The second volume of Bitch In a Bonnet—collecting my gregarious gallop through Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion—is now available as a trade paperback from both Amazon and Barnes and Noble; other retailers will be added in the coming months. (And an e-book edition will debut in a few weeks, as well.)
If you pick up a copy, let me appeal to your generous natures and ask that you also leave a review on the Amazon or B&N listing page. It's absolutely gobsmacking how much of a difference those little blurbs from readers make in deciding which books go mega, and which go meh.
If you're a gambling kinda guy or gal, you can also enter for a chance to win a free copy courtesy of the fine folks at Goodreads; we're giving away ten, and you have till May 31st to throw your name into the hat.
Thanks again for all your support over the past five years. I'm thinking of continuing the blog in some less structured manner; now that my survey of the official canon is concluded, I may dip into the unofficial one—the juvenilia and fragments, the works Austen either never prepared for publication or even finished. Or possibly turning my fiery gaze on some of the Austen TV and film adaptations. We'll see.
But in the meantime, I'll be taking a bit of time off, because yowza, am I ever tired.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Persuasion is the last novel Jane Austen prepared for publication before she died, and it was released posthumously. For that reason, many people have come to regard it as valedictory; and this illusion is aided by its heroine, Anne Elliot, who, as a lifelong spinster disdained by her family, appears on the surface to be a stand-in for Austen herself. In granting Anne Elliot a second chance at love, and with the man she’d foolishly rejected in her youth, some readers—stupid readers, I think; sentimental and sloppy ones—view Persuasion as Austen’s attempt to live vicariously through a fictionalized version of herself; to bring her own story to a happy resolution before death claimed her. Like Prospero in The Tempest, Anne Elliot becomes the author taking her leave of her readers, by way of a dramatic stand-in.
You only have to take a look at the novel Austen was working on when she died to realize that Persuasion is no such thing. Sanditon clearly shows Austen back in biting social-satire mode, and even extending her palette to include sharp satiric jabs at commerce and industry. At the end of her life she was expanding her focus, not narrowing it.
Likewise Anne Elliot is, on closer examination, nothing like Jane Austen. Anne is humble, dignified, respectable, always correct; whereas Austen was ambitious, proud, irreverent, and rebellious. Certainly Anne, like her creator, is a spinster who refused an offer of marriage in her youth; but she has grown to regret deeply that decision. We can’t know to what extent, if any, Austen ever regretted declining Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal (one day after she’d accepted it), but we can be reasonably certain that any regret would have been tempered by relief, and by a fierce independence of spirit.
Austen created Anne Elliot for the same reason she created all of her heroines: because she was a new kind of character, who presented new tests for her powers. Likewise, Anne Elliot’s family is vastly more exalted than that of any other Austen heroine. Unlike the Dashwoods and the Bennets and even the Woodhouses, the Elliots are titled.
Something new. Something to challenge her.
Persuasion does not, it’s true, employ the same broad comic strokes we find in her previous novels; but it’s scarcely the elegiac lament some people make it out to be. It is absolutely and unequivocally a comic novel, and a very, very funny one. And it leaves the victims of its satiric gaze every bit as pulverized. It’s pretty much irresistible; and Anne Elliot—far from being a doppelganger of the author—is as close to an everywoman as Austen ever created. Everyman, too. Lizzy Bennet and Emma Woodhouse remain spectacularly popular because they’re idealized figures of identification; they’re us, the way we’d be if we were perfect (or at least if our faults were adorable). Anne Elliot is us as we are—at our everyday best; she is the decent and deserving side of ourselves, and in her striving for a moral and ethical equilibrium, we recognize our own struggles.
But before we’re introduced to Anne we meet her father, Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch-hall in Somerset, “a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage,” and chiefly the page on which his own honors and ancestry are detailed; which pursuit provides him “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one”. He is, then, not merely a snob, but an anxious snob; he requires constant reminding that he’s cream-of-the-crop, top-of-the-heap.
But his title isn’t his only means of validation; he’s got another one he likes almost as well.
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character: vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
It’s only the second bloody page of the novel, and we’ve already got a world-class comic monster on our hands. We can’t wait to see much, much more of him; and—spoilers—he will not disappoint.
Sir Walter is a widower with three daughters, “an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath; an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father.” Fortunately, Lady Elliot is survived by a good friend, Lady Russell, “of steady age and character,” who has stepped in and acted as surrogate mother to the extent propriety allows. There was, in fact, an expectation that she and Sir Walter would marry, but thirteen years later they both remain single. Probably because the real love of Sir Walter’s life already resides with him at Kellynch-hall—or more specifically, in the smooth surface of every Kellynch-hall mirror.
