Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"A Surmise of Such Horror": Catherine Morland's Imagination

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"A Surmise of Such Horror": Catherine Morland's Imagination

Article excerpt

CLAUDIA JOHNSON, a critic I admire immensely, has pondered the difference between Janeites--readers and admirers of Austen's work, from all walks of life--and professional critics. Janeites, she says, concentrate first and foremost on "character," and they have no qualms in talking about Austen's characters "as if they were real people." The academics, on the other hand, pay most attention to plot, in this case the courtship plot, and they consider the Janeite habit of loving and hating the characters inappropriate and amateurish (235).

I certainly count myself an academic, and I know the orthodoxy about recognizing the difference between the real world and a fictional construct and about maintaining a strict academic distance from characters in novels. Nevertheless, just as I choose to suspend my disbelief of fictional events, so also I like to respond to certain characters as if they were really alive. Kathryn Sutherland is on my side of the issue. "Though now unfashionable as a professional protocol for reading," she writes, "'caring for' or identifying with fictional characters remains highly important when it comes to explaining why we read novels for pleasure" (220-21). And reading novels for pleasure is what I'm talking about here.

Novelists themselves, we know, often become subject to their characters, who like the Frankenstein monster can begin to dictate to their creators. Henry James himself, though the most critically aware of novelists, recognizes that we readers can and do enter into a relation with fictional characters, and he ponders which kind of relation he intends to promote. An icy detachment on the part of his reader is the last thing he is looking for. He wants us to "care."

   [T]he figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are
   interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective
   situations .... But there are degrees of feeling--the muffled, the
   faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent... ; and the
   acute, the intense, the complete, in a word--the power to be finely
   aware and richly responsible.

It is these intensely responsive and fully conscious characters, he says, "who 'get most' out of all that happens to them," and so "enable us, as readers of their record, as participators by a fond attention, also to get most." We readers, you see, are allowed to be participants through our fond attention. And our participation is the richer with those characters who are "finely aware--as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware" (James vii-viii). We can surely agree with James. We get more out of Emma Woodhouse, say, than we get out of Harriet Smith. This kind of hierarchy is obviously distinct from the familiar categories of social standing. It's not because Hamlet is a prince or Lear a king that we value them, but because they are capable of being "finely aware and richly responsible." Anne Elliot is more valuable than Elizabeth Elliot, and not just because we know more about her, but because she knows more about herself.

But Catherine Morland, now. Alas, we can hardly claim that she is "finely aware and richly responsible." John Thorpe proposes, and she doesn't realize it's happening. By cheerfully agreeing that she'll be happy to see him at Fullerton, she gives him encouragement but doesn't know or acknowledge that she has done so. "[C]heerful and open," and with a "mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is" (NA 18), Catherine is no Hamlet or Lear; and yet she lays hold on our attention and sympathy as firmly as a more intricate Jamesian character. How does this come about?

Part of the answer is that there is something of the Holy Fool about Catherine, the kind of wisdom in simplicity that we find in Lear's fool or some of Dickens's prophetic simpletons, like Mr. Dick in David Copperfield or Joe Gargery in Great Expectations. Catherine entirely misses the light allusive banter between Henry Tilney and his sister about the pains and pleasures of reading "'real solemn history'"; to her, history consists only of the "'quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all'" (108). …

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