July 26, 2022

Northanger Abbey; A Novel about Novels!

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’ –Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. 

Of all the great nineteenth-century writers which have drawn me closer to the fascinating Georgian era, it is the works of Jane Austen which have mesmerised me since my teenage years and continue to do so. Austen’s novels draw us into another, irresistible world; a world of mysterious etiquette, unfathomable courtship behavioural rules for men and women, beautiful and elegant regency fashions, richly-imagined balls, card parties, musical performances and routs of yesteryear, mysterious divisions of rank and title, and mostly, the often unrecognisable lives of females of the middle and upper classes—lives of indolence and leisure to outward appearances, but oftentimes too, lives of stifling captivity in what was essentially a man’s world. Out of a world of domestic trivia, Austen creates for us scenes of heartbreak, passion, adventure, delight and human foible, as surely and neatly and quickwittedly as Shakespeare. She is a master craftsman, etching two-hundred-year-old scenes of Georgian life on her ‘two inches wide of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’ for our delight.

Northanger Abbey is one of my personal favourites, and I think I share that sentiment with many readers. One of its charms, for me, is that it is a novel about novels! Let’s take a closer look at Austen’s third novel and some of the messages Austen was trying to convey..

First drafts of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, initially entitled Susan, were written, according to her sister Cassandra, as early as 1798-99, after she had written first drafts of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Austen was twenty-three years old at the time. In 1803, the year Austen gave it its final revision and changed the title to Northanger Abbey, it was offered to a publisher and bought for a meagre ten pounds although the publisher never ended up publishing the work, much to Austen’s displeasure. To give the reader an idea of the increasing value of Austen’s manuscripts, her later manuscript for Pride and Prejudice was purchased in 1812 by Thomas Edgerton, for one-hundred-and-ten pounds! Northanger Abbey was finally published posthumously in 1817 along with Persuasion.

Northanger Abbey’s premise is straight forward; a young, naïve woman is taught the follies of allowing herself to be influenced by the absurd, improbable Gothic fantasies in literary vogue at the time. The work has long been considered a parody on the popular gothic novels which were contemporary to Austen’s time, and although it was her third novel, it underwent less revision than other of her works and so it is sometimes considered closer to her juvenilia in style and content than a finely constructed work of her later novels. For all that, though, I feel that Northanger Abbey is seriously underrated and remains one of my favourites. As a coming-of-age novel (and to set this style of novel in a gothic setting, Austen certainly created herself some challenges), I find it quite successful. It is also fun to tease out Austen’s motivations, her messages, if you will, to her reader.

Bear in mind that Austen, a great reader herself, had seen a rise in the popularity of gothic horror novels such as Anne Radcliffe’s novels, The Monk by Mathew Lewis, and The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom. These are deliciously ‘horrid novels’ as Catherine Morland terms them, novels which inspire thrilling, spine-chilling frissions of the body and mind. Austen certainly read some of these novels herself. Being immersed in such literature and noting its popularity, is it possible that Austen wrote Northanger Abbey as a response to what she had read over the years? It seems probable that her reading of such novels certainly at least influenced her writing of Northanger.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen is sharply critical, not of the extravagant romanticism of such novels, but of taking them too seriously, and indulging in them too much. We must remember that it is actually Henry, Catherine’s older mentor/father figure in Northanger Abbey, who repeats the quote at the beginning of this foreword, and not, as we might think, Catherine herself. But no matter how much pleasure one might take in a ‘good novel’, Austen makes sure to warn us too, through the exploits and humiliation of her heroine, Catherine Morland, that such things are not real life and should be for fun only, that too much of a good thing can be detrimental. As Anne Elliot recommends to Captain Benwick in Persuasion, one is always wise to balance one’s pleasure reading with ‘a larger allowance of prose[…] as calculated to fortify the mind by the highest precepts.’

Austen uses the superior, and older and wiser, character of Eleanor Tilney as an ideal to which Catherine should aspire—and she makes it clear that if Catherine wishes to aspire to the sensible character of Eleanor, she must herself take in a larger allowance of ‘superior’ reading material and less of the fantastical. While they are walking, Eleanor quizzes Catherine on her obsession with gothic horror novels.

