|Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey - study guide|
If you want to buy Northanger Abbey, click on the relevant link below.
Tilney, like Isabella Thorpe, is an outwardly attractive and confident person who quickly befriends Catherine. But whereas Isabella's friendship is ostentatious but shallow, that of Henry is at once more convincing to the reader. He is motivated at first by an honourable desire to befriend Catherine (as much for his sister's sake as his own) and, later, when he has become convinced of Catherine's merits, by a more ardent desire to make her his wife. In this matter, though the reader soon sees Henry's attraction to her, Catherine suspects little, or does not presume to raise her hopes without good reason. Henry, out of a strong sense of propriety, proceeds gradually. His proposal of marriage comes after he has known Catherine for some two months - this may not seem very long, but is precipitated by Catherine's departure from Northanger Abbey, which prevents the continuing of the gradual courtship Henry has so far observed.
What most clearly marks Henry Tilney off from the other characters in Northanger Abbey is his learning: he is well-read, knowledgeable of many subjects, and a confident and articulate conversationalist. Henry is shrewd enough to see through the vanity of Bath, and his criticism of the town is honest (unlike that of those who, as Henry sarcastically suggests, echo the fashionable opinion that, after six weeks, it is the most tiresome place in the world, yet show their attachment to the place by prolonging their stay for as long as their purses allow!). Tilney has no illusions about the entertainment Bath offers, yet is content to stay there briefly - principally, it would seem, to fulfil the General's social obligations, and to seek out suitable companions for Eleanor.
The breadth of Henry's knowledge first appears when he delights Mrs. Allen by discussing with her the qualities of dress-making materials, and the style of gowns. Though the subject is of little interest to Henry, his knowledge is evident, and he assumes a convincingly serious manner in his remarks to Mrs. Allen. Later, in conversation with his sister and with Catherine, Henry states that he has read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. He has, of course, read much more widely than has Catherine, and so has kept a sense of proportion in his reading of the Gothic romances. He enjoys them as (fantastic and imaginative) entertainments, but does not suppose the narrative incidents therein to be true to life - at least not true to the life of civilised eighteenth century England
We see Henry's intelligence when, on being told by Catherine that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London, he observes his sister's mistaken horror and allows her to continue in error for a while, observing also that Catherine has not noticed Eleanor's misconstruction of her remark, supposing her excited reaction to be a proper response to the news of the publication of a sensational novel. Henry then confounds both yuong women with his remarks on the government's refusal to intervene in the matter, before explaining (to Eleanor) the purport of Catherine's initial statement, and (to Catherine) the nature of his sister's misapprehension. In elaborating Eleanor's fear of a bloodbath in London, Henry shows that he has a vivid imagination, which is indulged even more freely when en route to Northanger he relates to Catherine the fearful experiences which await her at the abbey. In both cases he depicts a fanciful and improbable picture of events, yet relishes the invention he exercises and its effect on his hearers - especially when he sees how he has alarmed Catherine with his ridiculous Gothic fantasy in the curricle.
Henry's learning is further displayed in his quibbles on language. He appears pedantic in his lampooning of Catherine's use of such terms as nicest and amazing, but such pedantry is a healthy reaction against the unthinking and imprecise use of language that is characteristic of visitors to Bath. In making Catherine aware of her careless use of these words, Henry is probably both trying to make her more precise in her conversation, and noting, with mild disapproval, the effect on her manner of speech of associating with Isabella, whose conversation is marked by instinctive exaggeration and use of inappropriate superlatives.
Henry is a good judge of character, and is not deceived by Isabella's pretended friendship for Catherine. Nevertheless, whereas Isabella feels free (for no reason) to criticise these Tilneys who swallow up everything, neither Henry nor Eleanor attempts to prejudice Catherine against Isabella, allowing her to find out, in her own time, who are her friends. Even when he is virtually forced by Catherine (who has pressed him to reprimand Frederick, and restrain his attentions to Isabella) to undeceive her, Henry does not do so: he points out that, if Isabella's intentions towards James are honourable, then Frederick's attentions to Isabella will be of no consequence, and will blow over when he rejoins his regiment. Henry does not (as he might) add that he thinks Isabella's intentions are dishonourable. Admittedly, Henry does attempt to lead Catherine to see Isabella's inconstancy, when he asks, after she has decided, after all, to dance with Frederick: And did Isabella never change her mind before? But when Catherine defends her friend, Henry does not press the point.
