According to the schedule we should be through chapter 9. It wasn’t that many pages but BOY there is a lot to cover. So let’s get started.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine” (chapter 1).
As opening sentences go, this is a good one, and very effective for setting up what this book is going to be like. It immediately makes us expect 1. Catherine to be a very ordinary sort of person, and 2. that our pre-existing suppositions about her will be overturned sooner or later. One of the things I like about this book is that even though it warns us up front what it is going to do, it still turns things on their head multiple times throughout the book.
The heroine: What do you all think about Catherine, so far? I know she is annoying to some readers, but while she isn’t my favorite Jane Austen heroine, I also love her to pieces. She’s more realistic than most Young Adult heroines. At the start of the book, she has no idea what she’s doing. She considers her family/close friends as infallible. She’s naive, ignorant, and easily led, but she’s also kind, and she’s not stupid. She won’t knowingly do something wrong or that will hurt someone else (e.g. “quizzing,” pointing out silly things about others in order to mock them). If she admires someone, she has absolute faith in them (obviously this is both a strength and a flaw).
In her relationships, Catherine is pretty passive so far. She’s happy to enjoy others’ company and let them do the thinking (probably because she is too aware of her own ignorance), and she doesn’t make above-average efforts to make plans or force herself into intimacy with others. She wants to be more acquainted with the Tilneys but hasn’t forced herself into their way yet. We will see how she progresses! Obviously she has a long way to go to maturity and being the awesome lady she could be. But I guess that’s why I like her – she’s unformed, but has so much potential: “Her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind-her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty- and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is” (chapter 2). Sorta harsh, but sorta true. Several references have been made about Catherine’s “humble vanity” and how easy it is to satisfy her, because she isn’t vain. What cracks me up about this is that while the narration is trying to tell us that because she’s so humble, she isn’t stuck-up or obsessed about her looks, it doesn’t point out that a side-effect of her humility is that people like the Thorpes can easily lead her to believe they love her by flattering her a little. This is, of course, very intentional on the narrator’s part. It’s good to pay attention to what the narration isn’t taking pains to point out, but by reading between the lines is very obvious. Sneaky, tricksy narration.
Catherine’s abilities or lack of as a “heroine” are mentioned countless times in the novel. Take a look at these and consider whether Catherine’s behavior or characteristics, although they may not be appropriate of a heroine, are laudable or not. For example, in chapter 8, if she was a heroine she would have believed Miss Tilney to be Mr. Tilney’s girlfriend, and if so, then there would be a ton of melodrama before the confusion could be cleared up. Instead, Catherine uses logic to ascertain that she must be his sister, thereby avoiding the melodrama and “conflict” worthy of a heroine. Most of the heroine references are humorous on at least one level, such as the comparison of Catherine’s “fortitude” in that same chapter when she is sitting by herself through no fault of her own, with the fortitude of heroines when they have to endure being “disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity” etc etc.
Supporting characters: So far the primary supporting characters are the Allens (Mr. and Mrs.), the Tilneys (Mr. and Miss) and the Thorpes (Mrs., Mr., and Miss).
The Allens seem kind but clueless – Mrs. Allen is described several times as having nothing in her heads but clothes and gowns. Mr. Allen often abandons the ladyfolk to their own devices, although I love the bit at the end of chapter 3 where he makes sure to check out Mr. Tilney’s background in case he’s not good enough for Catherine.
The Tilneys are very mysterious figures so far – we haven’t seen much of them but Catherine thinks them perfect in every way. I really love how much mystery is set up regarding them, not because they’re trying to be mysterious and intriguing, but because Catherine just hasn’t managed to spend much time with them yet, although she wishes to. I’m used to the 2007 Northanger Abbey movie so when Mr. Tilney is described as “not quite handsome” (chapter 3) I want to snort in disbelief. Mrs. Allen knows they come from a good, rich family. I really like all of the flirting between Catherine and Tilney, especially in chapter 3 – Austen girls don’t get to flirt very much, as a rule, and it’s adorable. The conversation about journal-writing is one of my favorite scenes so far. But then again – Catherine really likes Tilney, and what do we really know about him? He’s not even as exciting as Udolpho: “while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable” (chapter 6).
