Writing and Ruminating

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

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Nine

Chapter 9 – the very short version Catherine goes on a ride with John Thorpe in his open carriage.

Chapter 9 Our narrator starts us off with a lengthy paragraph in which she starts by mocking the conventions applying to Gothic heroines, moves to a mockery of Mrs. Allen, and concludes with the noisy and unexpected arrival of John Thorpe. A true Gothic heroine who was disappointed in love would undoubtedly have taken to her bed, where she would definitely have tossed and turned all night and quite possibly become ill (through simple disappointment or because she did something havy-cavy like running out in a rainstorm in a fit of pique). Catherine, we are told, actually worked herself into a bad mood over the "no-Henry, too much of John" situation the night before, then went home and slept a full nine hours, waking up in a good mood and with a plan to head to the Pump Room at 1 in search of a closer acquaintance with Eleanor Tilney, whom, I might add, it appears that she likes for herself as much as or more than she likes her for being connected to Henry.

The description of Mrs. Allen here borders on cruel, but is so funny that I have to share it nonetheless:

[Catherine's] plan for the morning thus settled, she sat quietly down to her book after breakfast, resolving to remain in the same place and the same employment till the clock struck one; and from habitude very little incommoded by the remarks and ejaculations of Mrs. Allen, whose vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not.

I know I've met people like this in my life, but I doubt I'd ever have thought to describe them in this manner, and yet what a clear picture we get of the sort of person Mrs. Allen is through these sorts of details!

A carriage ride John Thorpe barges in and bowls over Catherine (and Mrs. Allen) with his assertions that a carriage ride must be taken, pronto. A few things to note about this particular carriage ride:

1. The absence of adult chaperons with these two unmarried couples is not quite proper. Catherine suspects as much, but she defers to her own chaperon, Mrs. Allen, to advise her one way or another. Mrs. Allen is, as you probably already know, kindhearted, but a bit crap when it comes to competent execution of all of the duties of a chaperon, so she tells Catherine to do as she wishes.

2. Despite having planned to go to the Pump Room, Catherine allows herself to be talked 'round to a coach ride because a) she doesn't want to seem unaccommodating and b) she at one point promised to go for a ride with Thorpe and c) her "desire of seeing Miss Tilney again could at that moment bear a short delay in favour of a drive, and who thought there could be no impropriety in her going with Mr. Thorpe, as Isabella was going at the same time with James". This is important to keep in mind as the chapter progresses (and in later chapters, when carriage rides come up).

Off goes Catherine, only to have John Thorpe talk her ear off the entire time. First, he frightens her with talk about how wild his horse is (which proves to be at best a wild exaggeration and at worst a bold-faced lie), then questions her relationship with Mr. Allen (and it's obvious to the reader and most likely to Catherine that he doesn't understand what it actually is – that he and his wife are kindhearted and childless and thought Catherine would enjoy being in Bath, and that Mrs. Allen would enjoy playing chaperon – which she does, even if she is a bit crap at it, as I've already said). Then he opines that all men out to drink at least a bottle of wine each day, telling tales of drinking four pints or more each day at Oxford, after which he worries her with talk of how unsafe her brother James's carriage is (again, at best a tremendous exaggeration and at worst a bold-faced lie), quickly contradicting himself when Catherine expresses real alarm. The narrator grants us some real insight into Catherine's mind and her upbringing here:

Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next. She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity, and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr. Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights, in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous; and, joining to this, the consideration that he would not really suffer his sister and his friend to be exposed to a danger from which he might easily preserve them, she concluded at last that he must know the carriage to be in fact perfectly safe, and therefore would alarm herself no longer. (Italics mine.)

Finally he bores her silly with stories about his hunting. Because what John Thorpe likes to talk about best is himself, and, in particular, his horses, his dogs, and his hunting prowess. And pretty much any man who in an Austen novel who fits this bill (and likes to drink or talk about drinking) is a no-goodnik of one sort or another. Consider, for instance, Mr. Hurst from Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the least agreeable man in the book (for at least Mr. Collins can be laughed at, and Mr. Wickham, although a bit wicked, is a bit of a lovable rogue). Sense and Sensibility's Sir John Middleton, who loves to hunt, is one of Austen's comic characters and knows more about Willoughby's horses, dogs and hunting skills than about the man himself, and Charles Musgrove from Persuasion, another great hunter, is kind-hearted but rather ineffectual. In fact, none of Austen's heroes are avid sportsmen. But I digress a bit. Still – if you come across an avid huntsman in an Austen novel, you shouldn't expect to find him marrying the main character.

In which Catherine begins to develop a spine This chapter, like so many other things in Austen's work, fulfills multiple purposes:

1. The whole chapter serves to heighten our anticipation of the time Catherine will gain further acquaintance with Eleanor Tilney and, far more important to us than to Catherine at this precise point, Henry Tilney. I don't know about you, but this chapter in the company of John Thorpe left me exceedingly impatient for another encounter with Henry and some entertaining male company!

2. This chapter is a turning point of sorts, in which Catherine begins for the first time to formulate her own opinions based on her own observation, and to trust her own inclinations over the opinions of Isabella and James (and Mrs. Allen, although that is an exceedingly low bar to get over in the first place). While still in the carriage, she decides, in fact, that she's not certain she likes John Thorpe at all:

Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as were her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable. It was a bold surmise, for he was Isabella's brother; and she had been assured by James that his manners would recommend him to all her sex; but in spite of this, the extreme weariness of his company, which crept over her before they had been out an hour, and which continued unceasingly to increase till they stopped in Pulteney-street again, induced her, in some small degree, to resist such high authority, and to distrust his powers of giving universal pleasure.

Her conclusion further solidifies after she finds out that Mrs. Allen – who went to the Pump Room as Catherine had planned to do – actually spent time with Eleanor and Henry Tilney in Catherine's absence. Of course, Mrs. Allen remembers only what Eleanor was wearing, and precious little of the content of her conversation. (Oh, Mrs. Allen!) Catherine's disappointment over having missed a chance to spend time with the Tilneys and get to know them better in favor of a rather tedious time in a carriage with John Thorpe further colors her opinion of John Thorpe, whom she now finds positively disagreeable.

Tomorrow: Stop! Tilney Time!

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Anonymous Adam said...

I would think that Colonel Brandon would be described as an avid sportsman.

And perhaps not coincidentally, I believe he's the only soldier among her heroes as well. Wentworth being in the Navy and Colonel Fitzwilliam a minor character. Which is kind of odd considering that the Army was one of only four occupations for gentlemen without landed estates at the time.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Kelly Fineman said...

While Brandon likes some sport - as do, say, Darcy and Bingley - it's Sir John Middleton who gets the "avid" tag in S&S.

You're right that Brandon's the only Army officer hero, but it was military service (encompassing both army and navy) that was the third profession available to gentleman (the others being barrister and clergyman). If we count Brandon and Bingley as heroes, then there are 8 heroes in 6 books, and 1/4 of them are in the military. Plus, as you mentioned, Colonel Fitzwilliam in P&P. There's also Captain Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and an off-screen death by Jane Fairfax's army father in Emma.

For the Navy, along with Wentworth, we have Benwick, Harville and Admiral Croft in Persuasion, as well as William Price in Mansfield Park.

Austen had two brothers in the Navy, which is why she sings the praises of the Navy so highly. Another of her brothers was an officer in the militia - as was Mr. Wickham and all those soldiers quartered in Meryton, some of whom are named characters in P&P.

You got me thinking though - if 1/4 of her heroes are in the military, and 1/4 (Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars) are in the clergy, then how come not a single one is a barrister? *is puzzled*

12:47 AM  

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