Not so innocent
Northanger Abbey, 1817-8 (1796, 1803, 1809, 1816?)
Northanger Abbey may be the Jane Austen novel that today's critics have most neglected. Nevertheless, it is strikingly modern in Austen's handling of pastiche and chilling in her portraits of egotistic, hypocritical Regency adults who fail their children in every obligation of care and education about society. Too often, though, critics have misled themselves by its Gothic trappings to suggest it is nothing more than burlesque.
Review by Peter Hulm
Most criticism of Jane Austen's works comes off as a desperate attempt to slow down the casual reader — that is, to put obstacles in the pathway of those who can see nothing in the writing to challenge a straightforward understanding of the story.
Northanger Abbey, in particular, offers a particularly tough subject for showy critics. Writing about this Georgian — or is it Regency?* — novel they find it hard to impress readers with the subtlety of their analyses. In consequence, most fall back on discussing the verisimilitude of the characters rather than the strategies or aims of the author.
What, then, can send us back to the book with the expectation of new pleasures and insights? Could the spur be popular films that rethink rather than recreate Austen? But, of course, she was there before them and anticipated all of the approaches they adopted to engage modern audiences.
I've only ever known one person who came to Northanger Abbey without preconceptions. For most people, it appears on their reading list, I am sure, as nothing more than an extension of an interest in Jane Austen's works derived from admiration of her other novels.
My friend wasn't enthusiastic. But perhaps any other 93-year-old would also find it difficult to become enthused by the day-to-day life of a notably uninteresting adolescent in Regency society, i.e. where most of that young person's acquaintances would not be engaged in work.
It didn't help to point out to him the masterful rapid touch to Jane Austen's prose, her brisk sentences, the skill with which she depicted a straightforward adolescent turning into an interesting and admirable young woman, or the way in which a parody of Gothic novels becomes in her hands a drama of misreadings and potential character deformation resulting from an overactive literary imagination — or to note that this was a regular theme of Austen's from Sense and Sensibility to Mansfield Park and the novel's tandem in publication, Persuasion. He just didn't get far enough into the book to appreciate any of these superb qualities.
Few intelligent remarks
I immediately looked for critical studies that might offer my friend some profound and unusual insights into Northanger Abbey but found hardly any. In an analysis printed in 1941, Q.D. Leavis writes of "the few intelligent critical remarks" about any of the novels (13). B.C. Southam gives us a thorough collection of key excerpts from Jane Austen specialists in his 1997 assembly. But these offer little that deepens our understanding of the novel, though many critics have interesting things to say.
"While each of the other novels has attracted a substantial body of critical writing and possesses its own critical tradition," Southam observes," Northanger Abbey has inspired rather little, the unstated implication being that this of the six novels is the most lightweight, the least in need of commentary, interpretatively the least rewarding, technically the least accomplished, artistically the least achieved" (Southam 20).
Austen's standards of artistry are so high that we can concede all these points and still regard it as a major work in the history of the novel, I would argue.
Southam proves himself a major corrector of critics' overhasty interpretations with his essay entitled "'Regulated Hatred' Revisited". This offers a corrective to D.W.Harding's influential essay of 1940 arguing for Austen's "Regulated Hatred". Southam takes Harding to task for using a single incident in Northanger Abbey to bolster his theory that 'regulated hatred' determined the tone of Jane Austen's writings — and thus got the import of the signficant exchange between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland completely wrong.
In the novel, Henry rebukes Catherine for her Gothic fantasizing about the possibility that his father had been responsible for the death of the young man's mother. Henry notes that "a neighbourhood of voluntary spies" would have spotted anything untoward in his father's relations with his deceased parent. For Harding this was a key example of Austen's disgust with middle-class English society.
Correcting Harding, Southam points out that readers in 1818 would have been well aware that the government created a "spy system" throughout Britain in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. It was "the most repressive period in English history since the Civil War [nearly two centuries before]," he reminds modern readers (124).
Contemporary readers who, as Tilney enjoins, 'remembered' 'the country and the age' in which they lived in 1818 and 'consulted' their 'own sense of the probable' as well as their 'own observation of what' was 'passing around' them "would come up with an answer wholly disconcerting, wholly at variance with the effect that Tilney is trying for in this little burst of mock-rhetoric [...] For the Regency reader, the joke has a hollow ring, and Tilney, at this point, at least, an equivocal voice" (124).
The darker side of Regency England
Through his "normal style of ironic banter", Tilney "is condemned out of his own mouth" (126) as readers are given "an oblique and fleeting glimpse of [...] the darker side of Regency England" (ibid).
Tilney himself refers to this darker side when he mock-rebukes Catherine (a rebuke that is uttered more seriously later) for misleading his sister by announcing that "something very shocking indeed, will soon come out in London" (NA circa 112).
As Marvin Mudrick observes (in Southam 84), Tilney refers directly to events that would have been alive in the minds of 1818 readers. He jokes that his sister, instead of understanding it to be a reference to the circulating library, "immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George's Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons, (the hopes of the nation), called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Capt. Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window" (NA 113).
Setting aside Tilney's regular exaggerated mockery, as B.C. Southam points out, "in fact his sister's train of thought is completely credible" (125), and the speech is a marvellous parody of newspaper language of the time, down to the jingoistic "hopes of the nation" (ibid).
While so many critics focus on the Gothic parodies and General Tilney's 'villainy' in ordering Catherine out of Northanger Abbey when he discovers the girl is not rich, Southam argues that with a more realistic knowledge of Regency England, we would agree "Jane Austen handles this material perfectly. There is no break in the surface of comedy" (126).
"His crude gesture of contempt in ordering Catherine off the premises [exposes] her to the scandal and disgrace of travelling alone on a public coach on a Sunday, where she was liable to be regarded, perhaps even accosted, as an available young woman" (ibid).
The issue of burlesque
The "burlesque" aspect of Northanger Abbey — the term is Mary Lascelles' in 1939 (Southam: 62) echoing Margaret Oliphant in 1883 (Southam 53) — seems to have bypassed Austen's early reviewers despite "the boldness with which it flaunts its burlesque intention" (ibid).
Mary Waldron says that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen makes much better use of burlesque, though her tone is critical: "Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh have a good deal of the burlesque about them. There is nobody like them in Sense and Sensibility" (Waldron 1999:62). It's an indication of the difficulties of dating Jane Austen's works by their elements and possible literary associations. At the same time, the burlesque view of General Tilney is purely Catherine's — as any sensible critic should point out, and the reality of his character is quite as dark as the truth about Lady de Bourgh.
James R. Keller acknowledges: "The preoccupation with gothic burlesque in the Northanger segment of the novel creates a stark and aesthetically unsettling contrast with the realism of the first portion of the work" (Keller 2000:133).
He offers an exhaustive analysis of the two critical variations on this aspect of the novel: attempting to justify the contrast or to admit the problem. In addition, he provides a detailed summary of critics' treatment of Northanger Abbey as a novel of education.
But he seems not to appreciate how much the second half is a working out of Catherine's miseducation and naivete in the first. Her family, chaperones and acquaintances do nothing to warn her of the vicious and unfeeling world of Northanger Abbey into which she is penetrating.
If anything, in the case of her "friends" the Thorpes, they make things worse. Similarly, Henry Tilney's continuous railery appears as an emotional defence mechanism against his overbearing father — a determination not to take any boorishness and egotism seriously — rather than simply a charming character trait.
Before swallowing whole the words of modern critics, we would do well to look at earlier views of the work. In 1818 the Gentleman's Review declared about the pairing with Persuasion that Northanger Abbey "is decidedly preferable to the second Novel, not only in the incidents, but even in its moral tendency" (Southam 32).
The British Critic, in March 1818, also considered Persuasion inferior and objected to the 'moral' of the story (Southam 32) "which seems to be, that young people should always / marry according to their own inclinations and upon their own judgment" (46).
By contrast, the anonymous reviewer wrote, "Northanger Abbey is one of the very best of Miss Austen's productions" (46).
However, the journalist did take Jane Austen to task for being "extremely deficient" in imagination: "not only her stories are utterly devoid of invention, but her characters, her incidents, her sentiments, are obviously all drawn exclusively from experience [...] Her heroes and heroines, make love and are married, just as her readers make love, and were or will be married" (42).
