Writing and Ruminating

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

Friday, August 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Fourteen



Chapter 14 – the very short version Catherine takes a nice long walk with Eleanor and Henry Tilney along Beechen Cliff.

Chapter 14 – the exceedingly long version
I must first say that the discussion of this chapter is really, truly lengthy. There are a lot of things on the board in this chapter, and so rather than skimping, I went long. Hence, the use of multiple "cuts". I hope that you can find the time to read them, because there is seriously interesting stuff in this here chapter.

So. Most of the time, I fully believe the narrator in Northanger Abbey, as in others of Austen's books, is an independent construct. Perhaps an aspect of Austen, but not Austen per se. However, the following bit from the first paragraph has me wondering: narrator or author?

my heroine was most unnaturally able to fulfil her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself.

I think maybe Austen stepped far closer to her narrator here than in other places. What say you?

"They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff"
Beechen Cliff is now, as it was then, a large hill near Bath, most of which is free of development. Climbing Beechen Cliff involved, I am assured, walking up an extremely steep slope and navigating exceedingly steep wooden stairs known as "Jacob's ladder"; this is not a walk for the faint of heart.

The hill itself sits well apart from any other hills, so once one attains its height, one gets a tremendous view of the city. Here is a panoramic view of Bath that you may click on to pan to the left and right, thereby seeing Bath as it is now. Because one is atop a hill overlooking the city, and the other hills are at a distance, one evidently is favored with a large expanse of sky as well, as can be seen in the artist's rendering below, which is from approximately 1830:



For more information on Beechen Cliff, what the climb was like, what the terrain was like, and tidbits such as the air smelling of woods and wild garlic, you can check out this thorough post at Jane Austen's World.

On being a reader Over at The Enchanted Inkpot today, I read a post that included this tidbit from Kate Coombs about Holly Black's speech at the LA SCBWI conference: "Black added that we have to believe in Elfland when we read fantasy. It has to feel real. Like historical fiction, good fantasy convinces readers that they've been somewhere they've never actually been."

Gothic novels are a subset of fantasy. So truly, it's little surprise to me that Catherine Morland, on looking at Beechen Cliff in Somerset County, England, opines that it looks just like a place she's never seen in real life, because she's been there in her imagination quite vividly when reading novels by Ann Radcliffe. Although she specifically brings up The Mysteries of Udolpho, which she's been reading, Radcliffe also described the south of France in The Romance of the Forest.

And now, we get back to conversation about books and reading, with an initial focus on novels. You may recall that in my discussion about Austen's so-called "Defense of the Novel" in Chapter 5, I mentioned how unfashionable it was to admit to reading novels. I also said in the comments that I find it "interesting how the mens' comments on novels give us so much insight into their personality, and on whether they are intelligent and sensible and good company, or not." Within the post itself, I predicted that you'd be able to tell who the hero was by his view on novels. You may recall how, in chapter 7, John Thorpe insults novels in general, Fanny Burney in particular, and denigrates Udolpho. He has proven to be an unsatisfactory, untrustworthy companion with poor judgment. It should come as no surprise, then, that Henry Tilney takes a different view:

" . . . It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in the 'Mysteries of Udolpho.' But you never read novels, I dare say?"
"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you -- gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; -- I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time."

"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage-walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."

"Thank you, Eleanor; -- a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion."

"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly."

"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do -- for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as -- what shall I say? -- l want an appropriate simile. -- as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!"

Now. On the one hand, Henry admits to reading novels. And on the other, he's being a bit of a pedant, making fun of Catherine for using words in what were then slang-like ways. "Amazing" used to have to do with causing wonder and surprise; the use of the word to convey the idea of something being exceptionally good was only just beginning, and Mr. Tilney is a bit of a stickler for the definitions to be found in Dr. Johnson's dictionary – hence his emphasis on amazing and amazement here, as well as his protracted teasing on the word nice in a following paragraph.

"Nice" meant "accurate, scrupulous, or delicate" – more to do with things being neat or tidy or precise or particular, and not at all to do with being pleasing or agreeable; Catherine is using it in the evolving sense of it being pleasing – Henry is teasing her based on the technical dictionary definition of the time. It shows him in a somewhat mixed light, as Eleanor is quick to point out: "You are more nice than wise." (By which she means either particular, or the completely obsolete (even then) meanings of "silly" or "foolish".) Well said Eleanor!

