December 9, 1997
RE: NA, Chs 15-16: Letters in Northanger Abbey
Like the absence of a "bad Tuesday, the rare use and scattered quality of Northanger Abbey marks it as an early book which as undergone much revision.
In the first half of the book letters do play a role in the plot-design.. They provide information to Isabella which she reacts to and in her reaction to the second we see even less pleasant aspects of her character than we had seen before. We can also (on a second read) realize the Thorpes are under an illusion the Morlands are much richer than they are. They make Isabella lunge at Captain Tilney.
But we do not see these letters and we do not read them. They are not quoted or closely paraphrased. What is most fascinating in Austen's use of letter is how she tells her story through a letter. So, for example, while Darcy's letter may be said to provide us with important information about his and Wickham's past and a truer interpretation of Bingley's departure from Netherfield park, what the letter also does is tell us an enormous amount about Darcy. It is also not objective. It reflects Darcy's character. Now we are supposed to believe Darcy--as we are supposed to believe Mrs Gardiner whose letter has less psychological interest; she is more a messenger come from behind a curtain to tell all. Darcy's letters is also central, a turning point in the plot and in Elizabeth's education. It is given -- at length.
In other novels by Austen we have letters talked about which we never see (Jane Fairfax's). We must be content to have them read aloud. Jane Fairfax's letters are written in such a way as to present a face to her aunt. Then we have the aunt reading them aloud. In MP Mary Crawford's letters are as much a cover-up and manipulative as they are ways of telling us what happened. It gets quite complicated in MP because we get characters reading the letters (Fanny); in Emma we have characters reading a letter together (Emma and Knightley on Frank Churchill).
When one talks of epistolarity in Austen--telling the story through a narration in a letter--one is talking of a letter whose content is in the book before us somehow or other. There are Mr Collins's and Mr Bennet's one brief missive to Mr Collins at the close of P&P, a stark gem, i.e, "Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give." Good epistolary narration has a sparkle and depth omniscient narration must be worked up to have.
Epistolarity also lends itself to having novels within novels (several stories going on at once since each story is a different perspective on the same material). One sees this in Emma with Jane's story seen from the side, and Harriet's from another. In NA I think we do have something of this when first James's and then Isabella's letter arrive. Another story has been going on which these letters present two opposing views of. They also present two differing personalities. And then we have Catherine's response, and then Henry and Eleanor's discussion of the letter after they have read it.
So we must differentiate letters which are not there and move the plot forward in (this being Austen) complicated ways, and letters which are there and give the book a rich epistolarity or epistolary depths.
I'd say letters are used least and of least interest in Austen's Northanger Abbey. This is not a sign it's early; it is a sign it was meant differently.
Re: NA: Ch 27: A Letter from Isabella
There is, though, one place in the narrative where letters are particuarly effective: the long-range exchange between James and Isabella, not with one another but with and through Catherine. James's letter is poignant and transparent, but Isabella's letter is a high point.
I suppose the use of the letter here reveals the roots of Austen's art in epistolary narrative. Isabella's letter brings together all its themes in one brilliant epistle. Of course in life such hypocritical manipulations of the truth are usually not this transparent. Catherine can also see what is the reality behind the surface content because she has had so much experience of Isabella's behavior and can see the contradictions. Again in real life (or here on the Net) things are more ambiguous. However, it is true that Isabella's letter probably has more immediate relevance for all of our experience than the Woodston visit even if that is the high point for Catherine.
Austen seems to know this.
In this chapter what is not Isabella Thorpe's letter is commentary thereon. We might regard it as a brief epistolary interlude in which much is concisely told through a letter, for a letter conveys far more than information. It also looks forward to the long sequence in MP when Fanny Price goes to Portsmouth in that we also learn the same kinds of complex contradictory information by watching our protagonist's response to said letter and their comments to one another.
My view is one of the delights in reading epistolary narrative is triumph. We triumph over the writer. We see through him or her. To the extent that the writer is more than a bit of a fool or transparent, the delight turns into glee and we laugh at their self-exposure. To the extent that the writer is intelligent, subtle, guarded, we read with the fascination of an amateur psychologist. One should mention that psychological truth was beginning to be accepted as a form of truth in the 18th century (thus the birth, development, and proliferation of "realistic" novels like Austen's in this period). Still in the case at hand, we have an instance of the former.
Yet do we just crow over Isabella? I admit to having read this letter in the English and the Italian, and what the Italian translator brought out was the desperation that drove Isabella to write such a transparent letter to Catherine (looking forward to Mary Crawford's equally grasping letter in which she inquires of Fanny whether Tom is really going to die or not). We find she has been betrayed. We find she is humiliated, laughed at. We find she longs for those simple Morlands she had so despised. I wonder if she had opened her heart to us in the way a Fanny Price might have, we would have sympathized or despised her. Given the response we sometimes see on this list to Fanny Price (let us recall Fanny does not like to write letters, finds them very hard--it's because they would be a transparent mirror of her heart), it's hard to say. At any rate, we harden ourselves because Isabella is a liar and keeping up face. Yet asked would we advise her not to?
To be fair, the group of emotions and thoughts which the letter conveys and which we may called "Isabella Thorpe, and which are exactly the opposite of what Isabella asserts to be her emotional state of mind also includes evidence of her unjustified resentment and jealousy of Catherine:
"I hope you spend your time pleasantly, but am afraid you never think of me. I will not say all that I could of the family you are with, because I would not be ungenerous..."
Of course not. Nor would she ever dream of being spiteful, especially towards other women who are rivals with her for that prey, young men:
"The last two days he [Captain Tilney] was always by the side of Charlotte Davis: I pitied his taste...
And so do we.