Austen the reporter
Apart from the momentary amusement these reviewers may occasion, such dismissive characterizations of her art cloud the whole history of Austen criticism. Though she has been pilloried for failing to deal openly with the contentious issues of her time from slavery (in Mansfield Park) to the Napoleonic wars (but note the number of military men in her novels), Southam has shown that Austen reflected distinctively the impact of tumultuous times on her small corner of English society.
For example, in Mrs Smith Persuasion gives us a very precise portrait of a widow in distressed circumstances. And no-one can ignore the dreadful consequences of scandal that one of the Bennet sisters risks from an elopement, while Charlotte Lucas's realistic assessment of her financial position chills readers even today.
As for Mansfield Park, there is no suggestion its owner benefited from Caribbean sugar slavery, and many workers were in fact free labourers (whatever their living conditions), despite Edward Said's attempts to prove the opposite.
With regard to Northanger Abbey, James R. Keller remarks in Robert Thomas Landin and Laura Cooner Landin's collection of essays: "Academics cannot seem to shuffle off their preoccupation with the novel's aesthetic unity, and even studies that make a pretense to a new and refreshing approach to the text frequently end up relating the subject matter to the incompatibility of the two volumes of the text and the obvious inferiority of the second" (133).
We have, thankfully, the complete answer ready to hand from no less a serious professional author than Sir Walter Scott in his journal nine years after her death.
In a much quoted couple of sentences he noted after reading Pride and Prejudice for the third time "at least":
"That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me" — Journal of Walter Scott, 1825-26, ed. J.G. Tait (1939), p. 135, entry for 14 March 1826 (in Southam 11).
An immature novel?
Many critics, however, rather than examining the writing, prefer to debate whether Northanger Abbey started as an early novel of Austen's (generally agreed) and the signs of immaturity in Austen's handling of the plot.
James R. Keller has covered the debate exhaustively in Laura and Robert Lambdin's A Companion to Jane Austen Studies (2000:131 and after).
Richard Whately, later Archbishop of Dublin, writing an unsigned article in the Quarterly Review in 1821, summed up the general critical opinion as well as anyone later:
"Though it is decidedly inferior to her other works, having less plot, and what there is, less artificially wrought up, and also less exquisite nicety of moral painting; yet the same kind of excellences which characterise the other novels may be perceived in this, in a degree which would have been highly creditable to most other writers of the same school, and which would have entitled the author to considerable praise, had she written nothing better" (Southam 51).
Judgements of Catherine Morland
The novelist Margaret Oliphant did Northanger Abbey more generous justice in her The Literary History of the Nineteenth Century (1882) when she described Catherline Morland as "the most captivating picture of a very young girl which fiction, perhaps, has ever furnished" (Southam 53).
The often underrated 'documentary' American novelist W.D. Howells thought Catherine "a very engaging goose" (1901, Southam 55). I'm not sure others would describe this direct and ingenuous girl as a goose in the sense of a socially inept and embarrassing young woman. Her plain common sense and lack of guile are engaging, not her social incompetence. And as I have suggested before, she grows during the novel into a perceptive and feeling young woman, quite as admirable as Isobel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady.
A gallery of egotists
My reaction to this aspect of the book has always been to marvel at the failure of her adult companions to clue her in on the way people are. She must grow in awareness and judgement on her own.
Thus, in Chapter I we learn Catherine's mother "was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves."
Comparing the Northanger Abbey adults to those in Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion or Mansfield Park, we have a portrait gallery of irresponsible, selfish, unthinking and even vicious relatives.
Mary Waldron offers one explanation: "Mr Allen, who fills the space usually occupied in novels by a sensible and reliable male guide, has only the duty to discover that the Tilneys are 'a very respectable family'; it would not be his business, even if he knew all about it, to warn Catherine that General Tilney was grasping, irrascible, overbearing, insincere and despotic; such things were by no means incompatible with respectability and were irrelevant to his enquiry" (1999:31)..
A key critic in Austen's 20th-century revival, Reginald Farrer, writing in 1917, described Catherine as "really our most delightful of all ingénues" (Southam 60).
Southam notes that Farrer ranked the novel above Sense and Sensibility and even Pride and Prejudice as an example of her taste for technical problems (22).
Like many other critics, however, Howells found the scenes at the Abbey "rather perfunctorily devoted to burlesquing romantic fiction" without "the easy charm of the scenes at Bath" (ibid).
It was 1939 before Mary Lascelles pointed out that — as reported by Marvin Mudrick (1952), in Southam (96) — "the whole introduction of Catherine Morland is a close parody of Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (1788).
What Lascelles actually said was: "taking into account the fact that J.A. already knew the book, I think it likely that she had this particular heroine present in her mind when she wrote N.A.. But there is a great similarity among the heroines of that age" (Southam 67).
Notwithstanding Mudrick's pardonable exaggerations, he provides a salutary reminder that the split between the Bath and Abbey sections, so often remarked by critics, was not as pronounced to well-informed readers of Gothic romance novels like Henry Tilney.
The Gothic reversed
Marvin Mudrick argues that Mrs Allen "is the Gothic chaperone reversed" in her inertia and unconcern. "Isabella is the heroine's confidante reversed: sensibility into vulgarity, sympathy into egocentrism, chastisty into man-chasing, thoughtfulness into frivolity" (Southam 82).
Henry Tilney, Mudrick adds, is "the Gothic hero reversed: he does not treat the heroine with solemn respect, he fails to fall in love with her at first sight, he does not even rescue her at any critical moment from a villain's clutches" (83).
Measuring Austen's achievement
Given such expectations in readers from a Gothic adventure story, Jane Austen's achievement is all the more astounding — and not just the work of a fledgling author — in not only twisting the stereotypes into parodic versions but creating original and distinctive characters unpromising material.
Of Mrs Allen she writes that the chaperone was an exemplar of many women in society whose main effect on others was "surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them" (quoted by Howells in Southam 55).
Isabella, Howells writes, is "the born jilt"[flirt] who has "never been more perfectly presented" (Southam 59).
John Thorpe, "Jane Austen's anti-type for the unwelcome suitor" (according to Mudrick in Southam 81), despite his unscrupulousness, has nevertheless nothing villainous about him. "He is simply exasperating, vulgar, rude, and foolish" (Mudrick 81).
Constricted by the comic tone
Southam asserts: "None of the characters belongs to the gallery of Jane Austen's greatest creations. Its emotional range is the most curtailed, the most strictly confined by the comic tone" (20).
"Critics," Southam adds, "have tended to define its success in rather limited terms, as a youthful jeu d'esprit" (ibid).
Mrs Leavis describes it as "primarily a squib" (34), and asserts that it was "essential for the purposes of the joke that the book was meant to be that Catherine should be simple-minded, unsentimental and commonplace, that unsolicited she should fall in love with a young man who snubs and educates her instead of adoring her, / and should be launched into the world by an anti-chaperone" (9-10).
Mrs Leavis's perceptions are not always to be taken on trust. She goes on immediately to assert: "Pride and Prejudice was originally the same kind of story as Northanger Abbey" (10).
Flirting with danger
It's a remark that raises as many questions as it answers. Apart from her description of Henry Tilney's attitude towards Catherine (helping Mrs Leavis make her comparison with Elizabeth Bennet), his immediate reaction to the 17-year-old is, surely?, a friendly teasing response to her innocence and appreciation of her goodness (compared to others at Bath).
Mrs Leavis also finds a "perceptible unsympathy with all the characters" (26) in Northanger Abbey.
Other readers, by contrast, might admire Jane Austen's ability to make such normal, flawed creatures interesting and amusing without a melodramatic plot. From Pride and Prejudice's Lydia and Wickham elopement, we see how dangerous the flirtation between Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe could be in the real turn-of-the-19th-century world.
Mrs Leavis's assessments, however, indicate how sharply Austen paints the characters in this "light" burlesque novel.
The history of its composition
In reality, as with much of Jane Austen's creations, we have only suppositional knowledge of its writing and revisions.
In the note attached by Jane Austen to Northanger Abbey she states that it was finished in 1803 (when she was 28), held back by the publisher for 13 years and time had made parts of the work "comparatively obsolete".