From novels, the discussion turns to other sorts of texts: poetry, travelogues, and, of course, history.

"But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"
Catherine expresses amazement (heh) at learning that Eleanor enjoys reading histories:

But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"

"Yes, I am fond of history."

"I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs - the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."

Austen read a great deal of histories herself, but that did not prevent her from skewering histories of England. A copy of Oliver Goldsmith's History of England that once belonged to her contains a number of notations in the margins, many of them expressing disapproval or derision. And at the age of 15, she wrote her own History of England, illustrated by her sister, Cassandra. The inscription inside the first page reads as follows:

The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st
By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian
To Miss Austen, eldest daughter of the Revd. George Austen, this Work is inscribed with all due respect by The Author
NB. There will be very few Dates in this History.

You can look through the entire original manuscript at the British Library website by selecting the link at the bottom right of the screen for pages 1 & 2, and thereafter enlarging the pages as you wish whilst paging through.

What you should know is that Austen had tremendous fun as she made wild assertions and culled as much of her knowledge of history from Shakespeare as from any actual historical text. You may remember my summary of the play Henry V from Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month.

Here's Jane Austen's complete text for that particular king:

Henry the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King's daughter Catherine, a very agreable Woman by Shakespeare's account. Inspite of all this however he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.


The picturesque The idea of the picturesque as an aesthetic ideal comes from William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, but did not truly become a talking point in British society until the mid-1780s. The image to the left is Gilpin's picturesque portrait of Tintern Abbey (yes, the same place that Wordsworth referred to in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798", published by Wordsworth and Coleridge as part of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and marking the start of the English Romantic movement in poetry, later taken up by others including Byron).

More on the picturesque, and on Catherine's ignorance of the concept
The notion of the picturesque ideal was part of the emerging Romanticism of the late 18th century, and dovetails nicely with the Romantic movement in poetry and in, say, Gothic novels. Austen is known to have read and admired Gilpin's work. The picturesque represented a middle ground between the rational extremes of "beauty" and "the sublime" – two ideals that came out of the Enlightenment. The picturesque was a term "expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture", or so Gilpin wrote in an earlier work from 1768, his Essay on Prints.

We are told that Catherine is unfamiliar with this notion, whereas Henry and Eleanor know and discuss it at length. We are told that "the little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day." This leads the narrator to a very funny bit of musing on the nature of forming attachments.

Are men really looking for pretty faces and empty heads? That's certainly one way to interpret the narrator's assertion that ignorance is an asset, and that "A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can." But I do not believe that is precisely what the narrator intended. What she meant is that men like to be able to "instruct" women, which is made clear from some of what follows.

"The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author*; -- and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance."

*The "sister author" here is Fanny Burney, and the reference is to the character Indiana in her novel, Camilla.

On ignorance

First, I will remind you of something I said back in chapter 2: "First, a word about ignorance. Ignorant . . . 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, I'm going to quote from the footnote to this paragraph from my Norton Critical Edition of the novel, edited by Susan Fraiman:

Here we expect a concession to that minority of superior men who seek not imbecility in women but rationality – instead the sentence swerves to suggest that even the cleverest men like a good-looking girl with an ignorant mind. Austen's Emma Woodhouse makes a similar accusation in defense of her protégée, Harriet Smith. Mr. Knightley deprecates sweet, pretty Harriet as lacking in sense and information, but Emma argues: "Till [men] do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after. . . . I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such a temper, the highest claims a woman could possess" (Emma, vol. 1, chap. 8). Conduct writers like Dr. John Gregory admitted as much, and in all seriousness counseled women to keep their good sense and learning a secret from men. Mocking this advice, Austen echoes Mary Wollstonecraft's debunking of Gregory, in which she urged women to employ their minds and shun dissimulation.

