Tuesday, 24 January 2017

JANE AUSTEN'S 'CATHARINE, OR THE BOWER'

The final work in Jane's third childhood notebook is a substantial fragment in which we find the authoress, now sixteen, approaching the content and spirit of her later masterpieces. Catharine, or the Bower is more serious. Characters are drawn more fully and dialogue is sustained.

At first, Catharine seems to be setting the mould for those later Jane Austen heroines with a keen and just sense of values against which other characters are judged and found wanting – the values to be derived from a balanced education, the development of a keen intelligence, wide interests and a concern for other people.

In Jane's teenage writing, insistence on propriety, like all other grown-up behaviour, is a source of anarchic fun. By the time of Catharine, or the Bower, however, adult concern for propriety is making itself felt. Catharine transgresses, but it is light-hearted and she never loses the sympathy of both reader and writer. She goes to a ball in the company of a man she has only just met and allows him to flirt with her the next day. But the effects never threaten to be as serious as they were to be for Marianne Dashwood or Lydia Bennet.

Observance of the proprieties was essential in polite society at the time. For example, once engaged for a dance, a woman could not accept another invitation, even if her partner failed to claim her. Being invited as partner for the first two dances was a special favour. It was the etiquette not to dance more than twice consecutively with a person to whom one was not engaged. Similarly, young couples should not be seen out often together, unless they were engaged. In a relationship with a man, the woman was not expected to write to him unless they were engaged. If they wished to communicate with men, women had to write to the men's sisters or get some other relative to write for them. A lady should not be demonstrative in her love before the affection of the gentleman had been acknowledged: Marianne Dashwood is too open in her attachment to Willoughby and there are many other examples throughout Jane’s novels of characters breaching or pushing the boundaries of these proprieties.

In Catharine, or the Bower, the orphaned Catharine leads a sheltered existence, brought up by her loving, wealthy maiden Aunt Percival. Catharine had two childhood friends, the sisters Cecilia and Mary Wynne. The three girls enjoyed escaping to the bower at the bottom of Aunt Percival's garden. When the Wynne girls, too, were orphaned, Cecilia was packed off by relatives to India to be married unhappily to a man twice her age. (This event may have been modelled on the fate of Jane Austen's aunt Philadelphia, who was sent off to India and married the surgeon Tysoe Saul Hancock - though he was only six years her senior.) Mary was engaged as a companion for her daughters by her relative Lady Halifax. 

Catharine, left alone with her aunt, is pleased when distant relatives Mr. and Mrs. Stanley come on a visit with their daughter Camilla. Catharine hopes to befriend Camilla but is shocked by the young woman's ignorance and manners. To Camilla everybody is 'either the sweetest Creature in the world ... or horrid, shocking and not fit to be seen'. (Jane Austen in Bath must have had plenty of opportunity to overhear such silly conversation.)

The two girls are contrasted in lively dialogue. Camilla boasts of her travels, and then reveals that she has no idea where Matlock and Scarborough are. She professes to be a keen reader and to like Charlotte Smith's novels but when Catharine tries to discuss them, has to admit she skipped most parts.

Then a handsome man turns up - Camilla's brother Edward. Catharine loses her composure. Attracted at once by Edward and hoping he is falling in love with her, she becomes vain and flirtatious.

He is a selfish, idle extrovert who bullies his own father, but he appeals to Catharine because he is talkative and is happy to flirt with her. He persuades her to let him accompany her to a ball which he has no shame in gate-crashing. Aunt Percival catches Edward in the bower kissing Catharine's hand. Catharine is severely rebuked. Edward leaves.

The story is becoming a muddle. Perhaps that is why Jane abandoned it.

But it was a valuable literary exercise. Camilla is an early attempt at the self-centred, empty-headed women (such as Isabella Thorpe) of the later novels. Edward Stanley is a prototype for thoughtless and idle, seductive young men. Add the motive of fortune-hunting and he becomes Wickham. Aunt Percival, obsessed with fear of catching cold, makes us think of Mr. Woodhouse. There are also witty exchanges of the kind later associated with Elizabeth Bennet. When Catharine hears that a handsome stranger has arrived late in the evening, she tells the maid: 'Perhaps he is come to rob the house – he comes in stile at least; and it will be some consolation for our losses to be robbed by a Gentleman in a Chaise and 4 – ..'. She is later cross with the young man for keeping her waiting half an hour while he powders himself for the ball, but their conversation goes as follows: 

'Well,' said he as he came in, 'have not I been very quick? I never hurried so much in my Life before.' 

'In that case you certainly have,' replied Kitty, 'for all Merit you know is comparative.'