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Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Evolution of Catherine Morland’s Dignity“: “…neither clemency nor dignity was put to the trial…”


Today, I just revisited today a passage which I analyzed recently in depth here…

…a post a month ago in which I suggested that General Tilney actually does not evict Catherine from the Abbey---instead it is Eleanor Tilney who hustles Catherine out of the Abbey upon the General’s unexpected early return, in an audacious desperate (and successful) move to protect Catherine from a imminent sexual assault in her room by the sexually predatory General.

However, today I noticed something else in that passage which I had overlooked previously, which gives a window into what an extraordinary young woman Catherine really is.

First, here is the full passage in Chapter 28, in which I have all-capped the words “dignity” and “indignity” for reasons hinted at in my Subject Line, which I will explain below. But first I ask you to read this passage slowly, and see if anything pops out at you that you had not noticed before:

“Soon after six Eleanor entered her room, eager to show attention or give assistance where it was possible; but very little remained to be done. Catherine had not loitered; she was almost dressed, and her packing almost finished. The possibility of some conciliatory message from the general occurred to her as his daughter appeared. What so natural, as that anger should pass away and repentance succeed it? And she only wanted to know how far, after what had passed, an apology might properly be received by her. But the knowledge would have been useless here; it was not called for; neither clemency nor DIGNITY was put to the trial—Eleanor brought no message. Very little passed between them on meeting; each found her greatest safety in silence, and few and trivial were the sentences  exchanged while they remained upstairs, Catherine in busy agitation completing her dress, and Eleanor with more goodwill than experience intent upon filling the trunk. When everything was done they left the room, Catherine lingering only half a minute behind her friend to throw a parting glance on every well-known, cherished object, and went down to the breakfast-parlour, where breakfast was prepared. She tried to eat, as well to save herself from the pain of being urged as to make her friend comfortable; but she had no appetite, and could not swallow many mouthfuls. The contrast between this and her last breakfast in that room gave her fresh misery, and strengthened her distaste for everything before her. It was not four and twenty hours ago since they had met there to the same repast, but in circumstances how different! With what cheerful ease, what happy, though false, security, had she then looked around her, enjoying everything present, and fearing little in future, beyond Henry's going to Woodston for a day! Happy, happy breakfast! For Henry had been there; Henry had sat by her and helped her. These reflections were long indulged undisturbed by any address from her companion, who sat as deep in thought as herself; and the appearance of the carriage was the first thing to startle and recall them to the present moment. Catherine's colour rose at the sight of it; and the INDIGNITY with which she was treated, striking at that instant on her mind with peculiar force, made her for a short time sensible only of resentment. Eleanor seemed now impelled into resolution and speech.

Do you see what I (now) see? I’ve checked, and I can’t find that any Austen scholar has previously commented on what caught my eye, mostly because, I think, of Jane Austen’s successful misdirection, leaving most readers of the novel with the sense of Catherine as a wide eyed innocent who somehow stumbles into realizing that the General really is a domestic monster after all.

I’ve known for several years that Catherine was a brilliant intuitive social scientist, carefully observing the people around her, and drawing logical and sound inferences based on people’s actual behavior, learning about the human race during her adventures in Bath and then at the Abbey. But what I saw today makes me respect Catherine in another important way beyond her native intelligence and sharp intuition—as my Subject Line gave away, I add to my list of her admired qualities the steady evolution, during the course of the novel, of Catherine’s _dignity_---her sense of her own worth---of her entitlement---merely by being who she is as a person, no more, no less---to respect, good treatment, and-- hopefully also from the right man---love and affection.

What I hadn’t noticed before, because I had read through this section on several different occasions too quickly to savor the meaning of every single word in every single sentence, was that Catherine gets really ROYALLY (all puns intended) pissed off when Eleanor informs her that the General is kicking her out of the Abbey with no explanation or warning.

