Summary of Vol. I, Chapter V
Catherine and Isabella see each other at the theater the next day, but Catherine’s attention is preoccupied by her search to spot Henry. Unfortunately, he is nowhere to be found, although Catherine searches for him in all of Bath’s most frequented gathering places. Catherine shares her anxiety to see Henry again with Isabella, and Isabella speculates that he must be a “charming young man.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Allen is settling into Bath and expresses her joy at knowing the Thorpe family. She promotes the friendship between Catherine and Isabella at every opportunity. When the two girls are not rambling around town, they enjoy reading novels together. At this point, Austen steps back from her narrative to justify the practice of reading and writing novels at large. She refuses to condemn novels as “trash” and instead praises their merits. She tells us that she is not ashamed to portray her heroine as an avid reader. Indeed, Catherine’s involvement in the world of books will have increasing implications for her relationship with Henry as Austen’s novel progresses.
Summary of Vol. I, Chaper VI
Isabella and Catherine meet in the Pump Room and discuss the Mysteries of Udolpho, a popular Gothic novel by Anne Radcliffe that Catherine is reading and that Isabella has already read. Isabella gives Catherine a list of book recommendations before their conversation turns to the topic of one of Isabella’s friends, Miss Andrews. Isabella insists that Miss Andrews is as “beautiful as an angel” but notes in the same breath that the men do not generally admire her. Catherine and Isabella go on to discuss the mysteries of love. Isabella judges men to be the “most conceited creatures in the world” yet hints that she is fond of a man with a fair complexion who Catherine already knows.
Isabella expresses annoyance when she sees two young men staring at her from across the room, and the two girls move away to the other side of the room. However, when Isabella notices that the two young men have left the Pump Room altogether, she turns around “hastily” and notes that “one was a very good-looking young man.” Following Isabella’s lead, Catherine goes in pursuit of the two young men.
Summary of Vol. I, Chapter VII
As Isabella and Catherine attempt to find the two young men who just left the Pump Room, they run into their brothers, who have just arrived in Bath. John, Isabella’s brother, is friends with James Morland from Oxford, and we learn that James is attracted to Isabella (though he takes care not to betray his attraction). John praises the merits of his horse and engages Catherine to take a carriage ride with him tomorrow. Catherine asks John if he has ever read the Mysteries of Udolpho, but he embarrasses himself by misidentifying its author as Frances Burney, another popular female novelist. The four of them walk to the Thorpe house, and John asks Catherine to be his partner for the dance that night. Catherine is pleased, though Austen notes that she would not have liked him at all if her judgment had been influenced by his enthusiasm to be near her.
After leaving the Thorpe house, James reveals to Catherine that he finds Isabella to be a “most amiable girl.” While Catherine thinks that her brother came to Bath to visit her, Austen leads us to believe that his purpose was two-fold (i.e., he was more motivated by the prospects of seeing Isabella). Once they return to the Allens, Catherine picks up her novel and begins to read where she left off, while James hurries off to reconvene with his friends.
Summary of Vol. I, Chapter VIII
That night, Catherine, James, the Thorpes, and the Allens attend yet another ball in the Upper Rooms. James implores Isabella to dance with him. Though at first she protests that she does not want to leave Catherine alone, she relents very quickly, and Catherine, left alone to stand between Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen, is “vexed at the non-appearance of Mr. Thorpe.” But all thoughts of her dancing partner disappear when she suddenly sees Henry with his sister approaching. Henry greets Mrs. Allen first, who tells him that she was afraid he had left Bath. He tells her that he left for a week before turning to Catherine and asking her to dance with him. Despite her pressing desire to dance, Catherine must refuse Henry because she is already engaged for the night.
When John Thorpe returns, Catherine dances with him for two songs, but she is relieved when they are stopped in order to be introduced to Henry’s sister Miss Tilney. Isabella finds Catherine while she is still dancing with James, and the two girls admire Miss Tilney’s graceful attire. Isabella voices the desire to see Henry in person but seems to forget about it just as quickly, and Catherine cannot “avoid a little suspicion at the total suspension of all Isabella’s impatient desire to see Mr. Tilney.” Rather than switching partners, James and Isabella proceed to dance past the customary limit. Catherine tries to catch a glimpse of Henry only to discover that he is already dancing with another girl. She is “disappointed and vexed” and finds the rest of the evening to be very dull in the absence of Henry’s company.
