7 July 2012
This is Jane Austen trying things out in her early 20s. From the first description of her main character – ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine’ – she sets herself the task of undermining what is (allegedly) the norm in novels. So we find out what Catherine isn’t good at, how she misses opportunities to behave like the heroines of the novels she’s been reading for years. And this sets a pattern: Austen uses a lot of negatives, often defining something or somebody in terms of how they differ from what is expected. Catherine’s mother definitely does not come up to scratch as she contemplates her daughter’s first season in Bath, accompanying the Allens, old friends of the family: ‘the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart…’ But we’re into Chapter 2 by now, and we expect the build-up to be undermined. It is. Instead of warning her of the treachery of all men, especially ‘noblemen and baronets’, she confines her advice to matters of keeping warm and not spending too much.
I’m not sure how Austen does it, but she also manages to convey in the first chapter or two that Catherine is good-hearted and generous of spirit, capable of looking after her many siblings if required despite her lack of drawing-room accomplishments. (She loves music but is a failure when she tries to learn to play the piano, and she draws ‘houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another.’) It’s an aspect of Austen’s authorial voice that’s highly recognisable from other novels: her ability to treat her heroine with a kind of affectionate mockery without undermining her. Her mind might be ‘about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is,’ but this judgment comes at the end of a paragraph in which we are told that ‘her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind.’ That’s all right, then.
This wasn’t the first novel to parody the absurdities of other novels. (When was Shamela? Hang on… 1741, so 60-odd years before this one.) Sometimes it seems a bit arch, a word Austen herself uses once she’s got Catherine to Bath, in connection with Mr Tilney. His main function – apart from providing the early love-interest – seems to be to deconstruct the clichés not only of polite conversation but, by implication, the way it is presented in a particular kind of novel. He takes Catherine through the stage-managed game. After they have been speaking for some time ‘on such matters as naturally arose’ he interrupts himself. ‘I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.’ Now, ridiculously, he asks her all the questions in his list one by one, along with plenty of others. Crucially, Catherine gets it, and enjoys making the stock responses.
Shortly after this, he casts himself against type when speaking to Catherine and Mrs Allen. Her only interest is ‘gowns’ – and Tilney, unlike any man in any novel ever written, proves himself as much of an expert as she is on the prices and relative merits of different dress materials – ‘my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it’ – and Mrs Allen pronounces him a genius.
I suppose it’s a kind of running joke that while Austen mocks the stock situations of romances set in Bath, this is itself a romance set, at least for now, in Bath. Tilney is the romantic interest, but he disappears for a week as soon as Catherine has met him. He returns, with a young woman, ‘whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her forever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr. Tilney could be married; he had not behaved, he had not talked, like the married men to whom she had been used; he had never mentioned a wife, and he had acknowledged a sister.’ It’s a critique of the kind of lazy writing I assume Austen must have encountered often.
There are stock characters to go with the stock situations. Austen gets away with it by turning them into comic grotesques. After days of boredom when they first arrive in Bath, during which Catherine is sent almost demented by Mrs Allen’s repeated lament that they know nobody and therefore have nobody to talk to, an old school-friend arrives. This is Mrs Thorpe, the archetypal proud mother, who dominates the conversation with descriptions of how well every single one of her offspring is doing. The offspring are three sisters, the oldest of whom is an acknowledged beauty, and a son at Oxford. At least Mrs Allen can comfort herself with the superiority of her own lace over Mrs Thorpe’s. The oldest sister, Isabella, becomes Catherine’s friend and, in a different way, she’s as bad as her mother. A typical scene is where she affects indifference when the man she is after is nearby, only to race after him as he leaves the Pump Room. The son is an unspeakable bore, unable to talk of anything but his latest carriage and his supposedly near-thoroughbred horse. And so on.
Have things settled down a bit, or is the satire going to get in the way? It’s early days yet, and the only bit I can think of that seems to be from the heart might just as easily be satirical. All the female characters love novels and, after letting us know this, Austen gets on to a kind of authorial high horse. ‘Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding….’ She decries the efforts of ‘the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England’ and other second-rate products by male writers, arguing for novels ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature… are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’
This is all well and good, but the only novels Catherine and Isabella read are ‘horrid’ gothic fantasies. Isabella can’t believe that her new friend has never read The Mysteries of Udolpho and, once she’s started it, she urges Catherine to speculate on what is behind the black veil…. Another friend gives a detailed list of ‘ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.’ Ok. The only thing I know about Northanger Abbey is that it becomes a satire of this sort of novel so, well, maybe things haven’t settled down yet after all.
