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A Gothic Interpretation of Reality
Catherine was extremely impressed by the elegant breakfast table, and she made a pretty comment about the beautiful plates and cups.
‘I am pleased that you approve of my choice,’ General Tilney responded. ‘These dishes were manufactured in this county, and I believe the set is as fine as anything from the continent. In fact, I hope that soon I will have the opportunity of selecting another set of dishes from the same company, although this time not for my own dining-room.’
Catherine was probably the only one of the party who did not understand what the General was hinting at.
Soon after breakfast Henry left them for a three-day visit to Woodston, where he had parish work to do.
As the other three watched him go, Catherine asked his father, ‘Is Woodston a pretty place?’
‘Over the last few years, I have tried to make the house and gardens a suitable place for my son,’ General Tilney explained. ‘It is a family living, and I want Henry to be happy there. Of course, his clergyman’s salary is not important, although he could easily live on it. What is important for any son is to have a job, to be employed in worthwhile work. Even Frederick, my eldest son, who will inherit one of the largest pieces of private property in the country, has his profession. I am sure that your father, Miss Morland, would agree with me.’
Catherine could not answer for her father, but she was very impressed with everything General Tilney had just said.
‘Now, last night you mentioned that you would like to see the rest of Northanger Abbey. It would be my privilege to show you the house and the gardens if you can be ready to go out in five minutes. I will wait for you young ladies at the front door.’ Catherine would have preferred to go around the house with only Eleanor, and her disappointment showed on her face.
‘I hope you do not mind joining my father,’ said Eleanor, almost apologetically. ‘He always walks out at this time of day.’ Catherine thought it was odd that the General always took his walk so early. Neither her father nor Mr Allen did so. It made her wonder about her host. She certainly wanted to see the house, but she had to admit that she was not very interested in seeing the gardens.
Nevertheless, when Catherine was outside, being guided around the exterior of the Abbey, she was more impressed than she could ever have predicted. She admired the size, the design, the beauty of the buildings, as well as the wonderful gardens. General Tilney considered her reaction and all of her comments both pleasing and appropriate, especially when she made it clear that nothing in Fullerton, not even on Mr Allen’s land, could compare to what she was seeing at Northanger Abbey.
Finally the General said, ‘Here is a handy door. I think you young ladies are probably ready to go inside and get warm.’
‘But I will take our guest down this narrow path,’ said Eleanor. ‘It is my favourite walk. Will you join us, Father?’
‘No, Eleanor, it is cold and damp along that path. I will go across the park and meet you later, but don’t show our guest around the inside of the house until I join you.’
As the young ladies walked along, Miss Tilney said, ‘This was my mother’s favourite walk and brings back memories of her.’
‘I am surprised, then, that the General would not enter it. Your mother’s death must have caused great grief and distress.’
‘Yes, and it causes more pain every year. I was only thirteen when she died, too young to understand that I had lost a constant friend whose love and advice I could rely on.’
Catherine wanted to know more about Mrs Tilney and eagerly asked many questions: ‘Was your mother a charming woman? Is there a picture of her in the Abbey? Did this dark path reflect something sad in her?’
As Catherine listened to Eleanor’s answers, she came to the conclusion that General and Mrs Tilney had had an unhappy marriage. He did not love her favourite path, so how could he have loved her? And there was something in his handsome face that told Catherine he had not behaved well to his wife.
‘Is the picture of her in your father’s room?’ was Catherine’s final question.
‘No,’ answered Eleanor quietly. ‘My father was never satisfied with the picture and would not hang it in the sitting-room or in his apartment. After Mother’s death, I found it and hung it in my bedroom. I will show it to you if you would like to see it.’
Catherine believed this was one more proof that the General did not love his wife and must have been extremely cruel to her! She knew this kind of selfish, unfeeling man from her novels, and as he led her around the house, she came to the conclusion that General Tilney was the type of man that Mrs Radcliffe often wrote about - someone with dark, dangerous secrets, a man who lived by his own rules.
The General proudly pointed out the many modern improvements he had made to Northanger Abbey as they walked through the living rooms, the kitchens, the offices and the storerooms. Everything had been done to make the house both comfortable and efficient to run. But Catherine wondered if there was anything left of the original fifteenth-century building. Had every ancient treasure been swept away for the sake of domestic economy?
