Friday, January 28, 2011

Northanger Abbey: The Allens on Rules of Propriety

Reading Northanger Abbey, I was most shocked and surprised by the behavior of the Allens. For the excursion to Bath, Catherine is put in their charge, and as she is young and of marriageable age, I expected that Mrs. Allen would be particularly concerned with making sure that Catherine adheres to all of the rules of propriety. Judging from Austen’s other works, I had the impression that young ladies of marriageable age had a strict code of conduct, which, if broken, would be considered highly improper. For instance, in Lady Susan, Frederica’s writing to Reginald was regarded as wrong and was rebuffed by her mother.

So when it comes to the Allens, I automatically think that they should be always alongside Catherine to give her advice and make sure that she is constantly chaperoned. However, Mrs. Allen in particular seems to have no interest in doing what is best for Catherine. Upon their arrival to Bath, “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 chaperon was provided with a dress of the newest fashion” (10). This shows Mrs. Allen to be more concerned with herself than with Catherine. For the time of their stay at Bath, Catherine seems to have the freedom to do as she pleases and go where she pleases unchaperoned. In addition, later, when Isabella, James and John call on Catherine to take her riding, Mrs. Allen says “Just as you please, my dear” (61) in response to Catherine’s request for permission. And it is not until later, when the invitation is given for a second ride, that the Allens alert Catherine to the impropriety of such actions; “[y]oung men and women driving about the country in open carriages! [...] It is not right” (75). And even throughout the conversation between the Allens and Catherine, Mrs. Allen seems only half serious, her mind only on clothing and fashion (75-76).

With all of that in mind, what is the role of the Allens in Northanger Abbey? And why would Austen, with all of her notions of propriety, put the Allens in charge of Catherine at Bath? Also, what are the consequences of their inattention? And what effects do their, especially Mrs. Allen’s, inattention have on Catherine?

Dancers' Discourse in Northanger Abbey

"Well, Miss Morland... I hope you have had an agreeable ball."
Watercolor illustration by C.E. Brock

While reading Northanger Abbey, I quickly observed that, as in The Watsons, social balls are featured events, and dancing is of great interest to the characters. In Appendix B of our edition, Vivien Jones explains, “Scenes set at balls and assemblies are an important feature of all Austen’s novels. In such scenes, she subtly explores the pleasures and pains of dancing, and of the matchmaking and social mixing ritualized in its elaborate rules of polite behavior” (354-355). This attention to social dancing was perhaps inspired by Austen’s life, for Jones states, “Austen loved dancing and, according to family memoirs, she was good at it” (354). I therefore decided to take a closer look at the ball scenes in Northanger Abbey.

I was particularly intrigued by the exchange in Volume I, Chapter X between Catherine and Mr. Tilney regarding the purpose of dancing and choosing partners. In response to Catherine’s interactions with Mr. Thorpe during a set, Mr. Tilney states, “‘He has no business to withdraw my partner from me…I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage’” (54). Catherine disagrees with his comparison, replying, “‘People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour’” (54). Nevertheless, Mr. Tilney presses further, insisting that the roles for men and women are similar in both cases, only perhaps reversed. He even goes on state, “This disposition on your side is rather alarming. You totally disallow any similarity in the obligations; and may I not thence infer, that your notions of the duties of the dancing state are not so strict as you partner might wish’” (55). In suggesting that Catherine is not sufficiently prudent in her dancing, Mr. Tilney seems to further imply that she may not be faithful in marriage.

I was surprised by this exchange at first because Mr. Tilney’s statements seem to clash with his earlier behavior. In Chapter III, Mr. Tilney appears to mock formal small talk, for when asking Catherine about her time in Bath, he “affectedly” softens his voice and takes on a “simpering air” (14). I was therefore confused by his seemingly strict approach to social dancing and his continued attempts to justify the dancing-marriage analogy to the disbelieving Catherine.

I therefore wonder: is Mr. Tilney serious in his assertion that dancing is “an emblem of marriage”? Perhaps more importantly, in what ways might we interpret Mr. Tilney’s character and intentions in light of this exchange? How might we perceive Catherine?

Furthermore, regardless of Mr. Tilney’s intention, do the actions of other characters in the novel support his analogy? What are some possible functions of the balls in this Austen novel, considering Catherine’s experiences during them?