Settled down? Well… yes and no. Yes, it’s settled down into what looks like a conventional plot, although I’m constantly ready for Austen to thwart our expectations. Sometimes she does, but not always: the charming Mr Tilney – he’s not only witty and clever, but (wait for it) he likes novels – really is shaping up to be the love interest, and Catherine’s days are spent in anticipation of meetings with him or regrets that something has come along to keep them apart. But Austen plays games with the conventional elements. For instance, she pulls an old trick when she has Catherine vainly hoping all morning that the rain will stop so she can go for a planned walk with the Tilneys, only for it to stop too late. The Thorpes, who are turning into monsters, arrive to go for what sounds like an exciting drive – to a castle, no less – only for Catherine to see her real friends on their way to pick her up from her lodgings.
The drive is a failure and they have to come back – they have set off far too late – but she’s blown it, right? Her silly preoccupation with the gothic has ruined her chances, and it will probably take the whole novel for her to put it right. Won’t it? Sure enough, next morning Miss Tilney pretends not to be in when Catherine calls, and that evening Tilney seems to be miffed when she sees him in the theatre. We think we know where these things can lead in novels… which is just what Austen wants us to think. In fact the crisis, which has only lasted for a handful of pages anyway, is cleared up as the misunderstandings are explained. Miss Tilney had not deliberately snubbed her, Mr Tilney is not angry – and Catherine is even able to tell the Tilneys of the lie told by Thorpe, Isabella’s brother, to get her to come for the drive. All that’s happened is they’ve been brought closer together: in this universe people are perfectly capable of judging one another’s characters correctly, and if something seems to go awry they put it right.
In case we haven’t got it, it happens again. The Thorpes, sister and brother – I’ll get back to them later – are going to do the drive properly tomorrow, so they’ll pick her up, ok? Not ok: Catherine has just arranged to go for a walk with the Tilneys. Postpone it, they say, pretend you’d forgotten you were going for a drive…. No, she says and, to use Austen’s word, she stands ‘firm’ against their self-seeking attempts to persuade her. The Thorpes are sullen, and the brother wanders off – to return triumphant: he’s caught the Tilneys on the way out and told them Catherine had just remembered about the prior engagement. Austen has brought about the crisis to show us the depth of her ‘heroine’s’ qualities – she calls her a heroine with less irony now – and Catherine chases after the Tilneys to tell them the truth. She catches them as they arrive home, and her actions confirm all the good feelings they already had about her. ‘They’ are the sister and brother and their father, General Tilney. The walk next day is a great success.
Despite Austen’s games, this is highly conventional at one level. The Tilneys are all charming and morally upright. Catherine, as Austen has told us from the start, has a ‘cheerful and open’ disposition, ‘without conceit or affectation of any kind’. And, with the help of the people she meets at Bath, she is learning some moral discernment. At first she is willing to go along with what others tell her, that the Thorpes are ‘capital’ – her brother’s word – and that she should always defer to more experienced friends. But in these chapters she has started to learn how to make her own judgments. It begins with Mrs Allen, who is turning into another stock character – the woman who has nothing in her head but the accoutrements of fashion – but by the time she is walking with the Tilneys she has seen Thorpe for what he is, and is beginning to see that his sister is silly and rather selfish.
As Catherine’s moral stock is rising – in the Jane Austen novels I’ve re-read recently (Emma and Mansfield Park) every hope of happiness depends on the moral discernment of her heroines – that of the Thorpes is being revealed for what it really is. They start off as comic. Isabella’s early conversations are shot through with silly hyperbole. Everything is ‘amazing’, or she wouldn’t be seen in a particular situation for ‘a thousand pounds’. And everything she does and says is full of affectation, as she is shown to be all the things that Austen approvingly tells us Catherine is not. Her brother, already the 19th Century equivalent of the bore who insists on telling you all about his top-of-the-range car, seems incapable of speaking about anything without preposterous exaggeration. Catherine has never before come across the Thorpes’ special brand of saying nothing straightforwardly, and she has to pick her way carefully through anything they say. Stuck in Thorpe’s carriage with him, she is bemused by his ability to criticise her own brother’s as so worn-out as to be dangerous, one he wouldn’t drive it two miles for £50,000 – and then say he’d happily drive it to York for five.
