No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. The Narrator, Chapter 1
Catherine Morland the unlikely heroine lives a pretty average life with no mitigating factors to promote it. Her father is a financially secure clergyman, her mother well tempered and still alive after the birth of ten children. She is not a remarkable student and prefers cricket to dolls. At fifteen she improved greatly, much to her parent’s approval. Between fifteen and seventeen she reads books to influence a heroine in the making. Regrettably, there are no interesting suitors in the neighborhood. Friends of the family Mr. and Mrs. Allen invite Catherine to Bath. “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” They arrive at Bath and proceed to shop for frocks and finery, visit the pump-room and prepare for a ball at the Upper Rooms where they know no one and have an uneventful evening. A second attempt proves more successful at the Lower Rooms when Catherine is introduced by the Master of Ceremonies to Mr. Tilney. They dance, have tea and he chides her about journal writing. The ball concludes and Catherine is inclined to continue the acquaintance.
While reading the first few paragraphs of chapter one, I am struck by the narrator’s use of language while introducing the main character Catherine Morland. Much of what we are told of her personality is described in an opposite analogy; no one would suspect her of being heroine, her father is not poor, rich or lock up his daughters, her mother did not die at her birth, the family has little right to be called pretty, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, she is an unremarkable student and on and on. This style is psychologically unsettling, and I think that is Jane Austen’s goal. I feel like this a wind up for the big pitch that Austen will deliver in the future. Much to Catherine’s disappointment, everything is as it seems. Her life is average and unexceptional and that will not do for a young lady who thinks her life should be more eventful.
But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way…if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad. The Narrator, Chapter 1
And so Catherine’s adventure begins as she travels uneventfully to Bath with Mr. and Mrs. Allen secretly hoping for the excitement of being robbed or an over-turn to feed her active imagination. She could not be in more capable hands as Mrs. Allen, “one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.”, (Ouch. Austen really knows how to categorize people without delay), it appears is admirably suited to chaperone a young lady into society because she really has her priorities straight. She loves to shop!
Dress was her passion. She had a most harmless delight in being fine; and our heroine’s entree into life could not take place till after three or four days had been spent in learning what was mostly worn, and her chaperone was provided with a dress of the newest fashion. The Narrator, Chapter 2
Oh darn. New clothes and a make-over! Finally the new frocks and finery are finished and Catherine is dressed and ready for her entrance into society hoping to pass uncensored at the Upper Rooms. They arrive. The rooms are packed and the crush intense. By unwearied diligence they work their way through the crowd and the ball is a fine sight. Catherine longs to dance, but she and Mrs. Allen are not acquainted with anyone in the room. Amazingly, not much can be done about it because in Regency times, one did not just walk up to someone and ask them to dance before they had been properly introduced. So Catherine’s first official outing into society is a bust, and all that can be said on the matter is that they wished they had known someone – anyone! A bit of a disappointment for a heroine in the making, but her luck would soon change as they make a second attempt.
They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. The Narrator, Chapter 3
Yum. Henry Tilney has entered the building and Catherine’s adventure is about to begin. They dance and have tea and he inquires about her experience in Bath, taking it as far as teasing her about writing it all down in her journal.
“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely – “I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings – plain black shoes – appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.” Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, Chapter 3
This introduction to Henry Tilney is quite an eye popper. Confident and assured he is immediately quite the charmer, and in Regency times this may have been viewed as a bit too forward. Of course young and inexperienced Catherine does not quite know the difference, so he may play with her a bit more boldly than a seasoned Miss who might put him in his place. She is flattered by his attention and the ball concludes. Catherine is inclined to continue the acquaintance and thinks of him as she gets ready for bed. The narrator warns the reader that if a young lady was to dream about Mr. Tilney that it is improper, since a gentleman should dream about a lady first. Ha!
- Read the online text of Northanger Abbey complements of Molland’s
- Read the Group reading schedule
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Penguin Classics Northanger Abbey (2003)
By Jane Austen, introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler
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