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Austen-Brontë Reader Series: Because You Loved Me First...




Hello, friends and fellow Janeites. The conclusion of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey awaits us, as does the chance to see what becomes of Austen’s most unconventional heroine, Catherine Morland, and her beau, Mr. Henry Tilney. In these final few pages, the story moves at a rapid pace, as Catherine explores Northanger Abbey and her feelings for all those prominent people in her life.


Synopsis

            During her first few days in residence at the Abbey, Catherine is shown a great deal of attention by General Tilney. He is an attentive host and enjoys leading her about the grounds. The fact that everything is so nice and new—the wallpaper, the carpeted floors, and the serviceable windows—all tend to make Catherine happier and greater at ease. She is not in the least way disappointed by Northanger Abbey, even though it is not what she expected.

            But things take an unexpected turn when Catherine’s imagination flares. She spies a heavy cedar chest with large silver locks in her room. Thinking of all the heroines in the novels who came before her, she is prompted to try and open the chest, but is caught by both the maid and Eleanor. It is up to Eleanor to explain then that the chest has been in the room forever and she only keeps it pushed into the corner now so it may hold bonnets and hats. This explanation is rather commonplace, and it ought to serve to squelch Catherine’s overactive imagination, but it has the opposite effect, for now her interests are piqued. She begins to see thrills around every corner.

            One night, while a storm rages outside, she spots a large black cabinet. It is so like the one Henry described that she feels inclined to open it. The key sticks, but she perseveres only to find nothing. But then, before she can retire and give up her perusal of the chest, she happens upon a small scroll. Her heart fills with trepidation as she prepares to read it, but she cannot because the room is too dark. The scroll falls from her hand and rolls away, so Catherine spends the entirety of the night fretting over the matter, wondering what might be concealed on those tiny pages. In the morning, when she awakens, she locates the note and learns that her fears and nervous flutterings were for naught. The paper is merely an inventory of linens. One might think after being tempted to allow her mind to runaway with her on two occasions and finding, when all was resolved, that there were no nefarious or supernatural terrors at work at Northanger Abbey that Catherine would give up and just allow herself to be contented, but that is not the case.

            This is when Catherine’s zeal for adventure reaches its zenith. During a tour of the estate, the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of General Tilney’s wife are mentioned vaguely. Eleanor wishes to speak of her mother because she misses her dearly, but the general seems otherwise inclined. This sparks Catherine to wonder about the lady’s death. And why would her husband wish to never speak of her? Catherine ends up thinking it possible the general might have dispatched his own wife, and she becomes fearful. But this conjecture is quickly put to rest when Henry guesses at Catherine’s conclusions and explains that he was at home when his mother suffered and died. Though her illness was short, his father was sincerely aggrieved, and there is no reason to think of the situation in any other terms. Catherine is mortified because she allowed herself to get so carried away in these little fantasies. Henry proves his worth as a gentleman when he does not tease her on this occasion, nor does he prolong her suffering by ever mentioning this misunderstanding again.

            It is at this point that Catherine’s head drops out of the clouds and she wonders why she has not heard from Isabella. Her friend promised so faithfully to write and yet…there has not been one letter. Almost as if she conjured the letter into being, one appears from her brother, James. He explains that his engagement to Isabella has been broken. She wishes to attach herself to Captain Tilney. Catherine is stricken, for her brother’s sake, but she wonders if this was all meant to be. Perhaps, Isabella will be a good, faithful wife to Captain Tilney because he is the man with whom she is truly in love. Henry shows his more practical, and perhaps sardonic side, by venturing to guess that Isabella might be true, so long as a baronet does not come along.

            Shortly thereafter, it is decided that the whole party should travel to Woodston. This is where Henry lives and has his church. He spends part of his week there and Catherine longs to see it. Just as she has been so very agreeable all along, when they arrive at Woodston, she sees only its loveliness. In her heart, she has a special preference for the place and thinks fondly of all she encounters. Catherine feels her day at Woodston passes much too quickly and she wonders when she might have the blessed opportunity of returning.

            The family arrives back at Northanger Abbey to find a letter that has come for Catherine from Isabella. She and Captain Tilney have parted ways, and she hopes she can persuade her friend to speak to James on her behalf. Isabella alleges there was miscommunication between the two of them and she hopes their wedding will proceed, as was planned before. This is the first time Catherine shows a bit of spunk and spirit. She can see all the contradictions in Isabella’s letter and finally understands the truth. Isabelle Thorpe was not a good friend and Catherine is ashamed to have loved her so greatly.

            The Tilney family and Catherine experience a brief period of happiness next. The general announces he must go to London and when he is out of the house, Eleanor, Henry, and Catherine live a few carefree days. Catherine wishes to remain with her friends and Eleanor obliges her by suggesting as much. But just when it is fixed that Catherine should remain for a much lengthier time, the general comes home hurriedly. He sends Eleanor to tell Catherine she must leave Northanger Abbey at once. A flimsy excuse has been made about the family needing to keep a prior engagement, but Catherine can see right through it. Her heart is broken. She had come to believe that all the Tilneys loved her dearly and it is the height of discourteousness to be turned out of the house in such a manner. Eleanor begs Catherine to write and at least let her know when she has reached her home in Fullerton safely and Catherine agrees. As the two friends say their final goodbyes, Catherine cannot even utter Henry’s name. It hangs heavy on her lips, but she is so distraught at being forced to part from him and his sister that she dares not say his name.