Cassandra Austen recorded that North-hanger Abbey was written "about the years 98 & 99" (Southam 16) but "in 1968 Mr C.S. Emden suggested in The Review of English Studies(xix, 1968) that Northanger Abbey might really originate in work of an earlier period, going back to the beginning of the 1790s, when [a teenage] Jane Austen was parodying the various styles of current literature" (Southam, ibid).
A problem novel
An alternative reading of this speculation is that by the time Jane Austen was rewriting the novel, she had moved away from stylistic pastiche. Certainly in its close relationship to the literature it satirizes Northanger Abbey remains unique in her major works — "one of Jane Austen's problem novels" in James R. Keller's words — for the split between its Bath and Northanger sections.
According to her brother she started the original of Northanger Abbey two years after Pride and Prejudice. In 1903 it was revised, sold to a Gothic romance publisher and advertised under the name of Susan but never published.
In 1816 she obtained the repurchase of the manuscript through Henry Austen. How much more work she did on the unpublished work we do not know.
Mary Lascelles noted a "renewed pleasure in burlesque" in the Austen family around 1814 and Jane Austen had been reading E.S. Barrett's The Heroine (1939:16).
She finished Persuasion in August 1816 and began Sanditon) on 27 January 1817 (Southam 18). "It was probably during this time that 'Susan' was revised into Northanger Abbey as we know it today" (Southam, 18).
Lascelles, drawing on R.W. Chapman's researches, dates her 'Advertisement' to stand at the front of the first printed version to 1816 though she had second thoughts later (Lascelles 1939:37).
Three months into 1817 Jane Austen indicated some dissatisfaction with what she had been able to achieve with her three revisions. She wrote to her niece Fanny Knight on 13 March 1817: "Miss Catherine [retitled from Susan after the anonymous publication of a novel of the same name in 1809] is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out..." (Le Faye 1997:333).
True, she was seriously ill and apparently halted all novelistic efforts at this time but told Fanny in the same sentence: "I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence" (Le Faye 333).
What seems to me most striking about Northanger Abbey as it has come down to us is its unevenness of tone, unique among the novels, even the first draft of Sanditon.
After a brilliant summary of the early years of an ordinary young girl of the middle classes in pre-Regency England, satirizing by implication the romanticizations of Charlotte Smith, the first chapter offers some overt digs at the sensational novels of love, lovers and heroines.
These days, the insistence on Catherine's ordinariness and the banality of life reads archly. Chapter 2 tells us she reached 17 "about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is".
As for the burlesque, we are told the Allens and Catherine travel to Bath without incident but it seems to lean too heavily on parody to write: "Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero".
Given Catherine's propensity for Gothic romances, it would have been simple to incorporate such passages into her perspective. It's as if what started as an amusing idea developed into something more engaging for the author when she began depicting life in Bath, but she did not have time to complete her revisions.
Marilyn Butler considers Catherine's mind "a somewhat implausible blank" (Southam 116) but finds the arrangement of the Tilney and Thorpe siblings "virtually forces the reader into a series of ethical comparisons between them on the author's terms" (ibid), an early example of Austen's mature novelistic skills.
Butler stresses that even a naive reader is forced into "an unfamiliar kind of intellectual activity. Stylistically the novel induces him [sic] to value sincerity and accuracy, rather than emotions which are harder to account for or specify. Formally it requires him to use his judgement and not his feeling" (ibid).
A common fantasy
Usefully, Butler also insists, "the story is not a parody of a novel story, but actually, like Pride and Prejudice, employs the common novelist's fantasy of the poor girl who meets, and after a series of vicissitudes marries, the rich young man" (ibid).
This presumably is what Mrs Leavis meant in comparing Northanger Abbey with Pride and Prejudice. But in fact the two novels are in many respects mirror opposites of each other — in the personality of the heroine, her family, the eventual husband, the prejudice that forms the core of the drama, the heroine's reaction to her hero's grand estate, and the denouement — a manifestation of Jane Austen's brilliance in turning the common fantasy into something quite different.
If anything, while Northanger Abbey provides us with a mocking commentary on Gothic romance novels and their stereotypes, Pride and Prejudice takes those sterotypes — the intelligent heroine, the forbidding grandee, the evil seducer and the imposing mansion house and grounds — and turns them into the most popular and sunny of her romances.
Correctives to romance
In a thorough study of Jane Austen and the fiction of her time (1999), Mary Waldron shows how Austen is concerned to offer a corrective to the falsities of romantic novels of adventure popular in the mid-18th century and later, and as John Wiltshire points out, particularly Fanny Burney's.
Burney's "notation of strong emotion draws its vocabulary, its system of signification, from the pictorial arts and from the theatre. Emotions are readable by their bodily signs. Blushes, deep sighs, husky voice, stammerings and flights from the room characterise Camilla's extremities of feeling" [in Burney's third novel Camilla] (Wiltshire 2001:78).
Despite not meeting the conventional standards of novelistic heroines, Catherine "is nevertheless in danger, not from unruly lovers or delusions of high romance, but from other people's reconstructions of everyday life. [...] Instead of caricaturing inadequate guardians as she had done in [her parodic early text] Catharine, Austen produces parents for her heroine who are superficially ideal but in practice unhelpful.[...N.A.] Catherine's education has been conventional and not very thorough or effective, consisting chiefly in learning improving texts and bits of English literature by heart." (Waldron 1999:28).
"At the beginning of her story she is totally unaffected by her reading of novels, which she has enjoyed, 'provided they were all story and no reflection', and has no expectation that her life will mirror fiction", Waldron reminds us (29).
The female Quixote
But "echoes of [Charlotte Lennox's 1752 novel] The Female Quixote are [...] detectable in Austen's Bath episodes. The stir of Arabella's arrival is in sharp contrast to the invisibility of Catherine. Unlike Arabella [in The Female Quixote] Catherine is in no wise brought to suspect her two low-key admirers of plans to 'carry her off'; nor has she any propensity to impose tasks on her lovers" (ibid).
"Catherine is, on her first introduction to the world, neither like Emmeline [in Charlotte Smith's The Orphan of the Castle (1788)], who knows the right moves by instinct, nor Arabella, so bemused by her reading that she cannot tell reality from fiction" (Waldron 1999:30).
At Northanger Abbey, "whereas Emily in [Ann Radcliffe's] The Mysteries of Udolpho[(1794)] is isolated from the everyday world among people with mysterious and terrifying purposes, Catherine, in a typical Austen subversion, moves about among a perfectly ordinary crowd of companions who have no apparently nefarious agendas, but are only selfish, ignorant, obtuse or, to her (but not to the reader), impenetrable" (31).
Failure to understand
Waldron also indicates: "As the friendship between Catherine, Henry and Eleanor develops, the reader is increasingly aware of what Catherine fails to understand" (32).
"In a sense, throughout this episode Catherine knows at one level that her alarms are ridiculous; but Austen's subversion of the Gothic plot has far more complexity than the usual burlesque of it (for instance, in [Eaton Stannard] Barrett's The Heroine [(1813)]). Catherine's problems are real. All is not well in that house, as she is acutely aware" (33).
It is in this section that ordinary readers must start to recognize Henry Tilney's limitations, unable to confirm to Catherine that his father is a martinet.
Waldron underlines that Catherine's behaviour shows "she has always been proof against the codes of sentimental fiction; having now recognised the existence of real everyday inhumanity, she no longer needs the tropes of Gothic romance to explain it" (34).
New in fiction
Most important, Waldron highlights how Austen undermines readers' conventional expectations of heroes and heroines as well as other characters.
"This blurring of the moral focus was new in fiction — so new that it was almost universally ignored in the initial reception of the novels. But to Austen it became almost an addiction, and in the revisions of her early drafts she increasingly undermines expectation of coherent, consistent action among her cast of characters. The one or two thoroughgoing villains are vastly outnumbered by the morally ambivalent, the dubious, the obtuse" (35).
"All Austen's major characters — yes, even Fanny Price and Mr Knightley — are morally inconsistent, threading their way through conflicting courses"(14)
In the face of Austen's artistic skills, it is easy to overlook how difficult a task she set herself. Parody works best (vide Max Beerbohm) in short texts. It seems almost impossible to sustain over a whole novel, and Austen does not try. What she offers is something much more modern in its knowingness.
