Friday, 6 May 2016

Jane Austen's Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)

Isabella and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey are among Jane Austen's many convincing portraits of people one would not wish to know in real life. Catherine has no choice but to be acquainted with them and even to be grateful for their attention. Discovering their true worth is part of her education. 

Isabella, the daughter of a lawyer from Putney and herself with no fortune, offers a gushing, insincere friendship. Dressed to impress young men, she strolls happily around Bath, arm in arm with Catherine. Coquettishly, she tries to get the attention of 'two odious young men who have been staring' by moving away and hoping they will follow. When they fail to do so, she finds a pretext for taking Catherine 'in pursuit' of' them. She always has 'a thousand things' to tell her friend but immediately abandons both Catherine and the telling of them if a man catches her eye.

Like Nancy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, she longs to be questioned and teased about boy-friends, but Catherine is too inexperienced to oblige. She does not know when 'delicate raillery' is called for or 'when a confidence should be forced'. Having flirted with Catherine's brother, Isabella suggests that if Catherine had seen them together she would have said they were made for each other 'or some nonsense of that kind'. Catherine replies: 'I would not have made so improper a remark on any account’!

Isabella talks in hyperboles. After waiting a mere five minutes for Catherine, she says, 'I have been waiting for you at least this age!' She ignores etiquette and monopolizes James Morland at the ball, dancing more than twice with him in succession, despite saying 'I would not do such a thing for all the world'. The artless Catherine is totally surprised when Isabella summons her to Edgar's Buildings to announce her engagement to James. Catherine is overwhelmed with joy, though taken aback at hearing Isabella describe James as 'handsome'! 'Catherine secretly acknowledged the power of love; for, though exceedingly fond of her brother, and partial to all his endowments, she had never in her life thought him handsome.’

Isabella is scheming to capture a husband who can give her plenty of money and a fashionable home near London (ideally Richmond). And she wants all this immediately. The dialogue in Chapter 16 where she reacts to the news that her betrothed must wait two years before he can marry and must then be obliged to live in Devon on only £400 a year is a brilliant example of Jane Austen's skill in making speech say one thing while meaning another: 'It is very charming indeed,' says Isabella of James's letter, but 'with a grave face'; 'I cannot bear to be the means of injuring my dear Morland, making him sit down upon an income hardly enough to find one in the common necessaries of life. For myself, it is nothing; I never think of myself’.

So she switches her attention to the flirtation she has already begun with Captain Tilney. Swearing she would not dance while James was away, within minutes she dances with the Captain. She claims not to find him attractive but her head is soon full of him. ('I am the most absent creature in the world. Tilney says it is always the case with minds of a certain stamp'; 'if you are in too great a hurry, you will certainly live to repent it. Tilney says, there is nothing people are so often deceived in, as the state of their own affections ...').

Inevitably, Isabella breaks her promise to write to Catherine at Northanger Abbey, even though she 'had promised and promised again; and when she promised a thing, she was so scrupulous in performing it!' An important part of Catherine's education is her discovery of Isabella's insincerity. She soon notices the contrast between Isabella's words and actions. By the time Miss Thorpe attempts moral blackmail, on top of all her other arguments, to persuade Catherine to abandon her walk with the Tilneys yet again, after the 'Blaize Castle' fiasco, Catherine can see the truth: 'Isabella appeared to her ungenerous and selfish, regardless of everything but her own gratification’.

Isabella distresses Catherine by flirting with Captain Tilney, though at the time she fails to see the fault as Isabella's: she is amazed her friend can 'endure' the seductive flattery of the Captain. She shares her concern with Henry. He recommends letting matters take their course: if Isabella would not make a good wife for James, it is better for him to find out before it is too late.

Letters to the heroine from James and Isabella tell her of the breaking of their engagement. Poor James has been deceived in Isabella. He writes under a heavy blow. Isabella's letter, exquisitely in character, transparently attempts to solicit Catherine's help in winning James back now that Captain Tilney has ditched her. She has been jilted by someone as insincere as herself. Having abandoned James Morland because he did not promise a luxurious life, she set all her hopes on Captain Tilney. He grew tired of her and now, to cut her losses, she wants Morland back. She claims there has just been 'some misunderstanding'. She begs Catherine: 'Your kind offices will set all to right: – he is the only man I ever did or could love, and I trust you will convince him of it. The spring fashions are partly down; and the hats the most frightful you can imagine'.

Isabella's letter is a direct descendant of many Jane Austen composed in her teenage 'novels'. It is one Jane must have specially enjoyed writing. Catherine is no longer fooled by Isabella. She resolves not to answer.