Thursday, August 06, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Seven

Chapter 7 – the very short version Catherine and Isabella bump into their respective brothers, James Morland and John Thorpe.

Chapter 7

When we last saw our heroine, Catherine Morland, she was being swept along the streets of Bath by Isabella Thorpe in hot pursuit of two young men that Isabella wished to avoid and/or snub. Catherine was, as you may expect, mildly perplexed but game. Our narrator begins the chapter by winking directly at her contemporary readers (members of the gentry, aristocracy and nobility) with her reference in the second sentence to "Every body acquainted with Bath may remember . . ." This first paragraph, like much of what came prior, serves a few purposes. Here are the ones I spotted:

1. The narrator further insinuates herself into the reader's trust with this (slightly indirect) direct address, in which she describes something fairly straightforward in terms with which the readers would not argue. It's extremely cleverly done – she doesn't go into second person "As you know", but she implies it. And in the case of her contemporary readers, a great deal of them would have had some level of familiarity with Bath because of its popularity as a resort and health spa. If they didn't all have personal knowledge of Bath, they undoubtedly knew someone who did, and would know that her description of the busy-ness was truthful. How can you not trust a narrator who proves herself truthful?

2. Because of the direct experience with Bath, her readers would have quickly summoned up an image of this extremely busy intersection, thereby feeling more closely engaged with the story as well as with the narrator. Because what Austen said was true, they most likely were stranded on that corner themselves or had seen someone in that position. She's just invoked sense memories of a real setting, thereby creating additional verisimilitude for her readers, who will picture Catherine and Isabella (as they picture them to be), right there on the busy street corner with the clattering hooves and other street noises (and odors).

3. She comes closer than ever to labeling Isabella frivolous. First, she says that women are always getting stuck there while out shopping for pastry (not bread, which is a necessity, but pastry, which is a treat) and millinery (hats and other head wear, including feathers and bonnets and such), then spins the focus to this particular pair of young women who are looking for young men. Funny, yes. But the now-trustworthy narrator goes one further and tells us that Isabella has been annoyed at this intersection "at least three times a day . . . since her residence in Bath". That's an awful lot of men and/or other non-necessities. (And yes, that is the construction that she set up – unnecessary food followed by decorative headwear followed by men.)

The two young men from the Pump Room get away when Isabella and Catherine are precluded from crossing the street by a carriage driven pell-mell by a heedless sort of young man, who turns out to be John Thorpe, Isabella's brother. Who just so happens to have Catherine's brother, James Morland, with him.

Dear Jane, your deus ex machina is showing again. I mean seriously, what are the odds?

Not only did the brothers know one another from school, but they have now turned up together – unexpectedly and unannounced – in Bath. Where they meet their respective sisters on the street. And it is made immediately apparent that something is going on between James Morland and Isabella Thorpe, although Catherine manages not to see it. Only after establishing that there's something going on there do we meet John Thorpe, who has little to commend himself – he's neither well-dressed, well-spoken nor well-mannered, and he oversteps the bounds of polite society in his manner of address.

He doesn't observe the niceties of introductions, but launches straight into conversation in which he displays a propensity to be overbearing and argumentative. Plus, he swears in the presence of ladies, including one he's only just met (thereby magnifying his sin). Those "Oh! d---"s you see in the text are "damns" (or "dammits", in the case of two of them), so he is not only swearing, but is perilously close to blasphemy.

And he discusses matters of money and business that one ought not discuss in these circumstances (it would be improper and/or coarse to talk about detailed business transactions with ladies, particularly when those ladies are neither family, extremely close friends, nor directly involved in the transaction). Bad form all 'round, Mr. Thorpe.

The narrator doesn't take a swipe at the offensive Mr. Thorpe (yet); she allows him to speak for himself. She does, however, take another swing at Isabella, who is SO thrilled to be with James Morland that when she passes those two young gentlemen from before, "she looked back at them only three times."