What spunk! What chutzpah in this young woman, to actually expect the General to wake up and recognize what a total SOB he is being, and she’s actually debating whether to accept his apology, and if she does, will she somehow be selling herself short, maybe she should make him sweat a  while before letting him off the hook.  Sure, it’s naïve, she has not yet seen enough of the world to know that it is the rare powerful SOB who ever says—or even thinks—he’s sorry---but think of the contrast between Catherine’s reaction, and what Fanny Price’s reaction would have been. Scared of her shadow, thinking herself unworthy of even simple kindness, Fanny would not even dare to think herself entitled to good treatment.

But Catherine, she’s a girl that Captain Wentworth would have praised to the top of his mast. And as I read that passage now, with full(er) comprehension, I can only paraphrase the narrator of NA when I write,  ““Is there a Janeite in the world who could be insensible to such a declaration? Arnie Perlstein at least was not.”

For those who wanted the short version, you can stop reading now.

But…for those who want to admire the way that Jane Austen has prepared her alert readers for this startling bit of nervy mentation on Catherine’s part in Chapter 28, and also follows up to it in the final chapters of the novel----and has actually shown us the evolution of Catherine’s sense of her own dignity during the course of the entire novel---please read on. It only looks long, but most of the words you will be reading won’t be mine, they’ll be Jane Austen’s and that’s always a good thing, right?


We first read about Catherine’s dignity in Chapter 8, when she not only feels embarrassed and frustrated at being relegated to wallflower status in a Bath ballroom, she seems more than a little like Emma in thinking how her reputation will be damaged by this event, and how unfair it is that her true high status—based on what?---is not being recognized:

“The younger Miss Thorpes being also dancing, Catherine was left to the mercy of Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen, between whom she now remained. She could not help being vexed at the non-appearance of Mr. Thorpe, for she not only longed to be dancing, but was likewise aware that, as the real DIGNITY of her situation could not be known, she was sharing with the scores of other young ladies still sitting down all the discredit of wanting a partner. To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine's life, and her fortitude under it what particularly DIGNIFIES her character. Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips.

So far, this strikes me as much more like vanity and snobbery than pride under proper regulation. While her Gothic readings have prepared her well to recognize General Tilney’s monstrousness by the time she gets to the Abbey, a small negative side effect is that she is a little precious in thinking of herself as a heroine suffering wallflowerhood in proud silence. But by the end of that same chapter, there is some insight achieved:

“…. Of her dear Isabella, to whom she particularly longed to point out that gentleman, she could see nothing. They were in different sets. She was separated from all her party, and away from all her acquaintance; one mortification succeeded another, and from the whole she deduced this useful lesson, that to go previously engaged to a ball does not necessarily increase either the DIGNITY or enjoyment of a young lady. From such a moralizing strain as this, she was suddenly roused by a touch on the shoulder, and turning round, perceived Mrs. Hughes directly behind her, attended by Miss Tilney and a gentleman.”

That is the beginning of wisdom, based on in-person, experimental observation.

Catherine’s dignity is next at issue in Chapter 12 at the play as she frets about Henry not showing any sort of recognition of her existence from across a crowded theatre:

“No longer could he be suspected of indifference for a play; his notice was never withdrawn from the stage during two whole scenes. At length, however, he did look towards her, and he bowed—but such a bow! No smile, no continued observance attended it; his eyes were immediately returned to their former direction. Catherine was restlessly miserable; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and forced him to hear her explanation. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own DIGNITY injured by this ready condemnation—instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else—she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.”

As she struggles with how to deal with what seems like Henry’s slighting her during the intermission at the play (which I’ve previously argued is actually Hamlet), she decides to fling dignity to the winds, as if she had just been listening to Dusty Springfield's greatest hit....

....and when he shows up during intermission, she blurts out her famous apologies that earns her this approval from the narrator (and Henry):  “Is there a Henry in the world who could be insensible to such a declaration? Henry Tilney at least was not.”

Indeed, it seems dignity well sacrificed toward a more satisfying payoff.