Austen’s defense of the novel as a genre forms the backbone of Chapter V. Paradoxically, Austen says, novelists are often those who are most “ungenerous” towards others’ fictional creations: they “degrade” the “very performances to the number of which they are the adding. In contrast, Austen strives to overcome this hypocrisy. Rather than belittling the reading and writing of novels, Austen says, she aims to portray Catherine as a reader in order “patronize” the heroines of other novels and offer them “protection and regard.” Contrary to what many critics have suggested, Austen’s attitude towards the Gothic novels popularized by authors like Anne Radcliffe is not merely satirical. Instead, Austen seeks to promote the entrenchment of all forms of fiction as legitimate expressions of the artistic imagination.
With this in mind, Catherine’s enjoyment of Gothic novels, notably the sensational romance-tinged mysteries of authors like Radcliffe, symbolizes her involvement in the popular fiction trade that was made possible by the proliferation of local bookshops, many of which catered to customers’ appetites for the latest fare. William Lane’s Minerva Press published most of the bestselling Gothic titles, including all but one of the books that Isabella recommends to Catherine in Chapter VI. A less sophisticated reader than Catherine, Isabella shows no interest in reading Sir Charles Grandison, a novel by Samuel Richardson published in 1754, roughly fifty years before Austen wrote Northanger Abbey. Richardson’s epistolary novel (one written as a series of letters) deals with the adventures of its brave and moral namesake. While Catherine likes the novel, Isabella calls it an “amazing horrid book” based on her secondhand knowledge from Miss Andrews, who could not finish reading it. Isabella’s taste for novelty supersedes her claim to be a well-read connoisseur of the arts.
In many ways, the complexities of Isabella’s character are only beginning to emerge in Chapter VI. Duplicity is Isabella’s forte, and she shows her dual nature when she moves across the room to evade the young men who are staring at her, only to follow them outside when they leave. Isabella is a consummate flirt who is able to hide behind a veil of modesty or reveal her true boldness at will. Although the friendship between the two girls seems harmless enough at this point of the novel, Isabella’s hint to Catherine about her fondness for a fair-complexioned man in Catherine’s circle reveals that there is more at stake in their alliance than Catherine may suspect.
The machinations of Austen’s plot are set in motion in Chapter VII with the arrival of James and John in Bath. Isabella’s easily detectable attraction to James casts doubts on her friendship with Catherine. Were her motives pure in establishing a quick intimacy with Catherine, or was she attempting to strike an alliance that would bring her closer to James? After all, we may infer that Isabella’s attraction to James predated their reunion in Bath. Some critics have suggested that Isabella introduces Catherine to her brother and encourages John’s attentions in order to deliberately distance Catherine from Henry, thus drawing a tighter net around her familiar circle through her matchmaking scheme. While this reading risks mistakenly frame Isabella as a near-villain, it is certainly true that we catch overt glimpses of Isabella’s manipulative side when she encourages Catherine to take a carriage ride with her brother but says that they “will not have room for a third.” Catherine is drawn in by the flattering attention, though Austen tells us that Catherine and John are ill-matched in every way. By bringing John and Catherine together, Isabella increases the chances that her own designs upon James will succeed. In the intricate dance of flirtation and desire that forms the bonds of attraction, Isabella is the true master of ceremonies.
Yet the return of Henry in Chapter VIII may serve as an occasion to foil Isabella’s plans. Austen constructs another opportunity to skewer female literary stereotypes when Catherine sees Henry across the room. While heroines of other novels might be alarmed to see another woman on Henry’s arm, Catherine uses the process of deduction to ascertain that the woman is Henry’s sister. Austen jokes that Catherine is “unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already” (52). Recalling the violent and melodramatic mistakes other fictional women have made—the fatally doomed love affair is a common trope of 18th century sentimental novels—Austen invokes the convention only to skirt away from it. Catherine, her creator insists, will not fall prey to the same shortcomings of character that have led readers to expect their fictional heroines to exhibit hysterical reactions in the face of love. Above all, Austen strives to give us a more naturalistic account of her protagonist, as evidenced in her description of Catherine’s reaction: “onstead of turning of a deathlike paleness, and falling in a fit on Mrs. Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses.” The effect of these lines is to set Catherine apart from her predecessors. We are meant to see Catherine’s behavior as more pragmatic and rational than emotional and volatile.