Monday, August 03, 2009

Chapter Four

Chapter 4 - the very short version Catherine looks around for Henry Tilney but fails to find him; Mrs. Allen bumps into an old school friend, Mrs. Thorpe, and Catherine becomes fast friends with her eldest daughter, Isabella

Chapter 4

The Pump Room Giddy after a successful evening out in the company of a nearly-handsome man, Catherine rushes to the Pump Room, sure she's going to run into him.

Mr. Tilney did not appear. Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody wanted to see; and he only was absent.

First, what the Pump Room is: It is a building constructed above hot mineral springs with water at a constant 49°C/120°F, which has been imbibed for medicinal purposes for centuries (since the time that the Romans settled there, and possibly earlier). In Austen's time, there were also spring-fed hot baths, where people could take the water in order to relieve various aches and pains. As it turns out, there were also Roman baths nearby, but those weren't uncovered until after Austen's death. During the morning*, visitors would stroll about in the Pump Room to see and be seen and to drink the waters while an orchestra played music from a small balcony. Those in good healthy would have a glass as a constitutional; those in ill health would drink however many glasses their particular doctor prescribed for them.

*morning: In Regency England, morning lasted pretty much all day; any time up until dinner, which was served in most towns starting sometime between 6 and 8 p.m. (in the country, it was usually slightly earlier - say, between 4:30 and 6).

Second, what the Pump Room is like. If Bath were a college, the Pump Room would be either the cafeteria or the quad - wherever it is that you're pretty much guaranteed to see everyone on campus on a given day. With the Pump Room, not only did you see pretty much everyone in Bath there, but there was actually a book in the Pump Room where people newly arrived in town would sign their names. That way, were one checking for someone in particular, they could check the guest book to see if they'd turned up in town yet.

About Catherine's reaction Well. We've all been there, haven't we? There's nothing wrong with the day at all, but since Henry Tilney's not there, Catherine decides to write off all of Bath. God bless. Meanwhile, Mrs. Allen (Oh, Mrs. Allen!) is busy opining how delightful Bath is - or would be, if only they had any acquaintance - completely oblivious to poor Catherine's woe.

Note for curious poetry fans: The quoted lines "'despair of nothing we would attain,' as 'unwearied diligence our point would gain'" come from a copy-book for children called A Guide to the English Tongue by Thomas Dyche, first printed in 1707. I rather suspect some of those couplets were akin to the nursery rhyme advice my grandmothers used to quote. (In this instance, upon hearing Mrs. Allen carp about wishing for some acquaintance, my grandmother Stewart would undoubtedly have said, "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride," a phrase I continue to use to this day thanks to her. But I digress.)

Meeting the Thorpes Dear Jane, I don't mean to alarm you, but your deus ex machina is showing.

Sitting around obliviously in the Pump Room, Mrs. Allen is approached by Mrs. Thorpe, a complete chatterbox who rattles on about her children while Mrs. Allen feels smug about her own superior lace. Only when Mrs. Thorpe's three daughters turn up does Mrs. Allen remember her young charge, and it turns out that the Thorpes know Catherine's brother, James, who is friends with John Thorpe. For now, let us just say that Isabella's seizing on that fact immediately and wishing for Catherine's closer acquaintance smacks of James being rather friendly with Isabella, and leave it at that.

The meeting also smacks of extreme authorial convenience, hence my little note to Miss Austen, above. If you've not read the book before and haven't read ahead, I hope this little tidbit doesn't spoil things for you, but, having shown us two brothers, Miss Austen will undoubtedly produce and use them before the end of the novel (rather like the old advice about using a gun if you've shown it, the precise iteration of which eludes me at present).

Isabella Thorpe Who among us has not had a crush (of sorts) on a slightly older, cooler, more experienced girl who is kind to us and seems to want to be a helpful friend? Such is the case with Miss Isabella Thorpe (who, as the eldest daughter, would formally be known as "Miss Thorpe", whereas her sisters would be "Miss Anne Thorpe" and "Miss Maria Thorpe" - also? Maria was not pronounced like the name of the girl in West Side Story, but rather as in "They call the wind Mariah"). In this instance, Isabella's experience is superior to Catherine's (she's been to balls in Tunbridge Wells, another spa town in west Kent, not particularly far from London, as well as in Bath, and she's apparently been to London recently, where she's taken note of fashions). Isabella's superior knowledge is not of a superior nature, if you catch my drift. She's not exactly widely travelled, and her ability to spot flirtations so easily marks her as a flirt herself, and indicates a certain want of depth on her part.

For the curious, the word quiz, used twice in the lengthy paragraph describing Miss Thorpe's knowledge, indicates a curious person or object who/which invites ridicule or mockery, and not a small sort of test.

The parting lines The narrator steps firmly in to intercede for us, lest one of the characters - in this case, Mrs. Thorpe - feel the need to tell us her story first-hand:

Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.

I will now take a moment to thank Miss Austen for her kindness here, and to point out to any fellow writers reading here that this is an extremely clever and judicious way of telling, not showing, us the information. No flashback, no conversation. Just a quick summary to set us on our feet so we can keep up with her. Now, I know that the general rule is "show, don't tell," but I rather prefer the articulation I heard in a writing seminar with Rachel Pollack, in which she said "Show OR tell, but don't do both." Because sometimes, telling is appropriate. What Jane Austen did here was totally an appropriate (and, because of how she did it, hilarious) use of telling.

Outlook for tomorrow: Chapter 5 Cloudy prospects for seeing Mr. Tilney, but a high probability of some serious literary discussion.

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