November 24, 1997
Re: NA, Chs 18-19: Conversation Piece: Isabella/ Captain Tilney/Catherine parallel to Maria/Henry Crawford/Fanny
On a second read Isabella's apparently throw-away line: "I only wonder John could think of it; he could not have received my last" (1995 Penguin NA, ed Butler, Ch 18, p 128) is filled with meaning. It was this letter to John that led him to exaggerate the Morlands' poverty when James refused to renew his engagement with Isabella after Captain Tilney has ever-so-neatly abandoned her. This abandonment which we are told of but do not see makes me think of how Henry Crawford was able to use his _savoir faire_ brutally to rebuff Maria and to dare her openly to admit before all he has made her in love with him without his so-much as committing himself in the slightest. Captain Tilney participates in the character type Austen brought more deeply to life in Henry Crawford.
Chapter 18 includes a scene between Isabella, Captain Tilney, and Catherine, which presents a parallel to the scene between Maria, Henry Crawford, and Fanny at Sotherton. As Fanny is forced to listen to Henry's insidious half-flirtation with Maria and half-hints about Maria's Rushworth as so much dead wood standing in her way, blocking her access to a life she might enjoy, so Catherine is forced to listen to Tilney's equally crafty, invitingly treacherous accusations that James has in Catherine but one of his many continual spies. Actually I find the implied scene Tilney and Isabella act out before Catherine much worse than the one Maria and Crawford act out before Fanny. In the latter case Maria is really desperate, she is really engaged to a fool, someone whose part in the play suggests his impulse towards her is basically lecherous, and Henry really somewhat sympathizes with her in her desire for freedom. In the former nothing but half-insults thrown out as witty challenges, a kind of continual leering at one another, and games with language that suggest the absolute shallowness of these two people can be discerned:
"His first address made Catherine start. Though spoken low, she could distinguish, "What! Always to be watched, in person or by proxy!'
Chapter 19 gives Austen the opportunity to offer us another scene between Henry and Catherine in which the mistaken engagement of James to Isabella and now her outrageous or desperate lunge at Captain Tilney brings out the best in Catherine as well as her naivete and astute words of wisdom about sexual antagonism and jealousy from Henry. What I'd like to point out about this--as well as many of the other dialogues between this pair--is its seeming naturalness. This is not easy to pull off. In Emma Austen goes one better and creates specific idioms for each of the characters within a larger language framework into which they blend. One should remark that real people don't speak like this: we hum and haw and never finish our sentences, are chaotic in our give-and-take between one another, make little sense, so it's a careful control and art which makes the pointedness of the dialogue within a very plain style that makes us believe people could really speak so concisely and to the point in such a brief compass, e.g.,
"'Then you will persuade him to go away?'
"'I understand: she is in love with James, and flirts with Frederick.'.
There is no reaching out after fancy or impressive language. I love ASByatt but her characters do often sound like characters in a book. Their language is rich in metaphor, allusion, ironies of all sorts. Austen relies on what I'll call a fast uptake (as in Catherine's last remark quoted above), with implication taken in by one character and then a resulting implication thrown back, a procedure which suggests two separate subtexts these words come out of which stand for two really there thinking minds and feeling sensibilities communicating beneath the simple ordinary and even (as in life) clumsy phrases ("so very much attached").