Monday, August 24, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter 25 – the very short version Catherine receives a distressing letter from James, and Henry proves what a mensch he is.

Chapter 25
When last we saw Catherine, she had made a run for her room, sobbing in humiliation after making an ass of herself in front of Henry (who was of great assistance in pointing out exactly how much of an ass she was, kinda). Today's episode opens a bit later the same day – it's almost time for dinner, so Catherine has to come downstairs, where she finds Eleanor being as kind as ever. And as for Henry . . .

The formidable Henry soon followed her into the room, and the only difference in his behaviour to her was that he paid her rather more attention than usual. Catherine had never wanted comfort more, and he looked as if he was aware of it.

The evening wore away with no abatement of this soothing politeness; and her spirits were gradually raised to a modest tranquillity. She did not learn either to forget or defend the past; but she learned to hope that it would never transpire farther, and that it might not cost her Henry's entire regard.

Has she lost Henry's regard? And will the mail never come?

What I particularly like about Catherine's ponderings during the evening – besides the sassy tone with which the narrator conveys them – is how she allows that other countries might contain people who fit the bill in Mrs. Radcliffe's books, and is willing to allow that the northern and western parts of England might be suspect, but central England is safe as houses.

Despite this rather flippant introduction, Catherine shows signs of real growth:

[A]mong the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad. Upon this conviction, she would not be surprized if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might hereafter appear; and upon this conviction she need not fear to acknowledge some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not perfectly amiable.

Nine days pass. Things with Henry are better than ever. But why hasn't Isabella written? Of course Isabella's going to write – she promised so faithfully. And while Catherine's sorted out that not everything is black and white, and not everyone is trustworthy, she hasn't gotten around to assessing Isabella in light of her new-found discovery. I'll bet she catches on quickly from here on out. Let's see, shall we?

Day ten: A letter! Henry is happy to give it to Catherine, since she's been waiting so long. Catherine is happy, too – finally, a letter from her dear friend Isabella!

Only it's from James. WTF? (And really, Catherine's line "'Tis only from James, however" is pretty much Regency for WTF, in this instance.) Rather than repeat the letter (which you've already read), I'll summarize:

Dear Catherine,
Found out my girlfriend is a whore. Broke it off. She'll probably marry Captain Tilney. Hope that doesn't mess up your relationship with his siblings.

James is such a buzzkill. But I'm going to skip the crying and moaning and move right to the part where Catherine and Henry talk over the contents of the letter, Henry having guessed that Isabella Thorpe is the issue.
"How quick you are!" cried Catherine, "you have guessed it, I declare! -- And yet, when we talked about it in Bath, you little thought of its ending so. Isabella -- no wonder now I have not heard from her -- Isabella has deserted my brother, and is to marry your's! Could you have believed there had been such inconstancy and fickleness, and everything that is bad in the world?" Yes. Yes he could Isabella to be inconstant and fickle and everything that is bad in the world. As could us readers. We are pleased that you are finally catching on. Let's see what Henry has to say about a Thorpe-Tilney alliance.
"I hope, so far as concerns my brother, you are misinformed. I hope he has not had any material share in bringing on Mr. Morland's disappointment. His marrying Miss Thorpe is not probable. I think you must be deceived so far. I am very sorry for Mr. Morland -- sorry that anyone you love should be unhappy; but my surprize would be greater at Frederick's marrying her, than at any other part of the story."

Henry, you see, is a pragmatist. He knows that Frederick has to land himself someone wealthy, and that Isabella Thorpe is, as far as his brother is concerned, (more or less) a bit of skirt. Catherine hands the letter first to Henry (well-played, Miss Austen – you have now established that the primary bond is definitely between Catherine and Henry, and you've given us additional proof of how much Catherine trusts him, that she would pass a piece of extremely personal correspondence to him).

About that letter . . .
Eleanor is also permitted to read it, and she asks the follow-up questions about Isabella's background and wealth. This particular exchange, which involves Eleanor, Catherine and Henry, serves multiple purposes:

1. It reinforces the requirements for an intended Tilney spouse. We know that Catherine's slightly better off than Isabella, but not wealthy, and are left to wonder what that might mean.

2. The exchange of a look between Eleanor and Henry about wealth confirms that we readers are correct in thinking that General Tilney is whatever he says he is not (and vice versa).

3. The flat-out denigration (okay – in polite, early 19th-century terms) of Isabella Thorpe by Eleanor Tilney lets us know that the entire Tilney family has high moral standards, including the cavalier Captain. A woman such as Isabella, who has proven herself false, would not suit any of them.

4. Henry's final pronouncement on the subject condemns Isabella, but has a double meaning praising Catherine, who does not understand what he is on about, although his sister does:
"That is the most unpromising circumstance, the strongest presumption against him. When I think of his past declarations, I give him up. -- Moreover, I have too good an opinion of Miss Thorpe's prudence, to suppose that she would part with one gentleman before the other was secured. It is all over with Frederick indeed! He is a deceased man -- defunct in understanding. Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in! -- Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise."

"Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in," said Eleanor with a smile.

Henry's opening sentences are sarcastic – he definitely thinks Isabella stupid enough to break off her engagement before she's secured a replacement. His concluding sentences, however, are sincere; they have to do with Catherine, of course, who is too "candid, artless, [and] guileless" to pick up on the fact that she's the one being discussed.

I confess that I rather love that Henry says that while he pities her brother, Catherine's grief must not be undervalued. And then he manages to cheer Catherine up by asking her a series of questions, the answers to which indicate that she's not actually heartbroken over the event. Well-done, Henry and Catherine, and well-done Miss Austen as well. For the sorts of distress that Henry questions Catherine about are the sorts of distress that a Gothic heroine might be expected to feel, but none of it rings true to our now-living-in-the-real-world heroine, Miss Catherine Morland.

Tomorrow: To Woodston!

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