1. Again, she's showing how shallow, flirtatious and possibly false Isabella is.
2. Foreshadowing, folks. Isabella's actions in this book are nothing if not consistent. She is consistent in her inconstancy.

The open carriage John Thorpe promises to drive Catherine out in an open carriage. An open carriage is precisely what it says – it has no roof. While there were some carriages (such as a barouche) that had a collapsible top for some or part of the carriage, there were others that were completely open. As you might imagine, they were not good in poor weather. Also, some of them (such as the "high flyer" driven by Willoughby in the 199X production of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) did not have room for a chaperone, making them of questionable propriety for an unengaged or unwed young lady accompanied by a man who was not a family member.

Not only does he promise to take her once, but every day (decidedly inappropriate to go out daily with the same young man absent an attachment). And then, he goes back to talking about his horses (not a good topic of conversation with ladies, generally). And it's clear even to 21st-century readers that he's either not knowledgeable, negligent or even abusive (or a mix), none of which speaks well of him. And then, he moves on from horses and carriage rides to a running critique of other women as they pass. Talk about bad ton. I don't know about you, but Thorpe rapidly establishes himself as a jackass in my opinion. Lest we wonder further, however, Austen takes us to a discussion of his opinion on novels in general and Udolpho in particular, which - as I said yesterday - clues us in to whether we ought to like this guy or not.

"Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."
"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."
"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No, sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant."
"I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! -- An old man playing at see-saw! I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it."

Yeah . . . he insults novels in general, Fanny Burney in particular, and denigrates Udolpho. Although he has no problem with The Monk and Tom Jones, both of which are chockablock full of deviant behavior (well, deviant enough, anyhow - although Matthew Lewis doesn't follow his book to its logical ending, but pulls in the reins and ends up semi-moralistic. Still, it's pretty "hot stuff", as John Thorpe says in the 2007 movie version of Northanger Abbey).

That our trustworthy narrator dislikes John Thorpe becomes pretty clear once they reach the place where Mrs. Thorpe is staying. She goes for absolutely dripping sarcasm in describing both his powers of discernment and his relationship with his mother and sisters. Catherine knows enough to be bothered by him, but allows Isabella to smooth things over.

James Morland - unreliable brother In allowing her immediate distaste for John Thorpe to be smoothed over, Catherine relies not only on Isabella, but also upon her brother, who readers must immediately view as suspect; he claims Isabella to be a good role model when we already know she is not - he calls her a person of "good sense", and "unaffected and amiable"; we already know her to possess questionable sense and to be highly affected and inconstant - therefore, James Morland is obviously 1) besotted; 2) a poor judge of character; 3) not completely trustworthy; 4) all of the above. I'm not positive that #3 is correct, but 1 & 2? Oh yeah.

Also: I can't help but be a bit annoyed at him because it seems that he thinks more highly of his sister because Isabella said nice things about her. And the thing is, that's the sort of thing that rings true, but is annoying in real life, too. And then he asserts that she must be happy, if she has Isabella as a friend. As if she couldn't have been happy without Isabella, or as if Isabella is all one requires in order to be happy. Gah!

James seems sort of fond of Catherine, but really, how close can they be? He doesn't actually confide in her - he'd met Isabella before and formed some sort of affection for her, but didn't mention her, and then he kinda lies about why that is. Plus, he doesn't tell Catherine the truth - that he came to Bath to see Isabella - nor does he directly apprise her of his feelings for Isabella, although really, she's a bit thick not to notice. I think, however, that she's in one of those "I'm so glad the people I like get along" phases and it hasn't dawned on her that there's anything going on, so I'm willing to give her a bit of a pass, particularly since she's relying on the people she cares about (James and Isabella) to be truthful with her, and they aren't. Can you tell I'm having difficulty putting into words precisely what it is about the James/Catherine dynamic that bothers me? Can you clue me in? Is it the paternalism? The fact that he's patronizing? (Does it even start with a P? Help!)

Tomorrow: Engaged to dance with John Thorpe - a blessing or a curse?

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