May 13, 1999
Re: NA, Chs 17-18 (2:2-3): An Invitation to an Abbey
These chapters continue the treatment of Catherine at a slight distance so that we watch her begin to judge Isabella correctly for the first time. There's an interesting foreshadowing of another scene in another novel in the scene where Catherine sits next to Isabella and listens to her flirting with Captain Tilney: Fanny sitting next to Maria and Henry Crawford and listening to their flirting. Fanny watches them go off through the gate (and we get the symbolic allusion to Sterne's Sentimental Journey: I can't get out). Catherine herself moves away. What is remarkable to me is how accurately Austen captures the atmosphere of insinuating flirtation in the dialogue between Captain Tilney and Isabella. It has a curious repressed nastiness and alternating challenge with slightly lascivious undertones. The tone of this dialogue characterises these two characters as far more repellent than either Maria or Henry Crawford whose dialogue is actually much more sentimental because it centres Maria's desire for freedom and Henry's sympathy with this rather than a surreptitious attack on someone else through the person sitting next to them. Maria and Henry are not unkind to Fanny; they merely exclude her. Isabella and Captain Tilney use Catherine as a sparring ball.
We are discovering there are strengths in this book which are often overlooked. We talked of the violence of the scene of bullying. It has been suggested in print that in some ways the General is Austen's very worst male. He is a tyrant over Eleanor. One is led to wonder what he was to his wife even if on the surface he was all grace. This is in line with the gothic theme of the book. The book comes out of that fountain with the aim of overtopping it by presenting the same emotions and impulses realistically, as they occur in everyday life.
On the other hand, we don't have to look for bad motives or overemphasize them when there are good ones competing with these. Isabella is not an ogre; she is penniless and desperate, a young heartless coquet. As Austen says of John Dashwood, this is the way of the world. Such people simply are and are common. Isabella disbelieves in a good heart; she hasn't got one herself so why should she believe others do. James Morland himself is no ideal brother. He pants after Isabella and I suppose deserves what he gets.
So while I would say there are selfish motives in the Tilneys when they invite Catherine to come to Northanger, they are not bad selfish ones. Eleanor is desperately lonely. We will see this when we get there. Henry knows this. Henry is attracted to Catherine himself. He likes her too. Sometimes the motive which is selfish is a good one too. Life is a mixed bag. Late in the book when Henry explains to Catherine why the General appeared to like her so, Henry says he and his sister didn't know his father imagined she was rich. This is believable. The General is characterised as someone very hard to approach. Someone people are not inclined to ask questions of.
The first time I read this book I was intensely relieved when Isabella called off the hoax that John Thorpe had hoped to perpetrate with his leave-taking of Catherine. I feared he would try to inveigle her into an engagement and make her very uncomfortable as she broke away. I never doubted she would break away. I did dread for her the trouble of it. I don't think I saw all that clearly that the reason Isabella suddenly drops the game -- though will not for a minute admit any decent motives in Catherine -- is it's against her best interests. Maybe that's the sort of thing we were to see on the second reading (in the manner of Emma). On the second reading we would more clearly recognise Isabella is out to join the Tilney family too. Imagine how she would have behaved had she been invited. Made a fool out of herself? I think not. But she would have seen it as an invitation to manipulate as Catherine does not -- nor do the Tilneys. Manipulation is something Austen doesn't like -- as Darcy says, 'whatever bears an affinity to cunning . . . ' All Catherine can think of are 'long damp passages', 'narrow cells' and a 'ruined chapel' within her reach! A harmless enough delusion, or one which can only harm her. What a sweetheart is Catherine. No wonder Henry's heart warms to her.
Austen balances suspense and ironic detachment (letting us know things about the characters they don't know themselves) in this book. We read on to see what happens, yet know enough to get the ironies. She did it more exquisitely in Emma and meant to pull it off once again in _Persuasion_. I really think we ought to see these three books as a kind of trio using this peculiar combined structure. S&S has it only intermittently (over Edward's engagement with Lucy as in his comment about the family going to Exeter), and P&P and MP are built altogether differently (meaning they are not structured using mystery and ironic patterning together).