Presented by Dr Gillian Dooley at 2011 Jane Austen Festival AustraliaHonorary Research Fellow, English
Special Collections Librarian
Editor, Transnational Literature
Flinders University, Australia
If we think of the fool in Shakespearean terms, no one springs to mind as readily as Henry Tilney. In his first conversation with Catherine he has a way of turning upon his listener with a deflating punch-line which has an air of Shakespeare’s Touchstone about it:
‘As far as I have had an opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars’ – ‘And what are they?’ ‘A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.’ (49)
Here Henry is adding weight to the narrator’s satirical views on aspects of society in much the same way as Touchstone voices satire throughout As You Like It. Catherine, though entranced, doesn’t know what to make of him at first: ‘“How can you be so –” she had almost said, strange.’ (50) Clearly, Henry is the hero of this novel and though he retains his whimsical wit, and is upbraided by his sister for his ‘odd ways’ (127), he is not a fool in the sense that he lacks judgment or wisdom. He enjoys being a pedant, and indulges in what might be called intentional catachresis: deliberately misinterpreting Catherine’s artless use of expressions like ‘nice’ and ‘she promised me faithfully’. He is only reduced to talking nonsense by happiness in love: on their visit to the Allens at the end of the novel, ‘Henry talked at random, without sense or connection’ (240), a most unusual state for this most delightful of Austen’s heroes. This is a neat ironic reversal, since earlier, in Bath, when Catherine mentioned having to entertain herself at home by calling on Mrs Allen, he had exclaimed, ‘What a picture of intellectual poverty!’ (97)
Mrs Allen is of course a fool, but a relatively harmless one. Her ‘vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent: and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were any one at leisure to answer her or not.’ (80) This might seem unkind, but I’m sure we all know someone like this: I know I do! Mr Allen is a sensible man, except, it seems, in his choice of wife, who ‘was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any man in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.’ (42-3)
Is Henry perhaps similarly wasted on Catherine? Austen playfully discusses the subject:
The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author [Fanny Burney in Camilla]; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though, to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable, and too well-informed themselves, to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. But Catherine did not know her own advantages; did not know that a good-looking girl -with an affectionate heart, and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. (125)
But is Catherine really foolish? She is certainly naïve: as she shows in an early conversation with Eleanor Tilney, after which ‘they parted – on Miss Tilney’s side with some knowledge of her new acquaintance’s feelings, and on Catherine’s, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them’. (92)
And the words ‘folly’ and ‘foolish’ often appear in relation to Catherine. Here are some examples:
Catherine had neither time nor inclination to answer. The others walked away, John Thorpe was still in view, and she gave herself up for lost. That she might not appear, however, to observe or expect him, she kept her eyes intently fixed on her fan; and a self-condemnation for her folly, in supposing that among such a crowd they should even meet with the Tilneys in any reasonable time, had just passed through her mind, when she suddenly found herself addressed and again solicited to dance, by Mr. Tilney himself.( 93)
How could she have so imposed on herself? Heaven forbid that Henry Tinley should ever know her folly! And it was in a great measure his own doing, for had not the cabinet appeared so exactly to agree with his description of her adventures, she would never have felt the smallest curiosity about it. This was the only comfort that occurred. Impatient to get rid of those hateful evidences of her folly, those detestable papers then scattered over the bed, she rose directly; and folding them up as nearly as possible in the same shape as before, returned them to the same spot within the cabinet, with a very hearty wish that no untoward accident might ever bring them forward again, to disgrace her even with herself.( 178)
[On visiting Mrs Tilney’s room and finding nothing to incriminate the General] She was sick of exploring, and desired but to be safe in her own room, with her own heart only privy to its folly, and she was on the point of retreating as softly as she had entered, when the sound of footsteps, she could hardly tell where, made her pause and tremble. To be found there, even by a servant, would be unpleasant, but by the General (and he seemed always at hand when least wanted) much worse.( 196)
The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry's address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry. It was not only with herself that she was sunk, but with Henry. Her folly, which now seemed even criminal, was all exposed to him, and he must despise her for ever. The liberty which her imagination had dared to take with the character of his father, could he ever forgive it? The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears, could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express. (201)
Her mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever; and the lenient hand of time did much for her by insensible gradations in the course of another day. Henry's astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct, in never alluding in the slightest way to what had passed, was of the greatest assistance to her; and sooner than she could have supposed it possible, in the beginning of her distress, her spirits became absolutely comfortable, and capable, as heretofore, of continual improvement by anything he said. There were still some subjects, indeed, under which she believed they must always tremble; the mention of a chest or a cabinet, for instance, and she did not love the sight of japan in any shape: but even she could allow that an occasional memento of past folly, however painful, might not be without use.( 203)
She was tired of the woods and the shrubberies [of Northanger], always so smooth and so dry; and the abbey itself was no more to her now than any other house. The painful remembrance of the folly it had helped to nourish and perfect was the only emotion which could spring from a consideration of the building.( 212)
It is striking how often she is described as being aware of her folly, which is, of course, the beginning of wisdom. As Touchstone says, ‘a fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’ – and we might observe that Austen specifically refers to the ‘great store of information’ Catherine gained by reading Shakespeare (39).