How widely Austen steers clear of novelistic stereotypes is pointed up by Roger Sales in Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England (1994), for example with her characterization of Nurse Rooke, the midwife in Persuasion: "She is a very different kind of character from the criminalised midwives who appear in novels by Daniel Defoe, Dickens and many others. This demonised figure with her close associations with prostitution, baby farming and drink also haunts popular Regency and Victorian underworld journalism" (195). He also refers to the widow Mrs Smith as "the poverty-stricken woman who haunts all of Austen's novels" (197).
What is play?
Her playing with the Gothic form (playing in the sense that D.W. Winnicott used it as creativity) uses its conventions in the same way that contemporary films such as Clueless or Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) use Austen's works (Wiltshire 2001:6).
In a full-length study of modern versions of Jane Austen's works, John Wiltshire observes:
"It is only recently [...] that the emphasis in representing Jane Austen has shifted away from notions of preservation and 'faithfulness', that Jane Austen has been so widely recreated or [...] 'used'" (Wiltshire 2001:3).
Pressures of post-industrial society
What each of these films show is how many of the same pressures weigh on women in 21st-century post-industrial society. Austen's point was quite different, of course. She demonstrated how ordinary life presented as many real dangers as Gothic fantasies.
Similarly, the new versions positioned their heroines in the equivalent of Catherine Morland's world: Californian high-school status-seeking in Clueless, a take-over of Emma, and the working world of the young single professional woman in Bridget Jones's Diary (in its story, at least, an updating of Pride and Prejudice).
Wiltshire observes: "Bridget — daffy, honest, good-natured Bridget, daughter of Cosmopolitan culture, traumatised by supermodels — resembles Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland more than she does Lizzy Bennet" (1).
Problems of adaptation
Significantly, both films developed strong-enough story lines to sustain interest even without knowledge of their references to Austen's works. This contrasts with the reworking of Persuasion by Adrian Shergold (2007) with Sally Hawkins, where the juvenilization of a Regency 27-year-old injects an unlikely Romantic self-indulgence of her feelings into Anne Elliot's character, and the question of 'faithfulness' is all-important to our judgement of its impact.
Wiltshire also sets out the charges against modern adapters: "In adapting Jane Austen to the needs of a modern audience, in seeking to please that audience, not only has the difficult balance of Austen's irony been lost, but history has been traduced, and the ethical emphases of her work have been reversed. Some writers even go so far as to intimate that the film versions may, for a modern audience, liquidate or 'erase' the novels" (4).
And he remiinds us that Winnicott was aware that recreation can be destructive as well as creative (11).
What is at stake
For those who know Austen's novels, the advantage is by no means to the modern films either. The issues at stake are much more serious even in Northanger Abbey, certainly as Jane Austen depicts them despite her humour. And, as Elizabeth Hardwick remarked, we have to wait until Dickens before we meet the equivalent of the monstrous General Tilney again in English fiction (Southam 103).
Compared to that critics' favourite, Emma, Clueless is a modern fantasy — and not in a good sense.
Wiltshire remarks: "Miss Bates, whose introduction after the first volume / is essential to the novel's deepening of its interests in the community, has no equivalent in the film: her deletion, and the absence of Mrs Bates, and her niece, fringe-dwellers of gentility, disturbers in various ways of Emma's equanimity, is a necessary condition for Clueless's fundamentally celebratory and Utopian mode" (Wiltshire 53-4).
"Sometimes the effect resembles Jane Austen's youthful parodies," Wiltshire observes." 'I needed to find sanctuary in a place where I could gather my thoughts and regain my strength', Cher's voice declares - followed by a shot of [a shopping] mall. This is the bathos of 'Love and Freindship', not Emma" (55).
In view of what we know of Austen's detestation of Bath, where her family lived from 1801 to 1805 (Fadem 2011:loc. 3131), we should be suspicious of accepting the picture of society which it presents of itself.
Brian Southam notes that Jane Austen placed the story firmly in the 1790s, the height of the popularity of Gothic fictions, and made no attempt to update this aspect. According to R.W. Chapman, it accords well with the almanac for 1798 (Lascelles 1939:18), though the anachronistic reference to Belinda, a novel by Maria Edgeworth published in 1801, indicates revisions made after the first draft (19).
How juvenile was this work?
Southam is sure that the 1816 revision was substantial. He remarks on "the freedom of the writing from the kind of stiffnesss and unevenness that crop up occasionally in Sense and Sensibility and even in Pride and Prejudice. Instead, the writing is remarkable for its sustained brilliance and the consistency and assurance of the comic tone" (ibid),
He adds: "Whereas in Sense and Sensibility the presentation of Marianne Dashwood as a literary heroione (within the scheme of satire on sentimental fiction) sometimes interferes with her role in the story as a young woman passionately in love, in Northanger Abbey Jane Austen's handling of the heroine is faultless: the literary satire nowhere clashes with the vivid realism of her portrayal" (ibid).
Not works of a given date
The critic perhaps most concerned with Jane Austen's professional artistry, Q.D. Leavis, suggests "the novels as a whole [...] cannot be said to be the work of any given date" (5), given the writer's (presumed) method of composition by rewriting from earlier versions (4).
"There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey as we know them agreed in form, tone, content or intention with those versions which were offered earlier to publishers" (4).
Q.D. Leavis adds: "Two of the novels, Emma and Mansfield Park, are the results of an evolutionary process of composition, and bristle with vestigial traits" (5).
Novel as reaction
Most important, Mrs Leavis links Northanger Abbey with the other novels in their strategies.
"Much more in the novels is dependent on reference to, reaction against, and borrowings from, other novelists than is commonly realized" (5).
With regard to Northanger Abbey, she notes that the ball scene where the heroine is embarrassed at seeming to have no partner (who turns up at the last minute) comes directly from the juvenile 'A Collection of Letters' Letter The Third, but is also a borrowing from Evalina (6).
Though Northanger Abbey is often considered a 'sport', "several of her novels were largely, and the others partially, conceived in a similar manner" (5).
She notes the similarities between Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, "part borrowed and part burlesqued" (10) from Cecilia. "The original conception [...] was undoubtedly to rerite the story of Cecilia in realistic terms, just as Susan (or Catherine) was both to show up Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest" (ibid).
An unfinished novel
If Mrs. Leavis is right in her assertions (and she admits the direct evidence is scant), the burlesque aspects of the novel and its in-family jokes suggest that Jane Austen had not finished with the novel when she put it up on the shelf. She might, according to Leavis's scheme, have taken it down again later. But Leavis thinks not: "Northanger Abbey is so immature that she despaired of doing anything with it" (4).
Mrs Leavis takes pains to underline that Jane Austen was not an inspired amateur who tossed off masterpiees between callers. "She was a steady professional writer who had to put in many years of thought and labour to achieve each novel" (4).
Strange, then, that Q.D. Leavis is so dismissive of Northanger Abbey in her analysis of Austen's admittedly more immediately engaging novels.
Agony and ecstasy in Bath
The American novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (1965) took Austen's withering picture of Bath seriously, despite the light comic tone. "Teatime in the pump-room is agony and ecstasy," she writes (Southam, 100). "Social pressures are fearful to contemplate." She remarks on "the voracious intentions of all these respectably bred young persons. [...] There is a suggestive edge of degradation in the miserable impatience" (Southam 100).
Against the realities of the 1790s marriage market, the exaggerations of Gothic romance offer the same kind of phantastical pleasures to the imagination as mass media in contemporary society.
The appeal of Jane Austen
Wiltshire tries to analyse the core of Austen's appeal to readers:
"There may be special reasons why Jane Austen's novels engage their readers with particular seductiveness. These will have something to do with their narrative confidence, and this in turn with the novels' origins in family entertainment, and the ready expectation of a responsive audience [...] It is a well-established social fact that Jane Austen fosters in her readers a peculiarly intense and personal devotedness" (16).
He also remarks: "Her representation of the inner life is crucial to that intimate contact readers feel with her work" (76).
After this he pretty much gives up, but there would be no reason for Austen to remove the family jokes and burlesque original of Northanger Abbey in view of what was then its only possible audience.
The id's playgrounds
Richard Fadem suggests Jane Austen is tapping deeper sources of our involvement with Catherine Morland's story.
