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|Austen’s vigorous defense of novels
Written by Glenn
(4/1/2012 1:07 p.m.)
Austen speaks directly to the reader in the last paragraph of Chapter 5, where she defends some novels as “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.” Having read the introduction of Northanger Abbey (Norton Critical Edition) by the editor Susan Fraiman, I am convinced that the young Austen was describing herself in that quote and planned to invent a new kind of novel- one more realistic which would “mock the improbable plots, extreme characters, and emotional hyperbole of much popular fiction- and to school its avid readers in her own less sensational mode.” Novels at that time were often regarded with contempt. Furthermore, since most novel readers at that time were female, I think she wanted to invent a type of novel which women would be less ashamed to read and men would ultimately be required to admit was brilliant. Sir Walter Scott admitted as much.
Unless I am reading from an annotated Austen novel, I have to keep a dictionary handy to understand some of the phrases she used. I was puzzled by a phrase in Chapter 2: They were not long able, however, to enjoy the repose of the eminence they had so laboriously gained. Since the previous paragraph described how they struggled through the crowd to arrive “in the passage behind the highest bench” of the ball-room, I concluded that it meant "rest at a high place" by looking up the words “repose” and “eminence” in the dictionary. Undoubtedly, readers 200 years ago would better understand that phrase.
It seems that Henry Tilney liked to tease Catherine Moreland very early in their acquaintance. In Chapter 3, he asks many questions about her familiarity with Bath in an arch and pleasant manner and then says “Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” But it does not stop. He is again mischievous and playful when he discusses “journals” and “letter writing”. Henry: “… letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.” “A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.” Then he admits that “In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.” Well, that is an shockingly honest admission of equality for a Regency gentleman. She is not totally clueless. Catherine feared, as she listened to their discourse, that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others.
In Chapter 4, Mrs. Allen meets Mrs. Thorpe, with much satire in the last paragraph. In Chapter 5, Isabella Thorpe becomes friends with Catherine. In Chapter 6, the readers know that Isabella lied to Catherine about how long she waited for her in the Pump-room. Isabella knew that her wait was only 5 minutes, but she claimed it was “ten ages at least” or a “half hour”. They discuss and read Gothic novels together. She shocks Catherine by saying “You must not betray me, if you should ever meet with one of your acquaintance answering that description.” Isabella is referring to a young man with light eyes and sallow complexion as a possible husband. Why would Catherine “steal” such a man, when Isabella knew that she liked men with darker eyes, complexion, and hair?
In Chapter 7, Catherine and Isabella are surprised to see John Thorpe and James Moreland approach in a gig. John is a buffoon with unpleasant manners. He says d___ a lot. He thinks his horse can always achieve 10 miles/hour and argues about the distance from Tetbury to Bath (James says 23 miles, John 25) or the time they left (James says 10 a.m., John 11 a.m.). He describes his gig like a sports car and pretends he bought it without regard for the money he spent, as though he was rich. He says his mother’s “quiz of a hat” makes her look like an old witch and calls his sisters ugly. At least Catherine thought of saying “I do not like him at all” before telling a white lie to her brother. I was a bit shocked that James thought that women liked a rattle (a person who chatters without much thought).
My opinion of John and Isabella Thorpe has already decreased.
For those uninterested in mathematics, you can skip this last paragraph. I have concluded that John and James arrived in Bath at 1:30 p.m (“Three hours and a half indeed coming only three-and-twenty miles!”). John thought the elapsed time from Tetbury to Bath was 2.5 hours so the distance was 25 miles (10 miles/hour X 2.5 hours = 25 miles) because he insists his horse travels at 10 miles/hour. James thought the elapsed time was 3.5 hours (because they left Tetbury at 10 a.m.) and the distance 23 miles, so the horse actually traveled at 23 miles/3.5 hours or about 6.6 miles/hour. Was Jane Austen testing our skill at mathematics? I wonder if she calculated the speed that a single horse and gig could travel by dividing distance by time for an actual traveler.
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