Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 4 - 5

To Janeites

April 12, 1999

Re: NA, Chs 4-6: Kind and Unkind Teasing

How beautifully Austen captures Catherine's as yet passing infatuation with Tilney. His sparkle, savoir faire, male presence are all very taking. I'd like to add to Anne's comments on teasing, note that Henry's teasing is not aimed at Catherine. He does not make fun of her. Instead he invites her to joined a charmed circle made of him and her in which they mock the folly of others. Nothing so flattering as that. He takes her into his confidence. When he asks her if she keeps a journal, he is careful to keep it impersonal, to talk of what young women generally do, so that again his teasing is not aimed at her, but at all those silly people outside his and Catherine's much cleverer appreciation of things. We might note too that Catherine has not lost her moral compass. It's one thing to mock people generally or in the abstract; when he sets about to make fun of Mrs Allen, even though he does so in a way that is implicit and gentle and cannot be picked up by the dense Mrs Allen, Catherine does not like it. She feels it's wrong to send Mrs Allen up -- especially in her presence. She is drawn into laughter, but is made uncomfortable. Had Mrs Allen been just that amount of brightness to pick it up, Catherine would not have liked Mr Tilney so much.

So Catherine may be innocent, but she is morally sensitive to how one ought to treat others even to the point of hesitating about Henry's collusion with her over Mrs Allen's absurdities -- absurdities Catherine has become well aware and even weary of.

I say as yet passing infatuation because Austen manages to make the point that although Catherine's eyes keep seeking out the young man, she is slowly beginning to forget him as she finds a new soul-mate in Isabella Thorpe. Yes indeedy, Isabella Thorpe who is sharp enough to know how to draw Catherine into her confidence, though note that Catherine again begins to wonder whether it is really good for her that Isabella continually harps on Mr Tilney's absence and Catherine's "love" for him. Is this really kind of Isabella? We, the readers, know Isabella is simply making noises to entertain and has no feeling for anyone but herself pretty quickly.

Or should I say, adult readers? As I said, my daughter, Isabel read this book last year (age 14) and she was entirely taken in until Isabella began to snub Catherine's brother. My Isabel could not understand this -- and the nuances and innuendoes Austen gives Henry Tilney and Catherine's implicit horror did not come through to my Isabel. My Isabel only caught on at the Abbey when Isabella's transparent hypocrisy was revealed in her letter. It's only transparent then because one must judge the pretense of dripping love and concern in the context of Isabella's cold mean and selfish conduct. Still it helped Isabel to be told explicitly by Henry, Eleanor and Catherine herself that Isabella is a moral horror.

Then my daughter was disappointed because she had the same name as this awful character. However, she got over it :).

There is a strong erotic and playful component in the interchanges of language between Henry and Catherine. A subdued version of Romeo and Juliet speaking a sonnet together :). It delights my heart. There is also strong satire in the interchanges of language between Isabella and Catherine and Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Allen. Austen lets us know the difference between what's normally called friendship and what's passing time together because there's no one else to sit by you. The latter seems to be what Austen thinks people usually do. I admit I like this bitter truth too.

Ellen Moody

Re: NA, Chs 4-6: Kind and Unkind Teasing

I suddenly realise that my last sentence under the above heading could be misunderstood. I don't like the bitter truth that most friendship is just passing time together, and that true concern or understanding, much less sympathy for another person rare. What I like is Austen's stating this truth. The consolation and strength of satire comes from its right to state truths people deny. It's good to hear truth, vivifying and comforting to know that another person who once lived (called Jane Austen) saw life this way too. I feel less alone.

Ellen Moody

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