Henry's understanding of character is displayed in his attraction to Catherine. What he chiefly likes is her candour, her honest and open character. Catherine's failure to suspect others capable of deceit or dishonourable conduct is evidence for Henry of her own freedom from these defects. She speaks plainly, and amuses Henry by her unintentionally profound remark that she cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible. He also finds her attractive for the most common and simple of reasons: that she is attracted to him, for which Austen ironically apologises in the novel's penultimate chapter. Henry's love for Catherine is real enough, but is not (as it might be in a romance) ridiculously exaggerated. Henry's judgement tells him (what in this case is not hard to see) that Catherine is honest, artless, innocent of hypocrisy, and strongly attracted to him - his reciprocating of her love is hardly surprising.
Henry's only obvious failing is his occasional excess of pride in his intelligence and learning, and the condescension to which this sometimes leads. Often, as with Mrs. Allen, he will not appear at all condescending. But in his conversation with Catherine Henry is prepared to make provocative remarks about the general stupidity of women as letter-writers (their style, he says, is faultless - save for their deficiency of subject, their inattention to stops and their frequent ignorance of grammar). And he teases her for her credulity in reading Mrs. Radcliffe's novels, with his own tale of what awaits her at the abbey. When Eleanor misunderstands Catherine's comment about the novel to be published in London, Henry states that, whereas most men would be so disdainful of women as not to venture an explanation of the plot, he, being more noble, will do so. In fact, he is not being at all noble, but delighting to point out his sister's stupidity and Catherine's confusion - contrasting it with his own clear comprehension of the matter.
Henry is deliberately patronising, and his suggestion that men are, for the most part, more intelligent than women is meant to be provocative. This is, of course, barely a fault: Henry is not in earnest when he makes these comments; rather he is being playful. Note that he teases only those whom he loves - the teasing being an expression of closeness. Eleanor worrying (as Henry does not) that he might be misunderstood by Catherine reassures her that, in fact, Henry thinks highly of women, but the reassurance is not needed - it is obvious (in this case to Catherine, as well as to the reader) that Henry's comment is meant playfully: Henry clearly thinks well enough of women to spend much time in their company.
Overall, Henry is an attractive blend of humour and seriousness: he is serious in his criticism of Bath and of fashionable society; he is serious when he undeceives Catherine about his mother's death, and when he consoles Catherine on her learning of Isabella's deceitfulness; above all - as his opposition to his father shows - he is serious in his passion for Catherine. Yet in many situations it his sense of humour, his playfulness, and his gentle mockery (both of Eleanor and of Catherine) that render Henry an interesting character in the novel.
While not so fully-developed a character as either Henry or Isabella, Eleanor features in a substantial part of the narrative. She is in many respects the antithesis of Isabella, and can be clearly described by contrast with her: she is introduced as a woman who is capable (unlike Isabella) of being young, attractive and at a ball without wanting to fix the attention of every man near her. Whereas Isabella affects instantaneous friendship with Catherine, Eleanor's befriending of Catherine proceeds more gradually. Isabella makes frequent professions of friendship to Catherine, but has no real concern for her; Eleanor makes no boasts of this kind, but proves a loyal friend. Isabella, in her reading, enjoys the fanciful and sensational productions of Mrs. Radcliffe; Eleanor prefers the work of historians, and is able to discern between accurate historical recording, and the embellishments certain historians add to the text.
Though Eleanor is a sensible, articulate and intelligent young woman, she lacks the acuteness of her brother, and on one notable occasion amuses him by her failure to understand an innocent but ambiguous remark made by Catherine.
