December 31, 1997
Re: NA, Ch 28 (II:13): The Parting of Eleanor and Catherine
As some critics have it, there are two ways to read NA: the norm is a heterosexual love story moulded by an attempt to parody, critique, and replace gothic romance with a realistic version of that romance. The 'hidden' text is a story about two girls. Of course this homoerotic configuration puts Eleanor and Catherine v Isabella and Catherine at the center of the story. It can be carried on through a number of books: on Thursday night a class I am teaching at GMU discussed the Mirage/Columbia 1995 S&S film adaptation of S&S (director Ang Lee, screenplay Emma Thompson) and the students focussed on the story as about two women who are deeply bonded; it is their relationship that is central, Elinor nearly cracks when Marianne self-destructs: 'don't leave me alone; I can't bear it'. Listening to P&P recently I was struck by the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth as the most beautiful thing in the book (more complex in some ways than that between Darcy and Elizabeth); there's the obvious case always made about Emma and Harriet. This configuration doesn't work so well for MP nor Persuasion.
At any rate while I think this is fundamentally a misreading of the texts, a skewing to make important something that is (except for S&S and maybe Emma) something that is secondary, and attributing to the women's relationships elements that aren't there; nonetheless, for me the contrast and relationship between Isabella and Catherine dominates the first part of the book, and the most beautiful relationships in the book are between Henry and Eleanor and Catherine and Eleanor. I guess I better say what I mean by beautiful: a relationship which is not shot through with selfishness, not undercut by the aggressions of exploitation (sex usually does), seems selfless, loving, and brings together disparate types who do not love one another because they are loving themselves in the other but because the other person is different from them; I find tender and touching the above pairs and the love of Elinor for Marianne.
So that's why I say this chapter can be read as pivotal and certainly the morning when Eleanor and Catherine bid adieu is one of the most charged in the book -- and memorable.
t also forms the book's last plot turn, its final climax which seems all of a sudden to part Catherine and Henry forever. It is a final returning to the world of the daylight common sense mind and in which Catherine is taught one last lesson about what are life's real problems as opposed to what the fantasy conjures up with the aid of the sexual imagination. What Austen does is show us the real life variant of what we read about in gothic romance.
I like the way Eva Figes in her Sex and Subterfuge talks about the ejection of Catherine from the Abbey so suddenly and without the least concern for her well-being (this is a marvelous book on other women authors of Austen's era and right afterwards) :
"The dreadful assessment of General Tilney's character which the imaginative Catherine had dared to conjure up proves to be accurate when he turns her out of the house because she is not an heiress, as he had been led to imagine. Montoni imprisons Emily to try and force her into a marriage to get hold of her fortune; General Tilney, having lured her into his Abbey to marry her off to his son, also for money, summarily kicks her out, without ceremony or chaperone when he finds she is not rich. Emily, having escaped from Udolpho, has to travel home as best she can through Italy to her native France, whilst Catherine makes (for her) a no less momentous journey home, upset and tearful, in a humble post-chaise" (Eva Figres, Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850, 1982 Persea, p 84).
What I'd like to add to this and what I think genuinely original about Chapter 28 (II:13), which makes it moving and effective, is there is no scene between Catherine and the General; he doesn't deign to look at her, talk to her. That's how power works in the real world; we are often most affected by those a couple of removes from us. It is also effective because Henry is gone; but then were he there he would have protested violently. I suppose that's not the climax Austen wants; you see she wants the climax to be between the two girls -- so the homoerotic configuration has something to work on from this chapter and in this book. Most of the chapter is taken up with Eleanor's intense helplessness and concern, Eleanor's sense of terrible humiliation, Eleanor's love for her friend, and Catherine's isolation and hurt which prevents her from responding to Eleanor's need.
The chapter opens with a dialogue between Catherine and Eleanor in which Catherine, worried she has overstayed her welcome, hintingly asks if she ought not to be going. Eleanor, quick to feel hurt, but determined not to in the least bit press her friend into staying, is awkward, and embarrassed, and only the genuine congeniality of kind and intelligent friendship that has sprung up between the two enables them to understand one another. It's not the words in the scene that count; it's the feeling (1995 Penguin, Butler ed, pp 192-3).
This is Austen's way of preparing us for the intense quiet with which Eleanor must creep up the stairs, the long wait Eleanor has outside the door before she gets up the nerve to open it, her real physical trauma (she's pale, distressed, Catherine must rub her temples, bath her face, attend to her--recalling to my mind Elinor Dashwood ever caring for others while she is the most strained victim of all). If Austen has scanted Eleanor sufficient attention up to now, she makes up for it. That we have to imagine what the General says allows us to put it into whatever probable or ugly terms from those we may have experienced ourselves. The dialogue too is naturalistic; nothing overdone, nothing melodramatic. The language exchanged between the girls is of the plainest and simplest; all the sentences they utter are short and all the more effectively to the point (pp 194-6).
