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?