Catherine and Mrs. Allen attend the Lower Rooms, a gathering place for socialites. Since Catherine has no dance partner, the master of ceremonies introduces her to a young man named Henry Tilney, whose charm and good looks impress Catherine. They dance and then talk. Henry amuses Catherine by affecting a simpering attitude and asking her questions that mock boring small talk: "How long have you been in Bath?" and "Have you been to the concert?" Henry then hypothesizes what Catherine will write about him in her journal. He supposes she would write a very dry critique. She protests, and he invents a more flattering entry. The discussion turns to letter-writing. Henry claims that women are better letter-writers than men, except for three problems: "a general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar." Henry turns his wit on Mrs. Allen's obsession with clothing, describing how he bought muslin at a good price for his sister Eleanor. Henry and Catherine dance a second time, then part. Catherine goes to bed thinking of Henry, and the narrator warns us (ironically) that Catherine has committed a grave mistake—she has fallen in love with a man before she knows he is in love with her. Mr. Allen has briefly checked into Henry's background, and found him to be a clergyman of respectable family in Gloucestershire.
The next day, Catherine searches the social meeting places for Henry, but she does not see him again. A woman, Mrs. Thorpe, recognizes Mrs. Allen, and it turns out they are former schoolmates. Both women are greatly relieved to find an acquaintance in Bath, and they immediately begin talking, each of them impatient to talk, and neither of them eager to listen. Mrs. Thorpe has the advantage of children to talk about, while Mrs. Allen is wealthier than the widowed Mrs. Thorpe. Mrs. Thorpe introduces Mrs. Allen and Catherine to her three daughters. The eldest daughter, Isabella, quickly takes to Catherine, and within a few hours they are best friends. Isabella tells Catherine about Bath society, discussing fashion, flirtations, and the attractiveness of young men and women. By the time she escorts Catherine home, Isabella has won her admiration. The chapter ends with the narrator telling us that Mrs. Thorpe was a widow of only very modest wealth. It ends with a satirical admission that the narrator's account of the Thorpe family history is quite a bit shorter than the way Mrs. Thorpe would have presented it.
The chemistry between Catherine and Henry is immediately evident. Catherine has to resist laughing as Henry makes fun of the conventions of small talk, fixing his face in a "simpering countenance" and asking banal questions in an affected voice. Henry is playing a game with Catherine, and she easily plays along. Henry flirts with Catherine, outlining a hypothetical journal entry for her. Catherine is charmed by his playfulness, though she is both amused and dismayed by Henry's gentle fun at Mrs. Allen's expense. This chapter sets up the dynamic that will exist between Henry and Catherine for most of the novel. Henry's wit and urbanity puts him one step ahead of Catherine, and he is a much better judge of character than she is.
In this chapter, Austen makes the meeting between her "heroine" and Henry to occur primarily through dialogue. Henry supplies the ironic wit that is usually the province of the narrator. It is only at the end of the chapter, with commentary on how women should wait for men to fall in love with them, that the narration resumes its ironic tone. Austen generally employed three methods of presenting her story: narration, dialogue, and free indirect discourse, which will be discussed in the Analysis for Volume I, Chapter X.
Chapter IV introduces Isabella. Like Henry, Isabella will be a teacher to Catherine, but of a different sort. Isabella instructs Catherine in all the ways of society that Henry gently mocks. She teaches Catherine about fashion, about where to see and be seen, about flirting with men, and about all the other societal conventions Catherine needs to survive in Bath.