May 24, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 24: "The visions of romance were over..."
The purpose of this last chapter for this week is to dramatize Catherine's last sharp waking up from the dreams or visions of romance, the result of her reading so many gothic and sentimental novels. There is also a strong secondary story slipped in here: we are given a good deal of information about Mrs Tilney and a sense of what her life was. I know it is often remarked that Austen has no death scenes. However, she uses death effectively. Two deaths open S&S and give rise to the story; we are told of a deathbed scene between John Dashwood and his father, Henry. The spirit of Mrs Tilney hovers over the house partly because Eleanor has not been able to forget her. Eleanor has had no one other female relative and friend. We are given a sufficient number of allusive references to how Mrs Tilney died so that we can picture the realistic scene on our own. While we are not supposed to see General Tilney as a man who could grieve for his wife's death strongly, we should note in an effort to be fair to Austen's realistic conception here, we are left to infer what we want from the General's sudden refusal to walk further in the house and come upon his wife's bedroom when she lived. It may equally be he's tired and irritable and had enough, but there is a note of intensity which suggests he is at least reluctant to go into her room again. This shows real emotion. Also he erected the monument. Again it's just the sort of showy thing he would like; on the other hand, it is a tribute to his wife.
The dialogue between Catherine and Henry is so famous there's no need to quote or go over it. It is interesting how graphically there it seems on the page; we hear Henry's tones and feel Catherine's sense of how absurd her extravagances have been . Henry himself admits that there was much lacking in his mother's relationship with his father, that she was not a happy woman in her marriage. There were other things to live for, among them her children. Henry's tone is one of started shock, but we should recognize the justice of what he says. He does not deny his mother was not happy; he says, so true, that not everyone is equally capable of love or intense companionship with others. His depiction of the world about them as a neighborhood of spies makes me remember Mr Bennet's what do we live for but provide sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in turn. The spy network is very strong in Emma. Austen's are not happy worlds (each book = one world), but they are not devastatingly miserable. The whole piece and sense of Mrs Tilney calls to mind Anne Elliot's dead mother and in Cecilia some of the portraits of Mortimer's mother. It seems fitting that NA and Persuasion should have been published as a pair and are often still found in one volume.
I would liken the effect of Mrs Tilney's room to James's letter on Catherine. Both are awakenings, so the two plots (one anti-gothic satire and gothic fantasy; the other realistic comedy) cohere and reinforce one another. Henry's response to Catherine's extravagances over his mother is understandable if we realise they are real people to him; his kindness to her over the letters she now gets from Bath is all solicitude; like him, she is deeply involved in her family. This involvement in family is very strong in Austen throughout her novels. I think the understated bitterness and loss in James's letter is beautifully done. Catherine is genuinely shaken: she has now to 'reread' all that went on in Bath in the light of James's letter How many fascinating uses of letters Austen provides. In the light of James's letter, he is in tone kind, soliticious, as gentle as Eleanor. Yet notice he gets to read the letter himself, and what he says about the situation and people is a similar compound of austere justice and harshness such as we find in his commentary to Catherine on his mother's death..