‘You are fond of that kind of reading?’
‘To say the truth, I do not much like any other.’
Then Catherine confesses:
‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?’
‘Yes, I am fond of history.’

Catherine here receives a lesson from a superior mind, for Eleanor Tilney is a female version of her virtuous and wise brother, with just as balanced a view of literature and reading as her sibling. In this sense, Austen cautions her reader to be balanced about one’s choice of reading material, in the same way that Anne Elliot cautions Benwick in Persuasion that too much of a good thing can ‘seldom be safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely.’

In setting the second part of the novel in an ancient abbey, Austen teases the reader, taunting us with our expectations of a gothic ‘read.’ The idea of the gothic is, after all, embedded in the title, Northanger Abbey, along with the expectations which go hand in hand with such a title. But the teasing doesn’t stop there. Austen sets up the expectation of gothic action by giving us a naïve, virginal heroine, and the promise of gothic adventures from the outset. ‘If adventure will not befall a young lady, then she must seek them abroad.’ But where a seasoned gothic reader might expect secret passages and strange apparitions, Austen neatly turns the tables on us, for there are no apparitions, no skeletons, and the only door which holds any horror for Catherine leads to the late Mrs Tilney’s bedroom, which is as ordinary as Catherine’s own bedroom. Austen even titivates us with the classic gothic trope of secret, mysterious documents, then again subverts the gothic trope by giving us mere mundane laundry lists.

Another common gothic trope is the use of the foreign, the ‘other’, to play upon the fears of the reader. The gothic novels which Austen parodies provide romantic, foreign environments like Italy in which to act out spine chilling and sexually titillating action such as that found Radcliff’s The Monk and Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen, however, again grounds her novel in the mundane; her heroine does not even leave the country but must suffice with Bath as the scene of her adventures. Where gothic horror is all about evoking the fear of the unknown by setting the scenes in foreign lands, Bath, a mere twenty-one miles from her home, is as foreign as Catherine is allowed.

In every way, therefore, Austen makes the point that art does not imitate life, and as much as art is pleasurable to indulge in, it must be done with the understanding that such things must not be taken seriously. Austen is reluctant, and shows us that it is indeed superfluous, to resort to those tropes popular in gothic fiction, to create a story worth reading. In fact, Austen shows us that she feels that a truly superior novel, one which might ‘fortify the mind by the highest precepts’, is one which will spurn such tropes. In Northanger Abbey, Austen’s heroine still manages to enjoy herself, even without having to encounter real horrors. Despite the absence of such titivation, with the good counsel and common sense assistance of Henry and Eleanor, she is able to become an independent thinker, to make sound decisions and develop the critical faculties which she was lacking at the beginning of the novel. All in all, Catherine manages to transition from child to adult successfully, once she has learned to judge the real value of the things, and people, around her. All her adventures in Bath are contained to the normal, mundane, probable events of normal life, and, when Catherine blunders at all, it is perhaps fitting that her obsession with gothic horror novels propels her into her most significant personal growth—being able to recognize her mistakes and actively engage in self-development.

There’s a lot to tease out of Northanger, for those who wish to look, but never does Austen need to resort to the uncommon, the absurd or the improbable, to entertain. Her reluctance to seriously participate in the tropes of the classic gothic novel meant that Austen had to work within the realms of the normal to titivate and entertain the reader, despite the expectations raised by her choice of title. Sir Walter Scott once said of Austen, that she makes the ordinary interesting.

‘…keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy
the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and
originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a
narrative of uncommon events…’

That is, perhaps, the greatest delight for her readers. It is because Austen’s characters are just like us, with the same faults and tendencies, that they are interesting to us. Northanger’s characters as finely-nuanced as we would wish, and her understanding and insight into human nature and the human condition, combined with that superb ironic wit, combine to create a story sure to please as she leads us through the busy scenes of a bustling Bath, and into the pseudo-gothic abbeys and ruined castles of the later parts of the narrative. As much as within the scenes of Northanger Abbey the reader will never encounter ‘uncommon events’, we are treated to as many regency gowns and costumes, balls, Georgian life and customs, as any Austen addict could wish for. Regardless of what we love and sometimes dislike about the novel, for most Austen lovers, Northanger Abbey will always be a timeless classic, to be read over and over again with as much pleasure as we began it the first time.

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