            Catherine returns to her home in “solitude and disgrace”. Her parents are shocked to see her, but they are glad she is there as well. She and her mama visit with Mrs. Allen and speak of her strange dismissal from Northanger Abbey, but Mrs. Allen can provide very little perspective as all she can seem to determine with any clarity is that General Tilney is a rather strange man. This visit does little to bolster Catherine’s spirits. She is sure there never was such a good friend as Eleanor and she knows she will never forget Henry. Her mother gently rebukes her sulky nature and suggests reading a passage from a book that might help set her to rights once more. When Mrs. Morland goes to search for the book, Henry Tilney arrives at the house.

            He has come to see Catherine and apologize for his father’s dreadful behavior. He also assures Catherine of his affection for her. He cares for her because she first showed a preference for him, and that spark has grown into feelings of love and gratitude.

            When the couple are granted a moment to continue their discourse, Henry explains what happened and why she was banished from Northanger Abbey in such a swift manner. It seems that General Tilney was, months before, led by John Thorpe to believe that Catherine was the heiress to a fortune. Because John thought he might soon be marrying Catherine and aligning himself with her family, he boasted of her prospects. General Tilney took this to heart and sought to cultivate a favorable relationship with Catherine for his own children. While General Tilney was in London, he met John Thorpe once again. Having been rebuffed by Catherine, John was inclined to be more truthful and so, at once, the general returned home and saw to it that Catherine was made to leave.

            Henry and his father argued over this matter, with Henry pointing out how Catherine was not to blame for the twisted bits of information, but the quarrel did not go well. Both men were furious with one another and when Henry left Northanger Abbey, determined to ride to Fullerton and ask Catherine to be his wife, his father was displeased. Catherine’s parents have no desire to keep the young couple apart, but they insist Henry get the blessing and consent of his father to make this match.

            Our poor heroine suffers through what she feels is a long period of suspense while she waits for General Tilney to come around and be sensible. It is not until after Eleanor weds a viscount and she and her husband take up Catherine’s part that the general agrees to the marriage. And so, within twelve months of their first meeting one another, Catherine and Henry Tilney become man and wife. The author wonders vaguely in the conclusion of this story if the tale is a recommendation for parental tyranny or a reward for filial disobedience because the couple are better off, after having spent several months, becoming better acquainted with one another.



Impressions and Overall Thoughts


            It is truly in this last section of reading where the reader is treated to all the gifts that come along with reading a gothic novel. Our heroine’s adventures in those first few days at Northanger Abbey and believing, for even just a few moments, that General Tilney is a dastardly criminal, all fall in line with the themes and tropes one might want to see if they were reading a work by Ann Radcliffe. But once the initial mysteries are resolved, we see a much more characteristic Austen-themed novel. Catherine must endure hardships, right up until the end, when Henry comes to her, professing his love and asking for her hand. Quite cheekily, in those final few paragraphs, Austen’s sense of humor is on display once more when she presents the reader with the two possible ways to interpret the story. Is it a recommendation of parental involvement or one that encourages young people to buck against their elders? These concepts are widely explored throughout gothic literature, with the conclusion usually being that it is better for the hero and heroine to go their own way and escape from the confines in which their families have kept them.

            There is a rather serious debate amongst those who have read Northanger Abbey involving the romance and relationship between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland. Some readers believe that the time they spent apart was necessary, for their love was rather feebly cobbled together. Henry loves Catherine and wishes to marry her because she showed a preference for him first. And she seems enamored of him for nearly precisely the same reasons. Lest we forget that he was her first real acquaintance in Bath. Others argue that Catherine and Henry will have a long and happy marriage because she is so agreeable, and he is so eager to expand her mind. He seems to delight in teaching her, while she is more than pleased to accept and absorb his lectures. A modern audience might see Henry as a bit of an overpowering character as he does have the tendency to “mansplain” matters for Catherine.

            But the reader’s interpretation of Catherine and Henry’s conclusion, as well as the romance that ensues, will largely depend upon their view of Austen’s intentions. Was she attempting to emulate the gothic romances of the day and present a work in that same genre? Or was she hoping to skewer the tastes of her predecessors and contemporaries and illuminate just how ridiculous and weak those relationships were?

            One can only conjecture, but it is undeniable that Austen sought to try something unique with this piece. It is largely different from the rest of her body of works, and so, Northanger Abbey is worth reading, if for no other reason than to get to know Austen better and better.

 

            Please join us for our continued discourse on Jane Austen’s work, Northanger Abbey. JASP will be reviewing the novel, determining how the author was influenced by others, as well as how she continues to set the bar for romance literature today.



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