November 18, 1997
Re: NA: Waiting Around to Get to the Abbey
We are not really waiting around to go to the Abbey. It just feels that way, especially once the two words, "Northanger Abbey" are uttered and we feel Catherine's thrill. One has a hard time resisting the temptation to read this and next week's two chapters as so much "transition" to the "good stuff," but Austen is developing a strand of her plot-design which is significant thematically, and actually causes the final crisis of the book.
I am of course talking of the engagement of Isabella Thorpe to James Morland the music of which (to mix metaphors) begins to go sour when Isabella hears how much money Mr Morland (in the revealing idiom of Mrs Thorpe) "comes down with." The first chapter of Volume II brings us a sharply realized dialogue in which for a startled moment Isabella's spontaneous dismay stops the flow of her normally plausible hypocrisy, and she fails to hide from Catherine how turned off she is to hear of the 400 l. she will be expected to live upon--"an income hardly enough to find one in the common necessaries," certainly not enough to buy one of those snug little palaces along the Thames in Twickenham which Isabella said would satisfy her modest ambitions. The scene is not realistic. The lies are too transparent:
"Yes, yes, my darling Isabella," said Mrs. Thorpe, "we perfectly see into your heart. You have no disguise. We perfectly understand the present vexation; and everybody must love you the better for such a noble honest affection" (1995 Butler ed Penguin, p 121).
Catherine as a concept again hovers between her role as naif in a social satire and realistic young woman beginning to see the truths of people's hearts. Yet I submit it is the more memorable because it has the raw strong lines of caricature.
This scene follows the first appearance of Captain Tilney and the beginning of Isabella's at first simply frivolous-- and after she has learnt the sum she is to expect-- desperate flirtation with him. One might remark here that as with Emma the second time through we read this sequence differently. The second time we see in Isabella's surprize and in the previous scene in which Thorpe tries to trap Catherine to make some statement he could use to claim an engagement the result of the delusion that the Thorpes and General Tilney all were labouring, namely, that the young Morlands have great expectations. The first time we simply assume Isabella is greedy and expected more without having any right to assume there is a great deal of money. (By-the bye those who have suggested that engagements were sometimes used by the unscrupulous to enforce a marriage through litigation are correct; in fact this background is the explanation for Thorpe's crude attempt at a proposal to Catherine when he leaves Bath.)
Myself I wish I could become very interested in this subplot. I just don't. Maybe it's that I am not made to care enough about James. Maybe it's also that this subplot is not sufficiently intertwined with the major plot so that when James's and then Isabella's letters come to the Abbey they do not seem to precipitate a crisis. In fact the broken engagement does lead to Catherine's ejection from the Abbey: we later learn that Thorpe exaggerated the poverty of the Morlands to the General because he was angry at Morland's refusal to make it up with Isabella. The problem is we don't know this for quite a while, and when we are told it, the events remain separated in our memory.
As a reader I feel I am only made to care about Isabella's coldness, falseness, cruelty because James's suffering hurts Catherine and leads her to apply to Henry Tilney for help and their ensuing dialogues bring them closer together and are charming and full of good feeling and witty lines in and of themselves. Chapter 17 contains one of these dialogues and also one of my favorite joke-lines in this novel:
"'I do not understand you.'
This tells me that although deconstructionists were not yet turning English into empty abstractions in unreadable sentences, there was in the later 18th century the same elitism or coterie-mentality, pride, and vanity to create a hard-to-understand language of its own meant to impress and intimidate others. Plus ca change...
Still the scene as a whole is not a stand-up joke. It is lovely with kindness and a growing understanding and attachment between the two young people. It shows that Austen looked at the human mind in a similar way to Fielding. In Tom Jones Fielding says Blifil can get away with fooling Mr Allworthy and Tom because they judge him by their own hearts; so Catherine too, as good as they, judges Isabella by her own heart and is therefore gullible. Unlike Fielding though Austen uses this insight in more ways than one. Fielding just states it as narrator; Austen makes it part of a discourse by which Henry declares his growing love for and attachment to Catherine:
"...'I only meant that your attributing my brother's wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good nature alone convinced me of your being superior in good nature yourself to all the rest of the world.'
Catherine falls into love's reverie.
Yet I know when I have said all this I am still waiting around to get to the Abbey.