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|Henry's Teasing Has an Object
Written by Natchie
(8/22/2013 2:20 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Perhaps there is more to Henry's quizzing and teasing?, penned by jeffrey
The first time I read NA, I could not figure out the point of Henry's conversations with Catherine in Bath, or even some of them at his father's home. But when I finished the novel, I consulted William Deresiewicz, who has a chapter on NA entitled "Learning to Learn" in his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. I have mentioned this book on several other pemberley boards, so it sounds as if I'm a plant from the publishing company trying to promote his book, which is not the case. It's just that I have learned much from his perspective on Austen, and I was not disappointed on his view of Henry Tilney, either.
Let me quote just a few remarks from the work of Deresiewicz on NA. He is a literary critic as well as having personal problems just like the rest of us, some of which were dramatically dealt with in his own life as he read Jane Austen.
Regarding Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, he writes, "Instead of training Catherine to follow the conventions of life in her society, like Isabella or Mrs. Allen--training her unconsciously, to follow them unconsciously--Henry was trying to wake her up to them by showing her how absurd they were. But he didn't do it by being didactic. He did it by provoking her, taking her by surprise, making her laugh, throwing her off balance, forcing her to figure out what was going on and what it meant--getting her to think, not telling her how."
"Now he was inciting her to speak, then pretending to misunderstand her, even at the risk of looking like a dunce, in order to force her to fight her way back to what she meant--and thus, to figure out what she really thought in the first place."
"Playful, impish, provoking: this was Austen exactly, and never more so than in Northanger Abbey. Austen used the novel to make us her students. Henry was her surrogate, and Catherine was ours, and she went about teaching just the way that he did. In fact, she taught, in part, through him. Everything he said to Catherine she was also necessarily saying to us. When Henry ridiculed the conventions of polite chatter, it was the empty gestures of our own conversations that we inevitably thought of. When he rearranged Catherine's mental categories, it was our sluggish ideas that started to wake up and stir."
"She wrote novels, not essays, and more than just about any other author, she refused to mar her novels by putting essays into them. She never lectured, never explained: never interrupted her stories to hold forth on what she wanted us to think they meant, or deliver her opinions on the state of the world. She also never tampered with her characters by putting her own ideas into their mouths."
"Now I realized that the first sentence [of NA] was also a way of calling attention to the fact that this novel, too, would necessarily trade in conventions. A heroine and a romance, a Mr. Wrong and a Mr. Right, perils and misunderstandings, conflicts and complications, revelations and reversals, and at last, a happy ending; these were the conventions that Austen herself employed in every one of her novels...Yet she didn't want us to get sucked in by her conventions, either--didn't want us to let ourselves be lulled into the trance of gullibility that readers are always falling into, mistaking an artificial version of reality for the genuine article. Stay awake, Austen was telling us. Don't take things for granted, not even the things I'm telling you myself. In other words, pay attention. And pay attention, above all, to your own feelings, because the world is always trying to get you to lie to yourself about them."
"Isabella, remember, was the one who had introduced the heroine to all those romantic novels. She wanted her friend's life (her own, in other words, by proxy) to be full of the same extravagant emotions she had been reading about, even if they ended up making Catherine unhappy--or rather, especially if they did."
"But Henry behaved [toward Catherine] in exactly the opposite direction [than Isabella]."
You'll have to read Deresiewicz to get more of the same. He comments on all six of Austen's novels.
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