In his commentary to a Kindle edition of Northanger Abbey, Fadem writes: "The Gothic is the id's unfettered playground, whereas Bath is the triumph of the superego" (loc. 3145)."Gothic is in part a reaction against the scientific, rationalizing spirit that runs from Newton and Locke through the 18th c. to Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin" (loc. 3149).
"An instrument of repression and regulation," Fadem reminds us (and this is a recurring trope in Jane Austen) "was relentless public scrutiny" (loc.3152)."The Gothic hints that the mind cannot be mapped no less regulated. The irrational and perverse are inextinguishable (loc.3157). "Gothic fiction, a branch of the growing body of Romantic literature, dealt in assumptions about the mind that felt more familiar to readers than Bentham's dry calculations of happiness or Godwin's reign of reason" (loc.3160)
He warns: "That our time has Gothicized and Vampirized Jane Austen says something about our own craving for stimulation" (loc.3192).
"Northanger Abbey is partly Austen's defense of her fiction's scale. "Austen's polarization of Gothic and realist invites her to address literary issues here more extensively than she does in any other novel" (loc.3179).
He also points to the ways in which the author has anticipated many critics: "Austen affects the persona of an author with a problem" (loc.3168): how to make a character like Catherine a heroine.
He further remarks: "The best Gothic has an agenda. It shows that terror is not limited to a ghost 'in a bloody Shirt' but will be found in the mind's own imaginings, irrationality, and unholy longings" (loc.3165).
Jane Austen's ruling myth
As early as 1941, Geoffrey Gorer pointed out that aside from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (the first and last novels in his chronology), Jane Austen's novels all have a "central theme": young women who are made love to by a "Charming but Worthless lover" they reject and finally marry a man they esteem and admire rather than love passionately.
In addition, except for Emma, "the heroine's misfortunes and discomforts are to a very great extent due to the folly, stupidity or malice of her mother" (Scott:93). Even in Emma, the mother-surrogate Mrs. Weston forwards the flirtation with Frank Churchill.
"In three of the four of the novels she marries a man who stands in an almost paternal relationship to her," and even in Pride and Prejudice Darcy is distant and unemotional enough in his outward behaviour to make us question the depth of Elizabeth's feelings for him. Gorer thinks she is closer to her father "their fourfold repetition shows that they were overwhelmingly important, at any rate for the author" (94). Only in Persuasion, he argues, does she refigure "her starved life" with a cry against "the selfishness of the father and sisters on whose account it had been starved" (98).
Northanger Abbey, passed over by Gorer as unrevised, could also be read as a protest against Austen's conditions of life. Catherine, if we read her description of the girl with the proper attention to its nuances, is a self-parody of Jane Austen in early life, an Austen with some imagination but without an artistic life. In so far as we can believe the writings of her family, she was an exuberant child. Her remarks about being as ignorant as any young girl is are affectionate rather than severely critical, as the novel sets out to demonstrate.
The father-figures that Gorer makes so much of in his argument are completely absent from this 'early' novel. If anything, they go in the opposite direction: benevolent and misunderstanding in her real parent, neglectful and cheerfully indifferent in Mr Lewis, or imperious and dangerous in General Tilney.
True, Henry Tilney is as paternal as a young man can be towards Catherine. The drama, however, turns finally on his recognition that he loves Catherine enough (in whatever fashion he can love) to challenge his father.
A postmodern reading
What can a postmodern reading of Northanger Abbey offer that can send us back to the book enriched by our new knowledge?
Postmodernism looks at the obvious and shows how misguided our presumptions and immediate reactions may be, in favour of awakening us to the deceptive surfaces of language, and "the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems" (Žižek 2009:1).
A good postmodern reason can point to the answers to the two regular questions about Northanger Abbey:
- If Catherine Morland is such a goose, as commentators like Howells found, why did Jane Austen persist with her "heroine"?.
- What is the place of Northanger Abbey as against Bath in her social and moral scheme, and in particular General Tilney?
In lieu of Austen's own commentary, we are likely only to turn up more questions in our answers. But they may be more fruitful questions than previous critics have posed.
A variety of caricatures
Perhaps the first point on which a postmodern reading can insist is the variety of pastiches or parodies we find in Northanger Abbey, so different from its companion volume Persuasion, where a taste for melancholy poetry is mordantly satirized.
Northanger Abbey's burlesque of Gothic fiction takes a front row in most critics' analyses, but so should Austen's parody of romantic dramas, newspaper rhetoric (already mentioned), and ordinary conversation (Henry Tilney's mocking first dialogue with Catherine as well as Isabella's gush).
We are almost in the world of Kathy Acker rather than Richardson, whose simplifications and fantasizing are a favourite target of Austen's, including a juvenile 18-page play from the half a million words in the novel Sir Charles Grandison. In this, says Wiltshire, she "could be said to have anticipated the Monty Python's 'summarise Proust in 30 seconds / competition'" (42).
A defence of fiction
At the same time, Northanger Abbey offers her most sustained (if mocking) defence of fiction against factuality. Given that we are plainly reading fiction, the perspectives she opens up on our responses are as many faceted as Proust's.
Thus Richard Fadem reads Bath as artificial as Catherline Morland's imagined 'wild' Northanger Abbey (think of Wuthering Heights for the Gothic's continued hold on the English imagination):
"Bath," Fadem writes, "has so civilized nature as to reduce it to some frippery on a Corinthian column or a dress made of 'sprigged muslin.' The town is an engine for the repression of nature and the transmutation of personal fears and desires into refined social behavior. Though there's much busy courtship, there's very little real passion or even carnality, for Bath is more about money than love" (Fadem 2011 loc.3109)
He is also awake to Austen's naming of characters in this book (in addition to the family jokes about "Richard" and the Anglicization of Dorothée from Udolpho as Dorothy the supposed housekeeper of Northanger Abbey (in Henry Tilney's joke):
"Morland (different from the names of other Austen heroines such as Woodhouse, Bennet, Price, or Elliot) anticipates the Brontës' windswept world" (loc.3112)
The savage South
The same goes for the eponymous abbey:
"For a reader of that time the title Northanger Abbey connotes Gothic fiction, a novel with a specific setting (not the English country house)[...] 'Northanger' conjures up the inclement, savage north as well as violent passions such as lust and revenge along with anger"(loc.3098).
"The actual geography of Northanger Abbey's opening offers so complete an antithesis to the craggy north as to be comic. That is Austen's point. She sets most of the novel in the south of England" (loc.3103).
These are extremely truncated versions of Fadem's speculations, which go beyond what most readers can find in the text (for example, relating Catherine's naming to two saints of that name, one of whom died in 'ecstasy').
Such Dickensian or Thackerayan naming would be unique in Austen's work, since she does not go in for this kind of pointing to characters' qualities through their names.
Nevertheless, as Q.D. Leavis underlines, "Names meant a great deal to Jane Austen. She appears to have had a sort of private catalogue and dictionary of them, shared with her family" (35).
Catherine's ancestry, in fact, goes back to Voltaire's Candide or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (which Austen showed knowledge of in her letters), but normalized to realism rather than farce — in some respects a predecessor of Dickens's innocent heroes — as well as a parody of Gothic romance heroines.
But Catherine's common sense would never take her into the dangerous waters run later by Emma Bovary, though she begins life as uncultured and addicted to sensational literature as the French country girl. No matter what Harding said, Jane Austen's "regulated hatred" was never as pessimistic as Flaubert's.
Northanger Abbey vs Persuasion
Catherine contrasts almost completely with Anne Elliot — all openness where Anne is buttoned-up and stifled emotion. Austen gives us two views of Bath — one as seen by a young woman entering the marriage market, the other from the perspective of a woman terrified by the extravagances of her family in the most fashionable Georgian city outside London — though it may be fortuitous that the books appeared together under titles assigned by her nephew (Leavis 3).
Through the events of Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland is educated to recognize deception, well-meaning indifference and self-deception, culminating in the sheer terror delivered by the viciously snobbish and greedy General Tilney, forcing his son to acknowledge his father's unforgivable behaviour to all around him and to break with paternal tyranny.
