Sunday, August 16, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Sixteen



Chapter 16 - the very short version Catherine has an extended visit at Milsom Street; the eldest Tilney son turns up and dances with Isabella; next day, Isabella hears from James Morland about expenses.


Character/costume sketch by Margaret Fletcher in 1895 for a stage
adaptation of Northanger Abbey written by Rosina Filippi


Chapter 16
Catherine's trip to see the Tilneys at Milsom Street proves to be a bit of a disappointment. Both Henry and Eleanor are subdued for some reason. Check out how clearly Austen tells us that General Tilney's the reason for everyone being so proper and polite and distant, while avowing that "It could not be General Tilney's fault. That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry's father. He could not be accountable for his children's want of spirits, or for her want of enjoyment in his company." Brilliant use of double-speak, and a reader would be hard-pressed to miss out on what was going on here, even though Catherine manages to miss it.

Isabella, you will be unsurprised to learn, is more than happy to tear into the Tilneys at the slightest provocation (having, after all, lost Catherine for the last carriage ride two chapters ago). And check out this bit of commentary from Isabella, who is trashing Henry (knowing, as she does, that her own brother fancies Catherine, being safely engaged to James - so that perhaps Catherine isn't quite so necessary to her - and resenting Catherine's growing attachment to the Tilneys in general):

" . . . And then the brother, he, who had appeared so attached to you! Good heavens! well, some people's feelings are incomprehensible. And so he hardly looked once at you the whole day?"

"I do not say so; but he did not seem in good spirits."

"How contemptible! Of all things in the world inconstancy is my aversion. Let me entreat you never to think of him again, my dear Catherine; indeed he is unworthy of you."

"Unworthy! I do not suppose he ever thinks of me."

"That is exactly what I say; he never thinks of you. -- Such fickleness! Oh! how different to your brother and to mine! I really believe John has the most constant heart."

Isabella on inconstancy
I'd like to talk in particular about the bit I bolded. First, we already suspect Isabella of inconstancy, and if you've read as far as the end of this chapter, you've already seen it in action. Second, in the first part of the bolded section, she claims to despise inconstancy, yet in the next sentence, she encourages Catherine to become inconstant toward Henry. Third - and this overlaps with the first point - this is foreshadowing in a big way. We know we can't trust what a Thorpe says, and we shall see Isabella's inconstancy writ large e'er long. Finally, we see evidence of Isabella's inconstancy very soon after. It's plain from how she claims not to want to dance that it's likely she will, and that her saying she wants to keep her engagement a secret (why? who can say?) is obviously a falsehood as well.

At the Rooms
Eleanor is wonderful, Henry makes a beeline to ask Catherine to dance, and Captain Frederick Tilney turns up. Catherine "supposed it possible that some people might think him handsomer than his brother, though, in her eyes, his air was more assuming, and his countenance less prepossessing*. His taste and manners were beyond a doubt decidedly inferior". Captain Tilney, it turns out, is a bit of a rogue.

*prepossessing: "tending to create a favorable impression" (according to Merriam Webster)

Discourse between Henry and Catherine
One of my favorite quotes from the entire book is in this chapter. Here's the dialogue in which it occurs:

"Your brother will not mind it, I know," said she, "because I heard him say before that he hated dancing; but it was very good-natured in him to think of it. I suppose he saw Isabella sitting down, and fancied she might wish for a partner; but he is quite mistaken, for she would not dance upon any account in the world."

Henry smiled, and said, "How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people's actions."

"Why? -- What do you mean?"

"With you, it is not, How is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person's feelings, age, situation, and probable habits of life considered? -- but, How should I be influenced, what would be my inducement in acting so and so?"

"I do not understand you."

"Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well."

"Me? -- yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."

"Bravo! -- an excellent satire on modern language."

"But pray tell me what you mean."

"Shall I indeed? -- Do you really desire it? But you are not aware of the consequences; it will involve you in a very cruel embarrassment, and certainly bring on a disagreement between us.

"No, no; it shall not do either; I am not afraid."

"Well, then, I only meant that your attributing my brother's wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world."

Catherine blushed and disclaimed, and the gentleman's predictions were verified. There was a something, however, in his words which repaid her for the pain of confusion; and that something occupied her mind so much that she drew back for some time, forgetting to speak or to listen, and almost forgetting where she was; till, roused by the voice of Isabella, she looked up and saw her with Captain Tilney preparing to give them hands across.

I love the many things Austen does in this bit of dialogue:

1. We learn more about Catherine's good nature, as she infers nothing but benign motives on Captain Tilney's part (when he's more likely thinking "what a fine piece of womanflesh", or something equally - or more - crass).

2. We learn more about Isabella's inconstant nature; having sworn not to dance, she jumps at the first chance to dance with Captain Tilney (the presumptive heir). Later, she babbles about him and indicates how very flattered she was (while stating the opposite, since, as you know, pretty much every day is opposites day in Thorpe-land).

3. We learn quite a bit about Captain Tilney, who is not as well-mannered as his brother, and who doesn't take "no" for an answer but goes after what he wants.

4. We learn more about Henry - how well he understands Catherine, and how very highly he thinks of her. It makes me positively giddy knowing that he appreciates her for her kind-hearted nature.

5. Catherine gets an idea that Henry really likes her; you know - likes her, likes her.

6. The exchange serves as highly entertaining and amusing wordplay on its own, without taking any of the prior points into account. Brava, Miss Austen!

On the marriage between James and Isabella
James's letter indicates that Mr. Morland is turning over a living worth 400 pounds a year (not a lot, but enough to start with), and that he and Isabella are going to have to wait 2-3 years before they can marry (since James has to be 21 to own the living); further, Mr. Morland promises to leave James at least that much of an estate as his inheritance.

Isabella is . . . well, pissed because she thinks Mr. Morland is being Ebeneezer Scrooge, and she essentially trash-talks him to his daughter. I love the possible - nay, likely - double meanings in this bit below:

Isabella recollected herself. "As to that, my sweet Catherine, there cannot be a doubt, and you know me well enough to be sure that a much smaller income would satisfy me. It is not the want of more money that makes me just at present a little out of spirits; I hate money; and if our union could take place now upon only fifty pounds a year, I should not have a wish unsatisfied. Ah! my Catherine, you have found me out. There's the sting. The long, long, endless two years and half that are to pass before your brother can hold the living."

"Yes, yes, my darling Isabella," said Mrs. Thorpe, "we perfectly see into your heart. You have no disguise. We perfectly understand the present vexation; and every body must love you the better for such a noble honest affection."(italics added)

First, "Isabella recollected herself" does not mean that she remembers why she's really upset; it means only that she remembers to whom she's speaking (or, more precisely, the relationship between the person to whom she's speaking and the person she's trash-talking). Second, when Mrs. Thorpe says that "we perfectly see into [her] heart", I think she's standing in as a surrogate for the narrator and the reader (and even, a bit, for Catherine, who got an unfiltered look - however brief - at Isabella). We see and understand exactly what has Isabella's knickers in a twist, or at least the primary cause. The delay in nuptials seems decidedly secondary in importance to Isabella, as we'll see in coming chapters. At least she's kind to James when he turns up.

On the morrow - the Tilneys invite Catherine to come stay with them at Northanger Abbey

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2 comments:

Laurel Ann said...

Kelly - your NA posts are lovely and more than worthy of a shout-out. Thanks, Laurel Ann

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks so much, Laurel Ann!