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Further Thoughts On Northanger Abbey

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Catherine is ignorant of the ways of the social world. As Austen so obviously explains to us that Isabella is a complete flirt and isn’t really in love with James Morland, so she shows the opposite of Catherine’s belief that Isabella doesn’t understand the “pain” she is causing men.

What is interesting is how Isabella conducts herself. There is a brilliant section in Lian Hearn’s Across The Nightingale Floor in which the main character is told that people who are little respected often gain the most knowledge because those who don’t respect them see no problem with letting them know the bad things they do. This is essentially what Isabella does to Catherine. Although Austen presents Isabella as a good friend of Catherine, the obvious subtext is that Catherine is deluded – Isabella does not truly value the friendship, she sees it as a trifle, a holiday friendship if you will. Therefore she has no qualms about Catherine seeing her flirt with other men, even if the person she [Isabella] is engaged to is Catherine’s brother. Isabella is a contradiction and where she says she doesn’t care for money, in flirting with Captain Tilney she shows that she actually does.

It’s interesting that while demonstrating Isabella’s true character, Austen also uses her for specific comedy in the way that some of the things Isabella says she won’t do and then does do invite humour, such as her saying she has no interest in a couple of men and then being anxious to get out of the building when she sees them leaving. Austen is in on the story, the readers are in on the story, and Isabella has a lot of information. But Catherine is made clueless. It’s an interesting effect.

“Is it my brother’s attentions to Miss. Thorpe, or Miss. Thorpe’s admission of them, that gives the pain? […] I think Mr. Morland would acknowledge a difference. No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment!”

Although that last statement may not be completely true, I felt a poignancy in Henry Tilney’s words. Doubtless a lot of women at that time, and men, were like that, as they can be nowadays, and Austen is effectively issuing a warning. Incidentally she is also pointing out, at a time when men were everything and women the domestic pets, that women hold a lot more power than was credited to them.


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