Eleanor is constant in her friendship: we see this particularly when she consoles Catherine on the occasion of her learning of Isabella's treachery, and of her being required suddenly to leave Northanger. Eleanor's obvious embarrassment at her father's unreasonable conduct on the latter occasion, and her concern for her friend are in distinct contrast to the shallow protestations of friendship which Isabella makes to Catherine.
The general is a proud, aloof character, whom the reader never comes fully to know - as Catherine never does. His stature, good looks and dignity incline Catherine to like the general when she first sees him, all the more so because he is Henry's father. He is, at first, extremely friendly to Catherine, and does all he can to promote her friendship with Henry and Eleanor.
When Catherine visits Northanger he seems to become more aloof (though it is not clear how far he really does so, and how far Catherine imagines that he does), giving Catherine occasion to conceive the preposterous notion that he has done away with the late Mrs. Tilney. Any sympathy we might feel for the general in his falling under this unjust suspicion is dissipated by his harsh dismissal of Catherine from Northanger - especially as he requires Eleanor to break the news to Catherine, apparently lacking the courage to tell her for himself.
Catherine naively believes the general when he tells her he only values money insofar as it allows him to promote the happiness of his children. Though he has little need of more wealth, yet he is greedy for further gain and an advancement of status, and this accounts for his otherwise puzzling behaviour towards Catherine. He unreasonably blames her for deceiving him when Thorpe (who has previously told him Catherine is Mr. Allen's heir) informs him that Catherine has no expectations whatever, and suggests that Catherine has somehow deceived him and the general. The injustice of the charge is obvious, but it seems that the general, disappointed of his hope of a wealthy match for Henry, is too proud to admit error in himself, and unreasonably blames the baffled Catherine. He is a forceful man, and Eleanor feels unable to oppose his decision to send Catherine away from the abbey. Henry, though, is not cowed by parental authority and defies his father until the general is encouraged (by Eleanor's prestigious marriage) to adopt a more enlightened attitude to Henry's suit.
Though Mrs. Allen, being Catherine's chaperone, features in a great deal of the narrative, there is not a great deal to say about her character. Austen prejudices the reader against her from the start with a sarcastic comment about the surprising nature of anyone's wishing to marry her, as: "she had neither, beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner". This far from promising testimonial overlooks what is of most interest in Mrs. Allen as a fictitious creation - that she is the object of much humour. We never laugh with her but we frequently laugh at her: her predictable comments about the absence of a numerous acquaintance in Bath, her preoccupation with dress-making fabric, and her frequent misunderstandings of Catherine's comments all raise a smile. As a chaperone, though she means well, she is woefully inadequate. She is rarely prepared to give Catherine clear advice on how to behave, usually suggesting she do as she pleases, and when she does express disapproval of her riding in Thorpe's carriage, it is only out of concern for Catherine's garments:
Open carriages are nasty things. A clean gown is not five minutes' wear in them ... and the wind takes your hair and your bonnet in every direction.
When Catherine reproaches her for not giving firm advice Mrs. Allen states her indulgent principle, that, Young people do not like to be ... thwarted. She means well, but she is weak and ineffectual.
Thorpe is thoroughly objectionable and would be intolerable were he not so laughable. We do not laugh with him (though he evidently believes himself very humorous) but at him. Like his sister's, Thorpe's speech is affected, but whereas Isabella employs many superlatives and expressions of endearment, John Thorpe uses strong language, peppering every utterance with profane oaths. In doing this, he appears to be affecting manliness, nonchalance, worldly-wisdom and fashionableness, all of which qualities (save, perhaps, the second) he signally lacks. He appears excessively vain: he may be genuinely confident, or he may try to appear so, to impress Catherine, but he seems to be wholly unaware that others might find fault with him or consider him unattractive. Although Catherine explicitly states her indifference to him, he persists with his suit until he is finally persuaded of her lack of liking for him by her acceptance of the Tilneys' invitation to Northanger. His failure to be deterred by Catherine's rebuffs may be due to various causes: that he is stupid; that he hopes she may change her mind; that he is so used to people's insincerity that he takes refusal to be encouragement; that he has not properly attended to Catherine's remarks, or, most probably, a combination of these factors.
