Friday, August 07, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Eight

Chapter 8 – the very short version Catherine can't dance with Henry Tilney at the Upper Rooms because she's engaged to dance with John Thorpe; she meets Miss Tilney, Henry's sister.

Chapter 8
Catherine arrives at the Upper Rooms with Mrs. Allen. As you may recall, Catherine has already promised the first two to John Thorpe; Isabella is likewise engaged to dance with James Morland. When the dancing starts, James immediately asks Isabella to stand up with him and John . . . John has flaked off to the card room, leaving Catherine sitting on the sidelines, where she muses on the situation – to the unknowing eye, she looks just like every other young lady who has not been asked to dance. Alas.

But wait! It's Henry Tilney! Our narrator's glee at seeing him with a young lady at his side knows almost no bounds:

He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and 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. From these circumstances sprang the instant conclusion of his sister's now being by his side; and therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness and falling in a fit on Mrs. Allen's bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses, and with cheeks only a little redder than usual.

And there we have it – a description of what's going on, filtered in such a way as to give you another demonstration of how life is not like a Gothic novel, and Catherine is not a Gothic heroine. Now, you may find it odd that the ensuing conversation is between Mrs. Allen and Henry Tilney, rather than Henry and Catherine, but I can assure you that it's not odd, and also, that it serves multiple purposes:

1. Mrs. Allen spoke first to Mr. Tilney. It would be discourteous of him to ignore her in order to address Catherine because she is his elder (and therefore is entitled to his respect) and because common courtesy would require him to respond to her address first, as he does.

2. Jane Austen is keen for the reader to feel disappointed in this chapter in the same manner that her heroine does. Therefore, she relates in detail the somewhat trivial conversation between Mrs. Allen and Mr. Tilney, which is all about health and manners (but does provide us with an indication that the Allens are going to stay in Bath a while longer). And she summarizes the brief conversation between Henry and Catherine, leaving us equally mortified as Catherine (and disappointed, since we don't have the details of their conversation).

Ball room etiquette

In the event that you are puzzled by Catherine's having turned Henry down when John wasn't around, you ought to know that young ladies of the time typically carried dance cards, sometimes on a ribbon around their wrist. If a young man wished to dance, he might request "the next dance" (meaning the next available one), and, if accepted, he'd write his name on the lady's card. Young ladies really weren't supposed to decline unless they had a valid reason – they were already engaged for that dance or they were feeling poorly or they'd already stood up with that particular gentleman twice – a third would be improper unless engaged (as would two sets in a row). Or a young man might request a particular dance, either because he was particularly fond of it or good at it, because it afforded him a better chance to get his hands on the lady (think of it as the difference today between a "fast dance" and a "slow dance" – he might prefer the slow dance, in order to have a bit more contact), or because it preceded dinner, and at a public assembly, one often ended up at dinner with the person one danced with prior. (Dinner would have preceded the dancing at the Upper Rooms, and therefore not be at issue, although perhaps tea might be.)

Later in the chapter, Catherine – who was mortified by being left sitting, further mortified by having to decline Mr. Tilney, made unhappy by John Thorpe's poor conversation (horses, dogs, and people she doesn't know), and made unhappier still by missing out on her second chance to dance with Mr. Tilney – declines John Thorpe's offer to dance with her a second time, which he extends extraordinarily casually: "Well, Miss Morland, I suppose you and I are to stand up and jig it together again." His casual phrasing combined with his presumptiveness are the final straw in pissing off vexing Catherine, who says that she's tired and doesn't intend to dance any more. And here's the thing – having said that, she is now precluded by the rules of society from dancing any more dances, even if Mr. Tilney turns up and asks her. Probably worth it in this instance, but still – she just went nuclear in order to avoid John Thorpe. Who doesn't pick up on her desire to avoid him in the slightest.

Eleanor Tilney v. Isabella Thorpe This chapter does have a plus side for Catherine – she is introduced to Eleanor Tilney. Miss Tilney has appropriate manners, and she's got a good figure, a pretty face, and "a very agreeable countenance" – a word which here means "the expression that she wears on her face", although sometimes the word was used in Regency times to mean "face". Starting with the second part of the first sentence in this paragraph, note how the narrator backhands Isabella:

. . . and her air, though it had not all the decided pretension, the resolute stilishness of Miss Thorpe's, had more real elegance. Her manners shewed good sense and good breeding; they were neither shy nor affectedly open; and she seemed capable of being young, attractive, and at a ball without wanting to fix the attention of every man near her, and without exaggerated feelings of ecstatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every little trifling occurrence.

So here we see what an actually stylish young woman ought to act like: Miss Tilney is the personification of an attractive, proper young woman, whereas Miss Thorpe is (at least comparatively) a hoyden. Well-managed, Miss Austen. You have again multi-tasked, and the introduction of Eleanor Tilney does at least three things:

1. Introduces and describes Eleanor.

2. Explains the appearance and conduct of a proper role model for Catherine.

3. Because of the comparison, Isabella's image is further tarnished when she's set next to Eleanor (rather like comparing paste to real diamonds – the false glitter that is Isabella is that much clearer).

Even Mrs. Thorpe seems a bit crass by the end of this chapter, since she's so fixated on her own children (as usual) that she doesn't understand that comments she hears are about Mr. Tilney, not John Thorpe. And if Mrs. Allen notices something's up (as she does here), it's got to be fairly obvious, right?

Coming tomorrow – Catherine gets stuck spending the day with John Thorpe in his carriage

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