Inquiring readers: While I am at JASNA’s meeting in NYC this weekend, I leave you with this delightful description of Catherine Morland as a very young girl. I have often wondered how much Jane Austen described her own character. After all, she lived with a house full of boys and must have played cricket with them and slid down the slope behind Steventon Rectory during the snow! Interestingly, Jane Austen wrote the description in one long paragraph, which my images break up. I love the tongue-in-cheek quality of her depiction of Catherine, yet she manages to describe exactly what a young lady’s accomplishments OUGHT to be.
Description of Catherine Morland
A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark, lank hair, and strong features,— so much for her person. And not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind.
She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket, not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, — nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed, she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief, — at least so it was conjectured, from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities. Her abilities were quite as extraordinary.
Catherine Morland’s Accomplishments
She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition;” and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid,— by no means: she learnt the fable of “The Hare and many Friends” as quickly as any girl in England. Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old, she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother, or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another.
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!— for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
Below: Catherine as I envision her when she meets Henry Tilney
*Did baseball begin in 18th-century England?, By Simon Hooper, CNN, June 9, 2010 8:29 a.m. EDT
**A portrait of Sir William Young and his large family shows a picture of 18th century wealth in a fashionably bucolic setting. A “conversation piece”, this depiction was meant to tell a story. The artist, Johann Zoffany, helped develop this type of piece, positioning the sitters as if they are actors. The family is wearing a type of fancy dress, 17th century costumes inspired by century-old portraits by Sir Anthony Van Dyck . This type of nostalgia was extremely popular in Britain around 1770. Michael Henry Adams, A Queen for Today! Huffington Post, April 22, 2009.