Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twelve

Chapter 12 – the very short version Catherine sets off to apologize to Miss Tilney, but is turned away. She has far greater luck in tackling (almost literally) Henry at the theatre.

Below is the theatre scene from the 2007 production of Northanger Abbey, which makes a few alterations to the book by having Eleanor present at the theatre, and having Thorpe introduce Catherine to General Tilney. As those of you reading along know, she doesn't meet the General in this particular chapter - or setting; as those who've read ahead know, she is introduced to him tomorrow, decidedly in the absence of John Thorpe. Still, I love how Catherine falls all over herself here, and how Henry teases her:

Chapter 12 Catherine's first thought upon waking is that she needs to apologize to Eleanor Tilney for missing their walk the day before. After all, she not only missed it, but was seen by the Tilneys out and about in a carriage with John Thorpe. Mrs. Allen, ever fashion-conscious, advises Catherine to wear white when she calls on Eleanor Tilney, since "Miss Tilney always wears white." You have to hand it to Mrs. Allen – she is actually giving Catherine a sound piece of advice, even if it is on a fairly trivial point.

What happens next is an excellent illustration of "bad ton" – on the part of Miss Tilney, as it turns out. Arriving at the Tilneys, Catherine sends her card in with the servant, who believes his mistress to be at home, but is then turned away by a discomfited servant who says Miss Tilney has walked out. Catherine confirms her suspicion that Miss Tilney was, in fact, at home because she sees Eleanor walk out with her father only a few moments later.

First, a digression about calling cards. During the Regency era, they were roughly the size of a business card. When one arrived in town, one would drop by at one's acquaintances' residences and leave a calling card, as a way of announcing that one was available – ordinarily without actually seeing the person for whom the card was left. (An unchaperoned woman never paid a call on a gentleman for any purpose other than business, although a man could call on a lady at any time.) Ordinarily, therefore, ladies called on ladies; hence, Catherine's going to see Miss Tilney (and not Henry). A card delivered by hand was considered more important than one delivered by a servant.

Now, a word about etiquette, and my earlier remark about bad ton: it was considered gauche to turn someone away if you were actually home (or, perhaps more importantly, to be known to have done so). Catherine is affronted, but knowing she'd insulted the Tilneys on the day before, she believes the snub to be intentional, and quite possibly proportional. (It is later in the chapter that we learn that kindhearted Eleanor immediately attributed Catherine's carriage ride to some explainable confusion, and that she was mortified because she wanted to admit Catherine, but her father instructed the servant to turn her away because they were ready to walk out.)

WWCD: Stay home and brood or go to the theatre? Although Catherine was understandably upset about what happened, she again displays excellent common sense: rather than staying home and brooding (as one might expect a heroine in a novel to do), she heads off to the theatre "for she soon recollected, in the first place, that she was without any excuse for staying at home; and, in the second, that it was a play she wanted very much to see." Lucky thing, too, since Henry Tilney turned up there as well (in the fifth act), acknowledging her with only a slight, solemn bow.

Hmmm . . . seems Henry's knickers are again in a twist over John Thorpe, yes?

Turns out the answer is . . . YES. And speaking of knickers, Catherine practically throws hers at Henry when he stops to say a quick hello. She blurts out the entire story, complete with babbling apology. God bless. Catherine's further declaration that she would have jumped out of the carriage and run down the street after Henry (since "Subtlety" is Catherine's middle name) completely wins Mr. Tilney over, and he provides an explanation of Eleanor's conduct (as already discussed).

Catherine "Subtlety" Morland then upbraids Henry for his earlier knicker-twisting, thereby further divulging her interest in him whilst simultaneously putting him on the spot . . . leaving him no option but to stay nearby and charm her, along with exchanging promises for a rescheduled country walk.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in the surrounding world, John Thorpe is spotted whispering to General Tilney. Your spider senses are probably tingling about that, as they should be. Particularly when Thorpe comes bounding back to declare that the General thinks Catherine the finest young lady in Bath. Note that the narrator essentially gives us Catherine's perspective and reactions for the last few paragraphs of the chapter, which is, perhaps, why we all find it so easy to dismiss John Thorpe, who remains by Catherine's side heaping compliments upon her until she's in her chair*, despite her telling him to leave off.

*A chair – or a "sedan chair" – was a popular mode of transport in Bath during the late 18th and into the early 19th century. The chair was carried by two porters, who carried the enclosed chair on poles, as pictured to the right. Fares were based on the distance the box was to be carried, whether any hills were involved, and time of day (fares doubled after midnight). One could also keep a chair at the ready (for a fee, of course). If you're interested in representative rates, here's a rate report from 1819, two years after Austen's death. And for those interested in the chairs in general, you can read more about them – and see several other pictures of them – at Jane Austen's World.

Tomorrow: Once more, with feeling! – the Thorpes and James Morland try to persuade Catherine to take a carriage ride with them instead of seeing the Tilneys

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