The character of General Tilney
Few critics have given as much attention to General Tilney as he deserves. Catherine's whole drama moves her inexorably toward the confrontation with his type of domestic villainy while expecting something more excitingly Gothic.
In her early meeting with the general, Catherine reflects: "That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry's father. He could not be accountable for his children's want of spirits, or for her want of enjoyment in his company" (loc. 1507).
In discussion with Isabella (Fadem considers the Latin-European name a giveaway by Austen of her Gothic associations), Catherine asserts: "As for General Tilney, I assure you it would be impossible for anybody to behave to me with greater civility and attention; it seemed to be his only care to entertain and make me happy."
To which Isabella replies with her habitual unreliability: "Oh! I know no harm of him; I do not suspect him of pride. I believe he is a very gentleman-like man. John thinks very well of him, and John's judgment" (loc.1519).
The embarrassment of riches
When the General shows severe impatience with his children for missing dinner-time by a few minutes, Catherine is embarrassed. "She was quite pained by the severity of his father's reproof, which seemed disproportionate to the offence; and much was her concern increased when she found herself the principal cause of the lecture, and that his tardiness was chiefly resented from being disrespectful to her. This was placing her in a very uncomfortable situation, and she felt great compassion for Captain Tilney, without being able to hope for his goodwill" (loc. 1819).
He represents a figure that appears rarely in finished Austen works: a fully occupied member of upper-class British society of the end of the 18-century.
Work and its discontents
"'I have many pamphlets to finish,' said he to Catherine, 'before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.' But neither the business alleged, nor the magnificent compliment, could win Catherine from thinking that some very different object must occasion so serious a delay of proper repose. To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets was not very likely. There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands" (Fadem 2011:loc. 2262).
But he is also a target of Austen's considerable irony in his bureaucratic jargon, as Mary Lascelles notes: "'No endeavours shall be wanting on our side to make Northanger Abbey not wholly disagreeable" (Lascelles 89).
In contrast to the society of Bath, the general also thinks it "expedient to give every young man some employment" (loc.2081).
In Catherine's fevered imaginings, lost in the grandeurs of Northanger Abbey but noticing the awkwardness in the Tilney household, she thinks he shows "the air and attitude of a Montoni" villain from Udolpho (loc. 2255).
Outside her Gothic imagination, Catherine still misreads the general's character "by a recollection of some most generous and disinterested sentiments on the subject of money, which she had more than once heard him utter, and which tempted her to think his disposition in such matters misunderstood by his children" (loc. 2522).
Vulnerable to fantasy
Austen's narrative seems to be suggesting that an impressionable girl offered little experience of the world is vulnerable to literary fantasies in her attempts to make sense of the world, with passages such as this:
"She could remember dozens who had persevered in every possible vice, going on from crime to crime, murdering whomsoever they chose, without any feeling of humanity or remorse; till a violent death or a religious retirement closed their black career. The erection of the monument itself could not in the smallest degree affect her doubts of Mrs. Tilney's actual decease. Were she even to descend into the family vault where her ashes were supposed to slumber, were she to behold the coffin in which they were said to be enclose — what could it avail in such a case? Catherine had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced, and a supposititious funeral carried on" (loc. 2296).
The burlesque aspects of her Gothic experiences can be compared with Heinrich Heine's mockeries in the Harzreise (see Chapter 22's section on the mysterious papers she finds in a cabinet). But she also realizes Henry Tilney's teasing had stimulated her overimaginative curiosity, bringing her reflections down to earth. In its tone, the passage reads like a burlesque of her own juvenile tales written for the beguilement of her family.
The humour may be broad, but her supposed educator Henry (in Q.D. Leavis's interpretation) is of little help.
Henry Tilney protests, when he guesses her Gothic suppositions: "Remember that we are English, that we are Christians."
Yet, in Christian England, people like General Tilney could be respectable while "grasping, irrascible, overbearing, insincere and despotic; such things were by no means incompatible with respectability" (Mary Waldron 31).
And speaking of Isabella, and her putative engagement to Frederick Tilney, Henry declares to his sister: "Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in! Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise" (loc. 2497).
Howard Weinbrot, in a study of literary imitations, reminds us: "Swift, Pope and Johnson demand that the reader both recognise [a] poem's model, and be aware of how it has been changed: this demand was generally absent in modernisation and pure translation" (Wiltshire 44). You could say much of the same about the 21st century's reworking of Sherlock Holmes stories on television.
Austen, as her use of burlesque makes clear, is closer to the modern practice, and she points out the differences between realistic fiction and Gothic or romances where necessary.
As Casie Hermansson underlines in her study of the characteristic compound negatives and presuppositions of Northanger Abbey, "a parody must, by definition, also be a specimen of that which it parodies."
The book's negativity makes Austen's work a difficult case to fit into the Gothic mode: "The novel's actual Gothic ...] lies in the reinscription of the Gothic as ever-present in the 'manners of the age'".
She adds: "As Michael Williams phrases it, 'the parody is also a parody of parody' (13), and it is so at Henry's expense" (ibid).
Why did she revise it?
Bearing this in mind, we can approach the question of why Jane Austen abandoned or persisted with Catherine (depending on your interpretation of her judgement of Northanger Abbey.
In any case, even if Jane Austen did expect to return to the novel, there was no reason for her to remove the juvenilia and injokes from the text at this point, if only her family was the only group to see the version we have received.
But if it was an abandoned work, why did she devote so much effort from her late period (on the evidence of the novelistic skill and remarkably modern prose style) to a work she had decided never to finish?
Perhaps we need some examples of Austen's late style at work, of her ability with an 18th-century prose to anticipate the movement of the mind in a way that 20th-century writers would admire:
"'And from these circumstances,' he replied (his quick eye fixed on hers), 'you infer perhaps the probability of some negligence — some — '(involuntarily she shook her head) — 'or it may be — ”of something still less pardonable.' She raised her eyes towards him more fully than she had ever done before" (Fedam 2011:loc. 2378).
Catherine says of Isabella: "She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so; but perhaps this has served to make her character better known to me than mine is to her. I see what she has been about. She is a vain coquette, and her tricks have not answered. I do not believe she had ever any regard either for James or for me, and I wish I had never known her" (Fedam 2011:loc.2649).
At home, reflecting on her experience at Northanger Abbey, "Catherine said no more, and, with an endeavour to do right, applied to her work; but, after a few minutes, sunk again, without knowing it herself, into languor and listlessness, moving herself in her chair, from the irritation of weariness, much oftener than she moved her needle" (Fedam 2011:loc. 2948).
As distinct from the early romance novelists from whom she learned so much, Jane Austen brought something new to the novel — an emphasis on the language of perception rather than emotions embodied in purely physical and largely exaggerated descriptions (eyes blazing, heads hanging, etc.)
Even the misreadings of critics can point us to the originality of Jane Austen.
In his 1984 biography of Austen, John Halperin reads from the novel to assert about the writer:
"In Catherine's early failures with men, we may perceive the novelist's. 'She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility: without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was moderate and very transient. 'What heartbreaking disappointment lies behind those words! Catherine aches to be popular. Instead, when she enters a public room in Bath no one notices her, no one asks who she is, no one sings her praises. Jane Austen's own despondency is clear in this. When Isabella says 'I have no notion of loving people by halves — My attachments are always excessively strong', we may catch the novelist's tone in her voice. 'I believe my feelings are stronger than any body's; I am sure they are too strong for my own peace', Isabella adds. That last phrase is a telling one. Jane Austen's 'peace' was surely on the brink of destruction, in her early twenties, as a result of loneliness, of sexual longing. Northanger Abbey shows her asking the old question: Where is the man for me?" (Halperin cited in Wiltshire 24).
However fanciful or abusive of the biographer's trade, Halperin's words indicate how plainly Austen was able to write of the suffering of single women of her time, no matter how light and lively the tone. And this is easily missed by critics who see only the 'immature' side of the novel. These phrases are as chilling as any of Evelyn Waugh's sardonic dialogues.
Disregard of elementary rules
Wiltshire takes Halperin to task for "the complete disregard of elementary rules of critical analysis that allows him to take the slangy expressions of a caricature figure like Isabella as the author's own, or to regard the amused sanity of these narrational comments as evidence of heartbreak" (25).
