December 9, 1997
Re: NA, Chs 22-23: A Picturesque Abbey
As Austen is concise and can suggest a good deal in a few words, the reader may not feel as thoroughly immersed in the world of a real Abbey as she (or he) would in a Radcliffe or Smith novel. Yet I suggest that in Chapter 22 at least we get scenes as picturesque and rich in romantic detail as any in Radcliffe. I know critics continually say Austen has little description, and like to talk landscape first occurring at length in Persuasion, but I am convinced this is untrue, and that at least as regards all Austen's novels there is as much landscape and movement within Northanger Abbey as there is in Emma and MP and even the revered Persuasion, Austen's last four published novels. There is somewhat less of this in the two novels originally written first (S&S and P&P), at least it is more clichéched in some parts of the presentations. P&P often reads very like a play, but then again there are the chapters at Pemberley.
At any rate, consider the following,
"She was struck, however, beyond her expectation, by the grandeur of the abbey, as she saw it for the first time from the lawn. The whole building enclosed a large court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration. The remainder was shut off by knolls of old trees, or luxuriant plantations, and the steep woody hills rising behind, to give it shelter...
I like the last sentence especially. And then again:
"The kitchen-garden was to be next admired, and he led the way to it across a small portion of the park.
As we walk through the gardens, and then into the house in gallery after gallery with people suddenly appearing, doors that have no apparent function and cannot be explained, despite the jokes and the very real renovations everywhere which lead Catherine to realize Mrs Allen was right when she said in amazement, of the gothic castles and bare kitchens she had read of in her romances, "How could they have got through it all [the work] or maybe because of such jokes and realism we really feel we have been through a vividly there enormous and interesting house. Catherine may not appreciate it herself, but enough is given our imagination so we can.
I did detect a change in tone between the two chapters. In the first after we have the dismay and Catherine's "first lesson" about her unreal expectations, we turn to a number of passages which seemed to me highly romantic. What I mean by this is they are not undercut by any absurdity of Catherine; rather they are reinforced by the realistic Montoni personality of the General and his daughter who has taught Catherine to love a hyacinth.
I take that detail by-the-bye as evidence Austen wanted us to see Eleanor as a gothic heroine. It stands in deliberate contrast to the opening chapter where we are told Catherine was not "fond" of the "more heroic enjoyments of infancy[,such as] watering a rose-bush. But like her father who is in this chapter not a caricature but a real if unpleasant, abrasive, hypocritical braggart, also a gentleman, courteous, quiet, trying to please his guest, our gothic heroine has a real grief. Her mother did die, and she is alone. Chapter 22 contains the alluring suggestive lines about Eleanor's favorite walk: "It was a narrow winding path through a thick grove of old Scotch firs" where the "cheerful rays of the sun" do not reach (p 156).
We ought to consider the absence yet felt presence of Mrs Tilney. We are told enough of her to feel more than a "whiff" of some hidden archetypal drama. Even if she is not at the moment kept a starving prisoner deep in the dungeons of the Abbey, and died of natural causes in her bed, she was unhappy, and the language which surrounds her is susceptible of nightmare.
Then when in this part of our tour Catherine's increasing discomfort, alienation, and her genuine response to this magnificent place with its stern male and melancholy silent female takes her off the deep end to imagine the craziest and most bizzarre of scenarios, the feel of the guided tour changes. Now we are made to look at the renovations; there is less landscape; we go into offices and kitches. There is a careful weaving together of the tour with the states of Catherine mind, now to lead us to immerse ourselves in a gothic world, and now to wake us up to what is really hurtful in the world and what really to the good.
In 1806 Austen was taken with her mother and sisters to visit the magnicent pile of Stoneleigh in the Cotswolds and seem to remember reading her mother said it was so big they needed signs to find their way around. I connect the description of Northanger to that trip in 1806.
A joke comes to mind: I remember seeing or dreamed I saw a cartoon of people on the edge of a vast parking lot who are come to find their car once again, and there is a line of breadcrumbs leading away from one car very far away from said people (which they cannot see), a line of breadcrumbs that gave out.