April 20, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 8: Playing on Our Emotions
Each time through a novel by Austen I notice something different. We have been talking about the characters, Isabella and Catherine, as characters; what interested me about this chapter was how the narrator continually worked to make me identify wholly with each turn in Catherine's stream of emotional response to the presences around her. At each turn we are led to feel these other presences on Catherine's pulses, or by how they affect Catherine.
Catherine is our heroine and, as I have suggested, she is an exemplar of goodness, not as understood by some outward conventional morality, but as understood by a high standard of inward kindness, integrity, tact, understanding. This note is struck when Catherine is introduced to Eleanor Tilney: 'Miss Morland with the real delicacy of a generous mind making light of the obligation' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:8, 55). The real delicacy of a generous mind which makes light of obligations. That's our Cathy. Let me add that this note or tonal insistence on Catherine's upright unswerving sense of what is good to do is hit in all the chapters we have had somewhere or other. I quoted the opening paragraph of Chapter 2; here I'll content myself with adding to the above, her brother's instinctive acknowledgement of the simple sincerity of what Catherine says, and guilt that he does not quite come up to her expectations of him. She has thanked him 'how good it is of you to come so far on purpose to see me,' to which he replies, 'Indeed, Catherine, I love you dearly' (I,7, 51). And so he ought.
Thus as we move through Catherine's first active ball (the first one we are shown wherein she knows people and is interacting with them), when we see the distance or closeness between what the others characters profess and what Catherine feels or judges is happening to her, we are comfortable, indeed never think not to agree with Catherine's perceptions. Note too how close up to Catherine Austen puts us. The chapter ends with Isabella's honeyed word, '"dearest Catherine"' (I:8, 59) -- dearest to Isabella as someone to exploit and use when she needs her.
Isabella is just like what Mrs Jennings imagines all girls to be. (I like these criss-crosses across novels which don't depend upon words -- they give us deeper insight into what is the mind we are in touch with.) The most important presence in this chapter is Isabella's and as we gaze at her, listen to her, watch her, we see how she is all betrayal, all surface, all. We continually dislike her. The narrator confirms this with tiny little direct remarks here and there: we are told Miss Tilney had no need 'to fix the attention of every man near her' and no need to express 'exaggerated feelings of extatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every trifling occurrence' (I:8, 56). We may ask whether Austen is not taking a jaundiced view of the coquet, perhaps overreacting? Is not this priggish? I would say not because what Isabella is 'hit' for is her direct unkindness to Catherine, her clear disloyalty at every little turn, her hypocrisy, not for her desire to have fun, though her sense of fun is connected to her brothers and his idea of fun is to ridicule others. That's what quizzing means, making others uncomfortable. What great fun to laugh at people (I:8, 59).
What this kind of thing does is console. We are made to feel better because someone else sees the world as we do -- of course all this depends upon your absolutely entering into Catherine's disposition.
The second most important presence in the chapter is that of Eleanor. She is contrasted to Isabella. In her presence for a moment Catherine actually begins to enjoy herself, though making friends -- real friends -- is not easy, and especially in such a place: 'the hindreance thrown in the way of a very speedy intimacy, by the frequent want of one or more of these requisites, prevented their doing much more than going through the first rudiments of an acquaintance . . . (I:8, 56). What follows is a quiet natural exchange of commonplaces; here we can note how Henry Tilney had used these to play with Catherine and make sparkling witticisms; maybe it is a little nicer just to go through them.
Much is usually made of Catherine's misery at being a wall- flower -- and it's not fun, don't underestimate even now how uncomfortable the oldest person can be when she or he is estranged from others at a party :( . Still I see this as one aspect of her relationship with men in this chapter. They are at a distance from her, and here Austen's point is to show the falseness of the usual presentation of the heroine's divinity and how all the heroes flock around and immediately begin to propose (as in Burney's Evelina & Cecilia) is total inanity. Our real hero, Henry, is easily led away by another lady; he gets tired of waiting around for Catherine. This is so real -- I imagine many a woman or man on this list has stood watching a lost opportunity fade away. How cold of him, how unheroic. Emily's Valantine would know better. That's the point -- as Austen tells us later, Henry actually fell for Catherine because she adored him. He had at least to admire her good taste :). James is wrapped up in the awful Isabella; their conversation too is utterly real; how many times we have heard just this kind of talk, to outsiders so pointless. Flirting as challenging in an insinuating way: '"There now, I knew how it would be. You men have such restless curiosity'" (I:8, 57). Isabella is making up to him, holding out her favors metaphorically. John Thorpe is the boor, and this time the long evening will not be erased from Catherine's memory by a timely lie from Isabella about how her brother was ever so charmed with 'her sweet Catherine.'
Minor presences include Mrs Allen -- to whom Henry is again ever so slightly mocking (magic that, how Austen conveys the slight mock by the slight exaggeration in his concern over Mr Allen's health). They include Mrs Thorpe -- whom of course Mrs Allen suddenly prides herself by 'seeing through': ('it did not puzzle Mrs Allen, for after only a moment's consideration . . . I:8, 58-9). What Olympian fun is this: to laugh at an idiot's pride over her discernment. It also consoles us. And harmless enough. One cannot change the Mrs Allens of the world. There's no getting through.
On another list I am on someone quoted C. S. Lewis on why we read books. Someone had asked if it was C. S. Lewis who said we read so that we shall know our judgement of the world is not singular, so that we shall not be so alone. And a C. S. Lewis scholar sent the following reply:
"...we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves." (137) "The secondary impulse [of each person] is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness." (138)
This was in reference to reading published private letters. But novels are masks, ways of putting out into the world unacceptable private perceptions of what we have to endure every day. We must also be grateful to Austen for taking us to Bath: ' "Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors." (140). All the quotations come from Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism.