Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Northanger Abbey discussion: Volume 2, Chapters 1 – 8

I won't be able to comment for a couple of days, but wanted to get the discussion post up for others to do so.

With these chapters, the setting moves to Northanger Abbey and the gothic-novel spoof is in full bloom. I can do no better than "The terror of Northanger Abbey had no name, no shape--yet it menaced Catherine Morland in the dead of night!" So check the window latches and post a comment on any topic in the book up to here.


Barry Barnitz said...

We should note aspects of General Tilney's conduct and character after his key brief encounter with John Thorpe at the theater.

But what do you think we have been talking of? You. Yes, by heavens! And the general thinks you the finest girl in Bath.”
“Oh! Nonsense! How can you say so?”
“And what do you think I said?” — lowering his voice — “well done, general, said I; I am quite of your mind.”

After this encounter, the General goes out of his way to lavish an excess of attention on Catherine, much to the her embarrassment. The attention is marked by occasional outbursts of temper (as with the servant William, and with his son Captain Tilney, as a consequence of their supposed imposition upon her comfort.) Henry and Eleanor demonstrate repressed spirits in the General's presence, and Catherine likewise feels similar effects:

Instead of finding herself improved in acquaintance with Miss Tilney, from the intercourse of the day, she seemed hardly so intimate with her as before; instead of seeing Henry Tilney to greater advantage than ever, in the ease of a family party, he had never said so little, nor been so little agreeable; and, in spite of their father’s great civilities to her — in spite of his thanks, invitations, and compliments — it had been a release to get away from him.

Twice the General invites Eleanor to speak but cuts her off to do the honors himself.

The General keeps a rigorous and disciplined schedule at the abbey.

We need to keep these realities in mind even as Catherine begins to weave her gothic imaginings of the General's supposed transgressions.

Barry Barnitz said...

The following key information tells us much about the Morland family's financial position, and speaks volumes about Isabella's true character.

When the young ladies next met, they had a far more interesting subject to discuss. James Morland’s second letter was then received, and the kind intentions of his father fully explained. A living, of which Mr. Morland was himself patron and incumbent, of about four hundred pounds yearly value, was to be resigned to his son as soon as he should be old enough to take it; no trifling deduction from the family income, no niggardly assignment to one of ten children. An estate of at least equal value, moreover, was assured as his future inheritance.

Isabella's and Mrs. Thorpe's immediate reactions:

It is very charming indeed,” said Isabella, with a grave face. “Mr. Morland has behaved vastly handsome indeed,” said the gentle Mrs. Thorpe, looking anxiously at her daughter.

...my dear, we are not to suppose but what, if you had had a suitable fortune, he would have come down with something more, for I am sure he must be a most liberal–minded man.”
“Nobody can think better of Mr. Morland than I do, I am sure. But everybody has their failing, you know, and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money.” Catherine was hurt by these insinuations. “I am very sure,” said she, “that my father has promised to do as much as he can afford.”

Isabella's obvious dissatisfaction with Morland's wealth is confirmed in her conversation with Catherine as she awaits the arrival of Captain Tilney:

Since that is the case, I am sure I shall not tease you any further. John desired me to speak to you on the subject, and therefore I have. But I confess, as soon as I read his letter, I thought it a very foolish, imprudent business, and not likely to promote the good of either; for what were you to live upon, supposing you came together? You have both of you something, to be sure, but it is not a trifle that will support a family nowadays; and after all that romancers may say, there is no doing without money. I only wonder John could think of it; he could not have received my last.” The intimation is that Isabella had declared her disaffection in the letter.

The object of Isabella's attention, Captain Tilney, is the prospective heir of Northanger Abbey.

Barry Barnitz said...

We can speculate on the following measurement of the Morland's economic status.

We are informed that Mr. Morland owns the living he intends to settle on James. (We might assume that the second living is also in Mr. Morland's possession). The gifted living is projected to provide 400 pounds income per annum (keep in mind that the common laborer earned approximatly 15 pounds per annum and that 300 pounds per annum is the threshold for maintaining gentility.

James is also due to inherit an additional 400 pounds. Now if this inheritance were to come exclusively from "funded" property we would be looking at a capital accumulation of 80,000 to 100,000 pounds (depending on the 4% to 5% interest rates of the period. This sum is unlikely, since the Morlands' show no indiction of earning 4,000 pounds a year.

The more likely scenario is that Jeff will inherit the second living in combination with his share (1/10th) of the invested family wealth. The sum of these two inheritances would approximate 400 pounds.

Barry Barnitz said...

Oops... that is James, not Jeff.

Dwight said...

Barry covers the financial aspects so well, I almost hesitate to add anything to them. But I will add some less than obvious (to us today) clues Austen gives as to the Tilney’s wealth. It’s not much of a secret that they are well off, but some things mentioned are easy to overlook:

There’s the abbey itself, quite an impressive estate. The constant improvements speak to money, but items like clear glass (end of Chapter 5) and his series of greenhouses (Chapter 7) would show a clear excess of money to readers in Austen’s time. Clear glass was a recent achievement of British technology, very pricey and already installed in Northanger Abbey. The “succession-houses” were a series of greenhouses at different temperatures in order to force plants or bulbs to grow out of season. These and other miscellaneous facts about Northanger Abbey would speak to readers of the times as not just well-to-do, but exceedingly wealthy I believe. Her depiction of their wealth goes way beyond just renting one of the more expensive houses in Bath and other items, but subtle hints are constantly presented as to how much money the Tilneys have.

At the same time there is a dual personality to General Tilney presented—caring deeply for his help while luxuriantly growing tropical fruit while at the same time much of Britain was struggling for survival. I may be reading too much into this, but I believe Austen is trying to paint a conflicting social conscience on Genearl Tilney’s part. Which, ultimately, helps explain much of his behavior toward Catherine.

The gothic novel spoof is pretty straightforward, but I love Chapter 5 where Tilney and Catherine parody the usual motifs (and Mysteries of Udolpho in particular). This just adds one more layer to one of Austen’s favorite themes: confusing art and reality. There are lots of little twists on this theme in the book, the gothic novel spoof being the most obvious. One motif that may go unnoticed is Catherine’s surprise at how a smooth, level road traveled with ease led them to the abbey: in Mysteries of Udolpho (Chapters 5 and 6 in Volume II) the path to Udolpho was steep and tortuous. As it is with most other things Catherine assumes about Northanger Abbey, her expectations fed from gothic novels do not materialize in real life.

One correction I think I need to make at this point as I have become more aware of what was involved in gothic novels. In introducing this book, I said “Like Don Quixote, it has lived longer than the literature it satirized.” I realize now that isn’t completely true as many motifs used in gothic novels have descended to the current “romance” novels. (And nighttime soap operas, but that’s another story best left for aficionados of Fresno.

Barry Barnitz said...

The general himself comments on the Tilney wealth:
Shortly after breakfast Henry left them for Woodston, where business required and would keep him two or three days. They all attended in the hall to see him mount his horse, and immediately on re–entering the breakfast–room, Catherine walked to a window in the hope of catching another glimpse of his figure. “This is a somewhat heavy call upon your brother’s fortitude,” observed the general to Eleanor. “Woodston will make but a sombre appearance today.”

“Is it a pretty place?” asked Catherine.

“What say you, Eleanor? Speak your opinion, for ladies can best tell the taste of ladies in regard to places as well as men. I think it would be acknowledged by the most impartial eye to have many recommendations. The house stands among fine meadows facing the south–east, with an excellent kitchen–garden in the same aspect; the walls surrounding which I built and stocked myself about ten years ago, for the benefit of my son. It is a family living, Miss Morland; and the property in the place being chiefly my own, you may believe I take care that it shall not be a bad one. Did Henry’s income depend solely on this living, he would not be ill–provided for. Perhaps it may seem odd, that with only two younger children, I should think any profession necessary for him; and certainly there are moments when we could all wish him disengaged from every tie of business. But though I may not exactly make converts of you young ladies, I am sure your father, Miss Morland, would agree with me in thinking it expedient to give every young man some employment. The money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing. Even Frederick, my eldest son, you see, who will perhaps inherit as considerable a landed property as any private man in the county, has his profession.”

Turning to the gothic elements, Cathrerine's evening with the chest and cabinet is a delightful hoot, enriched by Catherine's incipient self-knowledge. After discovering that her hidden papers are nothing more than laundry lists and farrier's bills, the truth dawns on Catherine:

Such was the collection of papers (left perhaps, as she could then suppose, by the negligence of a servant in the place whence she had taken them) which had filled her with expectation and alarm, and robbed her of half her night’s rest! She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom? A corner of it, catching her eye as she lay, seemed to rise up in judgment against her. Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. To suppose that a manuscript of many generations back could have remained undiscovered in a room such as that, so modern, so habitable! — Or that she should be the first to possess the skill of unlocking a cabinet, the key of which was open to all!

How could she have so imposed on herself? Heaven forbid that Henry Tilney should ever know her folly! And it was in a great measure his own doing, 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. This was the only comfort that occurred. Impatient to get rid of those hateful evidences of her folly, those detestable papers then scattered over the bed, she rose directly, and folding them up as nearly as possible in the same shape as before, returned them to the same spot within the cabinet, with a very hearty wish that no untoward accident might ever bring them forward again, to disgrace her even with herself.

Unfortunately she has yet to purge gothic influences from her fancy, as she turns the General into a Montoni.

One subtle irony, is that "heroine" who truly suffers at the Abbey is Eleanor, deprived of the company of a mother and having Henry's company only on occasion.