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Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Opening of Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' - what skills!

The structure of the opening four chapters of Northanger Abbey illustrates what makes this novel so enjoyable on two levels. Chapters 1 and 2 detail how woefully our heroine's childhood contrasts with that of the gothic fictional heroines. There is such sureness of touch: Catherine's mother 'had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more ...'. 'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.' Her father, a clergyman, was perfectly respectable, 'though his name was Richard and he had never been handsome'. Catherine as a child liked 'nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house'. She had 'a thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark, lank hair, and strong features'. She was a slow scholar and lacked 'accomplishments': 'The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life'. She does not mind books, 'provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection'.

As usual with Jane Austen, we have to admire the economy and crispness. In seventy words, Catherine's home village of Fullerton in Wiltshire and the family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, are clearly introduced, Catherine is invited to Bath, and 'Mr. and Mrs. Morland were all compliance, and Catherine all happiness'.

In Chapter 2, farewells from the family are tamely practical; there are no tempests, robberies or kidnaps en route; and the Upper Rooms in Bath afford no better entertainment than the loneliness of being in a crowd with nobody to talk to. Bath threatens to be a disappointment to Catherine, with a lack of young male companions or any companions at all apart from her weak-minded chaperone.

The comedy of tedium is sustained just long enough. The mood changes in Chapter 3. Within a few words of the start, James King introduces Catherine to Henry Tilney. (James King was a real person - he was the Master of the Ceremonies in the Lower Room from 1785 to 1805. He maintained the strict régime imposed fifty years earlier by Beau Nash.) 

It is a sparkling 'boy meets girl' first encounter, unlike those in the other Jane Austen novels. Tilney dazzles Catherine with his wit, his jokes, his ideas and his teasing. He even charms her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, with his opinions on dress material. Jane hints that Catherine has fallen in love at first sight. She has 'a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance'. The author is unable to comment on whether thoughts of Tilney affected Catherine's dreams. After all, Richardson has taught her that as 'no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her'! But it is easy enough to display the symptoms. Catherine ingenuously questions the twenty-two-year-old Eleanor Tilney so keenly about Henry that Eleanor has 'some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings', without Catherine's 'smallest consciousness of having betrayed them'.

As Catherine's relationship with Henry continues, her obvious pleasure in his company evokes a corresponding response: dancing, she 'enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to every thing he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. 

Having created the love interest, Jane Austen deliberately keeps Tilney out of Chapter 4 in order to set Catherine up in another productive acquaintanceship, this time female: Isabella Thorpe is introduced.