Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Six

Chapter 6 - the very short version Catherine and Isabella talk about books at the Pump Room, then head out to try to overtake some cute boys that Isabella claims to wish to avoid.

Chapter 6

Dear Miss Austen: Your use of foreshadowing is so very deft that many commentators completely miss it. But I see what you're doing.

"Here," says the narrator, "Let me demonstrate the high quality of conversation you get when Catherine and Isabella chat." And then she proceeds to snark on Isabella right away. You see, Isabella, who has barely waiting 5 minutes, claims to have been there for "at least this age!", which quickly becomes "ten ages", which evidently is equivalent to half an hour. And then she chatters about the sorts of inanities that would please Mrs. Allen.

Friends, Isabella plays fast and loose with time. And with words. And with the truth. These are things one ought to keep in mind moving forward, and none of them are anything that Catherine notices. Yet. Also? She has a tendency to rattle on - a family characteristic, I believe, since her mother rattles and (as we shall see) her brother John is described as "a rattle".

The Northanger Canon The books mentioned by Isabella in this chapter are commonly referred to as "the Northanger Canon" - a list of Gothic novels representative of the genre, and also ones which received at least a modicum of approval by Austen, who read the books and enjoyed them. Perhaps they were a guilty pleasure, but she was more than willing to cop to reading them.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe in particular is one of the books that Austen enjoyed, but it's more than that. Jane Austen is once again doing multiple things simultaneously.

1. She's telling you something about the characters and what they enjoy.
2. She's telling you a bit about the plot of the book, in case you haven't read it (it's still in print and available at many local book shops, by the way), or reminding you what the scary bits were (if you have), so that you can see what Catherine's expectations of an old family home called "Northanger Abbey" might be, even if they are a bit overly dramatic.
3. In the case of this particular novel, she's introducing it as a proxy for the novels she mentioned in the prior chapter, which weren't in the Gothic category (Camilla, Cecilia and Belinda). "Tell me what you think of Udolpho, and I will know whether you are a person I'd like to spend time with," is the implication on the part of Catherine and, I'd argue, the narrator as well.

About The Mysteries of Udolpho: Austen's characters clue you in to the sort of novel - and some of the plot - of Mrs. Radcliffe's book. Please know that Austen does not dislike Radcliffe or her books at all. In fact, Austen doesn't dislike any of the books she's about to list off, all of which she read. She was a prolific reader from a very early age who was given free use of her father's rather extensive library, to say nothing of her borrowing of books from friends and other relatives, her own collection of books, and her use of circulating libraries. And her father, being a man of good sense, let her read pretty much whatever she wished. So, yes, she read The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which is mentioned in a subsequent chapter, even though Andrew Davies (who wrote the script for the 2007 production starring JJ Feild and Felicity Jones) asserted that he believed a "lady" such as Jane Austen would not have read such a scandalous book. But I digress.

Catherine's expectations and imagination are governed in part by Udolpho, as well as by The Romance of the Forest also by Radcliffe, which isn't mentioned by Austen in Northanger Abbey, but both books give rise to a great deal of what Catherine expects or imagines as the plot progresses. More to the point, a good deal of what is about to happen is a milquetoast version of the events inside the Gothic novels. Where a heroine in a Gothic novel is prevented from something by, say, force or restraints, Catherine may be prevented by rain or other events. We'll get to all that as we go along, but know that much of what's about to happen is Austen's parody of Gothic novels, brought into a real-life, everyday normal setting (i.e., absent anything to do with the paranormal, for instance).

The books of the Northanger canon (listed off by Isabella) are:
1. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe 1794
2. The Italian by Ann Radcliffe 1796
3. The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons 1793
4. Clermont by Regina Maria Roche 1798
5. The Mysterious Warning Eliza Parsons 1796
6. The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest by “Lawrence Flammenberg” (pseud. of Karl Friedrich Kahlert) 1794
7. The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom 1798
8. Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath 1798
9. Horrid Mysteries: A Story From the German Of The Marquis Of Grosse by Peter Will 1796

While Udolpho is fairly easy to find, some of the others are difficult indeed. If you're interested in acquiring your own copies of these or other Gothic novels, Valancourt Books has been putting out editions of a number of books - 7 of the 9 books in the Northanger canon, plus a bunch of others.

