Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 11 - 12 (26 - 27)

December 23, 1997

To Austen-l

Re: NA, Ch 26: A Visit To Woodston

If the Isabellas of this world only get what they deserve in novels, the Catherines get treats that are most improbable. Is it after all probable that a man who is a General, who is as sharp as the General in some ways, would have been so fooled for such a long time?

This chapter serves several functions. It is transition. We get the opening commentary on James's letter which refers us to Catherine's worries over the General's attitude towards her. It also give us the height of Catherine's enjoyment. She is taken to a beautiful rectory and practically invited to start decorating on the spot--as Henry's bride. We get some lovely description of the English countryside. Austen also carefully marks time so we get a sense of diurnal reality we are passing through. This is one of those chapters which includes a large number of references to days of the week, exact times of the day (when the party leaves for Woodston, how long it takes to get there, how long to see the place, when they dine, how long to get back), daily customs and habits both at Northanger and Woodston, including the realistic difficulty of fitting a visit into the two males' busy schedule.

Much of the verbal space is taken up by the General's funny speech -- funny because as with James's and Isabella's letters he exposes truths about himself he doesn't mean to while offering up the literal truth. Alas, the Lady Frasers are not in the neighborhood (1995 Penguin Butler ed, Ch 26, p 182). Now if they were, what ecstacy we would have. Lady Catherine de Bourgh would make a fine partner for the General, and Mr Collins an equally appropriate clergyman.

Among the pleasures of this week's text we have more scenes which testify to the growth and deepening of understanding of one anotther and love between Catherine and Henry that has occurred over Catherine's long visit (as I say, the chapter serves to reinforce our sense of time passed). The opening phase of the chapter includes her attempt to persuade Henry to tell the General about Isabella, to which he unanswerably replies:

"She proposed it to him accordingly; but he did not catch at the measure so eagerly as she had expected. 'No,' said he, 'my father's hands need not be strengthened, and Frederick's confession of folly need not be forestalled. He must tell his own story.'

'But he will tell only half of it.'

'A quarter would be enough.' (Ch 26, 182).

The dialogue is sharp; the second which shows Catherine and Henry's growing relationship is poignant with the sense of the complexity of human experience in a way Fanny Price would appreciate:

" A ball itself could not have been more welcome to Catherine than this little excursion, so strong was her desire to be acquainted with Woodston; and her heart was still bounding with joy when Henry, about an hour afterwards, came booted and greatcoated into the room where she and Eleanor were sitting, and said, 'I am come, young ladies, in a very moralizing strain, to observe that our pleasures in this world are always to be paid for, and that we often purchase them at a great disadvantage, giving ready-monied actual happiness for a draft on the future, that may not be honoured. Witness myself, at this present hour. Because I am to hope for the satisfaction of seeing you at Woodston on Wednesday, which bad weather, or twenty other causes, may prevent, I must go away directly, two days before I intended it.'

'Go away!' said Catherine, with a very long face. 'And why?'

'Why! How can you ask the question? Because no time is to be lost in frightening my old housekeeper out of her wits, because I must go and prepare a dinner for you, to be sure.'

'Oh! Not seriously!'

'Aye, and sadly too--for I had much rather stay.'

If this is the second time we are reading this, we are ever thinking ahead to remember what will happend to Catherine the next time Henry departs. Instead of loss of suspension and tension which is the result of reading a thin book twice, each successive reading of an Austen's novel enrichens it. Her use of irony and time and emotions as in this Woodston sequence is remarkably interwoven to create a text which does not grow dull because we see more each time as we go through.

Ellen Moody

Date: Wed, 24 Dec 1997
Reply-To: Jane Austen List
From: Ellen Moody
Subject: Ch. 26: Visit to Woodson

In response to Barbara Irwin's comment that the trip to Woodston is not the "height of Catherine's enjoyment," viz.,

"She's always made it clear that such attention makes her nervous, and, more and more in NA, as the novel progresses, she's been learning to take her clues from the brother and sister who feel quite differently about the "face value" of The General's behavior."

Yes: "getting such attention from the General" makes her very uncomfortable," and there are moments of embarrassment and even mortification and discomfort (for she is not sure of Henry's love as yet). The problem is in the way I phrased my comment so let me rephrase and explain.

I meant not so much that Catherine intensely enjoyed her visit--though she is in bliss at certain moments--as that when these occurred and when she thinks about the visit as a whole it makes her believe Henry will marry her. She enjoys what this visit portends, and she is delighted to see this world which will be hers if she marries Henry. Consider this paragraph:

"It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for. It came--it was fine--and Catherine trod on air. By ten o'clock, the chaise and four conveyed the two from the abbey; and, after an agreeable drive of almost twenty miles, they entered Woodston, a large and populous village, in a situation not unpleasant. Catherine was ashamed to say how pretty she thought it, as the general seemed to think an apology necessary for the flatness of the country, and the size of the village; but in her heart she preferred it to any place she had ever been at, and looked with great admiration at every neat house above the rank of a cottage, and at all the little chandler's shops which they passed" (1995 Penguin ch 26, p 184).

And why does Austen use the phrase "Catherine trod air?" She is dramatically preparing us for Catherine's "nadir." The point is to make us and Catherine experience as splendid, just right, lovely what Catherine has now begun to hope for real will be the room she may sit in for years and years (remember how women spent their lives sewing in rooms):

"The room in question was of a commodious, well-proportioned size, and handsomely fitted up as a dining-parlour; and on their quitting it to walk round the grounds, she was shown, first into a smaller apartment, belonging peculiarly to the master of the house, and made unusually tidy on the occasion; and afterwards into what was to be the drawing-room, with the appearance of which, though unfurnished, Catherine was delighted enough even to satisfy the general. It was a prettily shaped room, the windows reaching to the ground, and the view from them pleasant, though only over green meadows; and she expressed her admiration at the moment with all the honest simplicity with which she felt it. "Oh! Why do not you fit up this room, Mr. Tilney? What a pity not to have it fitted up! It is the prettiest room I ever saw; it is the prettiest room in the world!" (pp 185-6).

The General's response embarrasses her, but it also delights her. She just wishes he would be more tactful. His remarks, Henry's behavior, the visit itself assures her as far as anyone can assured of any good fortune to come in our insecure ambiguous world ruled by chance that she is indeed the chosen bride for Henry. Then in two chapters (the interlude of the epistolary chapter comes) Henry goes off for a mere couple of days; it is emphasized how comfortable she now feels; Eleanor does not think her visit too long. And what happens? The general goes off for a small spell too, only to return in a rage, silent, and powerful, and she is thrown off as if she were a moral leper without so much as a reason given her.

Austen gives us this "climb" to the "heights" in order to emphasize the general's about-face.

Ellen Moody

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