Friday, August 21, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter 22 – the very short version Catherine feels silly, gets a tour of the Abbey grounds

Chapter 22
As promised, Catherine awakes to discover that the papers she found were a farrier's bill and some laundry bills listing articles of clothing belonging to a man, and a list of purchases including "hair-powder, shoe-string, and breeches-ball*" – all the sorts of things a visiting gentleman of fashion might use (although by the time the novel was written, hair powder had fallen out of favor due largely to a tax imposed in 1795, when Pitt tried to recoup Treasury losses – many men responded by tossing aside their wigs and wearing their hair short, in the style one sees in so many Regency adaptations). Catherine is duly mortified to find out she stayed up tossing and turning over these papers, and further figures out that the diabolical locks were a figment of her imagination as well – in fact, the cabinet had been unlocked; her actions had resulted in the cabinet becoming locked.

*breeches-ball was a special soap used to clean stains off of men's breeches. As best I can tell, it was a combination of soap and dye. Here's a handy recipe with which one can make their own breeches-ball, assuming one has ox galls and the other ingredients at hand. It's taken from the Household Cyclopedia, an online reproduction of a practical text dated 1881:
"Mix 1 lb. of Bath brick, 2 lbs. of pipe-clay, 4 oz. of pumice-stone powder, and 6 oz. of ox galls; color them with rose-pink, yellow ochre, umber, Irish slate, etc., to any desired shade." One – or rather, one's valet – would moisten the stain, then rub the eraser-like breeches ball on the stain. Et voilà.

Before I move away from the cabinet and out of the room, I want to point out this particular bit of foreshadowing: "Heaven forbid that Henry Tilney should ever know her folly!" Indeed, Catherine blames Henry for her interest in the cabinet in the first place, "for had not the cabinet appeared so exactly to agree with his description of her adventures, she should never have felt the smallest curiosity about it."

Breakfast with Henry Catherine rushes down to the breakfast room (a less formal dining salon than the grand room used for dinner) to find Henry alone. As has already been established, Henry really does understand Catherine; therefore, he makes an arch reference to the storm and the Abbey and hopes she wasn't too terrified. In her haste to change the subject, Catherine declares that she has "just learnt to love a hyacinth", thanks to Eleanor. Henry's further conversation on the matter flirts with matters of love:

"But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?"
"But I do not want any such pursuit to get me out of doors. The pleasure of walking and breathing fresh air is enough for me, and in fine weather I am out more than half my time. -- Mamma says, I am never within."
"At any rate, however, I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing. -- Has my sister a pleasant mode of instruction?"

Austen's multitasking is once again brilliant. Henry manages, through double meanings, to speak of love at the same time that he is praising Catherine for characteristics he applauds, all while encouraging her to keep developing herself along the same lines. Catherine manages to reveal more of her background and nature to Henry, and her embarrassment is an indicator that she understands his intended second meaning. It's all obscurely swoon-worthy, once you slow it down and parse it.

The General's tea set, or how to read his tea cup. And yes, I meant "tea cup" and not "tea leaves". Allow me to 'splain:

1. The General's insistence on claiming to support English manufacturers and his reference to the tea in them tasting the same as from cups made in Dresden or Sêvres shows that he is patriotic, although the way he couches his comment implies that the craftsmanship of Staffordshire manufacturers (which even then would have included Wedgewood and Spode) may or may not be as fine as the others; it also tells us that he is quite particular about the way his tea tastes (although as we shall later see, Catherine takes him at his word, not understanding his double-speak). In the case of Sêvres, his comment probably reflects an antipathy towards the French based on the ongoing war between Britain and France.

2. His comment about it being an old set shows his fondness for displaying his wealth. The tea set is a mere two years old, and although he states things in the negative, it's clear that he toyed with the idea of replacing it already with whatever is currently a la mode.

3. His comment about needing to buy one soon, but not for himself, flies over Catherine's head, although he probably intended for her to pick up on it as approval of her as a mate for Henry. He undoubtedly intended for Henry to understand it that way, and to encourage and/or command Henry to form the match.

First mention of Woodston, Henry's own home Alas, Henry is off for a few days. The way the General claims to defer to Eleanor for an opinion, then barrels along without giving her any opportunity at all to chime in tells us still more about the General, and the items he feels impelled to describe it in terms that make it clear who's the bully boss around here – and around Woodston, too, from the sounds of it. His disclaimer about the importance of money will be believed by Catherine, but having paid attention to the General's tea cups, we now know that any sentence that includes a descriptor of himself and his views is highly suspect, and that he says what might be most socially acceptable, but actually operates differently. He claims an uncritical palate but is highly critical, he claims to be without vanity for the latest styles when it's obvious here (and in later scenes set at the Abbey) that he keeps up with current fashions in all things, and his claim that it is employment, not money, that is important also rings false, since money is one of his very chief concerns.

And now the house tour? Catherine desperately wants to tour the house. From an authorial perspective, it is therefore logical to frustrate the main character's wishes, and so Austen does.