The Thorpes are all different brands of selfish and make me want to commit defenestration. Mrs. Thorpe is obsessed with her kids and takes it to a ridiculous level (loving your kids is obviously great, but, um, calm down, Mrs. Thorpe, also your kids are animals).
Mr. Thorpe is constantly treating his mother and sisters carelessly, at best, and cruelly, at worst. I hate how Catherine is convinced to think well of him because he’s Isabella’s brother and Catherine’s brother’s friend, and they both think well of him so OF COURSE he must be okay! Get it together, Catherine. It’s not until chapter 8 when she starts to “resist such high authority [of Isabella and James], and to distrust his powers of giving universal power.” Mr. Thorpe also asks some pointed questions about Catherine’s relationship with the Allens, which will come up again later.
Dictionary note: Mr. Thorpe’s “whole scrape” (chapter 7) when meeting Catherine is apparently a clumsy bow. “Tittuppy” (chapter 8) is the funniest word I’ve found this year, and means rickety or unsteady.
And of course, dear Isabella. I admire her skills of manipulation and social savvy, but she really is the worst. She is constantly claiming how much she loves Catherine, or how much she will or will not do a thing, and then none of her actions back up her words. “My attachment is excessively strong,” Isabella claims in chapter 6, in reference to her friend Miss Andrews, and then in the same breath bad-mouths her. The narration really does a number on friendship on these first chapters, as it is based around Catherine and Isabella’s extremely unbalanced relationship. “Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love” (chapter 4), which is probably true, if a platitude, but it is juxtaposed with the way Isabella never supports Catherine if it is inconvenient to her, especially in social situations. For example, in chapter 8, where Isabella announces she won’t abandon Catherine, and then promptly does so, leaving Catherine without any buddies or boyfriends. For a crowded social party, this SUCKS.
The narration also makes sure that we know that Catherine doesn’t know how a friend should act in many situations. For example, when Isabella drops hints about how much she looooves clergymen, “Perhaps Catherine was wrong in not demanding the cause of that gentle emotion- but she was not experienced enough in the finesse of love, or the duties of friendship, to know when delicate raillery was properly called for, or when a confidence should be forced” (chapter 5). This is a hilarious observation on female (and male??) friendships where all hints must be taken by force and brought out into the open. But it also implies that there’s manipulation going on that Catherine is too ignorant (or honest) to pay attention to.
The Setting: Most of our story so far is set in Bath. Later on I will do a full post on the town and some of the specific town-sites mentioned, but there are few things to note now. As I mentioned in the introductory post to the readalong, Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey about 20 years before it was published. When she wrote Northanger Abbey, everything in it was very hip and current. For example, gothic fiction was very trendy and Bath was a very popular and fashionable resort-town. However, by the time the novel was published, Bath was still a resort-town but not as fashionable or as populated. Keep this in mind as you read. The references to “taking the waters” in Bath was because Bath has natural hot-water springs full of mineral water. So places like the “Pump-room” mentioned are places where the rich vacationers with doctors’ notes would go to drink some nice healthy mineral water, or take a bath in it. There’s a fast-and-furious overview of Bath’s baths here.
Novels and fiction: Chapter 5 ends with a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels. Keep it in mind for later in the book. Is the attitude presented here indicative of Northanger Abbey‘s attitude toward novels as a whole? Does it change? Where and when? etc etc. I’ll do another post on gothic fiction as a whole, and on the specific references to it in this book. There are a lot of them, as you probably noticed!
Sportsball Sidebar: I’ve been reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition this time around, and it has amazing footnotes! One thing I learned was that the reference to “base ball” in chapter 1 is, according to the Oxford English dictionary, the first literary reference to baseball (or rounders) in the English language. Jane Austen just casually manages to make an epic sportsball word-drop and I LOVE IT.