Sunday, August 23, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter 24 – the very short version Catherine decides to check out Mrs. Tilney's rooms on her own and is busted by Henry.

Chapter 24
It being Sunday, much of the day is spent in church. Because for observant members of the Church of England, Sunday meant both morning and afternoon services (although sometimes people went only in the morning, and in inclement weather, women often remained at home). As a result, Catherine has no real opportunity to sneak off to see whether Mrs. Tilney is imprisoned in her chambers, what with church and outdoor exercise and eating cold meat. (The eating of cold meat, by the way, meant that the kitchen staff had cooked it the previous day; it was typically a self-service sort of item.)

Church, however, was interesting, since it included a good view of the memorial plaque erected in honor of Mrs. Tilney, which spoke of her with the highest regard. Catherine is so convinced that General Tilney is guilty of his wife's imprisonment and/or murder that she finds his ability to sit near it and look at it – and even his ability to enter the church – to be "wonderful," a word which in Austen's day meant "inspiring wonder", without being limited to something good.

Monday morning - what a lovely coincidence for us novel-readers today!
On Monday morning, Eleanor shows Catherine the portrait of Mrs. Tilney, which hangs in Eleanor's bedroom. Catherine cannot find any resemblance between Mrs. Tilney's portrait and with the faces of Eleanor and Henry. A thinking person might suppose that to support the General's claim that the portrait wasn't a sufficiently good likeness to hang in the drawing room, but as we know, Catherine's not always operating from a logical place.

Afterward, Eleanor was going to take Catherine to see her mother's rooms, only to be summoned at the last moment by the General in a loud voice (startling both of the young ladies, who were unaware he was back). Catherine thereafter decides she'll go see the room on her own, thinking that doing so would let Eleanor off the hook for revisiting negative emotions. She does not think that it could be construed as prying, although she should have considered such a thing. Her main concern is doing it that afternoon since Henry's due back the following day.

Catherine checks out Mrs. Tilney's room
Once Catherine gets to Mrs. Tilney's room and sees how modern and ordinary it is (and how well-tended), she's in a rush to get back to her own room. Imagine her terror on hearing footsteps approaching up the stairwell. She's so startled at seeing Henry that she completely forgets her manners and exclaims "Good God!" (which is rather strong language, and not entirely polite). And then she proceeds to question why he is where he is, despite her being the one who is technically out-of-bounds. Gotta love her nerve, I say. And Henry, to his credit, answers her before asking her a WTF? sort of question of his own.

And then we come to the truly mortifying portion of the book – at least, to the part that is obviously mortifying to all readers, even those not well-versed in 18th- and early 19th-century customs (because I assure you that there are other mortifying bits to come, only they don't usually resonate with modern readers in the same way that they would have done with Austen's contemporary audience).

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to -- Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. -- Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" (Italics added.)

They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

A neighbourhood of voluntary spies
I don't blame Catherine for running off in shame – she really ought to be ashamed of herself. Henry's lecture shows him to be upset, but he's also rational – and he manages to refrain from attacking her, despite her having intimated that she thought his father to be a murderer. He basically says "life is not a Gothic novel", with his rationale for that sentiment based on God and country. The reference in the highlighted section to "a neighbourhood of voluntary spies" is to people such as his own father, who readily keep tabs on their neighbors and, if necessary, report them to the authorities.

The reference to neighborhood spies also ironically undercuts what Henry is saying in defense of England, because things that were sounding very reassuring suddenly take a turn for the creepier. And as we all know, Miss Austen didn't do those sorts of things by accident. At the end of Henry's speech, therefore, we are left still a bit discomfited, not only because Catherine Morland is our proxy and she's just been set down, but also because some of what was offered as comfort feels very much like a threat.

As an interesting aside (for me, anyhow), Austen knew of strange, Gothic-like goings-on in real-life England. A former pupil of her father's with diminished mental faculties was found to have been married off by his custodian for pecuniary gain; he was kept chained in a cell within his home for months until his plight was discovered and he was rescued. And Austen's own ancestry included a story from a few generations back in which a mother kept her three daughters prisoner within their own home until they managed to escape. Catherine's suspicions sound less far-fetched now, don't they?

Henry's staunch Anglicism is a by-product of his own rearing by a law-abiding (if not always loving) father. In addition to being a fairly well-rounded character, Henry is also a "type" – he represents a rational being of the Enlightenment, who is thoughtful and logical and possessed of both a superior education and a finely tuned intuition.
Austen's final Gothic arc in this book is now complete – once again, Catherine has been swept away by her imagination, and once again, it has ended in her embarrassment (here, to the point of complete mortification and tears).

How will Henry and Catherine interact tomorrow? And what news will the mail bring?

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