The General offers her a tour of the house, which she accepts with alacrity, and then says he'll tour her around the gardens as well, and then he decides to walk out of doors first, all the while saying that he's acceding to Catherine's wishes, which (of course) he's not. It's a heavy-handed form of manipulation, but Catherine, who's not familiar with the tactic in general and with the General in particular, believes she has displeased the General by opting to go outside (even though she hasn't) rather than touring the house. Eleanor is, as one might expect, embarrassed, because her father has ridden roughshod over their guest all because he wants to keep to his usual routine.

To the gardens, in which Miss Austen becomes very political indeed If you are scratching your head at the title of this section, it is because we live – and have always live – in a post-enclosure society. In 1801, Parliament passed the General Inclosure Act, which enclosed open fields and common lands in the country, thereby depriving many small landholders and workers of space in which to graze their sheep and cattle or in which they could gather wood. As a result, numerous country workers who could no longer eke out a living on the land moved to urban areas in search of industrial jobs, thereby becoming wage laborers. When General Tilney shows off his vast enclosures, it is because Austen means to point out how he has been enriched by the enclosure movement, and – quite possibly – how he is oblivious to or unconcerned with any hardship it causes to others. Also, greenhouses were particularly expensive to maintain, and the general doesn't just have one or two. No, we are told that "The walls seemed countless in number, endless in length; a village of hot-houses seemed to arise among them, and a whole parish to be at work within the enclosure."

The General's obvious pride in his hothouses and gardens – and his triumph in having again "bested" Mr. Allen (whom he doesn't really know, by the way, but whom he obviously imagines to be tremendously wealthy) – is immense. At a time in England when large numbers of people were having difficulty finding food (because of the enclosure movement), he has the nerve to complain that his "pinery" (hothouse dedicated to growing pineapples) had only produce 100 of them in the prior year. I think it's all worth mentioning so that we, as modern readers, can better appreciate precisely what sort of rich man the General is: he's not the millionaire next door. In a modern interpretation, he'd be more of a mogul: amassing wealth, commanding legions, showing little regard for the hardships his needs impose on others. And he wants his ego to be constantly stroked – something for which naive, kind-hearted Catherine Morland is particularly well-suited, since she really and truly has never seen anything like it before, and says so.

Mrs. Tilney's favorite walk Eleanor and Catherine manage to escape the General by heading into a shaded walk. The irony of this is wonderful. An ordinary Gothic heroine would enter a winding path through a gloomy grove only because she was being chased into it. Here, the General "chases" them into the path with his offer (or threat) of continued examination of greenhouses. He intends to keep to the sunshine. They willingly flee into the shade.

An ordinary Gothic heroine would feel nothing but oppression and trepidation while in such a secluded grove; Catherine and Eleanor, however, feel happy and light-hearted and fall easily into conversation once they are out of the General's domineering presence. Dear Miss Austen: I c what u did thar.

The General's unkindness to Mrs. Tilney In case you hadn't realized what the trajectory of our next Gothic arc is, you ought now to have an inkling that it has to do with the General and Mrs. Tilney. The interesting thing will be to note what Catherine gets right, and what she gets wrong. She determines from her conversation with Eleanor that Mrs. Tilney was not happy in her marriage to the General, and that the General was not in love with her – if he did not love his wife's favorite walk and did not care for the portrait that was painted of her, he must not have loved her. On the one hand, her logic is a bit hinky. On the other hand, her intuition on these two points will prove to be 100% correct. Her decision to consider the General as a villainous character, however, is where the final Gothic arc lies in this book. (Discussion of prior arcs can be found in yesterday's post.

Catherine attempted no longer to hide from herself the nature of the feelings which, in spite of all his attentions, he had previously excited; and what had been terror and dislike before, was now absolute aversion. Yes, aversion! His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters, characters which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary.(Italics added)

I italicized the phrase about Mr. Allen in the above sentence for the following reasons.

Having already been proved to be a sensible, kind-hearted gentleman who has his head properly affixed (as to everything except, perhaps, his choice of spouse, which was based on looks alone), Mr. Allen's opinion is one we ought to respect. If he says this sort of character does not exist in real life, we – and Catherine – ought to believe him. We are now on notice that Catherine is deviating from a rational path in her imaginings about the General. Not in her observations, mind you, or in some of her conclusions, but once she starts to imagine what may have transpired between the General and Mrs. Tilney.

That the General is so observant of Catherine as to notice her losing interest, which he immediately assumes has to do with her becoming tired, shows us that he is not, in general, inattentive. That he immediately sends her back to the Abbey with Eleanor shows that he is solicitous, and not entirely unkind. Whether his exhortation to Eleanor not to show Catherine around the Abbey until he gets back is motivated by concern for her health or something else (and possibly something nefarious) is left open.

Tomorrow: Finally – a house tour! Plus, some details about Mrs. Tilney's death

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