Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 6 - 7

To Janeites

April 17, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 6: 'Are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?'

Nancy commented that Isabella speaks 'in hyperbole and exclamation points,' and Jill of Mrs Allen and Mrs Thorpe's 'conversation,' 'alas, how many of us find ourselves having just this sort of conversation'.

Having just read Chapter 6 I thought I'd remark what characterizes the conversation between Isabella and Catherine throughout is a contrast. On the one side, everything Isabella utters is hyperbolic; she attributes to herself and to Catherine quivering sensitivities, deep passion, eternal friendship; on the other, Catherine will not exaggerate what she feels, she does not attribute to herself anything grand or intense or deep, and is presented as puzzled at Isabella while those feelings she has are genuine, such as thrills when reading Udolpho, concern for her friend's apparent embarassment at the appearance of two young men, and a certain lingering sense of affection for Mr Tilney which she thinks Isabella ought not to encourage her in as it unkind to encourage an affection that is not reciprocated.

Through the opposition of these two young women, Austen conveys to us Isabella's hollowness, denseness, what she calls in the case of Lydia Bennet, 'perfect unconcern.' If there's one thing Isabella has it's a thick-skin and lack of sensitivity. She's a desperate flirt. Know people by their actions; she is determined to draw those young men to her; if they pay her no mind, she will set out after them. We are entitled to see her as caring nothing for Catherine but as a kind of doll who is slightly irritating since the doll is unwilling to play the game. As we learn just a bit later, Isabella does not think Catherine simply sincere or honest, or someone quiet and capable of deep feeling, but rather a hypocrite, and a repressed one. Isabella bursts out in exasperation in a later chapter over Catherine's _apparent_ inability implicitly to see how important money is in Isabella's calculations, and again over Catherine's denial of her love for someone. Isabella judges Catherine by herself. It cannot be that Catherine feels things deeply. Isabella doesn't.

We might say that as in a quiet, prosaic (I read Anne and Helen's exchange) we see the complete lack of communication and intercourse of souls that goes on between Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Allen so in a strong way we see it in Catherine and Isabella.

Why present it so strongly? Austen dislikes phoniness, she dislikes pretense; she dislikes exaggeration and hyperbole. In fact that's the problem with Horrid Mysteries. It's not that there's no grief or tyrants or misery in life, but that it does not come in monstrous obvious forms, but in the little things. Like, for example, how Isabella clearly betrayed and abused her friend Miss Andrews at every point. The theme of lying is given a slant which takes in both the satire and criticism of gothic romance going on and how people pretend to feelings they don't have while not respecting or crediting other people who really have some heart.

I call it lying because Austen gives us enough even here to see that Isabella is not (like Mary Crawford) self-deluded. Rather she's a conscious liar. I think people might be inclined to see this as a sign Austen wrote this when young, but experience has taught me people consciously lie about their motives more than the optimistic would like to believe. What does Austen give us to show Isabella is a conscious liar: she has not read Grandison. Austen expects us to have read Grandison and know it's not horrid. What Isabella has heard is it's not readable. If there is one truthful statement made by Isabella about herself in the whole chapter it's when she says of Grandison: 'I thought it had not been readable' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:6, 42).

Does anyone want to argue on behalf of Isabella? see the world from her point of view? After all she a character close to the conception of Mary Crawford.

Ellen Moody

RE: NA: 'Are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?'

The books cited by Isabella Thorpe are in print today -- or were recently. Folio Book Club published them. They were identified at the beginning of the 20th century in a felicitous essay by Michael Sadleir.

All of them, though, are easy targets. They were written by very minor English writers. Here is the list: a Mrs Parson wrote Castle of Wolfenback (1793), Mysterious Warnings ((1796); Regina Maria Roche wrote Clermont (1798); Peter Teuthhold wrote Necromancer of the Black Forest (1794); Francis Lathom, Midnight Bell (1798); Eleanor Sleath, Orphan of the Rhine (1798); and Peter Will, Horrid Mysteries (1796). All of them were also published in the range of 1793-9, suggesting that at least this chapter of NA was written between 1798 and 1799. Then that all the writers but one are wholly forgotten. Regina Maria Roche is not forgotten; recently there have been a couple of essays on her; she is a Radcliffe without the ability to evoke the uncanny; I have tried to read her Children of the Abbey but it is faded and clichéd. It was hard to keep my mind processing these empty sentences.

But there are very great gothics and these are still being written. When we get to Henry Tilney's ringing defense of Ann Radcliffe and those passages at the Abbey where Austen imitates Radcliffe's use of psychological time and the interior monologue (Radcliffe was the first writer to use indirect speech as a mode of stream of consciousness affecting the atmosphere or place in which the character is found), I shall defend Radcliffe.

"Horrid" did not quite have the flat parodic meaning in the later 18th century it does today. Today's connotations come from parodies and critiques of the mode like Austen's. The later 18th century would have called _Dracula_ the most horrid book ever written. What they meant by it was fearful, provoking anxiety, haunted. It meant in a book something which would unnerve a timid person and make going to sleep a problem for them -- unless they have a nightlight or cover their heads with a blanket (with no arms and legs showing) can get some friend either to sleep in bed or in their room with them to keep away that uncanny ghost who will erupt in the mind or come out from under the bed. Oh dear, says Catherine. That dreadful black veil. What is under it do you think? A skeleton . . .


To Janeites

May 15, 1999

Re: Done in By A Book

The story in which a character is deluded into believing what he or she reads goes back to the ancient romances (Margaret Doody discusses these in her True Story of the Novel). It was particularly popular in the 18th century, but can be found in the Renaissance (most famously Don Quixote), the 19th century (The Doctor's Wife which I've just read, or in picture form, The Picture of Dorian Grey -- the character is done in by a picture).

I see such books as self-reflexive -- about the author. Again and again in them we find the author lovingly retelling, parodying, satirising, imitating the book the character is said to be deluded by. Again and again the character gets his or her comeuppance. Who would be so entranced by a book so as to want reality to be a book but a book-lover, someone who has immersed him or herself in books. Cervantes' other novels are all extravagant romances of the type Don Quixote grew mad on; Richard Graves read sermons; there's an interesting anecdote about Charlotte Lennox where she talks about how as a girl she read these enormous tomes of 17th century romances; Austen immersed herself in gothic and sentimental romance as a girl.

In NA Austen is telling us the story of herself. We could say, playfully, she picks up the thread in Persuasion where she shows us the older woman grown romantic once again (remembering Cassandra's poignant remark in the margins of the text), someone who can tell Benwick he needs to have a little more prose and memoirs as part of his daily intake. On the other hand, she is obsessed by the need to reject these romances. She continually puts down all novels but her own in her letters. She was also much influenced by the public discourse of her day and is imitating it.

As the gothic plot is not meant to be taken realistically, so Austen has mixed two genres in NA_: the realistic story of a girl growing up, and a satire on romance with a naif at the center.

The one thing I always regret in these books is when the author goes overboard and really rejects his earlier love of books. That happens at the end of Don Quixote which is in the original book quite bitter. Very angry in fact.

Austen does not quite reject romance; she is still playing with it at the end. To reject romance would have been to reject a part of herself. It is to become the philistine who thinks books not deeply important. I see Austen as having an urge to overcome and outdo everyone else and as justifying her own obsession with romance by continually saying they are absurd, all the while reading them.

Ellen Moody

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