Though Thorpe tries to pay court to Catherine he is a poor lover, having little interest in the concerns and feelings of women. He deserts Catherine at the ball to game, and his conversation shows him to be preoccupied with field sports - all his talk is of horses, hounds, guns and carriages.
Finally, Thorpe is dishonest: this dishonesty ranges from trivial exaggeration (about the pace of his horse, or the bargains he has secured) to deliberate falsehood, which threatens the reputation of Catherine (for whom he supposedly harbours genuine affection). He is not so much immoral as amoral. His lying is second nature, and he seems surprised both that Catherine should object to what he has done (he represents his lying on her behalf, as a great favour) and that she should be averse to lying as such. He is prepared, at any time, to say whatever it is convenient to represent as the truth, to gain his own ends. Catherine soon comes to dislike him, and inclines the reader to similarly hostile: Catherine's generosity is such that anyone in whom she can find no good must, indeed (as Thorpe is) be utterly worthless. It is hardly surprising that Catherine's unwarranted expulsion from Northanger should be due to Thorpe's lying: first, in suggesting Catherine is Mr. Allen's heir, and later in claiming she is of impoverished stock, but trying to better her lot by an advantageous marriage.
The Gothic element
Austen entertains her reader by poking fun in various ways at the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe and her school. In contrast to the grotesque, bizarre and macabre fictions of the Gothic novelists, Austen presents us with a world that is rational, law-abiding, and peopled by civilised, urbane and reasonable characters.
The first and most conspicuous way in which Austen ridicules these romances is by noting how little is remarkable or singular in Catherine's nature, circumstances or experiences and ironically suggesting that in this respect Catherine is inferior to, or less fortunate than, Emily, and Mrs. Radcliffe's other heroines. Thus, we learn of Catherine that, in her infancy no-one could have foreseen that she would be a heroine - because she has neither the extreme disadvantages or great advantages (either is suitable!) of fictitious heroines. Austen delights particularly in identifying characteristics or circumstances which Catherine did not have in her childhood: we learn that her father was neither neglected nor poor, that he was not handsome, and that he was never cruel to his daughters; of Catherine we learn that she lacked physical beauty, that she kept no exotic or unusual pets, that she had no great intellectual gifts, nor skill in music or drawing.
Though Catherine (in training for a heroine) does manage in adolescence to acquire one essential attribute of a heroine of romance (a knowledge of the great works of her native literature) yet in all other respects she is defective. She has neither the ability to sketch the features of her lover - nor, indeed, a lover whose features she might sketch, even if she could! Austen suggests, with obvious irony, that it is rather unusual that there are no foundlings, mysterious strangers, wards of her father, nor young squires in the vicinity to court Catherine, and calls this the perverseness of forty surrounding families, as if they have deliberately contrived to deny Catherine a suitor, and as if foundlings, mysterious strangers and so on were commonplace (because, in Gothic fiction they are!) rather than rare in real life. However, as Catherine is destined (by the novelist here; by fate in romance) to be a heroine (though. she is never a heroine in the romantic mould) the absence of a hero in Fullerton necessitates her seeking a lover elsewhere and Mrs. Allen provides the opportunity.
To the list of circumstances which do not apply to Catherine Austen now adds an absence of cautions from Mrs. Morland against the violence of... noblemen, an absence of large or limitless credit from Mr. Morland, and, on the journey to Bath, an absence of highwaymen, of freak storms and of accidents to the carriage. This general absence of adventure is rendered more comic by the anti-climax of the only real alarm suffered - Mrs. Allen's fear (which, for further anti-climax, proves false) that she has left her clogs at an inn. In identifying all these things that fail to happen, Austen purports to write of them as if they are regular occurrences, but really draws attention to their improbability. In doing, this, she implies that the frequency of such incidents is a serious shortcoming of the novels she disapproves.