The Thorpes – mother, son and daughters – are not just embellishers of the truth. They have no moral firmness, have no way of judging right behaviour. After her hard-won escape from the second drive, Catherine tests out a few things with Mr Allen, who shows himself to be one of Austen’s right-minded characters. (If all this sounds a bit ponderous, well, perhaps it is.) He says her decision to stick to her arrangement with the Tilneys was the right one – and that it isn’t quite right anyway for single girls to be gallivanting off around the country with single men. So the Thorpes aren’t merely annoyingly inconsistent and affected, their behaviour is also proving to be morally questionable. Thorpe has lied, twice, whilst his silly sister uses a rather unattractive kind of moral blackmail to get Catherine to do her bidding. They are turning into the baddies.
Anything else? Probably, but that’s enough for now.
Well, that’s about it for the Bath scenes. At or near the half-way point in the novel we first hear the name of Northanger Abbey – it’s the family seat of the Tilneys, and the mere name of it thrills Catherine – and now, a chapter or two further on, we’ve arrived. Tell you later.
The remaining chapters in Bath confirm what we already know: the Thorpes are spoilt and self-seeking monsters. Austen would have us continue to believe that however uneasy Catherine might become about their behaviour – which gets worse – she can never believe it’s deliberate on their part. Sometimes Austen has to make Catherine into an almost Candide-like ingénue – which sits uncomfortably with her fast-growing perceptiveness about what is right and wrong behaviour. It leads to comedy, as she contorts herself into believing Isabella not to be a flirt after she has become engaged to James, despite the looks and conversations between her and Tilney’s older brother. But it’s all a bit arch, and it’s a relief to hear that we’ll be out of Bath soon.
But not yet, because despite Austen’s continual reminders to the reader that she is out to subvert the plot devices of conventional novels, there are some highly conventional plot elements to be got through. There’s the engagement, a move on Isabella’s part that only makes sense when we remember how the Thorpes believe the Morlands to be richer than they really are. John, Isabella’s brother, assumes the Allens to be practically her surrogate parents – in an earlier chapter he’s assumed Catherine to be their god-daughter – and blithely describes Allen as ‘rich as a Jew’. So the alarm bells have been ringing for some time, as the reader spots the unmistakable signals that Catherine keeps missing. When we hear Isabella’s blasé remarks about how she would happily marry a pauper because money means nothing to her, we know she assumes she is marrying someone with plenty of it.
John, the one who has been thrusting himself on Catherine’s attention all through his stay in Bath, realises that time is running out as everyone starts to think about leaving. He makes sure he has a chance to speak to Catherine alone for a few moments in order to draw some kind of commitment out of her. She, of course, has no idea what he’s doing, hasn’t a clue that her offer of an invitation to visit her parents’ house is what Thorpe can later describe as an ‘understanding’ between them. When we first see Isabella flirting with Captain Tilney, Austen has already given us some pretty unsubtle signs of how disappointed she with James’s expected income, £400 a year. (This was two chapters earlier.) She knows about the ‘understanding’ between Catherine and her brother from a letter he wrote – and also knows he wasn’t aware when he wrote it how little money the Morleys had to spread around. Austen novels are always about money, and here we have the passion for it red in tooth and claw. Catherine tells Isabella, in terms which show her growing ability to speak plainly to her so-called friend, that there is no ‘understanding’, that she has no interest in John. Isabella, unsurprisingly to us if not to Catherine, accepts this blandly. We can see where this is going.
Anyway, Catherine has her invitation to Northanger Abbey, to be a companion for Henry Tilney’s sister. (She’s called Eleanor, but only her father and brother ever calls her this. To Austen she’s always ‘Miss Tilney.) Catherine has spent as much time with her as she has with her brother, so she’s happy to do this: Tilney is often away at his parish for a few days, and his sister spends a lot of time alone.