One can never be sure how an author's intentions will be understood by readers. But the variety of judgements on Northanger Abbey and its personages suggests very strongly that a wide range of reactions to her character-drawing here is possible.
In this novel, she is closest to Thackeray, who extended the authorial debate with the reader over the qualities of his characters into a specific style in Vanity Fair.
Casie Hermansson has noted how often throughout the novel Catherine Morland is placed in a position of tutelage, from her parents and Isabella Thorpe to Henry Tilney ( title="full citation"), even more than Fanny Price.
Difficult to dramatize
Northanger Abbey has proved notoriously difficult to dramatize, despite its Gothic elements which still have a contemporary resonance in mass art. As John Wiltshire observes:
"The BBC Northanger Abbey(1986) was the first version which dared to reinvent the text, blend it with current cinematographic influences and produce what was in effect a re-Gothicisation of Austen's original anti-Gothic satire" (Wiltshire 2001:39).
The dramatization by Andrew Davies in a 2007 remake at least forefronted the theme which Austen presented:
When her father asks rhetorically "What could be a more innocent or harmless pastime for a young girl than reading?" it is followed immediately by a lurid passage from a Gothic novel in Catherine's imagination, significantly one of a young woman being cast out of a mansion house.
Unfortunately, Davies then has Catherine mistaking Tilney's sister for a woman friend (explicitly ruled out in the novel), gives Eleanor a secret lover, made Northanger Abbey dark and creepy and General Tilney evil, as well as turning Catherine out in the middle of the night. A number of viewers found the "absurd over-sexualisation of Catherine's dreams" hard to take.
Another case of modern dramatists finding it impossible to reflect the particular quality of this novel.
Whether abandoned, set aside or simply left because of Jane Austen's final illness, even after three revisions Northanger Abbey comes to us in a form in which it was expressly not ready for publication in the view of its author.
This contrasts with its tandem Persuasion, while several other finished works can be traced back to earlier, quite different versions (Emma to The Watsons for example, Mrs Leavis suggests.
What she nevertheless kept in her revisions was the stance of the author struggling with a problem: how an ordinary girl becomes a heroine.
In the concluding sections, she adopts the position of a commenting author quite openly:
"My own joy on the occasion [of Eleanor's betrothal] is very sincere. I know no one more entitled, by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering, to receive and enjoy felicity" (loc.3073)
"The most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all" (loc.3078).
"...aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable..." (loc. 3079).
Fictionality of narrative
Having entranced readers with her picture of the corrupt life of Bath and played with the Gothic imagination against the harsher realities of real life at the abbey, Jane Austen insists on the fictionality of her narrative, and the transparent fairy-tale quality of novels that offer plot-concluding satisfactions for those who cannot face the prospect of frustration or ambiguity.
It may be that Jane Austen gave up on Northanger Abbey because she could not incorporate all these aspects into a novel form that satisfied her. It certainly differs substiantially from her other works, no matter how much the others may have depended on a framework of burlesque and caricatures of the order of Mrs Norris, Mrs Bertram, Sir John Elliot or Miss Bates.
But her dissatisfactions might also be with the characters she was depicting: "Excepting Marianne Dashwood, Austen's heroines reveal little of their private lives" (Fadem, loc. 3133).
She writes of Catherine, even deep into the novel, not "spending many hours in the examination of her feelings" (loc. 1503).
Looking forward to Thackeray
With a little more sympathy for John Thorpe he could have been as touching a figure as Rawden Crawley in Vanity Fair. Isabella, too, with more charm could have been as attractive as Becky Sharpe. General Tilney already seems a close relative of Lord Steyne.
As for Catherine, if Jane Austen had been willing to follow any of her heroines into the details of their marriages, Miss Morland could have become as tragic as Anna Karenina if Austen had not gifted her Henry Tilney.
The climactic scene of the book is not General Tilney's banishment of Catherine from Northanger Abbey. Austen expertly avoids a direct confrontation in a magnificent example of political hypocrisy designed to exempt the general from any public blame or private responsibility. His daughter Eleanor is left to carry out the deed.
Her return home to misunderstanding parents is extended through chapter 29 through scenes where she must go along wth their misreading of all the signs of her distress as well as hide the knowledge she possesses of the situation between her brother and Isabella. Austen underlines the short time between the innocent and the knowledgeable Catherine ("not three months") — "free from the apprehension of evil as from knowledge of it".
The powerlessness of good sense
The chapter closes with what reviewers acknowledge is Austen's strongest message with regard to Catherine:
"There are some situations of the human mind in which good sense has little power" (loc.2926).
Chapter 30 bears down on the dejection Catherine, as cited earlier, sounding depths which the novel had not previously attempted (loc. 2948). Even good sense fails in countering her despair.
But what if Henry Tilney had not openly challenged his father and turned up fortuitously at the Morland's home? What if he had bowed to his father's power.
The example of Persuasion
We have the answer in Persuasion, finished just a few months before her final revisions to Northanger Abbey. Anne Elliot rejected Wentworth on reasonable grounds but then has to face his bitterness for somewhat improbable reasons while reviving her earlier feelings for him.
The story itself throws into sharp relief the problems with Northanger Abbey. With the other novel so strongly in her mind, Austen may well have become dissatisfied with the Morland story partly through her success in handling Persuasion's drama.
Northanger Abbey's denouement no longer seemed adequate.
She presents Catherine's reactions with all her practised skill as she moved towards a style that could pass for magnificent reporting of emotion even today. For example:
"Catherine meanwhile — the anxious, agitated, happy, feverish Catherine — said not a word" (loc. 2964).
"The affrighted Catherine, amidst all the terrors of expectation, as she listened to [Henry's] account [of her dismissal from Northanger Abbey], could not but rejoice in the kind caution with which Henry had saved her from the necessity of a conscientious rejection, by engaging her faith before he mentioned the subject; and as he proceeded to give the particulars, and explain the motives of his father's conduct, her feelings soon hardened into even a triumphant delight" (loc. 2987).
In Jane Austen: Game Theorist (2013), Michael Suk-Young Chwe places Northanger Abbey ahead of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and even Persuasion in illustrating his theory: "Austen is a theoretician of strategic thinking [...]. Austen’s novels do not simply provide 'case material' for the game theorist to analyze, but are themselves an ambitious theoretical project, with insights not yet superseded by modern social science" (1).
As for Catherine's character, he writes: "More than Austen’s other heroines, Catherine knows what she wants and takes steps, right from the start, to get it. She goes after Henry without worrying much about whether he loves her. Catherine could be better at understanding the motives of others, but this does not stop her from making plans and pursuing him" (74).
Whatever one makes of the theory, Catherine appears as much less of a mindless child ("a sad little scatter-brained creature" in the words of her mother). At the same time, Austen steps forward as an author in the style of Thackeray — making us marvel at her skill at versimilitude while declaring how much she is in control of the genre — and playing with its conventions:
"I must confess that [Henry's] affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought" (loc. 2980).
"It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own" (loc.2981).
The reader is expected to be as cognizant of the conventions as the author, and Austen here as elsewhere insists on the realism of her depiction of romance (rather than applying clubman's morality to the world like Thackeray).
This enables her to play with such expectations.
Against sermonizing fiction
Meanwhile, her irony at sermonizing fiction becomes ever more transparent, culminating in the famous closing sentence:
"Professing myself [...] convinced that the general's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience" (loc.3093).
What it presages, of course, is a married life for Henry and Catherine Tilney that will force them to choose between rows with the dogmatic father who controls many of the purse strings and is powerful in Regency society or give in to his tyrannous whims.
It is not a happy ending of the kind that Jane Austen wanted to leave readers with. But no alternative was ready to hand when she gave up on the story.
Was Emma to blame?
We are left, then, with the puzzle of how Jane Austen would really have completed the work if she had been capable. And this we must keep in mind no matter how much we admire her art in other aspects of the novel.
We have a kind of answer in Emma, that comedy-drama of misjudgement, with General Tilney softened into domestic tyranny from the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse and Henry Tilney turned serious but still with a judgemental head on his shoulders as Frank Knightley. Perhaps Jane Austen recognized this but could not find an alternative for Northanger Abbey absorbing enough to pursue in her illness.