Her ostentation, her intense concern with what others think of her and complete hollowness at the core of her own being are laid before us without ever so much as explicitly saying the least moralizing comment in the following:
"We happened to sit by the Mitchells, and they pretended to be quite surprised to see me out. I knew their spite: at one time they could not be civil to me, but now they are all friendship; but I am not such a fool as to be taken in by them. You know I have a pretty good spirit of my own. Anne Mitchell had tried to put on a turban like mine, as I wore it the week before at the concert, but made wretched work of it..."
She is now of course wearing purple for Catherine's brother. She knows she looks "hideous" in purple, but no sacrifice is too small--or is it too great (1995 Penguin Butler ed, Ch 27, pp 188-9).
Among other things too much of what Isabella says literally has happened has happened. How do we know what to believe and what not to believe? Ah. There's the mystery of life. We might say the theme of the letter, its eruption, is an instance of the answer to Catherine's alert response after she has listened to Henry and Eleanor's firm conviction their father cares a great deal about money and connections, and upon learning that General Tilney does want a fuss made when she and Eleanor come to Woodston,
"why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? ..." (Ch 26, 184).
The way Mary Lascelles explains this "magic" of apprehension or apperception upon the reader's part is the slow buildup through the narrative of persuasive presences which are made convincing through a variety of techniques including that of the surprize remarks which nonetheless fits our image of the individual. Austen would refer us to her strict observance of probability. We believe Isabella went to the Rooms, the play, sat next to the Mitchells, cares about hats, hates Tilney because it is all probable and probability is the name of the game that makes the realistic novel persuasive. Going inside the fiction, the answer to Catherine's question is the way we get to know people for real is to know and observe them over a long period of time and observe their acts and the effect of their words on others as carefully as the literal sense of those words themselves. Is not that the way those of us who have been on this list for a long time have gotten to "know" one another?
But there's more to the chapter than this, for it includes a scene typical of epistolary narrative: the characters reading the letter and commenting on it. This conversation shows the text to be less mature or polished or worked up (whichever) than MP because the commentary does not so much reveal Catherine's deeper inner self or further complexities about all the characters and their situation and it is not set in a complex time scheme which throws further ironies on what is said. Rather we get an explanation which can recall that of the detective novel, e.g, we see here that Isabella is "a vain coquette," we learn from Henry's reading his conviction that it was "vanity" that drove Frederick to try to triumph over Isabella.
But there is this sting and complexity of perspective in the explanation. Catherine says well she cannot like Frederick because "suppose" he had hurt Isabella "very much," made her "very much in love with him"--as she, Catherine has now come to love Henry. The complexity inheres in the hint of Catherine's possible hurt. To this Henry replies, most unsentimentally,
"But we must first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose--consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with very different treatment" (Ch 27, p 190).
Do the Isabellas of the world get what they deserve? In this book they do, for note Catherine is not quite convinced. She replies not "oh yes," but "It is very right you should stand by your brother" (p 191). We are told the only way to stop the "bitterness" from gathering strength is a "compliment" from her beloved. He bestows it, and Catherine, wise girl that she is becoming, resolves to depend upon the art of forgetting insofar as she is capable of it.
Northanger Abbey: The Promised Letter
All I have written is not to say that letters are not are important in Austen's novels even in this early one. They are, viz.:
"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.
I think letters 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. 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.
Northanger Abbey: Catherine's attempt to write at length
These chapters of NA are remarkable and suggest they were revised very late in Austen's life -- 1816 to be preicse.
A final element of interest in Chapter 29 of NA is Catherine's attempt to write Eleanor. Like Fanny Price when Fanny is called upon to write a letter to Mary Crawford, Catherine is reluctant to write at length. She keeps it as brief as possible. I have thought that for Fanny this is because Fanny sees writing itself as a mirror of her heart because she obeys a standard of sincerity in life which she would have to betray were she to write a letter to Mary--or else give Mary ammunition to use against her, as Mary is unscrupulous and does not understand the idea of loyalty to a woman friend. The novels themselves tell us Austen's heroines write at length to all sorts of people. Fanny herself is said to be a good correspondent, so too Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Emma too.
Still it is to be noted we get no letters by the above heroines. We never actually read one Jane's letters on our own; we are denied her texts; we only hear parts of them read aloud by Miss Bates. Further there are a number of scenes where we witness a heroine struggling to write and she is at a loss. I think of Elinor trying to write Edward to tell him of the preferment which will enable him to marry Lucy. I find this intriguing.
In the case at hand Catherine ends up writing the briefest of notes lest she hurt Eleanor's feelings and lest (here like Fanny Price) she give her love for Henry too unguardedly away:
"As soon as breakfast was over, she sat down to fulfil her promise to Miss Tilney, whose trust in the effect of time and distance on her friend's disposition was already justified, for already did Catherine reproach herself with having parted from Eleanor coldly, with having never enough valued her merits or kindness, and never enough commiserated her for what she had been yesterday left to endure. The strength of these feelings, however, was far from assisting her pen; and never had it been harder for her to write than in addressing Eleanor Tilney. To compose a letter which might at once do justice to her sentiments and her situation, convey gratitude without servile regret, be guarded without coldness, and honest without resentment--a letter which Eleanor might not be pained by the perusal of--and, above all, which she might not blush herself, if Henry should chance to see, was an undertaking to frighten away all her powers of performance; and, after long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety. The money therefore which Eleanor had advanced was enclosed with little more than grateful thanks, and the thousand good wishes of a most affectionate heart." (pp 205-6).
But of course what counts about Catherine is in the letter. Her affectionate heart. And in her absence Eleanor has the presence of this in those words she could find it in herself to offer--as a gift.