They finally returned to the chief staircase and walked up to examine three large guest rooms which had been decorated in the last five years.
‘We hope to have other guests from Fullerton staying here in the future,’ said the General, and Catherine was pleased by this kind thought for her family.
At the end of this grand hall, they reached a set of large doors which Eleanor began to open. ‘No, Eleanor. Miss Morland has seen enough. There is nothing else worthy of her notice. We will retire to the library for a cup of tea after so much exercise.’
Catherine watched as the heavy doors were closed and believed that the General had excluded her from the most interesting part of the house. When she was alone with Eleanor, Catherine learned that the room in which Mrs Tilney had died was behind those doors. She imagined that the General’s guilt, not grief, kept him away from that room.
‘Has the room been kept as it was when your mother died?’ asked Catherine eagerly.
‘Yes,’ answered Eleanor, ‘even after nine years it is still exactly as she left it.’
‘I suppose that you were with her when she died?’
‘No,’ said Eleanor sadly, ‘I was unfortunately away from home. Her illness was sudden and short. It had ended before I could return.’
Horrible pictures came into Catherine’s head. Could Henry’s father have caused his wife’s death?
That evening ended quietly and as the young ladies retired, General Tilney said that he had to spend several hours in his office looking over some important papers. Catherine would not let herself believe that the General had business to take care of; she thought there was a deeper reason for his late hours, something that could only be done when the rest of the household was asleep.
Catherine analysed what she believed were the facts: Mrs Tilney’s illness was very sudden; her daughter was away from home at the time, and probably her sons were too; General Tilney was a jealous and cruel man. What was her conclusion? Perhaps Mrs Tilney was alive, shut up for unknown reasons, and receiving a nightly supply of coarse food from a husband who had never loved her. The poor woman must be a prisoner in the oldest part of the Abbey, the part that Catherine was not permitted to see. She worried that her conclusions were too bold, but then she persuaded herself that all the evidence supported her opinion.
Catherine was determined to find out more about the tragic life of Mrs Tilney, and she watched for an opportunity to visit the mysterious rooms that the General did not want her to see. Unfortunately Sunday was a busy day and Catherine had to accompany the Tilneys to church.
She sat with the family in their usual seats near the front of the church and stared directly at a very elegant monument which had been built in memory of Mrs Tilney, although Catherine did not accept this as proof of the poor woman’s death.
Our heroine’s eyes filled with tears as she read the words recorded on the monument, which described Mrs Tilney as a wonderful mother, a loyal friend, a generous neighbour, and, especially, as a loving and much-loved wife. She looked to her left and was not surprised to see that General Tilney remained unmoved; this unemotional attitude, and the proud look on his face, strengthened Catherine’s belief that he had in some way been his wife’s destroyer. She knew this type of man. She could remember dozens of such cruel animals from her novels - men who went from one crime to another, murdering whoever they chose, without any feelings of guilt or regret.
On the next day, Catherine had some time alone. Henry would not return until Tuesday, and both General Tilney and Eleanor were busy with their household duties, giving Catherine time to carry out her plan. She would go through the forbidden doors alone and search for proof of the General’s cruelty. She was sure she would find something: perhaps the veil Mrs Tilney had worn to cover her desperate sadness or the last few paragraphs in her journal, which she had written in a trembling hand.
Catherine knew the way and walked quickly and quietly through the heavy doors and on to Mrs Tilney’s room. She turned the key, opened the door and was in the room. But it was several minutes before she could take another step. What kind of horrible scene did she face? What surprise took her breath away? It was a clean, beautiful, modern, lady’s bedroom. It was filled with handsome furniture, and the bright afternoon sun poured through two large windows which looked out on the most attractive flower gardens. Catherine’s common sense told her that this had been a cheerful place; she was filled with shame. How could she have assumed so much? She was sick of exploring and analysing; she only wanted to return quickly and safely to her own bedroom and to keep all her suspicions to herself. But just as she stepped towards the door, she heard footsteps, and as she entered the hall again, she found herself face to face with Henry Tilney.
‘Mr Tilney!’ Catherine cried. ‘Why did you come up that staircase?’
‘I always use that staircase. It is the easiest route from the stables to my apartment. And why shouldn’t I use it? But may I ask why you were using that staircase? It does not connect with the passage to your room.’
