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Chapter One

Chapter 1 - the very short version We are introduced to our main character, Catherine Morland, through the auspices of our sassy narrator. Catherine is invited to go to Bath with her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Chapter 1

Oh, the opening lines. I particularly love the first two sentences:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

These sentences do at least four things:

1. They introduce us to our heroine.
2. They introduce us to our narrator and her voice.
3. They briefly summarize what the first two paragraphs (in my editions, more than two full pages) are going to tell us, while
4. They introduce us to one of the things Austen's up to: skewering Gothic novels and "conduct novels" such as those written by Samuel Richardson, which tried to be morally instructive, while relating sensational and sometimes "horrid" tales (including abductions, abuse, rapes, etc.)

Popular conventions of Gothic novels (and, indeed, in quite a large number of 20th-century Regency romances) include a main character with one or more of the following attributes:

1. a dead mother (usually dead since the heroine's birth) or a living mother who is either completely clueless or cruel and manipulative;
2. a dead father, in which case she has a male guardian who is typically one or more of the following things: inattentive, abusive, or absent; or a living father who gets to be inattentive, cruel or absent in his own right;
3. a family somehow forced into poverty OR a dowry that's tied up somehow and the object of male attention;
4. a large number of "accomplishments": the ability to sew well, dance well, play the pianoforté well, sing well, draw and paint well, and maybe speak French;
5. a large number of physically attractive qualities: beautiful hair, skin, eyes, teeth, a "fine figure", etc.;
6. intelligence in the form of the ability to learn quickly and intuitively;
7. a "moral" education;
8. fine manners;
9. only a smattering of actual education, frequently obtained from conduct books and Elegant Extracts: Useful and Entertaining Passages in Poetry/Prose. I'm nearly certain there are more - chime in if you know these tropes!

Catherine, we are told, has almost none of them. She isn't musical, doesn't like "girl" things, preferred running around with the boys and playing baseball* to sewing and whatnot. Both parents are alive, sensible and kind, and she is comfortably what we today would call upper middle class. Her family's not wealthy, but they certainly aren't hurting; her father has land and several incomes. As a young child, she was sallow and stringy and not at all beautiful, and she only makes it to "almost pretty" in the present time.

*Sidenote: The Oxford English Dictionary records this as the earliest printed use of the word base ball, probably referring to the game known as "rounders", which has existed in England since Tudor times.

The proof of Catherine's education, it must be noted, smacks of Elegant Extracts all the way, and of Austen's sneering at such an education. (Austen herself was a prodigious reader from a young age.)

Almost without fail, what we're told Catherine learned (or took away from what she read) is misquoted or misapplied. Those of you who read along during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month might recognize her first Shakespeare quote as being Iago's lines from Othello as he plots how to set Cassio up to seem like he's been shtupping Desdemona, and the third as Viola's (in drag as Cesario's) lines from Twelfth Night, who is relating a tragic story, not talking about what a young woman in love ought to look like.

That Austen wishes the reader to realize how Catherine has misconstrued these quotes (or allowed her understanding to be based on an extremely short abbreviation) is made clear by the brevity of them, as well as their context. In most cases, the original lines were written in iambic pentameter, yet many of them contain fewer than the ten requisite syllables to meet that requirement, so brief is Catherine's sampling.

The narrator - not truly Austen, although perhaps a version of her - ends the chapter by again sending up the conventions of Gothic and other sensational novels of the time: there's no peril, no hero. How on earth can Catherine be a heroine under these circumstances?

Thank heavens for Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Tomorrow: Chapter 2.

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 1st, 2009 11:58 am (UTC)
Of course I would add to your list of four things Austen does: made me smile. She is funny, in the best way.

(got out the edition I read in college)
Aug. 1st, 2009 12:45 pm (UTC)
After reading so many first person stories, I was struck by the narrator's (as you call it) sassy voice and its authority in the story. I love this toward the end of the chptr:

"But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."

Like a little writing hint disguised as portent thrown in among the character description.

Aug. 1st, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
Okay, I'm hooked. By the book and your comments. Thanks!

I read the online version this morning. Must find a print version today. (I don't think ebooks will ever make it for me.)
Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:11 am (UTC)
I'm so pleased you're hooked. Hope you found a copy!
Aug. 1st, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
Nothing to add, but what a delightful read!
Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:11 am (UTC)
Ooh - thanks so much Diane! I was hoping it would pass your muster!
Aug. 1st, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC)
Straight off the bat (cricket, base ball or rounders) I like Catherine Morland, especially after reading these lines: "she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house."
Me too at ten!

Chapter 1 (and I so love the sassy narrator)has me wondering if Jane Austen was challenging the definition of a heroine as well as stereotypes and conventional (and proper) behavior.
Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
Well, of course she was challenging the definition of a heroine, and of how to depict people in books, too. In so many other novels of her time, improbable things happened one after the other. She was very keen to depict things realistically. In Richardson's books, for instance, a girl who had had sex before marriage (voluntarily or otherwise) would have met a bad end. In Pride & Prejudice, that girl (Lydia) married the guy who deflowered her, and they muddled along (as in real life). At the time that she wrote her books, immoral actions typically led to the character's death or complete ruin (illness, exclusion from society, etc.); she was far more interested in showing everyday life.

Which is, of course, another point of the book. Catherine tries to see herself as a heroine in one of the novels she reads, but eventually has to give it up. It's sort of a "snap out it!" message all the way around.
Aug. 1st, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Was Austen challenging the definition of a heroine? Definitely! She's making Catherine out to be a perfectly ordinary person, living among equally ordinary people.

I'm with jeannineatkins--The best think Austen does is make me smile, if not downright cackle with laughter.
Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
I'm thinking about Granny Weatherwax and warnings against "cackling" too much. Must re-read some Pratchett soon.

And yes - definitely challenging the definition of a heroine.
Aug. 1st, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
LOVE Austen's gentle mocking of Gothic conventions-- I was cracking up when the narrator feigned surprise that Mrs. Morland had not died giving birth to Catherine!
Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:24 am (UTC)
Isn't that great? And disappointment that the father isn't poor or abusive!
Aug. 4th, 2009 11:09 pm (UTC)
Okay, I am catching up. I was excited to see that the chapters are short so that I will be able to get read up to where everyone else is for today. I recently got a copy that has all of Austen's novels in one. I have read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility before, but it has been a while. I want to re-read them plus all the other books. What good luck that you are guiding a chapter a day. I will get so much more out of the experience.
Aug. 5th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
The book definitely has short chapters, and it quite conveniently has 31 of them - a perfect pairing for August! It is also, in my opinion, the easiest of Austen's novels to read and the one I recommend starting with (Sense and Sensibility is, for many reasons, the hardest one as far as reading goes, and is decidedly a rough place to start.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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