Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 11 - 12 (26 - 27)

December 23, 1997

To Austen-L

Re: NA: Ch 27: A Letter from Isabella

Isabella's letter is a high point of the novel in some ways. It brings together all its themes in one brilliant epistle. Of course in life such hypocritical manipulations of the truth are usually not this transparent. Catherine can also see what is the reality behind the surface content because she has had so much experience of Isabella's behavior and can see the contradictions. Again in real life (or here on the Net) things are more ambiguous. However, it is true that Isabella's letter probably has more immediate relevance for all of our experience than the Woodston visit even if that is the high point for Catherine.

Austen seems to know this.

In this chapter what is not Isabella Thorpe's letter is commentary thereon. We might regard it as a brief epistolary interlude in which much is concisely told through a letter, for a letter conveys far more than information. It also looks forward to the long sequence in MP when Fanny Price goes to Portsmouth in that we also learn the same kinds of complex contradictory information by watching our protagonist's response to said letter and their comments to one another.

My view is one of the delights in reading epistolary narrative is triumph. We triumph over the writer. We see through him or her. To the extent that the writer is more than a bit of a fool or transparent, the delight turns into glee and we laugh at their self-exposure. To the extent that the writer is intelligent, subtle, guarded, we read with the fascination of an amateur psychologist. One should mention that psychological truth was beginning to be accepted as a form of truth in the 18th century (thus the birth, development, and proliferation of "realistic" novels like Austen's in this period). Still in the case at hand, we have an instance of the former.

Yet do we just crow over Isabella? I admit to having read this letter in the English and the Italian, and what the Italian translator brought out was the desperation that drove Isabella to write such a transparent letter to Catherine (looking forward to Mary Crawford's equally grasping letter in which she inquires of Fanny whether Tom is really going to die or not). We find she has been betrayed. We find she is humiliated, laughed at. We find she longs for those simple Morlands she had so despised. I wonder if she had opened her heart to us in the way a Fanny Price might have, we would have sympathized or despised her. Given the response we sometimes see on this list to Fanny Price (let us recall Fanny does not like to write letters, finds them very hard--it's because they would be a transparent mirror of her heart), it's hard to say. At any rate, we harden ourselves because Isabella is a liar and keeping up face. Yet asked would we advise her not to?

To be fair, the group of emotions and thoughts which the letter conveys and which we may called "Isabella Thorpe, and which are exactly the opposite of what Isabella asserts to be her emotional state of mind also includes evidence of her unjustified resentment and jealousy of Catherine:

"I hope you spend your time pleasantly, but am afraid you never think of me. I will not say all that I could of the family you are with, because I would not be ungenerous..."

Of course not. Nor would she ever dream of being spiteful, especially towards other women who are rivals with her for that prey, young men:

"The last two days he [Captain Tilney] was always by the side of Charlotte Davis: I pitied his taste...

And so do we.

Her ostentation, her intense concern with what others think of her and complete hollowness at the core of her own being are laid before us without ever so much as explicitly saying the least moralizing comment in the following:

"We happened to sit by the Mitchells, and they pretended to be quite surprised to see me out. I knew their spite: at one time they could not be civil to me, but now they are all friendship; but I am not such a fool as to be taken in by them. You know I have a pretty good spirit of my own. Anne Mitchell had tried to put on a turban like mine, as I wore it the week before at the concert, but made wretched work of it..."

She is now of course wearing purple for Catherine's brother. She knows she looks "hideous" in purple, but no sacrifice is too small--or is it too great (1995 Penguin Butler ed, Ch 27, pp 188-9).

Among other things too much of what Isabella says literally has happened has happened. How do we know what to believe and what not to believe? Ah. There's the mystery of life. We might say the theme of the letter, its eruption, is an instance of the answer to Catherine's alert response after she has listened to Henry and Eleanor's firm conviction their father cares a great deal about money and connections, and upon learning that General Tilney does want a fuss made when she and Eleanor come to Woodston,

"why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? ..." (Ch 26, 184).

