Saturday, August 15, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Fifteen

Chapter 15 - the very short version Isabella and James are engaged.

Chapter 15

Frailty, thy name is Thorpe.

Catherine hies off to see Isabella after receiving a note. While waiting for Isabella to finish getting dressed (that's right - she makes Catherine rush over to see her before she's ready to be seen), Catherine gets the low-down from Maria, who went on the carriage ride yesterday in Catherine's stead. The trip turns out to be rather lame (no Blaize Castle after all), and we discover additional unfavorable information about John Thorpe, as well as his sisters Anne and Maria, really: "She will never forgive me, I am sure; but, you know, how could I help it? John would have me go, for he vowed he would not drive her, because she had such thick ankles. I dare say she will not be in good humour again this month; but I am determined I will not be cross; it is not a little matter that puts me out of temper."

From this, we get further proof that John's an ass (no surprise), and additional evidence that exaggeration and double-speak are entirely a family trait.

Isabella sweeps in and accuses Catherine of amazing powers of perception. Isabella's accusation is, like so much of the rest of what she says, false. She believes that Catherine has sorted everything out because, as we know, Isabella is all about Isabella, with little understanding of others.

How much do I love the slyness of this next little bit? Oh so much!

"You are so like your dear brother," continued Isabella, "that I quite doated on you the first moment I saw you. But so it always is with me; the first moment settles every thing. The very first day that Morland* came to us last Christmas -- the very first moment I beheld him -- my heart was irrecoverably gone. I remember I wore my yellow gown, with my hair done up in braids; and when I came into the drawing-room, and John introduced him, I thought I never saw any body so handsome before."

Here Catherine secretly acknowledged the power of love; for, though exceedingly fond of her brother, and partial to all his endowments, she had never in her life thought him handsome.

*Morland Isabella's speaking of James by surname alone represents a level of intimacy and familiarity. No longer "Mr. Morland," the shift represents a closeness and, marginally, a sense of possessiveness on Isabella's part.

And now we come to the real reason that Isabella summoned Catherine: She wants the skinny on Catherine's parents and how they're likely to react, particularly in light of Isabella's modest dowry. And what we learn, but Catherine does not perceive with her amazing powers of penetration (*cough*), is that Isabella believes the Morlands to be extremely well-to-do, while Catherine believes Isabella to be using her usual hyperbole.

Mrs. Thorpe, John and Isabella then collude to intimate to the younger sisters that something is afoot, but they don't tell them what, indicating that gamesmanship is indeed a family trait:
To Catherine's simple feelings, this odd sort of reserve seemed neither kindly meant, nor consistently supported; and its unkindness she would hardly have forborne pointing out, had its inconsistency been less their friend;-- but Anne and Maria soon set her heart at ease by the sagacity of their 'I know what'; and the evening was spent in a sort of war of wit, a display of family ingenuity, on one side in the mystery of an affected secret, on the other of undefined discovery, all equally acute.

The next day, a letter arrives from James Morland conveying his parents' approval of the match. Parental approval was required if the parties were under the age of 21, but, as a practical matter, persons older than 21 often sought parental approval as well so as to stay in their parents' good graces for inheritance purposes - just think of what happens to Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility when his mother is unhappy over his betrothal to Lucy Steele. This applies most particularly to men who were to inherit a significant fortune or living, and far less to younger sons who were essentially left to make their own ways in the world.

I'll say one thing for John Thorpe, who is (as I opined in the comments to Jennifer Barnes's blog post the other day) an annoying sort of character: he's good for comic relief. Also, Austen is exceptionally good at drawing annoying characters that people can't help but like a bit. Allow us to see what she says in this scene: "John himself was no skulker in joy. He not only bestowed on Mr. Morland the high commendation of being one of the finest fellows in the world, but swore off many sentences in his praise." AHAHAHA!

Foreshadowing and cross-purposes The final conversation between John Thorpe and Catherine Morland gives us Austen doing what she does best: multitasking. As readers, we know that John Thorpe thinks he's declaring himself to Catherine, and that Catherine thinks he's just chattering on without real purpose. Let's look at how many things Austen accomplishes with this conversation. I keep engaging in this exercise because I hope to take this particular analysis skill - once I've mastered it - to apply it to my own work. There's nothing quite like learning from master craftsmen, yes? I mean, why have a scene do just one thing when it can multitask?

1. Austen tells us more about John Thorpe's intentions and motivations. Regardless of whether we like him or not, he seems to genuinely like Catherine and to be interested in her. He speaks of her in flattering terms. It is clear to the reader that he wants to marry her, and his words about the marriage - that he has a decent living coming to him and therefore doesn't need a large fortune - seems to indicate that he's not expecting her to bring buckets of money along at the ceremony (although with a Thorpe, it's difficult to know if what one sees is what one gets).

2. We learn more about Catherine here as well. She is dismissive of Thorpe, and she is not at all attuned to any nuance in his conversation. When he mentions the song "Going to One Wedding Brings on Another", she merely responds that she doesn't sing. She has become so used to dismissing him that she is reacting sentence by sentence to what he says, and not examining what he's getting at on the whole, in part because she's not giving him her full attention. She has - in her mind - already dismissed him; therefore, she doesn't heed what he says.

3. The conversation foreshadows some sort of further miscommunication. Thorpe's proposal is not plainly stated - as a result, Catherine does not issue a clear rejection. Absent a clear rejection, Thorpe might be excused if he thinks himself accepted. After all, she does say that she'll be happy to see him when he calls at Fullerton. In his mind, she's invited him to call and ask for her hand. In her mind, she's managed the minimum of politeness. Clearly, something more is going to occur here.

End of Volume I Northanger Abbey originally took up two volumes of a four-volume set, having been published along with Persuasion, the last novel completed by Austen. Some books therefore start numbering the chapters over again, whilst others move on to "chapter 16", and still others offer both variants. I'll be going with the sequential number route, since there are 31 chapters and 31 days.

So - let's have a look at where we stand right now, for purposes of determining whether, in the days when each volume came with its own rental fee, we'd be willing to shell out the fee for the second volume. I guess what I'm asking is, "Would you read on?"

Where we are:
1. Catherine has met and started to fall for Henry Tilney, and we don't know how that will resolve itself.
2. James and Isabella are engaged, but Isabella seems to misapprehend James's fortune.
3. John Thorpe seems keen on marrying Catherine (who wants none of him, but may have inadvertently gotten engaged to him just now).

I can tell you with great assurance that I would read on (and have done so several times). It's so worth it, too, because we still haven't made our way to the location that gives this novel its title!

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