Volume I, Chapters V & VI
Catherine and Isabella spend more time together in Bath. Catherine tells Isabella about Henry Tilney, and Isabella encourages her friend's crush. Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe continue their acquaintance, continually sparring with one another. Mrs. Allen brags about her wealth, and Mrs. Thorpe brags about her children.
In describing the friendship between Catherine and Isabella, the narrator mentions that the women occasionally spend their time reading novels. The narrator then gives a long defense of novel-reading. The narrator suggests that the reader ignore the groans of reviewers and support her heroine in her love of novels. After all, if the heroine of a novel spurns novels (as the heroines of some other British novelists have), who will support them? The narrator claims that novels are works "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the loveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world." The chapter ends by criticizing the "yellow press," the sensationalist newspapers that were very popular in this period.
This chapter consists primarily of a discussion between Catherine and Isabella. The two have arranged to meet one morning, and Catherine arrives late. She has been up all night reading the Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Isabella had recommended to her. Catherine breathlessly tells Isabella how much she enjoys the novel. She is particularly eager to discover what lies behind the black veil in the novel; she is certain it is a skeleton. Isabella lists nearly a dozen other Gothic novels the pair can read once Catherine has finished Udolpho. The subject turns to Miss Andrews, a friend of Isabella's. Isabella makes a point of informing Catherine that she considers Miss Andrews to be one of the loveliest girls she has ever met, and often threatens not to dance with young men who say otherwise. The impression left on both Catherine and the reader is that Miss Andrews is probably not a very pretty girl, and that Isabella thinks well of herself for saying otherwise. Isabella tells Catherine she would make the same claim if anyone said anything negative about her, since Isabella believes Catherine to be "just the kind of girl to be a great favorite with the men."
The topic then turns to men, and Isabella hints that she would be attracted to a man of fair complexion and light eyes. Isabella notices two men eyeing the girls, and complains to Catherine about this scandalous behavior. The two men leave, and Isabella proposes they go for a walk. When Catherine points out that this walk would cause them to overtake the two men, Isabella sniffs that she wouldn't give them the satisfaction, and so, the narrator tells us, "to show the independence of Miss Thorpe, and he resolution of humbling [the two men], they set off immediately as fast as they could walk, in pursuit of the two young men."
The important passage in Chapter V is the narrator's direct defense of novel- reading. At the time in England when Austen was writing, novels had a negative connotation for many people, particularly people belonging to the higher classes. The horrific events featured in Gothic novels, and the lurid details of books such as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Samuel Richardson's Pamela caused the novel, as a form, to gain a poor reputation. Novels were considered a diversion for the lower class. By the late 1790s, this opinion was beginning to change, but novelists, especially female novelists, were still scorned. When Austen began Northanger Abbey, the most famous woman author was Anne Radcliffe, writer of the Gothic horror novels people so disparaged. Here the narrator issues a call to arms, asking us to ignore the snide opinions of the reviewers, and listing the merits of the novel.
Chapter VI is a character study. It consists almost entirely of dialogue between Catherine and Isabella, and can be read as a companion chapter to Chapter III, which has Henry and Catherine interacting in the same style. In Chapter VI we see the development of the dynamic between Catherine and Isabella that will last for all of Book I. Isabella assumes control of their conversations while appearing subservient to Catherine's opinions. Like her mother, Isabella talks at people, not with them. This is fine for Mrs. Thorpe when she is talking to Mrs. Allen, who is similarly fond of talking at people, but it is difficult for Catherine to deal with. She often becomes confused by Isabella's talk, which leads to misunderstandings. Catherine cannot see Isabella's fake earnestness for what it is.
Isabella does have kindly feelings for Catherine, and she seems genuinely to regard Catherine as a good friend, perhaps even as her best friend. But Isabella is one of Austen's classic self-absorbed characters, and her friendship with Catherine is calculated to do herself good. The chapter concludes with the comic scene in which Isabella, after protesting outrage at the audacity of the two young men who stare at Catherine and Isabella, insists on setting off in pursuit of them. Catherine has yet to fully grasp Isabella's habit of saying one thing and doing another, but she is beginning to question Isabella's behavior.
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