Now Catherine passes a night in which her sudden confrontation with real and natural evil through the displaced agency of her suffering friend Eleanor and the fear and uncertainty of what the morrow will bring will not let her sleep. What matters now the solitude of her situation or the darkness of the night (p 198).
So we come to a scene I would liken in placement and power to Box Hill in Emma: Eleanor must tell Catherine she is thrust out, and the adieu between Eleanor and Catherine on the following morning. The few reviews at the time zeroed in on this moment, though, as with Maria Edgeworth, their protest was against the depiction of the General. Edgeworth was shocked and said the General was drawn very harshly, a little too harshly for her to be willing to believe it. In comparison, the scene of Henry's proposal is in fact slurred over; it is not as fully dramatized;' it is nowhere as vivid -- though it is happy. The dialogue between Eleanor and Catherine is developed at length. It is real, probable, and done in understated language with just the right amount of physical description and props (and just the right ones, e.g., the door between the two girls, the food one can't swallow). They have been built towards for many chapters. To bring them finally down then in the last moment to the small amount of money Eleanor can offer, without which Catherine really might have found herself lost and unable to get to safety with ease and without some bad experiences, is perfect. The reality is this small kindness and thoughtfulness might have been beyond many people, nay often is:
"There was yet another point which Miss Tilney was anxious to settle, though somewhat embarrassed in speaking of. It had occurred to her that after so long an absence from home, Catherine might not be provided with money enough for the expenses of her journey, and, upon suggesting it to her with most affectionate offers of accommodation, it proved to be exactly the case. Catherine had never thought on the subject till that moment, but, upon examining her purse, was convinced that but for this kindness of her friend, she might have been turned from the house without even the means of getting home; and the distress in which she must have been thereby involved filling the minds of both, scarcely another word was said by either during the time of their remaining together" (pp 199-200).
We are at this very end also reminded that Catherine has indeed genuinely given her heart to Henry:
"With what cheerful ease, what happy, though false, security, had she then looked around her, enjoying everything present, and fearing little in future, beyond Henry's going to Woodston for a day! Happy, happy breakfast! For Henry had been there; Henry had sat by her and helped her. These reflections were long indulged undisturbed...
It is also significant that the strain the friendship is undergoing is brought out through Eleanor's desire to have a letter, which makes her have to admit the correspondence will have to be secret, and Catherine's immediate instinctive refusal that if she is such a leper as to have to hide her letters, she won't send one:
"the appearance of the carriage was the first thing to startle and recall them to the present moment. Catherine's colour rose at the sight of it; and the indignity with which she was treated, striking at that instant on her mind with peculiar force, made her for a short time sensible only of resentment. Eleanor seemed now impelled into resolution and speech.
Letters are important in Austen's novels even in this early one. I think they must have been important to Austen herself. When she wasn't writing novels, she was writing letters. Congenial and the imagined kindness of others was important to her in the very act of writing. I believe she needed at least some of her family to encourage and leave her room, space to write in too. In this book Isabella's letter demonstrates the lesson Austen consciously attaches to Willoughby and Brandon: only by knowing someone over a long period and time and watching what they do can you understand what their words mean; it and James's are pivotal in the action of the book. I leave everyone to remember how letters become central actors in most of Austen's books: Lady Susan; P&P (one brings Collins; he makes stage appearances through them; Darcy's); Emma (Jane and Frank's) MP (the last volume is almost an epistolary interlude with Fanny at the center); Persuasion (Wentworth's ardent declaration).
However, as we shall see -- and as is often the case with the heroine of Austen's novels, when it comes down to it Catherine 'after long thought and much perplexity' decides the safest kindest thing is to say as little as possible. Fanny Price has a similar response to a demand for a letter from her; letters from Elizabeth, Elinor, Emma, Anne Elliot are only described, not quoted. I have always found this aspect of Austen's novels fascinating; it is so consistent too. There is an essay on this lacuna in thebooks, but I am not satisfied with Ian Jack's explanation: Austen didn't like letters herself; they are too revealing of the heroine; this is proof, says he, neither S&S nor P&P nor MP were originally epistolary, a thesis which has been argued by a number of well-respected scholars. Comments on this anyone? or the centrality given over to Eleanor and Catherine's parting scene.