Saturday, August 22, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter 23 – the very short version Catherine gets a tour of the Abbey and starts to wonder if General Tilney murdered his wife.

Chapter 23
Finally, we get a tour of the house! That the General is very proud of his home and of the wealth it represents is readily apparent. Catherine (who has been hoping for a cobwebby, dismal, haunted sort of place) is not as keenly interested in many of the rooms as one might think.

House Tour
I love Austen's narrator here, though, and the way she takes a swipe at the General for his dual sins of pride and vanity:

he led the way across the hall, through the common drawing-room and one useless antechamber, into a room magnificent both in size and furniture -- the real drawing-room, used only with company of consequence. -- It was very noble -- very grand -- very charming! -- was all that Catherine had to say, for her indiscriminating eye scarcely discerned the colour of the satin; and all minuteness of praise, all praise that had much meaning, was supplied by the General: the costliness or elegance of any room's fitting-up could be nothing to her; she cared for no furniture of a more modern date than the fifteenth century. When the General had satisfied his own curiosity, in a close examination of every well-known ornament, they proceeded into the library, an apartment, in its way, of equal magnificence, exhibiting a collection of books, on which an humble man might have looked with pride.(Italics added.)

First, HA! Second, the bit I italicized is an instance of the free indirect discourse for which Austen is so justifiably well-known. "Free indirect discourse" is the reporting of conversation without the use of quotes. The narrator is telling you exactly what Catherine Morland said, but the entire conversation isn't being shown.

From the dining-room, of which, though already seen, and always to be seen at five o'clock, the General could not forgo the pleasure of pacing out the length, for the more certain information of Miss Morland, as to what she neither doubted nor cared for, they proceeded by quick communication to the kitchen -- the ancient kitchen of the convent, rich in the massy walls and smoke of former days, and in the stoves and hot closets of the present. The General's improving hand had not loitered here: every modern invention to facilitate the labour of the cooks had been adopted within this, their spacious theatre; and, when the genius of others had failed, his own had often produced the perfection wanted. His endowments of this spot alone might at any time have placed him high among the benefactors of the convent.

We get further evidence of the General's pride and vanity, which extends to his kitchens. The General is quite interested in his food – both the growing of it and its preparation and consumption. On the plus side, he hasn't simply improved the "public" rooms of his house and let the back rooms (including the pantries and kitchen) moulder.

We get another demonstration of how real life is different than novels when the tour through the back offices (pantries and various service stations) discloses an army of servants:

The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices. Wherever they went, some pattened* girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille** sneaked off. Yet this was an Abbey! -- How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about -- from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself.

*pattened: wearing pattens; pattens were an early form of platform shoe used to keep one's shoes from getting wet (or, if out of doors, muddy). I did an entire post on pattens once, including an original poem about them.
**dishabille: a state of being undressed, or exceedingly casually or carelessly dressed (out of uniform, in any case, in this instance).

She was here shewn successively into three large bed-chambers, with their dressing-rooms, most completely and handsomely fitted up; everything that money and taste could do, to give comfort and elegance to apartments, had been bestowed on these; and, being furnished within the last five years, they were perfect in all that would be generally pleasing, and wanting in all that could give pleasure to Catherine. As they were surveying the last, the General, after slightly naming a few of the distinguished characters by whom they had at times been honoured, turned with a smiling countenance to Catherine, and ventured to hope that henceforward some of their earliest tenants might be "our friends from Fullerton." She felt the unexpected compliment, and deeply regretted the impossibility of thinking well of a man so kindly disposed towards herself, and so full of civility to all her family.

The General's reference to visits from "friends from Fullerton" is a pretty transparent reference to his expectation that Catherine and Henry will marry; he therefore intends to entertain his future in-laws. Catherine appreciates that it's a compliment to her and her family; whether she fully understands his marital expectation is in question.

But not in my lady's chamber
At the end of the tour of the upstairs, Eleanor is precluded from taking Catherine to see the rooms that once belonged to Mrs. Tilney. Catherine immediately supposes that it has to do with guilt and a desire to avoid reminding himself of his wife. Eleanor divulges that the rooms remain as they were when her mother died nine years ago. While Catherine assumes that this is normal (based on her extensive reading of Gothic novels), I can assure you that my extensive reading of actual biographies from the time and my genealogical research reveal that rapid remarriages were exceedingly common, particularly where children were left without parents. Granted, Eleanor was the youngest of the three children, and she was thirteen and already at school; still, preserving the rooms of the dead wife as a sort of shrine was generally not done (if only because of insufficient space).

We also learn that Eleanor was away when her mother became ill and died. Catherine immediately supposes that perhaps the General did away with his wife. We then fast-forward to the evening, when the General spends the better part of an hour pacing the room like "a Montoni" (the villain in The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The General and his pamphlets The reference to the General's need to stay up and read pamphlets is again a direct reference to politics during the war between France and England. In 1795, England passed the Anti-Treason and Seditious Meeting Acts, designed to suppress any dissent to the actions of the government. (They were kind of like the Patriot's Act in some respects, making certain actions illegal and allowing for the use of a number of surveillance tactics in order to ferret out any possible dissent.) In the summer of 1803 (the year the novel was first sold), all of England was again on edge, expecting imminent invasion after the Treaty of Amiens collapsed in May.

Political pamphlets abounded, and these are what the General is reading. He is looking for evidence of subversive activities by his neighbors and/or people operating in his vicinity. "'I have many pamphlets to finish,' said he to Catherine, 'before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.'"

Catherine, whose own family and friends are not politically involved, assumes this is a lie. "But neither the business alleged, nor the magnificent compliment, could win Catherine from thinking that some very different object must occasion so serious a delay of proper repose. To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets was not very likely."

I love what she comes up with as a possible alternate explanation: She essentially believes that General Tilney is Mr. Rochester, and that he's locked his wife in the attic. (As an aside – George Lewes wrote to Charlotte Brontë in 1848 after Jane Eyre was published, exhorting her to write less melodramatically and more like Jane Austen; Miss Brontë was not pleased.)

Tomorrow – We see how this last Gothic arc plays out

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