Friday, July 31, 2009

Chapter One

Chapter 1 - the very short version We are introduced to our main character, Catherine Morland, through the auspices of our sassy narrator. Catherine is invited to go to Bath with her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Chapter 1

Oh, the opening lines. I particularly love the first two sentences:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

These sentences do at least four things:

1. They introduce us to our heroine.
2. They introduce us to our narrator and her voice.
3. They briefly summarize what the first two paragraphs (in my editions, more than two full pages) are going to tell us, while
4. They introduce us to one of the things Austen's up to: skewering Gothic novels and "conduct novels" such as those written by Samuel Richardson, which tried to be morally instructive, while relating sensational and sometimes "horrid" tales (including abductions, abuse, rapes, etc.)

Popular conventions of Gothic novels (and, indeed, in quite a large number of 20th-century Regency romances) include a main character with one or more of the following attributes:

1. a dead mother (usually dead since the heroine's birth) or a living mother who is either completely clueless or cruel and manipulative;
2. a dead father, in which case she has a male guardian who is typically one or more of the following things: inattentive, abusive, or absent; or a living father who gets to be inattentive, cruel or absent in his own right;
3. a family somehow forced into poverty OR a dowry that's tied up somehow and the object of male attention;
4. a large number of "accomplishments": the ability to sew well, dance well, play the pianoforté well, sing well, draw and paint well, and maybe speak French;
5. a large number of physically attractive qualities: beautiful hair, skin, eyes, teeth, a "fine figure", etc.;
6. intelligence in the form of the ability to learn quickly and intuitively;
7. a "moral" education;
8. fine manners;
9. only a smattering of actual education, frequently obtained from conduct books and Elegant Extracts: Useful and Entertaining Passages in Poetry/Prose. I'm nearly certain there are more - chime in if you know these tropes!

Catherine, we are told, has almost none of them. She isn't musical, doesn't like "girl" things, preferred running around with the boys and playing baseball* to sewing and whatnot. Both parents are alive, sensible and kind, and she is comfortably what we today would call upper middle class. Her family's not wealthy, but they certainly aren't hurting; her father has land and several incomes. As a young child, she was sallow and stringy and not at all beautiful, and she only makes it to "almost pretty" in the present time.

*Sidenote: The Oxford English Dictionary records this as the earliest printed use of the word base ball, probably referring to the game known as "rounders", which has existed in England since Tudor times.

The proof of Catherine's education, it must be noted, smacks of Elegant Extracts all the way, and of Austen's sneering at such an education. (Austen herself was a prodigious reader from a young age.)

Almost without fail, what we're told Catherine learned (or took away from what she read) is misquoted or misapplied. Those of you who read along during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month might recognize her first Shakespeare quote as being Iago's lines from Othello as he plots how to set Cassio up to seem like he's been shtupping Desdemona, and the third as Viola's (in drag as Cesario's) lines from Twelfth Night, who is relating a tragic story, not talking about what a young woman in love ought to look like.

That Austen wishes the reader to realize how Catherine has misconstrued these quotes (or allowed her understanding to be based on an extremely short abbreviation) is made clear by the brevity of them, as well as their context. In most cases, the original lines were written in iambic pentameter, yet many of them contain fewer than the ten requisite syllables to meet that requirement, so brief is Catherine's sampling.

The narrator - not truly Austen, although perhaps a version of her - ends the chapter by again sending up the conventions of Gothic and other sensational novels of the time: there's no peril, no hero. How on earth can Catherine be a heroine under these circumstances?

Thank heavens for Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Tomorrow: Chapter 2.

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