Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 13 - 14 (28 - 29)

To Austen-l

Re: NA, Ch 29: "This has been a strange acquaintance..."

The second of our chapters this week shows us Catherine slowly reintegrating in the daylight common sense world of the novel.

There seem to me to be several motifs in this chapter which hark back to what we experienced before we left for Northanger (Chs 20-28 or II:5-13) of which the most interesting is Mrs Morland's incomprehension, what I would call the incapacity of her sort of pragmatic mind to understand that inward experience can count deeply even if it leaves no outward or obvious scars. What dominates the conversations between Mrs Morland and Catherine in this chapter are in fact Mrs Morland's sweeping away of what happened as of no account, and Catherine's silent protest. Again we have this idea that silence speaks, and it is presented loudly for us in the various descriptions of Catherine's altered behavior, e.g.,

"It was not three months ago since, wild with joyful expectation, she had there run backwards and forwards some ten times a day, with an heart light, gay, and independent; looking forward to pleasures untasted and unalloyed, and free from the apprehension of evil as from the knowledge of it. Three months ago had seen her all this; and now, how altered a being did she return!" (1995 Penguin, Butler ed, p 207).

There is more than just an exhausting travail across the countryside for many hours to Catherine's "pale and jaded looks."

What does Catherine's silence say? that her misery, her inward change, her growth in character are real, even if the dense like Mrs Allen or the innocent like Mrs Morland can't see it. From the point of view of modern critics (like Eva Figes), the Gothic novel is in fact protest fiction: it protests against the imprisonment of women's minds. Such novels argue what happens within the mind counts and therefore women are not to be sold on the marriage market like so many bales of hay. Mrs Bennet's view of marriage is one that may be justified if all there is to life is preventing oneself from starving or not having a bed and table with food on it, but if we concede there ought to be more to life than this, especially if we really want to create a society which takes into account the distance between people and most mammals. We look forward in time, can imagine in specific details, can think trains of thought, can learn cultural patterns which may changed. Austen's plots which again and again move us through the heroine's achievement of a marriage for love, one which frees her inwardly to be fulfilled and herself, belong to a conversation we find in women's novels of the period. The Gothic novel is just one way of expressing an urge for liberty which includes sexual as well as personal freedom.

Austen also brings bring from the earlier sequences of the book the satiric narrative voice which distances us from Catherine. We have not heard this voice for quite a while, e.g.,

"A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows... (p 203).

For some readers this re-entry of the Fieldingesque type of narrator is jarring. That some readers feel jarred leads to the kind of arguments one finds in which it is asserted that the Northanger chapters were written separately, either before or after the Wiltshire/Bath and now concluding Wiltshire sequence. My experience would opt for the idea that Chapters 20-8 (II:5-13) were written first, as they have an intensity which is often the mark of the originating reverie state one finds other novelists describing as the source of their novels (e.g., Richardson, Trollope, Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf). It is known that Mary Shelley began _Frankenstein_ at Chapter Five, the "birth" of the monster; Willa Cather writes about several of her novels that they began with some _medias res_ chapter (the Tom Outland story in _The Professor's House_), and then the rest of the book was a rationalizing out of that basic kernal, a way of explaining how this picture came to be through telling the story behind it.

Having said this I should say I don't feel jarred myself. I can with little difficulty come back to this daylight common sense world with its witty narrator distancing me from Catherine and her presented through a much quicker tempo of time (time no longer actually trying to imitate the experience of a trauma or fear or happiness). I don't think a novel need be aesthetically consistent, and in fact in Austen's time novels rarely were. They were often made up of very disparate materials. It is only since the time of Flaubert and James that this kind of austere demand for consistency has been applied as a criteria for judging a work's success.

A final element of interest in this chapter is Catherine's attempt to write Eleanor. Like Fanny Price when Fanny is called upon to write a letter to Mary Crawford, Catherine is reluctant to write at length. She keeps it as brief as possible. I have thought that for Fanny this is because Fanny sees writing itself as a mirror of her heart because she obeys a standard of sincerity in life which she would have to betray were she to write a letter to Mary--or else give Mary ammunition to use against her, as Mary is unscrupulous and does not understand the idea of loyalty to a woman friend. The novels themselves tell us Austen's heroines write at length to all sorts of people. Fanny herself is said to be a good correspondent, so too Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Emma too.

Still it is to be noted we get no letters by the above heroines. We never actually read one Jane's letters on our own; we are denied her texts; we only hear parts of them read aloud by Miss Bates. Further there are a number of scenes where we witness a heroine struggling to write and she is at a loss. I think of Elinor trying to write Edward to tell him of the preferment which will enable him to marry Lucy. I find this intriguing.

In the case at hand Catherine ends up writing the briefest of notes lest she hurt Eleanor's feelings and lest (here like Fanny Price) she give her love for Henry too unguardedly away:

"As soon as breakfast was over, she sat down to fulfil her promise to Miss Tilney, whose trust in the effect of time and distance on her friend's disposition was already justified, for already did Catherine reproach herself with having parted from Eleanor coldly, with having never enough valued her merits or kindness, and never enough commiserated her for what she had been yesterday left to endure. The strength of these feelings, however, was far from assisting her pen; and never had it been harder for her to write than in addressing Eleanor Tilney. To compose a letter which might at once do justice to her sentiments and her situation, convey gratitude without servile regret, be guarded without coldness, and honest without resentment--a letter which Eleanor might not be pained by the perusal of--and, above all, which she might not blush herself, if Henry should chance to see, was an undertaking to frighten away all her powers of performance; and, after long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety. The money therefore which Eleanor had advanced was enclosed with little more than grateful thanks, and the thousand good wishes of a most affectionate heart." (pp 205-6).

But of course what counts about Catherine is in the letter. Her affectionate heart. And in her absence Eleanor has the presence of this in those words she could find it in herself to offer--as a gift.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 22 March 2003