What we are left with is an author openly teasing her readers by flouting their expectations, and depicting how far a normal and sensible young woman would be from a literary heroine or how much more dangerous 'villains' can be in real life than in fantasy.
Nevertheless, the work we have left to us bristles with unanswered questions, or rather unfinished revisions.
Why, for example, is Catherine taken in by Isabella? We are told several times by other characters that our young heroine (and her youth is consistently referred to) is "the most goodnatured creature" and "superior in good nature to all the rest of the world" (Chapter 16), yet this aspect of her character rarely comes forward, except in thinking the best of people and their motives.
Nevertheless, she immediately suspects General Tilney of the worst, of being perhaps a murderer.
True, it is Henry Tilney who encourages her imagination with his parody of the Gothic (it is he rather than Jane Austen who insists on possibility of its fantasies in real life).
But even late in the novel Catherine is heard to think, with the sort of histrionics we have been more accustomed to in Isabella, "Cost me what it may, I will look into it" (Chapter 21), and Austen tells us without irony that "Catherine's blood ran cold".
Even less convincingly, Catherine declares after learned from her brother in a letter that he has been jilted by Isabella: "I do not think I shall ever wish for a letter again" (Chapter 24).
Catherine the tomboy and innocent notes in Chapter 21 that the furniture in one of the Abbey rooms is "not of the latest fashion". How would she know?
A number of times, the author steps out of the viewpoint she has adopted. In Chapter 16, "Isabella recollected herself" after making some unsympathetic comments about the small amount of money Catherine's brother will have for them to live on. In Chapter 28, "Eleanor saw that she wished to be alone".
Jane Austen could have easily corrected these slips if she had carried out a fourth revision.
She could also have worked more on the characters of Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Eleanor, sweet and submissive, is almost a blank, while Henry Tilney's facetiousness is never given its comeuppance. His character remains a series of parts that do not really hang together.
Henry and Catherine do not openly acknowledge their feelings for each other until the denouement. This strengthens the surprise at Henry's challenge to his father, but not the suspense we would have felt if we had known beforehand that he wanted Catherine's hand in marriage but would have to face his father's wrath to go ahead.
As written, it seems hard to consider Catherine a delightful goose or the most engaging of literary ingenues. She hardly develops beyond the first chapter except in her understanding of the Gothic, until the final chapters. Her acceptance of the beautiful but gushing Isabella while rejecting the boorish brother requires more explanation than we receive.
Similarly, if Henry Tilney exists only as the anti-Gothic hero, we could do with more information in what he finds so charming in Catherine beyond her lack of a defined character. Jane Austen tells us (forgive the repetition):
"I must confess that [Henry's] affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought" (loc. 2980).
This comes not as a revelation of previously unexpected motives for Henry's behaviour but a rather lame if realistic summation of what she was aiming to show.
William H. Galperin has also written of "the peculiar inconsistency that invariably marks Northanger Abbey as a repository of techniques that, as A. Walton Litz notes, 'never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.” I am referring, in fact, to an abiding failure of narrative authority" (139). His argument turns out to be that Catherine has a "nearly obsessive preoccupation with the female Tilney" (147).
He writes: "Although intimacy among women was a feature of domestic-romantic friendship, and on a continuum with marriage and the ideology of normative sexual relations, the particular intimacy between Catherine and Eleanor clearly exceeds, and for a brief duration subsumes, any affective ties between Henry and the novel’s heroine" (151).
"If anything, Catherine’s transformation // into a suitable partner for Henry owes less to any direct action on Henry’s part than to Catherine’s ultimate recognition — in the wake of Eleanor’s inability to prevent her removal from Northanger Abbey — that normative relations, or more precisely marriage to Henry, are her only means of security" (150-151). "That Catherine’s “development” owes far more in the end to Eleanor’s lack of agency rather than to any of Henry’s interventions and corrections is an aspect of the novel to which most readers — thanks chiefly to the narrator’s direction — are generally inattentive" (151). "Eleanor’s aggrieved observation that her 'real power' — and by implication woman’s power — "is nothing" [...] reduce Catherine to the benumbed and flattened state from which Henry eventually rescues her" (151).
To me, thought, it seems like another example of reading 21st-century mores into a world 200 years distant. Catherine Morland's sad state comes from the crushing of all her hopes and expectations of polite society, though certainly allied with the recognition of a woman's lack of power, rather than from any sapphic unhappiness with the end of her relationship with Eleanor. Catherine's concern in writing to Eleanor is of failing to commiserate with Tilney's daughter (loc. 2876) — a complete contrast with comparable scenes exploring emotional dilemmas for the heroines of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion or Emma. There is no doubting, however, the anxiety created in the reader's mind by Mrs Allen's reporting Henry Tilney's visit to them ("he is so very agreeable"). "Catherine," we are told, "could not answer" and Mrs Allen confirms her lack of judgement swith her declaration about the General immediately after: "Such an agreeable, worthy man as he seemed to be!"
Here is where Jane Austen turns her back firmly on the sententious novelistss. When Catherine's mother attempts to console her daughter by telling her to value such old friends rather than slight acquaintances, Austen writes: "There was a great deal of good sense in all this; but there are some situations of the human mind in which good sense has very little power; and Catherine's feelings contradicted almost every position her mother advanced. It was upon the behaviour of these very slight acquaintance that all her present happiness depended" (loc. 2906).
At the start of the next chapter (30) Catherine's depression is strongly linked to the presence of Henry Tilney in the neighbourhood and perhaps departure; "In her rambling and her idleness, she might only be a caricature of herself; but in her silence and sadness, she was the very reverse of all that she had been before" (loc. 2931). When Tilney appears she becomes "the anxious, agitated, happy, feverish Catherine" in Austen's perceptive notation.
There is a puzzle in this denouement. In explaining the General's self-deception about Catherine's financial situation, Jane Austen resorts to summary rather than dramatization, to the point where she must confess: "I leave it to my reader's sagacity to determine how much of all this it was possible for Henry to communicate at this time to Catherine; how much of it he could have learnt from his father, in what points his own conjectures might assist him, and what portion must yet remain to be told in a letter from James. I have united for their ease what they must divide for mine."
The pages that follow show us Austen extricating herself from the story to pose once more as a benevolent chronicler of local events, rather than as an inscrutable puppet-master that modern readers require of their fictions. Such a relationship with readers seems to have vanished except for columnists and television commentators. We cannot admit that our fictions are fantasies.
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Richard Fadem (ed.) Northanger Abbey—Annotated, with Commentary (Literature in Its Context) Kindle Edition. bookdoors. This is the edition used for most citations from the text.
Galperin, William H. 2003. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN: 978-0-8122-3687-3.
Gorer, Geoffrey. 1941. "Myth in Jane Austen." American Imago. reprinted in Scott, 1962.
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Lascelles, Mary. 1939. Jane Austen and her art. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN:978-0485121131.
Leavis, F. R. 1968. A selection from Scrutiny;. Vol. 2. 2 vols. London: Cambridge U.P. ISBN: 9780521095099.
Leavis, Q.D. 1941. A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings, A selection from Scrutiny; 2: Vol. 2. Cambridge U.P.
Le Faye, Deirdre. ed. 1997. Jane Austen's letters. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN: 0-19-283297-2.
Phillipps, K. C. 1970. Jane Austenâ€™s English. The language library. London: Deutsch. ISBN: 978-0233962283.
Sales, Roger. 1994. Jane Austen and representations of Regency England. London: Routledge. ISBN: 0-415-109213.
Scott, Wilbur Stewart. 1962. Five Approaches of Literary Criticism: An Arrangement of Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Collier Books. ISBN: 978-0-02-053680-2.
Southam, Brian Charles, ed. 1997. Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: a casebook. Nachdr. A selection of critical essays. Houndmills: Macmillan. ISBN:0333192087.
Waldron, Mary. 1999. Jane Austen and the fiction of her time. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN:0-521-65130-1.
Wiltshire, John. 2001. Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN:0521802466.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2009. Violence: six sideways reflections. Profile Books. ISBN:9781846680274.
In the format cited:
A. Walton Litz. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (London: Chatto and Windus), 68.
Halperin, John, The Life of Jane Austen, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.Williams, Michael. "Northanger Abbey: Some Problems of Engagement." Unisa English Studies 25.2 (1987): 8-17.