Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 8 - 9

To Janeites

April 22, 1999

Re: NA, Chs 8-9: The Creation of Anxiety

Catherine has sensiblity; what she lacks is an affectation of sensiblity. She has depths of feeling and perception of all sorts; what she lacks is the self-confidence and ability boldly to voice frankly to herself what she is feeling and act on her own moral judgements. She is coming to that . She is no longer fooled by John Thorpe by the end of the chapter.

What I find remarkable in these chapters is Austen's creation of anxiety. Throughout the whole of these chapters Austen makes us anxious. We are on pins and needles with Catherine over being a wall- flower at the ball; we squirm with her in frustration when she sees Henry Tilney from afar and manoeuvres herself so as to be in his path and he walked in another direction; we are earnestly desirous the next morning waiting for 1 o'clock to come. And it's not just Catherine's anxiety we share, we are anxious for her, for, poor baby, she doesn't see things very clearly. We are far more troubled and uneasy than she when she foregoes her plan to go to the Pump Room in the hope of encountering the Tilneys. She is suddenly non-plussed; shall she go? Later she will have to be lured with promises of real castles to put her into a fever of alertness and interest. Here she is just eager for an adventure; we know all she will experience will be coarse nonsense because everything must be soured and crumple before our minds in the company of John Thorpe. And we know she is missing a possible opportunity to meet the Tilneys -- and were perhaps looking forward to the anxiety of seeking them out. When she gets home, she has to listen to Mrs Allen's complete inanities in response to questions (recalling how Lady Bertram responds to Fanny's questions over what happened to her at the ball). Alas, alas. Out of luck.

I won't go on but we know in further chapters Austen ratchets up the anxiety in broken appointments, confrontations of lies, further frustrations set up by the lying John Thorpe and his accomplice, Isabella. Wild anxiety visits Catherine when she realises she is misunderstood later on. At Northanger we travel to new heights of anxiety as she journeys through corridors, visits rooms of a dead woman (perhaps not dead, perhaps secreted away, starving, chained in some dungeon), comes upon secret chests and monuments, only to have a door slammed in her face.

I make a little fun, but am actually serious. What characterises the greatest of gothic romances: anxiety. Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca is an exercise in exquisite anxiety (complete with Mrs Danvers playing the part of Dorothy, a bedchamber of a dead lady, many corridors, an enigmatic male, and her anxious, eager desire to please and constant mistakes). Possession thrills us with anxiety as we go through a secret cache of letters.

If you read Radcliffe, you will find this mood diffused throughout. It is also usually applied in extreme situations. The key to Austen is the situation is not extreme. It's the usual. Which of us has not been thwarted at a ball, lied to, tricked, manipulated, gone off with the wrong person? Austen also roots the anxiety and brings it out of the peculiar nuances of Catherine's affectionate trusting personality and obssesion with gothic romances. As people used to think Shakespeare imitated his fellow, I used to think Austen brilliantly hit each cliché of romance. Nowadays scholars show us how Shakespeare created the genres of the stage he led, and I am suggesting that Austen led with this cliché.

My argument is that anxiety is central to the gothic romance, and that this is one of the things that make it defined as feminine in its approach. By this I do not mean men cannot enter into such books as intensely as women, rather that men are proud and don't like to admit to this kind of acute anxiety publicly -- though they have it and read these books.

Anxiety as a mood also accommodates a number of others states of mind characteristic of romance: desire for a man's love, vulnerability, the thrill of the unknown and fear, the sense of one's inferiority in the face of strong male and fearful female figures. It is probably common among teenage girls first coming into the world.


Ellen Moody

---- 'Well, ma'am, what do you say to it? Can you spare me for an hour or two? shall I go?' Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

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