Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Chapter Three



Chapter 3 - the very short version Catherine attends the Lower Rooms with the Allens and meets the hero, Mr. Henry Tilney.

Since I have no Brock illustration to share with you today, I've opted to share this video starring J.J. Feild as Henry Tilney and Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland. Because I find J.J. Feild and Felicity Jones absolutely charming in their roles. Even though sometimes the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, made weird choices for them. Still, this scene is fairly close to what's in the book, and captures the spirit remarkably well, and the person who edited this particular video avoids the scene stolen from the bizarre (in a funny/trippy, hey-who-added-the-porn-soundtrack sort of way) 1986 BBC production starring Peter Firth, known these days as "the guy from Spooks". (Why have I not been watching that show forever? The season that had Matthew Macfadyen AND Rupert Penry-Jones AND David Oleyowo must have been nothing but eye candy all the time. But I digress.)





Chapter 3

Henry Tilney turns up at the Lower Rooms and asks the master of ceremonies for an introduction to Catherine. He asks her to dance - in that time, it would have meant standing up together for two dances. And now, a word about English Country Dancing.

Having done this style of dance myself at the Jane Austen Society of North America's Annual General Meeting in Chicago last fall, I can assure you that a single dance takes far longer than the three minutes in the clip above. Each dance can, in fact, take 10 minutes or longer, during which the parties move up and down the set in prescribed order, so to stand up with a gentleman for two dances (standard practice) meant you were committed to close to half an hour in his company.

And another thing: It is pretty much impossible to carry on any sort of conversation during the dance unless you happen to have hit the end of the set and are "out" for one rotation. The only conversation myself and my partner (my friend Jennifer)was the occasional "woops!" and a fit of hysterical laughter after Jennifer's reticule* bashed somebody else upside the head on an under-arm spin. Seriously, you are moving too much and concentrating on not going the wrong way (à la David Bamber's Mr. Collins in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice: "Wrong way, Mr. Collins!") Nevertheless, in the movies they make the actors talk whilst dancing because, well, they want to include the dancing because it's pretty (and can be sexy - Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley in Emma anyone?) and people like to watch it, and they can't just have the dancing without conversation, I suppose, and it moves the movie along.

*reticule: a draw-string bag used by women in Regency gowns, which were cut in such a way as to make pockets unworkable. They are easy to make, for any seamstresses out there, and you can see some of them at Austentations' website.




                    Regency tea set

Henry Tilney's conversation at tea Henry is not sending up Gothic novels with his purposefully affected conversation enumerating the pleasures of Bath. He is, as so clearly comes through in J.J. Feild's performance, doing three things. (Because Miss Austen, as you may have noticed, never does only one thing when she can do two, three, or more at the same time.) First, he is flirting with Catherine Morland, who isn't entirely sure what to make of him, but who finds him amusing and charming; that he is willing to break character in response to her question about "surprize" marks him as a kind-hearted soul, since by doing so, he pulls her into the joke, so that it is not at her expense. Second, he is mocking possible rival suitors. That Catherine has none undoubtedly becomes clear to him since she finds his questions new. Third, he is at least summarizing and quite possibly also mocking Bath society, which revolves around the things he lists off. Letters and diaries written by people in the gentry class visiting Bath back then show an extraordinarily busy social calendar; it seems one never had much free time when in Bath.

And now, the meatier part of their exchange:

"And are you altogether pleased with Bath?"

"Yes -- I like it very well."

"Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again." Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. "I see what you think of me," said he gravely -- "I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow."

"My journal!"

"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings -- plain black shoes -- appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."

"Indeed I shall say no such thing."

"Shall I tell you what you ought to say?"

"If you please."

"I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him -- seems a most extraordinary genius -- hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say."

"But, perhaps, I keep no journal."

"Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? -- My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies' ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal."

"I have sometimes thought," said Catherine, doubtingly, "whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is -- I should not think the superiority was always on our side."

"As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars."

"And what are they?"

"A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar."

"Upon my word! I need not have been afraid of disclaiming the compliment. You do not think too highly of us in that way."

"I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes."

First, Henry pokes fun at himself by depicting himself poorly, then tells Catherine what he would hope she might write about him - and what he hopes is that she likes him and wants to see him again, the implication of his comment being that he likes her and wants to see her again. That he likes her a great deal indeed is made plain when he asks her to stand up with him a second time after tea, effectively spending most of the evening with her. A young man wouldn't ask a girl to stand up a second time were he not interested in her; to do so would be improper. And his comments about the two of them soon being acquainted and his intention to tease her indicates that he likes her as well; whether Catherine realizes that to be the case or not is something else entirely.

Henry's comments about women's letters, while flip, reflect beliefs (then and quite probably now) that women make better correspondents with men. Henry at first allows that it may be so, and opines that recourse to a journal is one of the things that allows women to fill their letters with details. Upon further questioning, however, he says something somewhat radical, in a protofeminist sense: I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes. Bravo, Mr. Tilney. Score one point for equality of the sexes!

Catherine's journal Catherine, bless her heart, actually manages to tease him a bit with her "Perhaps I keep no journal" response. Henry's astonishment both advances his flirtation with her and conveys actual information about practices of the time. In fact, nearly all young ladies kept some form of day book or journal in which they noted what engagements they'd had and perhaps made notes about what they wore, etc. And also, young ladies - particularly young ladies like our Miss Morland, who was away from her family - would have maintained an active correspondence with family members from whom they were separated (cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as parents, brothers and sisters) as well as with close friends. There being no telephones or internet, letters were exchanged with some regularity. When separated from her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen wrote her a letter approximately every three days or so, containing tremendous detail about events, occurrences, gossip, people's health (and symptoms), food, fashions, visits, books, and more. Henry's assumption that she'd be writing a letter is soundly based on common practices and, as we learn soon thereafter, Henry has a sister with whom he is particularly close, so he has some insight into the ways of women.


Oh, Mrs. Allen! Mrs. Allen's high opinion of Henry Tilney is based not on his dancing with Catherine or his conversation, but on his admission to knowing something about muslin (the preferred fabric of the time for those lovely Empire gowns). Thank heavens her husband is more sensible; Mr. Allen, we learn, approves because he's enquired about Henry's bona fides, and knows he's a clergyman who comes from a "very respectable" (here, a term which means both "acceptable" and "wealthy") family.

Samuel Richardson Who? you may ask? Samuel Richardson was an 18th-century writer, who wrote Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady, Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded and (one of Austen's favorite books) The History of Sir Charles Grandison. He also wrote The Rambler, vol. ii, no. 97 in 1751, in which he said quaint things like "Modesty and diffidence, gentleness and meekness, were looked upon as the appropriate virtues and characteristick graces of the [female] sex. And if a forward spirit pushed itself into notice, it was exposed in print as it deserved." And he said this as well: "That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is an heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow." Here is the "celebrated writer" to whom Austen refers - and gently makes fun of, as she was wont to do.

Tomorrow: Chapter 4 I know Catherine's hoping to see Henry again tomorrow. How about you?

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