‘I have been to see your mother’s room,’ Catherine explained, blushing deeply.
‘Really? Is there anything extraordinary to see there?’
‘No, nothing at all,’ said Catherine. Then she quickly added, ‘I thought you were not coming back until tomorrow.’
‘I finished my business earlier than expected. You look pale. Did I alarm you by running so fast up those stairs?’
‘Oh, no. And did you have good weather for your ride?’
‘Well, yes. But has Eleanor ignored you and left you to find your way into all the rooms in the house by yourself?’
‘Oh, no, don’t say that. She showed me most of the house on Saturday, and we were coming into these rooms, but then,’ whispered Catherine, ‘then your father stopped us.’
‘Have you looked into all of the rooms in this part of the house?’
‘No, I only wanted to see… Isn’t it late? I must hurry and get dressed for dinner,’ said Catherine nervously.
‘It is only a quarter past four,’ said Henry as they walked along the passage. For the first time in their acquaintance, Catherine wished to leave him, but he continued chatting. ‘My mother’s room is very attractive, isn’t it? Large and cheerful, with such a wonderful view. I am surprised that Eleanor does not use it for herself. She sent you to look at it, I suppose.’
‘No,’ said Catherine without adding any explanation.
‘So it was your own decision to visit my mother’s room. Since there is nothing out of the ordinary there, I assume you went there to honour my mother’s memory. I am sure that Eleanor has told you that the world never saw a better woman… but I still cannot understand the reason for your visit. What else did my sister say to make you curious about Mother’s room?’
Slowly and with some hesitation, Catherine said, ‘She said that her dying was very sudden, and that none of you were at home at the time, and I thought, perhaps, your father had not been very fond of her.’
‘And from this little information, you have come to the conclusion that my mother was badly treated in some way?’ He continued, with cold eyes fixed on Catherine, ‘My mother’s illness, which ended in her death, was sudden, but she had suffered from the same illness for years. Her doctors, very respected, capable medical men, were called and looked after her until she died on the fifth day. Frederick and I were at home and visited her repeatedly; she received every possible attention which we could offer.’
‘But was your father,’ said Catherine, ‘equally attentive during her illness? Was he full of grief and sorrow when she died?’
‘Miss Morland, you have misjudged my father. He loved my mother as well as he could, and although I know that he was not the easiest man to live with, he valued her highly and sincerely, and he was truly, if not permanently, affected by her death.’
‘I am very glad to hear that,’ Catherine began. ‘It would have been very shocking otherwise!’
‘If I understand what you are implying, you had come to a conclusion that is too horrible for me to put into words. What have you been basing your wild suspicions on? Do we not live in a civilised society where laws and customs guide us? Do you not know us well enough to accept us as part of that society? We are not characters in a Gothic novel, Miss Morland.’
They had reached the end of the passage, and with tears of shame our heroine ran off to her own room. She hid there, considering every disappointment that she now might have to face. She was terribly humbled and she cried bitter tears. Would General Tilney learn what she had imagined? Would she lose Eleanor’s friendship and possibly Henry’s love? She hated herself more than she could express, but when the clock struck five, she knew that she had to appear for dinner although both her heart and spirit were broken.
Henry was more polite than ever, seeming to know that Catherine was in need of a kind word and careful attention. Gradually Catherine began to feel better, and she started to hope that her foolishness had not cost her all of Henry’s friendship.
She had arrived at Northanger Abbey hoping to be frightened, and she had willingly turned what she saw and heard into a tragedy which could be traced back to the pages of the Gothic novels she loved to read. Charming as Mrs Radcliffe’s books were, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the middle counties of England, could be looked for and understood. Maybe Mrs Radcliffe and her fellow novelists understood the character of the people beside the lakes and in the pine forests of the continent, but in the central part of England murders were uncommon, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping pills could be bought at a local chemist’s, like potatoes at a grocer’s. She now believed that there was a mixture of good and evil in the English character rather than the black and white described in her Gothic novels.
With these thoughts in mind, Catherine decided that she would use her good sense in the future, and because of Henry’s continued kindness and his unwillingness to refer to what had happened, she was able to be happy again. She listened to Henry with the greatest attention, knowing that she would be improved by what she learned from him. She still trembled when she glanced at the chest or the black cupboard in her bedroom, but she admitted that these reminders of her past foolishness were probably good for her.
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