On the meaning of horrid When Catherine asks "Are you sure they are all horrid?", she's not asking if they're horrible. She's asking if they instill horror in the reader - are they shocking? Likewise, the word "horrid" in the title of the ninth book means "having to do with horror", not "really bad". Savvy?

Isabella's notion of friendship Isabella starts showing use her true colors when she discusses her friend, Miss Andrews. She doesn't come right out and call her a dog, but she comes awfully close, thereby showing us - the readers - exactly what sort of friend she is. Catherine, however, believes Isabella's assertions about herself without pausing to analyze what might be wrong here. I've made a short list of what I see; feel free to chime in if you have additional takes on this subject:

1. Isabella doesn't actually tell men that Miss Andrews is beautiful - she uses Andrews as a weapon with which she flirts with men, and makes them say Andrews is beautiful, all the while implying that she's making the men lie in doing so.

2. Isabella says that her attachments are exceedingly strong, but her conduct says otherwise - she uses her "friend" as a pawn in her flirtations with men, then talks about her behind her back with Catherine, who's never met her, calling Miss Andrews "insipid", among other things.

3. She says that she acts the way she does to demonstrate what true female friendship looks like for men - perish the thought! That she wishes to put on a show for men seems clear; the remainder of her assertion rings false.

Discussion of Mr. Tilney and how it reveals character. As with her conversation about friendship, Isabella is exceedingly melodramatic, stating that surely Catherine will be miserable if she never sees Mr. Tilney again. Catherine, on the other hand, is very pragmatic about it at this point, as a sensible woman ought to be. Isabella's sentiments are obviously false (or close to it), whereas Catherine's are real. Austen has set this up cleverly, so that in showing us the two characters, we are compelled to cleave to Catherine and wish to pull her away from Isabella. That is some good writing. Authors struggling with how to show a character to be insincere ought to take a page from Jane here - it takes a combination of contrasting a false or insincere person with a realistic/sincere one, and some sort of interaction that lets the characters reveal which they are.

Discussion of men in general Isabella reveals herself to be a bit jaded and quite the player. Catherine reveals herself to be, well, herself. Isabella imputes all sorts of negative characteristics on men, but is obviously desperate to garner as much male attention as possible, whereas Catherine generally finds them nice and well-behaved, because she doesn't seek the limelight.

The "describe your ideal man" thing doesn't go down Isabella's way at all - she is obviously describing not a type (the way that Catherine did, although Isabella says that her description is precisely Henry Tilney, whom she's never seen), but a very specific man. And obviously fishing for Catherine her to question her, in the same way as in the prior chapter. Only Catherine doesn't want to pry, and doesn't know that Isabella is playing a sort of game, or what the rules are, or what move might be next.

Men as sport Isabella sees men as sport, as is made overt by her reaction to the attention paid to her and Catherine by two young men in the Pump Room. Once again, Isabella behaves in a cunning, crafty, manipulative way that completely eludes Catherine, who accepts her assertions at face value and is genuinely pleased when the young men leave, because she believes that Isabella was troubled by them, not titillated. Isabella, however, is all "Those horrible men are watching me! Are they still watching me? Are they still watching me? Are they still . . . WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THEY LEFT? I have a sudden urge to . . . go wherever they went. Quickly!" Catherine is all "WTF?", but willing to accept that Isabella wants to catch the men only so they can regret having let her go, in part because she can't truly sort out Isabella's logic.

Tomorrow - Did someone say brothers?

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Amy said...

Beautiful post, very well done!

I had never considered before that Isabella was actually using Miss Andrews as a weapon to flirt with men.

Have you read any of the Northanger cannon? I have about 5 of the books along with some of the other gothic novels not mentioned in the text (eg The Castle of Ollada).

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks, Amy! I've got Udolpho in my reading pile, and good intentions to find and read the rest of them. (The Monk comes highly recommended to me by a friend, who's a professor at Penn and highly conversant with Gothic novels in general and the Northanger canon in particular.)