The way Mary Lascelles explains this "magic" of apprehension or apperception upon the reader's part is the slow buildup through the narrative of persuasive presences which are made convincing through a variety of techniques including that of the surprize remarks which nonetheless fits our image of the individual. Austen would refer us to her strict observance of probability. We believe Isabella went to the Rooms, the play, sat next to the Mitchells, cares about hats, hates Tilney because it is all probable and probability is the name of the game that makes the realistic novel persuasive. Going inside the fiction, the answer to Catherine's question is the way we get to know people for real is to know and observe them over a long period of time and observe their acts and the effect of their words on others as carefully as the literal sense of those words themselves. Is not that the way those of us who have been on this list for a long time have gotten to "know" one another?

But there's more to the chapter than this, for it includes a scene typical of epistolary narrative: the characters reading the letter and commenting on it. This conversation shows the text to be less mature or polished or worked up (whichever) than MP because the commentary does not so much reveal Catherine's deeper inner self or further complexities about all the characters and their situation and it is not set in a complex time scheme which throws further ironies on what is said. Rather we get an explanation which can recall that of the detective novel, e.g, we see here that Isabella is "a vain coquette," we learn from Henry's reading his conviction that it was "vanity" that drove Frederick to try to triumph over Isabella.

But there is this sting and complexity of perspective in the explanation. Catherine says well she cannot like Frederick because "suppose" he had hurt Isabella "very much," made her "very much in love with him"--as she, Catherine has now come to love Henry. The complexity inheres in the hint of Catherine's possible hurt. To this Henry replies, most unsentimentally,

"But we must first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose--consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with very different treatment" (Ch 27, p 190).

Do the Isabellas of the world get what they deserve? In this book they do, for note Catherine is not quite convinced. She replies not "oh yes," but "It is very right you should stand by your brother" (p 191). We are told the only way to stop the "bitterness" from gathering strength is a "compliment" from her beloved. He bestows it, and Catherine, wise girl that she is becoming, resolves to depend upon the art of forgetting insofar as she is capable of it.

Ellen Moody

To Austen-L

December 30, 1997

Re: NA, Chs 26-27: Why Henry Doesn't Betray His Brother

In response to both Barbara Irwin and Helen Battersby posts on why Henry won't apprise the General of the Captain's bad behavior, there is no question of this in the conversation between Henry and Catherine in Chapter 27 (1995 Penguin Butler ed, pp 190-1). Catherine implies that Captain Tilney's behavior could have badly hurt Isabella, and Henry says had Isabella been the kind of person who would be hurt the Captain would have never been able to capture her with his peculiarly salacious and cool kind of flirting. Captain Tilney, in other words, would have been bored silly by a deep feeling moral woman; he would not have gone near her because he never intended marriage. The General is never brought up. I rather think from his behavior to Catherine once he suspects she is not superrich, he would not have stopped his son from flirting, seducing the heart of, or hurting a poor young woman. He would be amused. Like Mary Crawford, he would do nothing. He might worry lest his son impregnate the girl and there be a need to pay somebody off. But that's all. His morality is as crude as John Thorpe's.

The conversation wherein Catherine asks Henry to tell the General occurs in Chapter 26 after the receipt of James's letter (1995 Penguin, pp 182). Henry's reply there is interesting because it's not what one might conventionally morally expect. Henry says he will not tell his father that his brother is perhaps engaged or at least involved with Isabella because that would be giving his father an advantage over Frederick. Frederick must be allowed the advantage of surprize. Frederick should be allowed to tell his own story; to tell even one quarter of what Henry and Catherine know would be ammunition against Frederick's marrying Isabella. So interestingly Henry is in this dialogue not worldly, not moralistic; he is acting as a brother. He will not be a snitch. If his brother really wants to marry Isabella, Henry will not aid anyone to stop it. I agree that Isabella might be seen as a shallowed and caricatured modelling of Mary Crawford, the Captain as an elusive Henry Crawford (Frederick Tilney is hardly ever on stage), and James Morland as an even more shallowly modelled "good" man of the kind Edmund Bertram is supposed to represent, but I see in Henry Tilney something more interesting, something more in the line of George Knightley who knows when he should tell the truth to someone because they are someone dear to him and to him he feels himself duty-bound by love and years of reciprocity even if that person will not listen (thus he warms Emma that he sees Frank and Jane Fairfax are involved with one another), but he goes no further. He doesn't hasten to snitch to Mrs Weston or Frank's stepparents the Churchills or Miss Bates. He respects the privacy of others even when those others are not acting with integrity. It's their business.

Ellen Moody

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