Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 9 - 10 (24 - 25)

To Austen-l

Re : NA, Chs 20-21: Catherine and Eleanor, a "strange" pair? & Austen's silences

My response to Sallie's comments about her discomfort with Catherine's behavior at Northanger in these first chapters and a sense I get too that she's no companion to Eleanor is: I don't read these chapters as parts of a realistic domestic novel. When I feel such pain for Miss Bates and embarrassment for Emma at Box Hill, I am responding to them as realistic characters in a scene I believe in as I read it. When I am distressed for Anne Elliot when Mary Musgrove very cruelly tells her the thoughtless remark Captain Wentworth made that he would not have recognized her, I have attributed to the deeply felt consciousness Austen created a reality like my own or that of other people I meet. I don't _believe_ in Catherine as a real person quite in these chapters. I don't see her as a teenager because real teenagers don't behave this way either. Gothic heroines in gothic romances do. They cannot resist going down long corridors candle in hand; they cannot resist traumatizing themselves in whatever way comes to hand.

In other words I read this section of the book as a parody and imitation of gothic romance. Catherine is no longer a psychologically real presence but a presence who stands in for the naif in a satire. I don't identify in the way I do with Emma or Anne Elliot--or Elinor Dashwood. (Like Brooke I found the comment likening Emma to these characters and Fanny Price one which made me see Emma anew and more sympathetically.) Back to Catherine: since I don't believe in her in the same way, I don't expect her to respond to Eleanor in a deeply human way.

I have also begun an interesting book on Radcliffe called The Great Enchantress (this was the epithet granted Radcliffe throughout the 1790's, Regency period, and early romantic decades of the 1820's). The author, Robert Miles, comments that a common repeating pattern in Gothic romances (or novels) is that of the heroine-daughter who is tyrannized over by her overbearing stern father. In Radcliffe the father figure in Udolpho is Montoni. This motif is seen sharply--and as Dorothy Willis comments "translated into the terms of the real world" (a good phrase) in the incident over supper. They must make it by 5 sharp.

This blend of gothic romance and realistic novel certainly seems to be a problem for readers of this novel. I can see why. For example, in the chapter where Eleanor tells Catherine about what she, Eleanor, likes to read, we are encouraged to "read" the chapter as about three real young people having a lovely conversation in the country. It is only natural to "carry over" what Eleanor reads to these chapters where we see her so much under her father's thumb. We then ask, how can she bear to read such frightening or traumatized tales when her daily lot is so lonely and she must be so submissive. I submit though that we are not supposed to make this connection. In one chapter Eleanor is a portrait of a real English young girl of the period of the gentry class; in another she fills in the outline of the gothic heroine. The two are not meant to make sense in terms of one another. By-the-bye modern readers have trouble reading Gulliver's Travels for these kinds of reasons too. Gulliver is inconsistent, sometimes presented realistically, and sometimes a naif or an outline. Perhaps it is that we are too much in tune with the realistic novel and when we come across a parody expect it to be just that, and no more.

Ellen Moody

To Austen-l

RE: NA: Eleanor and Henry Tilney's Silences I write this in response to Kathy and Brooke's posts today on Eleanor and Henry Tilney's silences. I agree that Henry Tilney's veering off when he catches himself about to say something condemnatory about his father reflects his unwillingness to expose the uglier truths about his father to someone who is not part of their family when it is not necessary to do so.

The interesting thing about many of these instances in Austen's novels when a parental or other family figure who has mistreated our heroine or a hero is brought up is most of the time they don't deny the fault. Often, as in Henry's explanation of how Eleanor came to snub Catherine, implicit in the words we are given are a group of inferences which can lead the listener (and we the reader) to read into what happened a judgement on the person concerned. Henry's exculpation of his sister suggests, without having to be explicit, the General's lack of consideration for anything but his own immediate pleasure. What struck in me in the singular case of Anne Elliot was that she seemed so revolted when she read Mr Elliot's letter about her father that one is led to feel she is revolted not only at Mr Elliot's treachery, hypocrisy, and lies, and his exposure of her father's petty stupidity, avarice, snobbery, but that she herself doesn't admit these to herself. One never feels Elizabeth is not intensely and all the time aware of what a fool her mother is. She may never say it aloud; she doesn't have to. And when Darcy describes the mother and her other relatives as mortifying in his letter, however painful it is to her to read this, she does not deny its truth, and during the proposal scene, she seems as pained that she is attached to Mrs Bennet as at his mortification his love will lead him to be attached to her.

Again the law may say silence implies consent and it is often convenient to believe so (especially in committees), but human reality teaches us--and we find in many Austen scenes--silence implies many things quite different or beyond simple acceptance of the situation at hand.

I don't find anything peculiar about Henry's behavior over his mother's death because Catherine's idea that his father deliberately murdered her is outrageous. In that scene Henry in fact delicately alludes to his mother's unhappiness. His father was not what she would have wished. He says simply realistically that people are different, his father loved and respected his mother as much as it was in him to do. But he does not deny his mother's unhappiness. Nor does he ever deny his sister's. It's more than her loneliness that Catherine assuages is implied by his words more than once.

However, there is something odd about Eleanor. When the General throws Catherine out of the house without so much as a real means of getting home, we are given to understand that had Henry been there it would not have happened this way. We feel Henry would have done much more than hand Catherine 15 pounds that morning. When Henry comes to propose to Catherine, after she says yes, he tells her the truth about his father's motives. They are awful. Henry's silence only goes so far; it's only when talking is not necessary, won't help, and as far as we can see, when he is there the General's conduct is modified, ameliorated. He is not bullied.

Not so with Eleanor. Dorothy Willis, Helen Battersby, I, and a couple of other people (apologies for not remembering everyone's names) have said repeatedly she is the book's gothic heroine. We have talked of her quiet, melancholy, lonely isolated state and the General's tyranny. But we have not mentioned why she takes it without so much as a murmur against it. Once and once only she says: "you must see I am not mistress here" (words to this effect). We feel she and Henry talk freely together, but we are not sure how freely. At any rate she seems to run off in a state of real fear or dread at the general's every command.

So here's my point: what if this were a modern story or one set not in an Abbey among the wealthy but in a French cottage among harder rougher people. Would we not assume that the General physically menaces, nay even beats the daughter? Eva Figes writes that the gothic heroine's condition figures forth the physical as well as mental abuse women took in the 18th century which led to their powerlessness. I am not saying that Austen's Eleanor is beaten or physically threatened, but sometimes she appears to behave as if she is. I do find something curious about Eleanor. It may be that she is, like Mr Elliot, simply not a "finished" character; we don't see enough of or inside her sufficiently. Still we are left with a sort of mystery. She seems so calm and stalwart, so confident of the goodness of life, so cheerful at times, and yet to jump at the General's least command and never to say anything to Catherine about what she and Henry are puzzled about over the General's ardent wooing of Catherine for his son is peculiar.

We don't read books in isolation and neither did Austen's generation. When they read Northanger Abbey they remembered all the gothic heroines suffering they had come across, all the silences.

And to switch to another perspective: my feeling is Eleanor Tilney is a version of Jane Austen just as surely as Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot. They all practice silence before what they can do nothing about. In Eleanor Tilney we see Austen's suffering too. Like Catherine, harrassed, blackmailed and pressured at the beginning of the book, she is the silent Eleanor at its close. One mode realism, the other gothic.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 22 March 2003