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The Language of Bath: Catherine's Development into Maturity

Growth and maturation are concepts, each reflective upon the process of development. Whether biological or psychological, growth and maturation are natural processes which affect even the “heroine” of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Catherine discovers a foreign city in the company of someone who can potentially prove her enemy: her caretaker, Mrs. Allen. Under Mrs. Allen's charge, she discovers new places, new mores, and new social contexts. All of this is reflected in how Catherine understands language—and in how the novel itself uses language in an allusive way, referencing various types of writing circulating when Austen wrote the novel. Language is indicative of the entire process of maturation through which Catherine finds herself. This essay will discuss Catherine's coming-of-age in terms of her increased awareness of what language signifies, showing how Northanger Abbey reveals Catherine's developing awareness of “society,” and how this meaningfully shapes itself in Catherine's eyes.

Our theme deals with the discovery and reinterpretation of language; but it might see at first odd to give Catherine any sort of priority as Austen tell us that Catherine as a little girl had no especially fondness for books, and that for a “heroine” she was anything but outwardly destined for greatness: “Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange unaccountable character!” (Austen 6).

Catherine's character is “unaccountable and strange” because, although she has no real predilection for her studies, she is a genuine person with “neither a bad heart nor a bad temper” (Austen 6). This is what opens to door to Catherine's emergence into a new understanding of language—where “language” is understood in a way that does not mean verbal comprehension merely, but takes into account the requisite mores and expectations relating to, say, gestures, manners, characteristic modes of speech, etc. Catherine's case, this maturity means a departure from the ideal into the real, from ignorance into a kind of involuntary sophistication.

The importance of Jane Austen's representation of Catherine as a young woman who comes into a heightened awareness of society's language lies in the fictionalized history it outlines. Austen does this by way of contrast. As Catherine’s maturation begins, she is in awe of those who are older and presumably wiser such as Isabella. As she continues, Catherine is uncertain of her situations because of emotional immaturity and her lack of relationship experience. However, this trait is what makes her gullible. She becomes quickly swayed by compliments from others.

Catherine's patience abandons her—not because she isn't in love, but because her worldly education is easily refuting her traditional one. This constitutes a vital part of Catherine's coming-of-age, and signals her emergence into a greater comprehension of the world around her: a world where poetry, however inspiring, proves ultimately illusive, and has no ethical or moral weight in the face of real-world experience.

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