Thursday, August 20, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter 21 – the very short version Catherine has fun with furniture.

Chapter 21
You may remember that during yesterday's carriage curricle ride, Henry Tilney decided to amuse Catherine and himself (at Catherine's expense) by telling her a Gothic sort of tale about the sorts of horrors she must be prepared to find at Northanger Abbey. The illustration to the right is C.E. Brock's illustration to go with yesterday's Chapter 20, but I saved it for today so you'd have a) a visual of what Catherine thought she might encounter before she got to her room and b) a feel for the vibe Catherine managed to generate for herself when she eventually retires to her room to discover the very cabinet that Henry Tilney so cleverly thought to include in his story yesterday (someone pays attention to what furniture is where, yes?), and then manages to freak herself out thanks to the storm and the loss of her fire and her accidentally putting out her own candle.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, to be sure, having skipped past her examination of the chest that turns out to be merely a spare piece of furniture that Eleanor thought might be useful. With Catherine's examination of that particular trunk, we see her starting to buy into the notion that the chest might hold hidden horrors, only to have it shot down by a combination of her inspection and Eleanor's comments.

Austen returns to the same notion later in the chapter, tracing over the same figure like a practiced skater carving compulsory figures into the ice. This time, however, there is no person to intervene or explain things away for Catherine. It's late, it's stormy, her fire's out, she's managed to outsmart the diabolically complicated locks in the mysterious cabinet that happens to precisely match the horrid one that Henry described earlier that day and she's found secret, ancient documents, only to manage to outen her candle when she only meant to trim the wick a bit. Once can readily imagine how Catherine's heart must have been racing by the end of this chapter (I know I can, since mine manages to pick up speed every time I read it, and I've read this novel a handful of times in the past two years)!

As I never promised you a rose garden that I wouldn't include spoilers, I will say that if you're averse to them, skip the bit behind the cut.

Analysis of what Austen's up to, now with spoilers

Today's chapter is the middle of a three-act piece (as it were) about Catherine and her Gothic expectations. Chapter 19 was about Henry telling her a story and creating an expectation. Today's Chapter 20 is about Catherine having her expectation met, at least a bit. And tomorrow's chapter finds Catherine taking a closer look at things on her own to discover that the diabolical locks . . . weren't (I'll not say why just here, but still – AHAHAHA!) And the ancient, secret documents? Yeah . . . laundry tallies. (Laundry tallies that turn out to serve a double purpose, by the by, but more on that tomorrow.)

In short, Austen tells you what she's going to show you, and then she shows you a short version (Eleanor and the curious chest), and then she gives you the much fuller account. It's the same emotional journey each time – Catherine gets caught up in the notion of the Gothic, only to feel rather foolish when all is said (by Henry) and done (by Catherine). And I will tell you one more tidbit for free: we're going to see the same story one more time, writ large, and in super slow-mo, and it's already begun to play out in the carefully-seeded bits of information that Austen's been parceling out to us in recent chapters.

Why keep covering the same groundI believe that it's exceptionally clever of her to keep skating in the same pattern, because, as readers, we allow the tension of this particular arc to affect us every time. Partly, it's because she does such a good job of conveying what's going on with Catherine (who does get herself pretty well twisted up about it) and partly because after all the hints she's dropped about Gothic heroines and Gothic elements and the like, we are still waiting for one of these lines to pan out in classic, Gothic format. Not when Henry tells Catherine the story – we know to laugh at Catherine from the start. But in the short action version (the first of the "show, don't tell" versions with the mysterious chest), reader tension actually starts to rise, only to have the lid quickly slammed on us. Like Catherine, we are a bit embarrassed, but we laugh (it's a classic "jump story" technique that she's using, really).

In today's long version – in which the chapter ends in mystery accompanied by heart-pumping, adrenaline fueled Sturm und Drang – we are left thinking that maybe Catherine is really and truly onto something this time. When, tomorrow, she finds out the reality of her situation, we will again shake our heads and laugh and remember that life is not like a Gothic novel, only to have that "or is it?" thought creep back into our minds slowly over the next few chapters. Brilliantly done, Miss Austen. Seriously clever from an intellectual, as well as from a strategic, standpoint.

Our heroine, having tried (and failed) three times in her quest to find Gothic elements in real life is almost certainly going to be correct on her final go, yes? Well, no. Not really, since Austen's making a different point with this novel: reality can be interesting enough, and examination of a character's internal motivations and the adroit use of foreshadowing can lead to an extremely diverting reading experience without resorting to all the bells and whistles of a Gothic novel. And, since she's writing satire and having a huge amount of fun, she makes her point while incorporating Gothic elements. As those guys in the Guinness ads say, "Brilliant!"

A pictorial digression. This cover for Northanger Abbey may be my favorite yet. I rather suspect that the book designer didn't bother to actually, y'know, read the book or otherwise find out what it was about, since the cover conveys both the notion that this is actually a Gothic novel (and not a parody of said genre) and that it belongs in Victorian England. It's a bit of a digression, but I'm sure having seen the magic that is "the terror of Northanger Abbey", I'm sure you'll forgive me.

One more thing about the middle. (Cue Otto from A Fish Called Wanda - "What was the middle part again?") At dinner, the General is again tremendously solicitous of Catherine and her opinions. It's important to note that he makes references to Mr. Allen's house here (and elsewhere, going forward). Also, notice how pleased he is at being told that his is bigger than Mr. Allen's (dining rooms, people – yeesh!) He likes to be consequential, which he manages to tell us (in his way) and Austen manages to show us (through descriptions of him, his home and lands, and his behaviour) at nearly every turn.

Another tiny word on the middle, Otto:
The evening passed without any further disturbance, and, in the occasional absence of General Tilney, with much positive cheerfulness. It was only in his presence that Catherine felt the smallest fatigue from her journey; and even then, even in moments of languor or restraint, a sense of general happiness preponderated, and she could think of her friends in Bath without one wish of being with them. (Italics mine.)

Tomorrow: Let's tour the Abbey!

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