Having made clear her own opinion of Gothic romance (that it is at best implausible, at worst ridiculous, and never true to life) Austen now acquaints the reader with Catherine's opinion of such texts. That Catherine should be so avid a reader of Mrs. Radcliffe and her peers id not very surprising, nor worthy of censure: the absence in her everyday life of excitement inclines Catherine to read fanciful stories, and to wish her life as eventful as the lives of her literary heroines. This wishful thinking soon colours her own experiences, so that Tilney's disappearance from Bath is construed as a sort of mysteriousness which renders Henry more attractive. As he has only come to Bath to engage a set of rooms, then returned home (to arrive in Bath later for his stay in town) there is really no mystery whatever about his actions.
That Isabella should enjoy this kind of fiction is not wholly surprising: the novels she recommends to Catherine, and the nature of her recommendation, suggest that she enjoys them for their gruesome and sensational elements. The novel-reading is also undertaken, at least partly as a way to befriend Catherine, rather than out of pure enthusiasm - apparently Isabella has not read all the novels she recommends. The recommendation comes from Miss Andrews. As time goes by Isabella comes to have less time for this form of entertainment, and more for drives in the country with James and her brother. The novels only amuse her when she is not in pursuit of young men, or so it would appear.
Catherine's confusion of the world of romance with the everyday world begins innocently with her wishing (in chapter 11) that the weather would be like that in Tuscany or the south of France (as if the weather in those regions never varies!) or as it was on the night when (in The Mysteries of Udolpho) poor St. Aubin died; with her being persuaded to accompany the Thorpes and James on their drive into the country, in the hope of seeing Blaize Castle - the oldest in the country (according to John Thorpe), and in her remarking, on her walk with the Tilneys, that the prospect of Beechen Cliff reminds her of the country through which (again in Udolpho) Emily travels with her father.
This last comment prompts an admission from Henry, that he has read and enjoyed all Mrs. Radcliffe's works. He has found Udolpho impossible to put down, and has been suitably horrified by it. However, despite the enjoyment he derives from imagining the sensational narratives, Henry has no illusions about the likelihood of such events occurring. He is proof against the danger into which Catherine falls, because he is well-read in all varieties of literature. Catherine, on the other hand, confesses to Eleanor and Henry that she does not like any kind of reading other than Gothic novels.
The tendency Catherine is already indulging - to look in her own life for events such as occur in Mrs. Radcliffe's fiction - becomes most conspicuous in the novel when she goes to Northanger, to stay with the Tilneys. Because the abbey is an ancient building, it seems a fitting location for strange happenings. This is really irrational, though: first, because the building has been extensively altered and restored, so that it is a luxuriously modern dwelling, and second, because there is nothing mysterious about the people who live there.
Noting Catherine's credulousness, Henry teases her when, as they journey to Northanger in his curricle, he entertains her with a chilling tale of the strange adventures which will befall her when she arrives there. His story is not seriously meant, and would fool only a gullible person, yet Catherine is unsure whether or not to believe Henry. C) If he had any inkling of the mystery Catherine is to think she has found at the abbey, Henry would, doubtless, not indulge in this frivolous narrative.
When she is shown to her room at the abbey, though she notes that it is unlike the one Henry has described to her, yet she soon finds a mystery in it, in the form of a large high chest pushed away into a recess. Its size, its position, its apparent age, and some strange lettering render the chest mysterious in Catherine's eyes. (Catherine refuses to believe the last letter is a T - which suggests it is!) Her first attempt to open it is frustrated by the arrival of the maid, but Catherine duly opens the chest, to find that it contains nothing more sinister than a counterpane. Instead of learning from this obvious lesson, Catherine repeats this error, after retiring to her bed-chamber after dinner: as the wind rises, producing a suitably eerie atmosphere in the room, her eye lights on a cabinet just like that in Henry's narrative. The coincidence drives her to investigate its contents, but just as she finds it to be filled with mysterious manuscripts, the candle gutters, and goes out, as (again) in Henry's tale, leaving Catherine in a state of great excitement until the morning - when she learns the manuscript is merely a bundle of old bills and receipts. Failing to see the lesson in this experience, Catherine falls into her most extreme error, when she comes to suspect that the general has murdered, or otherwise unlawfully disposed, of his wife. The evidence for this is flimsy: the General keeps late nights (out of remorse, or for some nefarious purpose Catherine guesses); he avoids his late wife's favourite walk in the garden; he has not kept her portrait (Eleanor has it); he is of a pensive and grave disposition, and has prevented Eleanor from showing Catherine the apartment of his late wife.