On the journey Austen sends up Catherine’s fascination with the gothic: she is thrilled almost as much by the idea of staying in ‘an abbey’ as she is of spending time with the Tilneys. Tilney picks up on her expectation that it will be ‘a fine old place, just like what one reads about.’ This is his cue. ‘And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as “what one reads about” may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?’ And, as he takes her through her first few days and nights, he parodies gothic elements one by one. ‘Will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber…?’ And so on, at some length. He’s very good at it, a mouthpiece – as he was in Bath – for Austen to have fun sending up the absurdities of lazy novel-writing. (He’s also a stickler for good English: he didn’t like Catherine’s ‘what one reads about’ at all. We’ve seen Austen speaking through him like this in Bath, too. He hates it that Catherine uses ‘nice’ and ‘amazing’ thoughtlessly: he doesn’t want her picking up habits from people like Isabella.)
The chamber is no more forbidding than the rest of the house, but Catherine hasn’t given up the game yet. This turns into a fairly poor thing. At first the order of the day – or night – is bathos. There’s a huge, heavy-lidded chest – which, after over a page of anticipation and speculation, turns out to contain only bed-linen. She notices a cabinet, and investigates inside, searching out secret compartments. In the hidden recesses of a drawer she finds a rolled-up ‘manuscript’ which she can’t read immediately because – horror! – her light goes out, and she spends a restless night wondering what it might be. In the morning she discovers it’s a random collection of laundry lists.
She realises there’s to be no adventure here, that she should simply settle for an enjoyable stay in pleasant company. Only kidding – where would be the fun in that? Austen is determined that our heroine doesn’t learn from her mistakes, has her concocting a preposterous gothic plot from a few bits of highly circumstantial evidence. The General’s highly controlling personality makes it easy for her to believe that he domineered, even terrorised his wife. She, Eleanor tells her, died nine years ago, when Eleanor herself was away from home. Catherine wonders why the dead woman’s chamber is not included in the tour she is taken on by Eleanor and the overbearing father she is finding it increasingly difficult to like…. She decides that this amounts to proof that Mrs Tilney never died, and that she is being kept against her will in the room which, clearly, only the General ever visits. When he says he is going to stay up and do some work long after she and Eleanor have gone to bed she decides to stay awake. From her own chamber she will be able to watch for a light as he makes his way to the poor woman’s room….
When she wakes up next morning to realise that she had fallen asleep she quickly has to go for plan B: she will go and check out the room for herself. Which she does – and, of course, it’s an ordinary bed-chamber. Austen is playing her games on two levels now: not only is she setting up little stubs of plot that are bitten off as soon as she creates them; she’s also having Catherine do the same thing: the big wooden chest, the cabinet, the locked room…. In a chapter or two these have all come to nothing.
It gets worse for Catherine as Austen can set up another little plot stub. Who should surprise her as she leaves chamber but Henry Tilney, back a day early from his visit to his parish 20 miles or so away? He’s highly perceptive, and after a short exchange between him and Catherine he’s worked out the whole fiction she’s created, and shown her what arrant nonsense it is. This is England, for goodness’ sake, not some remote Alpine village, where such things are only to be expected, or – spit – France. (I’m paraphrasing.) He leaves, and Catherine thinks she’s blown it with him, again. (How many times is that now?) But at dinner it’s as though he’s forgotten about it, so that storyline is nipped in the bud even more quickly than usual. Maybe Austen’s getting as bored with it all. I know I am.
But there’s something like a quarter of the novel yet to go, and Austen has bigger fish to fry. For days, Catherine (unlike the reader, as ever) has been surprised by Isabella’s behaviour: having promised to write daily, she hasn’t written at all in over a week. Then a letter does arrive – from James. The engagement is off because Isabella is now to marry – wait for it – Captain Tilney, the one she’d been flirting with outrageously in the days before Catherine and the others left Bath. Catherine, having expected nothing like this, is reading it in the presence of Henry and Eleanor, and they are concerned by her distress. It takes Henry no time to get the story out of her, and she lets him and Eleanor read the letter.
So now there are two conventional plot threads for Austen to deal with: how to get the ingénue sufficiently house-trained to be a suitable wife for the second son. And how to unravel the mess that Isabella and the first son have got themselves into – if James has got it right in his letter, and Isabella isn’t merely inventing an understanding in precisely the way John had done with Catherine.