We find ourselves with Catherine at the Abbey before dignity comes up again, in Chapter 23:

“They set forward; and, with a grandeur of air, a DIGNIFIED step, which caught the eye, but could not shake the doubts of the well-read Catherine, he led the way across the hall, through the common drawing-room and one useless antechamber, into a room magnificent both in size and furniture—the real drawing-room, used only with company of consequence. It was very noble—very grand—very charming!—was all that Catherine had to say, for her indiscriminating eye scarcely discerned the colour of the satin; and all minuteness of praise, all praise that had much meaning, was supplied by the general: the costliness or elegance of any room's fitting-up could be nothing to her; she cared for no furniture of a more modern date than the fifteenth century.”

At this point, has Catherine evolved to the point that she is not impressed by the General's snobbish inflated dignity? Or is it  rather that he "could not shake the doubts of the well-read Catherine", not because she is not impressible by expensive art, artifacts, and architecture, but rather because she has read enough (as she sees it) to hold firm to her suspicion of his foul play vis a vis Mrs. Tilney? As is often the case with JA’s novels, it’s ambiguous, it could be either, or even a mixture of both.

Then we have the above climactic passage in Ch. 28, which I’ve already analyzed, where we see Catherine has by this point grown to trust her own judgment, and her own self-valuation, to feel resentment at being kicked out, and even momentarily including Eleanor in the sights of her resentment.

I am certain that JA meant for us to read the meaning behind the words, and realize that it's fantastic and thrilling, to imagine that a naïve but intelligent and well read (in more than just Gothic novels)  country girl, without any special resources or social status & power, nonetheless, merely by following her nature, unclouded by the pollution of traditional "female education", finds the way to give herself space to register what she really feels. And note it’s because she is a good person—not because of some empty homily about being deferential—that  she does not act out her resentment against Eleanor.

And, if you agree with my conclusion from my above linked post from a few weeks ago, there is enormous irony here, because I believe General Tilney actually DIDN'T throw Catherine out of the Abbey at all, he had much darker and more horrible plans for her, which he would have implemented imminently, had Eleanor not rescued Catherine by getting her the hell out of Dodge--I mean, the Abbey, just ahead of the General's lecherous  plans.

So, when the narration says "Eleanor brought no message", that is Jane Austen herself winking to the metafictionally sensitive reader that indeed Eleanor brought no message--not then, AND NOT BEFORE!

In the aftermath of the above, we have three last references to dignity. First this in Chapter 29:

“A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the DIGNITY of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, and speedy shall be her descent from it.”

Hmmm.the narrator seems to suggest that Catherine's dignity has suffered a real blow---but what is the meaning of does this authorial intrusion:  "no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness"? I think it’s pure Austenian irony, sharp and subtle as a razor blade, mocking the convention of the chastened girl who has indulged in conceited excess of aspiration (i.e., the nonsense that Mrs. Morland tries to force down Catherine’s throat upon her return to Fullerton.

And that same irony--but obviously this time, pops up again in Chapter 30:

“They began their walk, and Mrs. Morland was not entirely mistaken in his object in wishing it. Some explanation on his father's account he had to give; but his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen's grounds he had done it so well that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often. She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's DIGNITY; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

And in Chapter 31, in the final scene where dignity is on trial, so to speak, we find we are finishing, comically, with a return to the General’s grotesquely narcissistic sense of his own dignity, which receives a welcome boost when Eleanor becomes engaged to a man with a title:

“The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity. The means by which their early marriage was effected can be the only doubt: what probable circumstance could work upon a temper like the general's? The circumstance which chiefly availed was the marriage of his daughter with a man of fortune and consequence, which took place in the course of the summer—an accession of DIGNITY that threw him into a fit of good humour, from which he did not recover till after Eleanor had obtained his forgiveness of Henry, and his permission for him "to be a fool if he liked it!" “

What the suspicious reader might wonder is whether that “dignity” really was all in the General’s sense of his own worth, or whether, behind the scenes,  beyond Catherine blissful unawareness, there has been some serious working on the General (I think, by Eleanor, her fiancé, and Henry) to make him see all the good reasons why Catherine would make a splendid match for Henry after all.

But that is a tale for another time.

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