Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 15 - 16 (30 - 31)

To Austen-l

Re: Northanger Abbey: Felicity

I can be made happy by a happy ending, and it is my belief that Austen gives us an almost unqualifiedly happy ending for her hero and heroine in two of her novels: P&P and NA. One of the ways in which she "pulls" this unreality off -- for in life we know that a happy ending is sufficiently rare to make it improbable -- is by the use of an ironic narrator. In P&P we are diverted by Mr Bennet's letter to Mr Collins and Elizabeth's to Jane (a bit earlier). Here we have our ironic narrator..

In Chapter 31 the narrator's presence is felt everywhere. The first three chapters take us across a number of months swiftly. How convenient of Mr and Mrs Morland simply to accept Henry on his "self-evident recommendations." How many parents never having heard evil of someone, cannot imagine any? Mrs Morland is given a joke of a sentence very like the one with which the book opens: "Catherine will make a sad heedless young housekeeper to be sure." We hear of a "clandestine correspondence," but the parallelism of the sentences and panache with Henry's long waiting and Catherine's crying are passed over is strongly patterned:

"Henry returned to what was now his only home, to watch over his young plantations, and extend his improvements for her sake, to whose share in them he looked anxiously forward; and Catherine remained at Fullerton to cry. Whether the torments of absence were softened by a clandestine correspondence, let us not inquire. Mr. and Mrs. Morland never did--they had been too kind to exact any promise; and whenever Catherine received a letter, as, at that time, happened pretty often, they always looked another way" (1995 Penguin, Butler ed, pp 216-7).

There is no dialogue in this chapter (Mrs Morland has the last as she had the first words of the novel); and from the fourth paragraph on we are emphatically distanced from our characters. We are again clearly being told a story. The sentences are continually shaped in such a way as to keep us aware of them as sentences. We are reminded we are reading a book:

"The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity" (1995 Penguin ed Butler, p 217).

The introduction of Eleanor's beloved could hardly remind us more strongly that we are reading a book. Our author in fact followed the important "rules of composition:"

"Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all. Concerning the one in question, therefore, I have only to add--aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable--that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills, resulting from a long visit at Northanger, by which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures" (p 218).

The use of the "I" is interesting. Literally it signifies an insistence that the writer is talking about real people. Austen's "joy" on the occasion of Eleanor's marriage "is very sincere." But the effect of such an interposition is somehow the opposite: we are reminded of Austen herself as teller of the tale.

Finally, the neat last sentence insists on the book as part of a tradition of moralizing romances whose normal moral Austen suggests she just might have reversed:

"To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience" pp 217-8).

Now I am convinced the tendency of this work has been to reward filial disobedience and to laugh at parental tyranny as helpless. If the parent tries to bully his child, the result will turn out just the opposite of what he intended. In the present case this too makes us happy. The notion that the General really was harmless is a pleasant one. Too bad it's not so--at least in life.

Ellen Moody

In response to Brooke, I agree Austen is never simply sunny, and the continual enigmatic use of irony undercuts all her happy endings--even that of P&P_. Those of us who have been on this list for a couple of years will remember a battle we witnessed a long time back when one Ruthe Thompson argued (and not without reason) that the close of P&P had all sorts of ironic and less than blissful undercurrents. I have read on this list and in various published articles essays which read the closing lines of Emma as ironic.

In this book we do have some hard notes in this final chapter. The General does remain intransigent until he discovers that the Morlands have more money than he thought and even more importantly Eleanor marries very wealthily. We are probably to imagine he considered his son's stubbornness. And of course we have the irony that not only did Henry's father's opposition lead to his almost immediate proposal to Catherine, had not the General thrown them together for many weeks Henry might not have fallen in love with her -- nor she him -- in the way that they did.

Still they did fall in love. My view is that if there is irony in Austen's assertion of their beginning "perfect felicity" at the respective ages of 18 and 26 its in her continual reminders to us this is a book, it is art, it is romance, it is not life.

In this closing chapter we have then a final use of the double perspective we have had all book long. On the one hand, we have two characters whose reality we have come to believe in and respond imaginatively to as people; on the other, we are distanced from them as figures in a parody, an imitation, something which mocks and analyses our dreams, and what is our most cherished wish from the time the earliest fairy tales were written down--why to live happily ever after.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 22 March 2003