Chapters 27-31 – to the end
Is it my imagination, or does Jane Austen become more like the writer we know as the novel progresses? By the time we’re in these final chapters – and long before the narrator herself reminds us how few pages yet remain – she’s stopped making Catherine behave as though she was born yesterday. By Chapter 27 her heroine is a fully functioning human being, capable not only of making proper judgments about people but able to express balanced and well-rounded pronouncements about them. And still only 17…. It’s a big thing in later Austen novels, judgment. Most of Emma is about how the heroine keeps getting it wrong – and how a big part of the role of the man she is bound eventually to marry is to teach her better ways. In that respect, this early novel is definitely a preparation for that one: we’ve seen how Henry Tilney often acts as a guide, even when he might pretend to be kidding.
The character Catherine is pronouncing on in Chapter 27 is Isabella, and after she’s finished reading the letter from her, presented to us verbatim, Austen cuts straight to the heart of it: ‘Such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine. Its inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood struck her from the very first.’ I like that ‘even upon Catherine’, which I take to be Austen nodding towards an admission that so far she’s been a bit of an idiot. But she’s an idiot no longer and talks to the Tilneys about the letter. Isabella is pretending that James has misunderstood her, that there was never an engagement with Captain Tilney, and that she hopes to see both him and Catherine soon. She suggests, and the Tilneys agree, that it would be right never to speak or write to Isabella again. Which, inevitably, rings alarm bells: dangerous people to cross, the Thorpes….
Sure enough, the General returns to Northanger unexpectedly following a few days away, and lets it be known that Catherine is no longer welcome. We know she’s done nothing wrong, so we start to speculate: what have the monstrous Thorpes been saying about her? We don’t know, and Catherine doesn’t even suspect them. Henry Tilney is away visiting his parish for a couple of days, so she doesn’t even have the chance to say goodbye. Is this the end of her hopes of happiness? And why am I even bothering to ask the question when we know very well that it isn’t going to be? It isn’t the kind of subversion Austen is looking for at all.
What she’s looking for is a little tease. Catherine, back home unexpectedly soon, is not at all comforted by her mother’s efforts to make light of her despondency. After three days Mrs Morland has had enough of it, goes to fetch a book she’s read containing instructive remarks ‘upon much such a subject, about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance.’ And by the time she gets back to Catherine with it, guess who’s arrived. Henry Tilney brings good news – he wants to marry her – and bad news: his father thinks she’s a dreadful gold-digger, practically living in poverty and pretending to have a huge fortune. We recognise the dead hand of the Thorpes in this, and we get the details: John Thorpe had described her wealth and prospects as a kind of self-flattery when he believed both that she had money and that he would be the one to marry her. By the time he’s spoken to the General again, he’s furiously exaggerating in the opposite direction.
But Henry has had to disobey his father, and we know what a control-freak he is. Things are going to be difficult… aren’t they? Don’t be ridiculous. This is when we get Austen’s reminder that we’re reading a romantic comedy and there isn’t far to go: ‘The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine… can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ Which is what we get. The General is softened by the marriage of – wait for it – his daughter, to a baronet. Austen, now in plain view and happy to show us how she pieces things together, makes a joke. She is ‘aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable,’ and she isn’t really doing that: the laundry-lists Catherine found all those weeks ago were from the visit he made to Northanger before anyone knew he was going to inherit.
So the General, far more fixated on money and social status than he had ever let on, is in emollient mood. And Austen is happy to endow Catherine with more of these than he had come to expect: her family are not at all the paupers John Thorne had suggested, and her marriage portion is to be no less than £3,000.
And I’m left wondering whether this novel is as good as the sum of its parts. Its parts are what we would now call metafictional games (I’ve no idea what Jane Austen would call them), each played out over a couple of chapters or so. The main character with none of the attributes of a conventional heroine, who is nonetheless pursued by two men; the tropes of romantic and gothic fiction, parodied both by Henry Tilney and Jane Austen herself; the habit that novelists have of decrying their own literary products whilst continuing to create them; the neat way in which the highly visible author can send up the romantic happy ending whilst giving her readers exactly that…. I’m sure there are others.
And there’s more to it than that anyway. One thing Austen is trying out is that variant of dramatic irony that allows the reader to understand far more than the main character about what is going on. It’s a kind of unspoken agreement, assuring us that we are as clever as this author, and are allowed to feel just a bit superior. This begins rather crudely in this novel, with Catherine apparently unable to see through the most transparent of Isabella’s affectations… but it gets better, and by the end Austen is doing it as suavely – I can’t think of a better word – as in the later novels.
So is it as good as the sum of its parts? Yes. But not at all the well-rounded whole she might have produced a few years later.