No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine; nor, indeed, would there be a substantial difference in any impression taken from her appearance a decade hence, for, while the former Miss Morland had now attained the age considered by novelists to be suitable for adventures of the Gothic variety, she remained as ordinarily pleasing in appearance, and as open, easy and amiable in temperament, as very much became a new bride, but did not in the least befit an ingénue.
Nonetheless, the new Mrs. Tilney retained that lively curiosity, and that readiness to find the world wondrous, that had first led her to adventure, and hence to her marriage – and it must be conceded that such qualities are more likely to aid one into entering such adventures than a lily-like beauty and extreme sensibility. Whether the audience of a Mrs. Radcliffe or a Mr. Walpole would be likely to find interest in a subsequent account featuring so unremarkable a heroine cannot be said to concern us.
Thus it was, that on a day when Catherine Tilney, nee Morland, found herself quite alone at home – her husband having gone to town to inquire after muslin, an errand not perhaps traditionally romantic, but nonetheless calculated to endear him to his wife’s heart – and encountered a plant of great strangeness newly sprung up in the garden, her first emotion was not awe, or fear, but rather a decidedly unladylike excitement. For surely such a plant – a beanstalk as wide around as her father’s waist, and so tall as to baffle the eye – could not have any natural origin; so she decided, upon making a circuit of it to investigate it all round, and taking a moment to run through her mind all the strange greenery she had encountered in her life, as a girl from the country who had once been, it must be admitted, of a decidedly tom-boyish temperament. It is true that there was something of regret in her heart that her husband should not be here with her to share the marvel; but then she reminded herself that Mr. Tilney was so clever, and so likely to solve the puzzle, that perhaps it was after all only fair that his wife have several hours’ head-start on him to think it over.
“Under what circumstances, then,” said Mrs. Tilney to herself, taking a seat upon the garden bench, “is one likely to encounter a giant bean-stalk?” Upon saying it aloud, she had the answer straight – for while Catherine’s fondness for fiction had recently centered upon romances, she had never forgot the tales of her childhood, and she knew very well where giant bean-stalks are likely to lead. “But how unaccountable,” she exclaimed, “how impossible!” For form’s sake, she said these things; when one has walked straight into a fairy tale, it is only meet to express one’s sense of the impossibility of the thing. If she were to confess the truth, though, Mrs. Tilney did not find it impossible at all. She had, perhaps, been awaiting such an occurrence her entire life.
But now that it was here, what to do about it? The Catherine Morland of eight would have climbed the bean-stalk without any delay, and perhaps even the Catherine Morland of sixteen; the Catherine Tilney of eighteen, respectable matron and with some experience of jumping too hastily to conclusions, felt something of an obligation to give the matter more thought. “After all, we are not in great need of a hen that lays golden eggs or a golden harp,” she reminded herself, “and I would not in the least wish to have my bones ground to make anyone’s bread.” Put to herself in this fashion, there did not seem to be much incentive to climb the bean-stalk. On the other hand, while she herself was perfectly contented with her situation in life, there were her siblings to consider; her brother, at the very least, should have the means to marry anyone whom he wished – “not,” she said, “Isabella Thorpe; but if perhaps he should find himself in such a situation as dear Eleanor and her husband, and he without any kind of ill and wealthy uncle at all –” No, it did not bear thinking of! So there was a motivation that could not be quarreled with; and there were her sisters to think of, too. “And even,” she said, nobly, “Henry’s father,” for she had a forgiving heart, and she felt it easier to think of the General now that he was alone in his great house, entombed in the solitude he had brought upon himself with his wicked (if not quite so wicked as once imagined) deeds, and neither Henry nor Eleanor to wait upon his whims. Perhaps a magical harp, indeed, would be a companion for his lonely old age, and awaken him to the value of things beyond price. So fondly fantasized Catherine – and while it may seem unlikely to us, that such a man may be redeemed through a fairy-tale, it cannot be denied that far stranger things have occurred.
Thus armed with selfless motivations, she returned to her contemplation of the bean-stalk. She had not climbed a tree for some years, but she thought she could recall the way of it. Then, thinking once again of the dangers of her course – not without a pleasant thrill at the notion – she hastened to the kitchen to leave a note for her husband, in the case that he should return and find her still engaged in fantastic enterprise, apprising him of her plan, and entreating him to join her, if he would; for Catherine was deep enough in love with her husband to feel that joy of adventure could only be enhanced by his presence, and generous enough to be willing to share the glory of her heroism. Besides, well aware of the conventions of the fairy-story, and being a grown Catherine and not a youthful Jack, she suspected that, if she did not encourage her own romantic hero to attend her, one might well be encountered along the way – which complication she was well content to avoid.
At last, feeling she had taken all the precautions that could reasonably be expected of her, and that her husband would indeed be well pleased with the forethought she had put into her actions, she ventured out again to the bean-stalk to undertake the adventure she was not in the least destined for; she began to climb.