Wednesday, 2 March 2016

General Tilney and Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'

Despite all the satire of the fantasy gothic world, the scenes set in Bath and Fullerton are as realistic as anything Jane wrote.

The realism and the burlesque do not sit comfortably together. This is because Jane decided on an ironic narrative twist: her heroine, secure in a civilized English country home, is subjected after all to the antics of a 'villain'. For this to happen, the real has to turn improbable. General Tilney, hitherto interesting and agreeable if slightly eccentric, has suddenly to behave monstrously.

Told by the bragging John Thorpe that Catherine is an heiress, the General marks her out as a potential daughter-in-law and sets out to charm her. He warmly invites her to Northanger Abbey (Chapter 17) and properly seeks the Allens' approval. For days, he is attentive, keen to impress, in effect wooing her on Henry's behalf. At Woodston, when Catherine regrets that the drawing room has not yet been 'fitted up', the General hopes 'it will be very speedily furnished: it waits only for a lady's taste!' There is a delightful incidental joke: after the General praises the 'elasticity' of Catherine's walk, she returns to her lodgings 'walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before'. 

Jane Austen takes trouble over the General. From Chapter 12, when we begin to know him, right through to Chapter 28, he is, like Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Bennet, a distinctive Austen father of amusing or eccentric habits. Crusty and opinionated, because of his military background and his dominant position in Gloucestershire society, he expects to prevail in everything. It is typical of the man that, despite being rich and having only three children to provide for, he insists that both his sons must not lead idle lives but must work for their living. It is 'expedient to give every young man some employment. The money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing'. Such forthright thinking wins respect. 

At the Abbey, the General insists on dining punctually at 5 o'clock. His life is governed by his watch: 

he stopped short to pronounce it with surprize within twenty minutes of five! This seemed the word of separation, and Catherine found herself hurried away by Miss Eleanor Tilney in such a manner as convinced her that the strictest punctuality to the family hours would be expected... 

When Catherine first joins the family (in Bath), she notices the 'severity' of the General's reproof of Captain Tilney, who comes down late for breakfast. It 'seemed disproportionate to the offence'. 

General Tilney considers attendance at his club a duty, even though he claims it is a sacrifice 'of time and attention'. So he is unwilling to take Catherine to Henry's parsonage until the day after his club meeting. His plans for the visit are rich in self-contradiction. He says he and the ladies will drop in on Henry without fixing a day and yet immediately decrees that Henry must expect them 'about a quarter before one on Wednesday'. He tells Henry to take no trouble over providing a meal; yet, knowing his father, Henry correctly interprets this as meaning that an excellent meal is required. Sure enough, Catherine 'could not but observe that the abundance of the dinner did not seem to create the smallest astonishment in the General; nay, that he was even looking at the side-table for cold meat which was not there’. 

Ever domineering, the General often requests his daughter's opinion and then gives his own before she can answer. He asks her which she thinks Catherine would like to see first – their house or the garden. Before Eleanor can reply, he declares Catherine would prefer the garden and goes to fetch his hat. The truth is that he wants to tour the garden, in which he takes great pride. He has a passion for horticulture and enjoys boasting of the exotic fruits grown in his 'village of hot-houses'. We can imagine this most believable character giving a hard time to his gardeners. Keen gardeners are lovely people. How can such a solicitous gardener be a 'villain'? The General has a wonderful kitchen garden and an unrivalled set of hot houses. 

Though he is affable and generous towards Catherine, it is not surprising that people are ill at ease in his presence: 'General Tilney, though so charming a man, seemed always a check upon his children's spirits, and scarcely anything was said but by himself'. Catherine trembles at the emphasis with which he gives orders: 'Dinner to be on the table directly!' His 'incessant attentions' are overpowering rather than gratifying. 

So far, he is convincing and original. But because Jane Austen decided to have fun turning him into a gothic villain, he has now to behave implausibly. Shortly before midnight, he returns suddenly from a visit to London and gives orders for Catherine to be expelled from the house in the early hours. 

As her letters show, Jane Austen recommends psychological realism and consistency, but General Tilney's abrupt change of attitude, necessitated by a literary joke, is difficult to accept. She offers some extenuation by explaining what made the General so angry: John Thorpe, having lost Catherine himself, has changed his story to one particularly scornful of Catherine's family: 

They were, in fact, a necessitous family; numerous too almost beyond example; by no means respected in their own neighbourhood, as he had lately had particular opportunities of discovering ... seeking to better themselves by wealthy connexions; a forward, bragging, scheming race. 

(The truth is that Catherine will have a reasonable fortune of £3000 at her marriage.) Such information provoked the General's reaction. Also there is still some humanity in the General: he lessens the blow by the pretext of having a previous engagement: 'My father has recollected an engagement that takes our whole family away on Monday. We are going to Lord Longtown's, near Hereford’. 

Jane Austen judiciously keeps the General out of sight for the rest of the novel. We never hear him speak again, (though we are told he eventually gave Henry permission 'to be a fool if he liked it!'). His cruelty to Catherine is conveyed through the embarrassment of the tender-hearted nominal mistress of the household, Eleanor. 

Poetic justice requires Catherine to suffer a little. Her suspicions of the General were wicked. She knows that, if he had read her evil thoughts, 'she could not wonder at his even turning her from his house'. But her 'evil thoughts', too, stretch our credulity. True, she is artless and only seventeen, with an imagination fuelled by gothic novels. True, Henry Tilney makes thrilling jokes about 'an apartment never used' and 'some cousin or kin' who 'died in it about twenty years before'. Yet it is hard to believe Catherine would suspect Henry's father of murdering his wife. Catherine is a sensible country girl. Credulity is stretched both here and in the General's subsequent behaviour.

The problem in both instances is that, to ridicule the gothic by imitation, Jane Austen had to make characters behave incredibly. If it is a defect, it is excusable. Jane Austen is saying, 'Even I, a writer who advocates consistency and realism in the depiction of characters, have to break my rules to achieve a horrid mystery. This shows just how implausible escapism has to be.’