Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Twenty

Chapter 20 - the very short version General Tilney turns out to be high maintenance (no shock); Catherine enjoys an open carriage ride and story time with Henry.

A word about curricles A curricle was an updated version of a chariot, and was usually pulled by two horses (unusual for a light gig at that time - why use two horses when one would suffice?); the horses were often a matched pair. The curricle was as much about seeing and being seen as it was about speed. In the curricle which you see to the right, the small person at the back is a servant known as a "tiger". It was a matter of pride to have the smallest tiger, oddly enough.

For an amusing take on the difference between a gig (John Thorpe's vehicle) and a curricle (Henry Tilney's), read Margaret Sullivan's article at Tilneys and Trapdoors.

Chapter 20
I don't know about you, but I find the beginning of the chapter uncomfortable. Austen does such a great job at describing the General that I was instantly transported to occasions in my own life when I've heard someone's superior (boss, parent, whatever) go off on them, in part because they are trying to ensure that things are right for me (or others in my presence). You get the discomfort of listening to someone (here, Captain Tilney) being taken to task, with the added discomfort of knowing that they are using you - in whole or in part - as the basis for their temper tantrum. Of course, Austen summed it up better than I did: "[Catherine] was quite pained by the severity of his father's reproof, which seemed disproportionate to the offence; and much was her concern increased when she found herself the principal cause of the lecture, and that his tardiness was chiefly resented from being disrespectful to her."

At their rest stop along the way, Catherine observes how the General seems to suck all the joy out of the room: "General Tilney, though so charming a man, seemed always a check upon his children's spirits, and scarcely any thing was said but by himself; the observation of which, with his discontent at whatever the inn afforded, and his angry impatience at the waiters, made Catherine grow every moment more in awe of him, and appeared to lengthen the two hours into four." On leaving for the final leg of their trip, however, the General suggests that Catherine accompany Henry. In an open carriage.

To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world. It turns out that Henry, like Rainman, is an excellent driver. I rather agree with Maggie Sullivan's opinion that "Catherine would have approved of an ox-cart had Henry Tilney been driving it". Still, it's more than just his driving. Thorpe was all popping the clutch and hollering "Whoa, Nellie! My horse is so spirited that we would die were it not for my efforts - WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S SLOW!" whereas Henry is all "Lovely day for a drive with such a lovely girl. You are so sweet to come spend time with my beloved sister. Giddyap" while executing smooth lane changes on the Autobahn.

While Maggie Sullivan compared their equipages, I rather expect that Austen intended readers to deduce a little something about the men from the way they handle their horses. Thorpe is rather erratic and slightly clueless in his handling of horses and in his dancing; Tilney is adroit and assured in both. Most likely readers were meant to extrapolate that one's skills in these areas represented their skills in a relationship (sexual and otherwise), and I'd have to say that based on what we know about their personalities, it seems likely. Henry is kind and considerate, generous and coordinated, clever and well-read; John Thorpe is . . . not. *wink wink nudge nudge, say no more, say no more*

Time out for a brief digression involving an Executive Transvestite. For reasons that will make sense to nobody, perhaps, but me, my last comments brought to mind Eddie Izzard's bit about coffee from Dress to Kill. My digression, let me show you it:

I have to say, I love that Henry speaks so lovingly of his sister and so sweetly to Catherine before he decides to have her on about her notions of a Gothic abbey. Knowing that she likes Udolpho, he does his best to depict his father's home as just such a place, complete with brooding housekeeper, thunderstorms and more . . . until he finds he can no longer keep his countenance because Catherine has gotten too involved in his story. Instead, he breaks character as "serious, solemn narrator" and cracks up. Gotta love Mr. Tilney for that, say I.

Imagine, then, Catherine's consternation at finding herself inside a beautifully appointed, modern residence (particularly after Henry's Gothic recitation). The narrator wryly assures us that Catherine was disappointed to find that the windows were clean and there were no cobwebs, as she had so been looking forward to finding something like the edifices described by Ann Radcliffe in her novels.

The General's pronouncement of the time and the rapid response it triggered in all parties is an indicator of the General's rigid adherence to his schedule and rituals. Being, as they were, in the country, dinner was likely to be served no later than 6 p.m., and possibly as early as 5:30. Having traveled all day, the Tilneys and Catherine were undoubtedly wearing travel clothes (a particular form of "morning" dress, designed not to show the wear and dirt of travel - it is highly unlikely that even Miss Tilney was wearing white, despite her being inside a closed carriage the whole way). One would wish to discard outer layers and remove bonnets (which would likely necessitate a new hair style). One would also wish to clean ones' face and hands - the only parts of the body that were washed with any true regularity, since they were pretty much all that showed.

Back then (and, indeed, in some houses even today), one dressed for dinner, which usually required a complete change of dress. For a woman, that would have involved the assistance of a maid, and the following alterations would have occurred: The outer dress would have been removed and replaced, along with (in many instances) the petticoats underneath. One would, of course, use the facilities (such as they were - a privy chair, perhaps, or an outhouse if the weather were fine - Regency women often said they were stepping out "to pluck a rose"). One would likely re-dress one's hair; a woman's hair at that time was often exceedingly long when down. In a recollection from her childhood, Jane Austen's niece, Louisa Knight, recalled that her Aunt Jane's hair hung almost to her knees when down - that takes a while to dress and/or re-dress. It goes without saying that the more one changed, the longer it took; hence, Eleanor's exhortation to make as little alteration as possible (a hint to Catherine not to take too long getting ready, and one that Catherine immediately understands).

Tomorrow: Foreboding furniture and forbidding weather

Kiva - loans that change lives


Leaflet said...

that's a beautiful blog !!

I am happy to find it :))

keep posting..

Madigan McGillicuddy said...

Terrific analysis! I didn't know that about the "tiger" on the curricle.