It appears to the reader that he does this, not because he wishes the room to be left alone, but because he thinks Catherine will be tired and in need of refreshment after her tour of the abbey, and because he knows (as Catherine later discovers) that there is nothing,, of interest in the room. When Henry has rebuked Catherine for her ridiculous suspicion of his father, Austen again passes comment on Mrs. Radcliffe's works; but, whereas her comments in the novel's opening chapters are ironic, humorous and light of touch, a serious commentary is now supplied (in chapter 25):
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them...that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for...in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping-potions to be procured...from every druggist.
Catherine, at length, learns this lesson, and resolves in the future to judge and act with the greatest good sense. It is perhaps significant that her decision to take these romances with a pinch of salt should coincide with her learning from James of Isabella's trickery: belief in the truth of romances is associated with Isabella - and both are found to be false. In the course of the novel Austen attacks the narrative of romances in various ways: she holds up to ridicule the improbable events there related, by showing how no such things befall Catherine. Against the romantic idea of the hero's and heroine's being marked out as singular (in fortune, circumstance. character or appearance) and somehow clearly intended for each other, she sets the notion of two ordinary, unremarkable people gradually coming to love each other - without any promptings of fate. Next she produces discussion among the novel's principal characters of different kinds of taste in reading, suggesting that enjoyment of Gothic fantasy should be balanced by reading literature of other kinds. She shows here how a lack of variety in reading may produce an expectation that life will be as depicted in the works (in this case romantic fiction) to which one's reading is restricted.
Finally, she suggests that the strange characters and incidents of Gothic romance have no place in modern England. The antiquity and history of Northanger Abbey suggest to Catherine (in advance of her visit there) that it will be a suitable location for Horrid Mysteries, but the abbey turns out to be thoroughly modern, comfortable and cheerful. The only Horrid Mysteries to be found there are the ones spawned by Catherine's overwrought imagination. Gothic fantasy is plausible when treated as stylised and exaggerated entertainment - the setting of the novels in foreign lands and in an indeterminate time would make them acceptable to the English reader of Austen's day who would have little or (like Catherine) no experience of abroad, and might believe bizarre incidents to happen there. But imported to the civilised midland counties of eighteenth-century England, the mysteries cease to be horrid and become merely preposterous.
The three settings of the novel
Of the novel's three principal locations, Fullerton is the one about which we learn least, though it is the novel's (and Catherine's) starting-point, and the place to which Catherine returns at the end of the narrative. This is important, in that it shows Fullerton to be a touchstone against which other places can be judged.
Fullerton is a place which Catherine does not find exciting, and the Allens, despite being the principal land-owners of the locality, are also not wholly enamoured of it: they are happy to spend much of the year in Bath, socialising, and Mrs. Allen, in taking Catherine with her to Bath, does so out of a consideration that, probably, adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village (at least not in so tame a village as Fullerton). Its failings (exaggerated, doubtless, by Catherine's desire for adventure) are obvious: there is little opportunity for meeting people indeed few people of Catherine's age and social class (if any) live there; nothing much, it appears, ever happens. Fullerton has its merits, too. It is here that Catherine's family - a decent, stable and supportive family - lives. Here also people are more likely to be sincere than in Bath: permanent residence obliges the inhabitants to be more sincere with their neighbours, and there is little opportunity for the sort of trickery that Isabella Thorpe practises in Bath.
Bath is not (as Fullerton is) a fictitious creation of the novelist, but a real place with which Austen is clearly familiar. It holds great fascination for Austen, who regards it with mild affection, tempered by an awareness of its shortcomings, and of the wide gulf between the idea of Bath (as a tremendously exciting place) and the less exciting reality. Mrs. Allen is typical of many who extol the virtues of Bath, without ever really finding much excitement there. Being so fashionable, it is highly regarded by those of less independent judgement, and to think ill of it would be to admit oneself at fault for not much liking it.
