Austen and The Picturesque III
July 4, 2007 § 2 Comments
The Picturesque and the Gothic are intertwined in Northanger Abbey, and the limits to which these notions are stretched is a motif sustained throughout the narrative. Austen offers up the Picturesque as a testament to the real feelings of the younger Tilneys, as opposed to the false ones voiced by General and Captain Tilney and the Thorpes. The direction the story takes is dependent on the actions of the Northanger sibling sets: the Morlands, the Thorpes and the Tilneys, the motives and actions of brothers and sisters are central to the narrative. The different ways in which the Picturesque is associated with the Thorpes and the Tilneys emphasizes the great differences in character and sincerity in the opposing siblings. Similar to how their response to Gothic novels delineates a marked difference between Eleanor Tilney and Isabella Thorpe; Eleanor reads a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho as enjoyable fiction while Isabella seeks to emulate it’s flighty melodrama, so too does the different ways in which Henry Tilney and John Thorpe are linked with the Picturesque present the disparity in intelligence and naturalness between the two men.
This disparity is keenly demonstrated in the two separate excursions Catharine Moreland is taken on by the different siblings, on the inappropriate jaunt in the carriages with the Thorpes, and the more decorous, and more fulfilling, country walk with the Tilneys. John Thorpe, when trying to persuade her to give up this prearranged walk with the Tilneys in favour of the carriage outing with himself, her brother James and Isabella, plays on Catharine’s gothic leanings by proposing to lead the party as far away as Blaise Castle, in Bristol:
“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine. “What is that’?”
“The finest place in England–worth going fifty
miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly–the very same.”
“But now really–are there towers and long galleries?”
As Austen well knew, Blaise Castle is a fake, not unlike John Thorpe. Modern built in 1766 on the Blaise estate, the ‘castle’ is not a real castle but a miniature one, and is in fact a garden feature typical of some of the artificial excesses in landscaping practiced under the banner of the Picturesque. Still standing today on the top of Blaise Hill on the estate in Bristol, the castle was only thirty years old when Northanger Abbey was written. The narrative isn’t only making Thorpe appear foolish to 18th century audiences, it associates him with the more ridiculous aspects of Picturesque fashion. Ironically, this sort of garden feature was actually known as a ‘folly’.
In opposition to John Thorpe’s folly, the truly warm, good hearted dispositions of Henry and Eleanor Tilney make a calm inclination towards the Picturesque very natural, essential even, to differentiate them from every other protagonist, and make them the emotional and imaginative equals, or superiors, of Catharine. There are none but the Tilneys who share Catharine’s romanticism. The Moreland parents and James, while excellent, are people of ‘useful plain sense’, ‘good temper’ and ‘very respectable’. Mr Allen, like the Morelands, is sensible, wise and unimaginative. Kindly Mrs Allen only has the latter in common with her husband but her good nature is an unemotional, soothing balm. But the Tilney’s romantic awareness is en par with Catharine’s, and it is contrasted most strongly with the utterly unfeeling characters of the piece: the heartless and deceitful Thorpe siblings, and those stone cold Montoni¹ villains, General and Captain Tilney.
On their country walk, Austen tempers Henry Tilney’s interest in the Picturesque to an appreciation of natural beauty, that different way of seeing beauty in the natural landscape that was the original, more educational aspect of the notion:
They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability ofbeing formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste.
On Catherine expressing her ignorance and a desire to learn to draw, ‘a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed’. This ‘lecture’ isn’t an ecclesiastic enthuse for the contrite but a real exercise in teaching and learning:
He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second
distances–side-screens and perspectives–lights and shades
Though intelligent and reasonable, Henry must not be immune to the emotional pull of the Picturesque, and Austen undercuts his sense with a little sensibility, by allotting to him the poetic romance of ‘a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak’.
The way the two men are differently associated with the Picturesque yields an accurate portraits of their characters – one clever with the capability for feeling, even romanticism, the other unfeeling, devoid of taste, and foolish. Austen offers a parting shot at the shallow end of the Picturesque, on the point of the General’s dry guided tour of the gardens at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney is absent and without him there to instruct her, Catharine is aware she ‘should not know what was picturesque when she saw it’. This little piece of self awareness coyly suggests that enthusiasm without education may lead to, among other misfortunes, the building of tacky fake castles in your garden.
To be continued
*Ann Radcliffe’s villain in The Mysteries of Udolpho