uncomfortable position (which thought crosses Catherine's mind). Not that it's particularly easy to make people comfortable.
Slowly Austen builds a picture of the General without appearing to. Of course we know that Captain Tilney will not blame the Catherine for his father's abrasiveness. As the poor servant might have known it would not have been Catherine's fault if the General had fired him on the spot. Does anyone remember what almost happened to poor William when Catherine ran frantically up the stairs lest she not be allowed in to tell her sad tale of another betrayal? However, I suspect William might have been unreasonable because so much more vulnerable. William might have blamed Catherine. General Tilney cannot fire his eldest son so easily.
The point of this opening is to center our attention on the General. He is also ruthless in his disposition of his pawn-players. As soon as they are out of sight of Bath -- and Mr Allen's knowledge -- he places Catherine next to his son. For a moment Catherine remembers Mr Allen's comments about riding about in young men's open carriages, but it must be the General would do right.
It is also to show us how the younger son and daughter have lived their lives in his presence. Remember the gothic is a mode which is used to criticise the real world: as so many people who have studied it argue, the imprisonments of the gothic mode (in castle, dungeons, labyrinthine corridors) figure forth the psychological imprisonments of our real lives. I have always wondered how far the gothic influenced Foucault whose earliest works are on the mind-forged manacles of the 18th century.
Ironically of course the General is facilitating, doing all he can to marry his son off to relatively poor (in comparison with General who also inherited his wife's wealth) parson's daughter. And we are left to rejoice and delight in the conversation between Henry and Catherine that ensues, another one of the gems of gothic parody of the book. No one could have written it who had not drowned herself in many Matildas.
Re: NA, Ch 20: Henry's Fearful Storytelling
No particular novel is intendedly imitated or parodied in NA, but rather the genre itself captured in its most typical moments carried to a kind of parodic yet perfectly characteristic height. One 'proof' I would adduce would be that one can find 19th and 20th century gothic romances which have some of the characteristics outlined. Those who have read DuMaurier's _Rebecca_ may remember that soon after the unnamed narrator comes to live at Manderley she takes just such a journey as Matilda through the labyrinthine wings and stairways of Manderly, and is on a couple of occasions conducted by Mrs Danvers who is a perfect Dorothy figure into the bedroom of the late Mrs de Winter. The unnamed narrator even dwells on slips of writing she finds with Rebecca's signature and comments all over them. As to 18th century novels I can think of closely similar details in 3 of Radcliffe's novels, Lee's The Recess (which has two Matilda-like narrators), and in Smith's Emmeline. The manuscript is the great device of romance; it provides a kind of scrim or palimpsest or mirror (as in Alice's wonderland) through which we walk into romance. Eco begins his The Romance of the Rose 'Naturalmente, un manoscritto' (the first three words of the book). Mary Reilly is a manuscript someone found.
I enjoy this section of the book very much and think it effective. It is the bravura piece of the novel, what everything has been building towards. Each of the five chapters is much longer than the chapters that have gone before and come after, and all move very slowly; the texture is highly literary and allusive. The mood is one of deep musing and reverie and landscapes of the outdoors and indoors dominate the scenes. This striking difference from the rest of the novel is what has led various critics to argue this part of the novel was written at another time from the rest of the novel. They go further and infer it is the nugget or inspiration with which Austen begun. One can't prove either, but the first makes sense textually. The second makes sense contextually. As Austen writes in her apology, the novel was conceived as a parody of the kind. The enjoyment of the thing is of course strongest for those who have loved this kind of experience. We delight precisely in that which we have revelled -- and to laugh and yet dwell is best of all. It's what older witty parodic movies of detective and other genres used to do in the 1960s and 1970s (when movies had not become so commercialised again).
I see no occasion for harsh censure of Henry. He is playing upon what is in Catherine; had she not been intensely susceptible from all her reading, he could not have roused her in the way he does. Again I read these scenes only partly psychologically. Henry acts in character -- he is ever playing with words, ever the poet of wit, and himself is so common sensical and somewhat older than Catherine so cannot understand that he is hitting any chords in this young girl. He stops after 4 paragraphs because he can't go on; he says he can't keep up the straight face. At the same time he is there to provide the text; is the straightman for the naif in a satire. So Catherine is perfectly in character: for chapters and chapters we have been told how these books enthrall her. Yet it's not quite real; what Henry James called the 'string' (or maybe chord) of reality is snipped by a scissor when we are not looking so we accept Catherine's exaggerated response. The point is to enthrall us too while asking us to remain at a distance and admire Austen's virtuouso performance. She is showing off, enjoying herself immensely. In remarkably few words she pictures the typical grand abbey (castle, monastery, grange) of these romances with their magnificent stairwells, landing places; she captures in a few phrases set in dashes the kind of storm it takes Radcliffe paragraphs to work up.
It's interesting how she is astute enough to have Catherine keep interrupting Henry (to work us up further) and at the same time provide enough detail so that we do not forget we are in a curricle hurrying ever onwards to the abbey. One problem even modern novelists have is such a set piece breaks away from its background and we lose a sense of the characters as living interacting people moving in time as they talk. Henry plays on something that when I was young and would read such romances would make me shudder: I would always wonder why it was the heroine did not dive down into the bed and never come out until daylight. No. These heroines would emerge from their beds, take a half-lighted candle and proceed down crumbling steps into Piranesi-looking dungeons. I was like Catherine; I could not imagine how anyone could behave in such a way, but of course my own conscious psychological disposition made the thrill all the more riveting, viz,
'"Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favourable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery. After a very short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear--which door, being only secured by massy bars and a padlock, you will, after a few efforts, succeed in opening--and, with your lamp in your hand, will pass through it into a small vaulted room."
It's funny too. As one proceeds into such rooms, one never finds much out of the common way, just a dagger, drops of blood, some instrument of torture or other; in another drawer nothing much either, just the usual 'considerable hoard of diamonds' This latter usual heap occurs in numbers of the Judy Bolton books (Judy of course cannot stay safe in her bed either).
It may be if the reader has never entered into such a dream world, never revelled in it, never been amused, these chapters won't charm. But if you have so entered this world . . . ' And I believe Austen did. She is Catherine -- or, more accurately, Catherine is a version of Austen when young.