Writing and Ruminating

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

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Chapter Two



Chapter 2 - the very short version
Catherine takes leave of her family and goes to Bath with the Allens. We find out that Mr. Allen is a kind man with a good head on his shoulders; Mrs. Allen, on the other hand, is flighty and fashion-obsessed. The party attends the Upper Rooms.


                  The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by George Cruikshank

Chapter 2

Here, the first paragraph of the second chapter. Which is, in fact, a single sentence. If you have a moment - and hey, it's Sunday, so hopefully you have a moment, please read it aloud. I promise you that you will enjoy it far more that way, and that it may, in fact, become that much clearer to you. Give it your best "sassy narrator" voice, won't you?

In addition to what has been already said of Catherine Morland's personal and mental endowments, when about to be launched into all the difficulties and dangers of a six weeks' residence in Bath, it may be stated, for the reader's more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be, that her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind -- her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty -- and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.

First, a word about ignorance. Ignorant as used at the end of this sentence is a word that, in Austen's time, was used to describe a lack of knowledge or education - in this case, largely a reference to Catherine Morland's lack of experience in the wider world - and it did not have the modern slang definition of "stupid", nor the somewhat pejorative use meaning that someone is impolite or unkind.

Second, a word about that last little bit as a whole "about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is." Look at the several things Austen does here:
1. She's inviting you to laugh along with her. Here, she says, is something we're all familiar with - teenagers making their way into new society, having no real clue what they are getting themselves into.

2. She's reminding you that Catherine Morland is your average teenage girl. I should note that seventeen was marriageable age in Austen's time, since very few girls today marry at that age (although it is still done in the U.S., as well as elsewhere).

An additional point about Catherine taking a trip to Bath with the Allens: What readers of her time would have supposed is that Miss Morland was already out, meaning that she had been introduced in society and was free to go out and socialize (and seek a spouse). In the case of nobility or even aristocracy, "coming out" was often effected by introducing the young lady at court. Here is how the delightful Maggie Sullivan describes "Coming Out" in her wonderful book, The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World, which discusses how it was accomplished other times - and what it meant:

There was no set way for a young lady to make her debut in society. Her parents or guardians might hold a ball in her honor, as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram did for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, or she might start attending dinners and evening parties with her parents. In many families it was common for the eldest daughter to at least be engaged before the younger daughters were allowed to come out, presumably so they would not compete with her for potential husbands or embarrass her by becoming engaged first. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is shocked to learn that Elizabeth Bennet's younger sisters are out before the elder are married. A girl not yet out was expected to be quieter and more demurely dressed than her elder sisters--some, like Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, even felt a girl not yet out should be under the care of her governess rather than making a show of herself in public.


In the next three paragraphs, Austen again savages conventions from Gothic novels. The set-up in many of them involved a girl leaving home (willingly or not). I'm pretty sure you can deduce the conventions for yourself by noting what Austen says did not happen. And that third paragraph (again, a single lengthy sentence) is so terribly wry. One can almost sense Austen's tongue firmly implanted in her cheek:

Under these unpromising auspices, the parting took place, and the journey began. It was performed with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen's side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.

Look, she says. This is a trip like any trip you have taken yourself. It has no Gothic elements at all. What interests me is why she does this. It is not merely because she wishes to poke fun at Gothic novels (which she loved, by the by). No - it is because she wants the reader to be perfectly clear that everything is, at least at this point, completely ordinary. The narrator avers it, we believe it, and, moreover, we are given to understand through inference that Catherine Morland understands it as well, for surely she must notice that what's going on in her life is different from the novels she is fond of. This is a highly subtle bit of foreshadowing, ladies and gents. More on that later in the book.

Having managed to moved Catherine, the Allens, and (unmentioned, but decidedly present) some maids and a valet at the least to Bath, Austen launches into a description of Mrs. Allen. First, she spoofs Gothic novels in a short sentence that gives you a fine idea of what an actual Gothic novel would have a guardian like Mrs. Allen do. And then she describes Mrs. Allen as she really is - a woman who would be pretty much incapable from acting as a Gothic villainess ought. Instead, Austen gives us one of her comical characters, presaging, perhaps, the vapidity of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice with Mrs. Allen, a vain, silly sort of woman who is exceedingly concerned about fashion. (Mrs. Bennet has to worry about marrying her daughters off; the childless Mrs. Allen has no such thing to distract her attention from her dresses.) On the plus side, Mrs. Allen ensures that Catherine looks as she ought to do when entering Bath society - current modes of hair, dress, bonnets, etc. are studied and acquired. For that, she deserves genuine appreciation, for she spares Catherine any possible mortification from having entered a concert, ball room, theatre or other venue dressed like a hick from the boondocks.

There were two sets of Assembly Rooms in Bath, both of which could be attended provided one paid the appropriate subscription fee. Balls at the Upper Rooms were held twice a week - on Mondays and Thursdays - and were usually horribly crowded (between 800 and 1200 people). There was a separate room for tea, where those past their dancing days could hang out, and card rooms for the men. Balls at the Lower Rooms, which were much older, were also held two nights a week - on Tuesdays and Fridays, so as not to conflict with the schedule at the Upper Rooms. At the Lower Rooms, dancing started almost precisely at 6 p.m., and ended at 11 p.m., even if the company was in the middle of a dance. For those of you interested in the public assembly rooms at Bath, I commend to you these articles over at Jane Austen's World about the Lower Rooms and the Upper Rooms.

Poor Catherine got stuck spending all night with her chaperone, since neither of them knew anyone, and the Master of Ceremonies didn't approach them to make an introduction to any gentleman interested in dancing with Catherine. (One simply didn't plop down and start chatting with one's neighbors then - it would have been considered inappropriate to speak with someone to whom one had not been introduced.) However, Catherine ends up delighted with the evening nonetheless, after she overheard that "two gentlemen pronounced her to be a pretty girl."


Having put her heroine in Bath - and in Bath society - Austen leaves us wondering, at the end of this chapter, exactly what is going to happen. That nothing of serious consequence has befallen our heroine cannot stand, of course, and although she winds the chapter up telling us that Catherine is content, I find it leaves me feeling like I'm standing at the edge of a precipice, for something is about to happen. Austen manages to build to it, in fact, by highlighting the very little-to-nothing that has happened, almost setting us up by negative implication. Or at least, that's my take on it.

Geeky poetry note: Austen makes reference in the final sentence of this chapter to a heroic crown of sonnets with this phrase: she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms. A crown or corona of sonnets consists of 7 linked sonnets, as I explained in this post when I wrote the seventh sonnet in a group-written crown. The stanzas are linked in that the last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second, and the last line of the seventh stanza must be the same as the first line of the first stanza. A heroic crown of sonnets is significantly trickier; it's composed of fourteen interlinked sonnets written as described above, with a fifteenth sonnet composed entirely of the first lines of each of the previous fourteen sonnets, in order. (Marilyn Nelson's marvelous book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, is a heroic crown, and a compelling piece of civil rights writing as well.)

Coming tomorrow: Chapter 3 What will happen? *starts singing "Something's Coming" from West Side Story*

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