There is little doubt that John Thorpe thinks himself very wise, but that he is a paragon of self-deception, as can be seen in this scene with Catherine:
When the contents of the letter were ascertained, John Thorpe, who had only waited its arrival to begin his journey to London, prepared to set off. " Well, Miss Morland," said he, on finding her alone in the parlour, " I am come to bid you good-by." Catherine wished him a good journey. Without appearing to hear her, he walked to the window, fidgeted about, hummed a tune, and seemed wholly self-occupied.
" Shall not you be late at Devizes?" said Catherine. He made no answer; but after a minute's silence burst out with, " A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul! A clever fancy of Morland's and Belle's. What do you think of it, Miss Morland? I say it is no bad notion."
" I am sure I think it a very good one."
"Do you?—that's honest, by heavens! I am glad you are no enemy to matrimony, however. Did you ever hear the old song, ' Going to one wedding brings on another?' I say, you will come to Belle's wedding, I hope."
" Yes; I have promised your sister to be with her, if possible."
" And then you know"—twisting himself about, and forcing a foolish laugh—" I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song."
" May we? but I never sing. Well, I wish you a good journey. I dine with Miss Tilney to-day, and must now be going home."
-'Nay, but there is no such confounded hurry. Who knows when we may be together again? Not but that I shall be down again by the end of a fortnight, and a devilish long fortnight it will appear to me."
-' Then why do you stay away so long?" replied Catherine, finding that he waited for an answer.
" That is kind of you, however; kind and good-natured. I shall not forget it in a hurry. But you have more good-nature, and all that, than anybody living, I believe. A monstrous deal of good-nature, and it is not only good-nature, but you have so much—so much of everything; and then you have such—upon my soul, I do not know any body like you."
" Oh dear! there are a great many people like me, I dare say, only a great deal better. Good morning to you."
-- But I say, Miss Morland, I shall come and pay my respects at Fullerton before it is long, if not disagreeable."
" Pray do; my father and mother will be very glad to see you."
" And I hope—I hope, Miss Morland you will not be sorry to see me."
"Oh dear! not at all. There are very few people I am sorry to see. Company is always cheerful."
[She goes on]…And as to most matters, to say the truth, there are not many that I know my own mind about."
" By Jove, no more do I! It is not my way to bother my brains with what does not concern me. My notion of things is simple enough. Let me only have the girl I like, say I, with a comfortable house over my head, and what care I for all the rest? Fortune is nothing. I am sure of a good income of my own; and if she had not a penny, why so much the better." (136)
The amount of inaccuracy in the last paragraph alone is obvious: It is his way to bother his brains with what doesn’t concern him, and he does care about money, just as his sister Isabella does. Isabella, however, is more calculating then John: more duplicitous and manipulative, as Catherine realizes when she finally receives a letter from her after the engagement with James has been broken: ‘Such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine. Its inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood, struck her from the very first.’ (217)
General Tilney would have to be very foolish himself to be taken in by John Thorpe – to believe his boasts about the Morland family in the first place, and then to take him at his word when Isabella and James’s engagement is broken off and he declares them to be ‘a necessitous family; numerous too almost beyond example … a forward, bragging, scheming race’ (242-3). It seems unlikely that a man of the world like the General would believe this nonsense from Thorpe, who couldn’t impose even on the naïve Catherine, but as Anne Ehrenpreis observes in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, the General ‘changes as Jane Austen’s requirements for him vary. … [s]ince [his] function is “to promote the general distress of the work” we are not allowed to take him seriously.’ (20)
Austen, in her disquisition in praise of folly, says that ‘to come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.’ (125) ‘Tis folly to be wise’, indeed!
In one sense, all Jane Austen’s characters are fools, except the chosen few: the heroine (at least by the end of the novel, if not at the beginning), the hero, and usually one or two others. Some are dupes, some benign, like Mrs Allen; others are dangerous, like the Thorpe siblings. Isabella and John Thorpe in some ways foreshadow the bright, attractive, far more complex Crawfords in Mansfield Park, who also befriend the heroine with unhappy results. But Thorpe is a caricature, with no redeeming features apart from his entertainment value to the reader. His foolishness, as well as being a not always convincing plot device, is a yardstick against which all other characters are measured – and none measures up to him in this respect. It is he and others of his type that help Austen create ‘the illusion of traveling intimately with a hardy little band of readers whose heads are screwed on tight and whose hearts are in the right place’, as Wayne Booth wrote (Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed, 266).