Although Bath is crowded with those who go there to seek society, it is ironic that, especially at first, Mrs. Allen and Catherine fail to make fresh acquaintances or to renew old ones, before they encounter, in turn, Henry Tilney (and later his family) and the Thorpes. Mrs. Allen seems continually surprised by this, regularly lamenting to Catherine the absence of any "acquaintance" in Bath.
Being filled with occasional visitors, rather than permanent residents, Bath lacks the social stability of, say, Fullerton. It is possible, here, to practise deceit in the confident belief that, if detected, one can easily enough find fresh companions on whom to employ these wiles. The assumption of intimacy without any real knowledge of character and past history by the one befriended enables Isabella to deceive the artless and trusting Catherine for longer than would be possible in a neighbourhood (such as Fullerton) where her scheming would quickly saddle her with a reputation for inconstancy, hypocrisy, self-seeking and greed.
The intelligent and independent Henry and Eleanor have a far more clear-sighted view of Bath than the enthusiastic Mrs. Allen. They are ready to put up with its rather shallow entertainment for a while in the hope that they might (as happens) meet some worthy friend in the town, but they have no intention of spending a whole season there, nor are they under any illusion about the character of most of its visitors. Tilney, while dancing with Catherine (in Chapter 10) expresses some amusement at the fact that many of these, by complaining about the tiresomeness of Bath, affect a disdain for it, yet, contrarily prolong their stay there, and only leave when they can no longer afford to remain - thereby showing their real infatuation with the town. Henry, however, thinks Bath has little variety and that Catherine ought to be tired of it at the proper time...at the end of six weeks.
Above all, Bath is an artificial resort different and separate from the real world; it is a world in which people are preoccupied with fashions of dress, of dance and of social etiquette, but in which the everyday concerns of work and business are not present. It is a retreat, or place of retirement, but only for the wealthy, or those, like the Thorpes, not wealthy, but comfortably-off, and with aspirations and pretensions to great wealth.
Just as there is a distinction drawn by Austen between the notion of Bath as an exciting, racy place, where there is never a dull moment, and the rather disappointing reality, so there is a distinction drawn between the abbey as it appears in Catherine's fanciful conjectures, and as it really is. Henry, aware of Catherine's wildly improbable flights of fancy (due, in no small part, to her reading of Mrs. Radcliffe's works) lampoons these in the story he relates to Catherine, as they journey, in his curricle to Northanger. But Catherine does not take this hint; nor does she learn from her errors concerning the contents of the antique chest and of the japanned cabinet in her apartment. Despite its antiquity and its original purpose, the abbey has now been thoroughly modernised, and is in no way like the sinister, decaying edifices which feature in the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe and her school of writing. The mystery which Catherine perversely insists upon discovering (before being rebuked, by Henry, for her error) is a fiction entirely of her own invention, with the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence to inspire it, and is in no way appropriate to such a homely, tranquil and comfortably modern establishment as Northanger, nor to its urbane and civilised owners.
Austen's changes of location mark definite transitional stages in the narrative: in Fullerton Catherine is a child about to embark on a great adventure - to do which, she must leave her prosaic surroundings. In Bath she finds gaiety and amusement (eventually), but also discovers the trickery of the world and the shallowness of the beau-monde. In Northanger (once she is freed from her ridiculous speculation concerning the fate of Mrs. Tilney) Catherine is able to find true friendship in a comfortable and quiet setting, which lacks Bath's bustle, but is also free of its humbug. Here, too, she can see more objectively the character of the place she has just left, and is able to learn the full extent of Isabella's trickery when she receives the two letters, from James and from Isabella herself.
Returning in humiliating circumstances to Fullerton, Catherine finds that, for all its dullness, there is here the warmth and support of her family, and here, too, adventure may come - as it does when Henry (learning of his father's outrageous conduct) comes to apologize to Catherine, and to ask for her hand in marriage.
© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me