Anyhow, what Austen observes is that having a kind-hearted, pretty girl like Catherine hanging on his every word as he waxed eloquent naturally made Catherine still more attractive to Henry than she'd been before. Which is probably true (and true of human nature), even if it's not an entirely flattering sort of thing to point out. After finding things to praise Catherine for (again, the author winks at us, her audience), Henry changes the subject. The mention of enclosure I shall let pass for now, but it will come up again in the future – it was a hot-button political topic at the time the novel was first written, even though it sounds positively benign to modern readers, particularly as part of a list. That the characters discussed politics at all – specifically, too – is a bit of a rarity for Austen's novels, although it most certainly was a commonplace in her home life.

Something shocking out of London Nothing is funnier than a conversation at cross-purposes, which is just what Catherine and Eleanor engage in. Catherine is speaking about a novel. Eleanor, who is four years older than Catherine and far better educated in the world and in politics, believes that Catherine is referring to news about riots. Henry displays excellent understanding of both the women in his life and is amused as hell by their miscommunication, which he eventually sorts out for them (although his teasing of his sister – "My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous." – seems a wee bit ungenerous).

In his explanation to Catherine, he seems dismissive of Eleanor's fears, but what he mentions as occurring in St. George's Fields ("the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons, (the hopes of the nation,) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents") has historical precedent.

The reference to St. George's Fields is to an area in Southwark, London, which had numerous ties to mob violence. It saw riots in 1768 related to John Wilkes (often called the Massacre of St. George's Fields), and again in 1780 (the Gordon riots) involving tens of thousands of people, who stormed the Bank of England and were eventually subdued by the military. In 1795, St. George's Fields was the site of a protest over the curtailment of civil liberties in the period following the French Revolution, which included an attack on the King's carriage as it passed through the fields.

Henry is in such high spirits that he amuses himself, sometimes at the expense of the women in his company. Eleanor is quick to upbraid him, and to try to get him to speak his mind on the intelligence of women. His flip remarks directed to Miss Morland are indeed, well, flip, but they are not actually insulting. Eleanor further intercedes to assure Catherine "that he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me." And good-hearted Catherine is so generous that she's willing to take it on faith, going so far as to believe that Henry Tilney is never wrong – something she will revisit further into the book, in case you're apoplectic over that notion.

In the conversation about "something shocking out of London", Austen is doing a multiplicity of things:

1. She is reinforcing the notion that Catherine is a bit too fond of novels.

2. She is showing what actual horrors might exist in the real world, which are in many ways far worse than the sort of shocks that Catherine finds in her books.

3. She is showing more about each of the individual characters in this scene: Catherine's good-hearted, naive earnestness; Eleanor's thoughtful, more serious and socially conscious bent; and Henry's enjoyment of a good laugh.

4. She is revealing more about Henry's attitude toward women than what he says – that he is fond of Eleanor and of Catherine is plain, and even though he laughs at them, he does set out to set their minds at ease, choosing first to calm Eleanor, who has actual fear, and then explaining the situation to Catherine, who is merely bewildered.

5. She is showing the developing attachment between Catherine and Henry. We are told that Catherine thinks highly of Henry (who can do no wrong *snort*), but we are shown how Henry is drawn to Catherine for her appearance and her "ignorance", and he spends quite a lot of time engaged in conversation with her on a wide-ranging number of topics. We are also shown that they have common interests (novels, but long walks and conversation as well), and we know that Henry doesn't make Catherine feel inferior for reading novels in the way that John Thorpe did (when he dismissed them); rather, Henry declares that people who don't like novels "must be intolerably stupid." To which I say, "here, here!" But I digress.

6. She is introducing a number of political topics here – encroachment, the various riots, and more are mentioned in this chapter, some of them quite hot-button topics. I point this out because some of them come up again later on – including a political use of the ideal of the picturesque to "improve" landscapes by razing tenants' cottages – and because, well, I enjoy pointing out that Austen did indeed tackle politics in her novel. (Take that, critics who claim she only talks about everyday life and avoids big issues!)

At the end of the chapter, Catherine is quite pleased with her day, pleased to be invited to dine with the Tilneys and – kind-hearted soul that she is – hopeful that Isabella and James are no longer unhappy with her. The careful reader will note that she doesn't really give John Thorpe a thought.

What have Isabella and James been up to? And what about John Thorpe? Tune in tomorrow!

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