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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Henry Tilney's (and Jane Austen's) invitation to a metaphorical dance

I really love the following passage in Chapter 16, which is one of many in Northanger Abbey which make a mockery of the notion that NA is an "immature" work of JA's, deemed by all too many Janeites as not worthy of consideration on a par with the other 5 novels--and I want to try to explain why I love it so much, and why I think there's much more going on in it that at first meets the too-quickly moving eye.

The passage I will now quote is a discussion of judgment and charity in the moral and psychological assessment of other people, and it arises abruptly when Catherine naively assigns the best of intentions to both Isabella and Captain Tilney, unwittingly eliciting a teasing, provocative response from Henry:

“Your brother [i.e. Captain Tilney] will not mind it [Catherine's assertion that Isabella would not want to dance with him], I know,” said she, “because I heard him say before that he hated dancing; but it was very good–natured in him to think of it. I suppose he saw Isabella sitting down, and fancied she might wish for a partner; but he is quite mistaken, for she would not dance upon any account in the world.”

Henry smiled, and said, “How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people’s actions.” “Why? What do you mean?”

“With you, it is not, How is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person’s feelings, age, situation, and probable habits of life considered — but, How should I be influenced, What would be my inducement in acting so and so?” “I do not understand you.”

“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.” “Me? Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”

“Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language.” “But pray tell me what you mean.”

“Shall I indeed? Do you really desire it? But you are not aware of the consequences; it will involve you in a very cruel embarrassment, and certainly bring on a disagreement between us." “No, no; it shall not do either; I am not afraid.”

“Well, then, I only meant that your attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good nature alone convinced me of your being superior in good nature yourself to all the rest of the world.”

Catherine blushed and disclaimed, and the gentleman’s predictions were verified. There was a something, however, in his words which repaid her for the pain of confusion; and that something occupied her mind so much that she drew back for some time, forgetting to speak or to listen, and almost forgetting where she was...." END QUOTE

I assert that there is no moment more romantic or more multilayered in all of JA's writing than this witty serving of apparently light banter, because there is so much to be gleaned from it, once you stop and take the trouble to savor its full implications.


First we have Henry, who could have allowed Catherine's naive assessment of Isabella and Frederick to pass without comment. But instead, something---and I think that "something" is nothing less than his growing feeling of love and admiration for Catherine---leads him to teasingly but gently confront Catherine---or rather, JA brilliantly and subliminally echoes the famous earlier exchange between Henry and Catherine in Chapter 10 when he says "I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage"--here in Chapter 16, we have country-dance as a veiled emblem of serious conversation--i.e., JA is depicting an implied invitation by Henry to Catherine to participate in a kind of "dance" with him, a dance not involving _physical_ movement on a dance floor, but rather of _psychological_ movement during an exchange of ideas.

And what is thrilling to me is that Catherine immediately, instinctively and implicitly accepts Henry's invitation, via her direct questions and her utter lack of pretense--when she does not understand what he means, she does not pretend she does, but instead simply asks him, repeatedly and persistently, to explain what he means! This is a sign of her truly high intellect, because she intuitively grasps that he has criticized her for her kneejerk, superficial, and utterly incorrect assessment of Isabella's and Frederick's motives, and she has a deep instinctual hunger to understand human motivations. Already after her short time in Bath, at the tender age of 18, she has begun to realize that the naive trusting view of the world that seemed to work just fine at home is not quite cutting it out in the real world, and she is smart enough to want to improve her mind, and to recognize that Henry would be the perfect guide to initiate her into a world of accurate knowledge.

And how lovely it is that Henry, in turn, takes _her_ seriously, and continues to "lead" her in this little verbal "dance", by taking another "step": he answers her brilliantly and concisely, pointing out that Catherine, who is a good, well intentioned person, simply cannot imagine the motivations of people who merely pretend to be good people, but who actually are engaged in a great deal of selfish and hurtful chicanery.

But again Catherine is clueless as to his meaning, and acknowledges her lack of understanding.

And that leads Henry to his Zen-like comment about the inequality of their understanding, which in turn prompts Catherine's immortal line: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible".

What a brilliant way of showing us Catherine's take on the situation---she has developed a category for cryptic statements like Henry's, which is that "speaking well" means "being unintelligible"--but what still eludes her is that "speaking well" is not a mysterious perverse game in which educated people aspire to be unintelligible to uneducated people--while that might be true of some pretentious snobs, in Henry's case he is a kind of Zen master, trying to "lead" Catherine into thinking outside the box in which her mind is trapped, to begin to question other people's apparent motives, not to take things at face value.

But this is not entirely a one way street of enlightenment---the important lesson that Catherine is (unwittingly) teaching _Henry_ here is that for all his superior intellectual knowledge and understanding, it's time for him to stop his endless passive-aggressive intellectualizing of feelings, and to truly take her seriously enough to explain things to her in language that the very concrete, practical mind of Catherine can process effectively--so that she could actually understand what he meant originally about Isabella and Frederick.
And it is my interpretation of NA as a whole that this lesson that Catherine teaches Henry is every bit as important as the lesson he teaches her--which is why I have genuinely high hopes for their marriage after the novel ends, it really will be a marriage of equals by the time their first "dance" is completed!

But back to the above quoted passage. Who could not be thrilled by Catherine's brave and generous response--she is willing to hear the truth from Henry even if it is not what she wants to hear, and, as much as she already loves Henry, she is not afraid to disagree with him about something significant. No wonder Henry, who has been jaded by experience with a hundred debutantes with greater superficial "accomplishment" than Catherine, is irresistibly drawn to this diamond in the rough--a natively brilliant country girl with an utterly open mind.

And that's when Henry gives Catherine "a something" that she has so richly earned, i.e., a heartfelt beautiful compliment to her "superior" "good nature" which makes her blush and briefly transports her to another realm, as she realizes what he means, and then bathes in the glow of that compliment. Could there be anything more romantic than the thrill of being truly admired by the man who, Catherine can now have grounds to hope, really loves her?


And all of that would be enough, if that were all there was going on in that passage. But I assert that there is a whole additional metafictional layer implicit in this passage, in which it is Jane Austen who issues the invitation to "dance", and it is up to the reader to decide to interrogate NA and ask, "What does JA mean?"

I assert that if we read the above passage metafictionally, what quickly emerges is that JA is inviting the naive _reader_ to take the trouble, accept JA's invitation to a higher-level metafictional dance, by being willing to step outside the conventional way of reading fiction. How? By actively working to break free from the constraints of the naive, limited subjectivity of JA's clueless heroines, and to attempt, on our own, reading against the textual grain, trying to discern the motives of the other characters in her novels which are being concealed from the heroine---and therefore also from the reader! Otherwise, those concealed motives will remain forever unintelligible to the reader, and therefore, in turn, a whole layer of her novels will remain forever opaque to the trusting reader who rely entirely on the apparently "simple" superficial meaning of the narration as conclusive. Are we brave enough to accept JA's invitation to this rarefied dance?

No doubt some of you reading this will respond that I am reading way too much into this passage--and my response is to remind you that NA in particular is a novel which at a half dozen points _explicitly_ raises metafictional concerns--e.g., when JA's narrator abruptly intrudes and starts talking about novels, when Henry and Eleanor discuss concealed perspectives at Beechen Cliff, among others..... it is entirely consistent with those other explicitly metafictional passages to read Henry's teasing about unintelligibility as being JA's very serious implicit meditations on how fiction--particularly fiction like NA---ought to be read.

So, I conclude by inviting you to take the trouble to reread the above quoted passage in Chapter 16 and to ponder the pros and cons of the argument I've made in this post, and to let me know what you think.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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