Lady Elliot’s place in the actual household has been taken by her eldest daughter, Elizabeth; “and being very handsome, and very like [Sir Walter] himself, her influence had always been great, and they had gone on together most happily.” The two remaining daughters, however, are in Sir Walter’s shrewish eyes “of very inferior value.”
Mary had acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove; but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;—she was only Anne.
Lady Russell, however, likes Anne best; “it was only in Anne that she could fancy the mother to revive again.” But Lady Russell’s special favor is, as we’ll see, not the super-specialist thing that could have happened to Anne. As for her father—who appears to judge her principally by her looks—in his view she might as well tumble down a well and save him the trouble of clothing and feeding her. Because with her youthful bloom faded (and never having been all that hot even at its height), she’s not likely to be taken off his hands by anything resembling a husband, much less a titled one.
He had never indulged much hope, he had now none, of ever reading her name in any other page of his favourite work. All equality of alliance must rest with Elizabeth; for Mary had merely connected herself with an old country family of respectability and large fortune, and had therefore given all the honor, and received none: Elizabeth would, one day or other, marry suitably.
Elizabeth, in her father’s eyes, is “still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago;” and Sir Walter is proud—if possibly a little delusional—that he and his eldest daughter alone are holding onto Total Babe status while everyone else around them shrivels like prunes. “Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s foot about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him.” Sir Walter Elliot is clearly not only as vain as any drag queen, he’s as unrepentantly bitchy as well.
Elizabeth, however, isn’t quite so happy with her seemingly endless run as homecoming queen of Kellynch-hall. “Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; and thirteen springs shewn their blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks annual enjoyment of the great world.” She’s ready for a promotion, is the thing. She’s tired of being lady of the house in the lower-case-L sense only. Her father may be Sir Walter; but she’s just plain old Miss Elliot. And if she’s going to bag a baronet herself, and become Lady Somebody, it had better be soon, because she’s on the down-slope to thirty, and the toboggan’s picking up speed.
She was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever; but she felt her approach to the years of danger, and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two. Then might she again take up the book of books with as much enjoyment as in her early youth; but now she liked it not. Always to be presented with the date of her own birth, and see no marriage follow but that a youngest sister, made the book an evil; and more than once, when her father had left it open on the table near her, had she closed it, with averted eyes, and pushed it away.
She’s already missed her best, most desirable chance at realizing this ambition. In default of a son, Sir Walter’s heir is his nephew, William Walter Elliot, Esq., and as soon as she realized her cousin would be the next baronet, Elizabeth decided he was the hubby for her. Unfortunately he had other ideas, and kept both father and daughter at arm’s length for years, during which time their overtures grew increasingly frequent and even a tad desperate. Eventually William married someone else—purchasing independence by “uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth”—and though that lady has since died, Elizabeth hasn’t renewed her campaign to nab him, because news has filtered back that he’s trash-talked his titled relations to anyone who’s cared to listen. (And this being London society, everyone has cared to listen.) Snubbing, jilting, and disrespecting are enough to dampen even Elizabeth’s Hillary Clinton-esque ambition; too bad, because there still isn’t “a baronet from A to Z, whom her feelings could have so willingly acknowledged as an equal.”
Such were Elizabeth Elliot’s sentiments and sensations; such the cares to alloy, the agitations to vary, the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness, of her scene of life—such the feelings to give interest to a long, uneventful residence in one country circle, to fill the vacancies where there were no habits of utility abroad, no talents or accomplishments for home, to occupy.
That paragraph right there—hey, I’m talkin’ to you, Austen “sequel” writers—that right there is why, no matter how hard you try, you. can’t. touch. her.
Worsening the Scandinavian bleakness of Elizabeth’s little privileged treadmill is the fact that she’s in danger of being thrown off it. Her old man’s been gushing money like a geyser, and his extravagance is beginning to catch up with him. “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness”. So that eventually he has to come clean and admit to his daughter that he’s in a spot of trouble—which he does by asking her, charmingly, “Can we retrench? does it occur to you that there is any one article in which we can retrench?” Elizabeth, eager for any new occupation, is on it like flapjacks on a griddle.
…[Elizabeth] had finally proposed these two branches of economy: to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to retrain from new-furnishing the drawing-room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down [from London] to Anne, as had been the usual custom.
Just in case you were feeling sorry for Elizabeth, that oughtta fix it, right there. So much so that we’re kind of glad to hear that the great sacrifices she’s proposing don’t make a goddamn dent in Sir Walter’s hemorrhaging expenses, and she’s left feeling “ill-used and unfortunate,” as she learns of the true extent of their troubles.
In desperation they turn to Sir Walter’s accountant, Mr. Shepherd, and to Lady Russell as well; “and both father and daughter seemed to expect that something should be struck out by one or the other to remove their embarrassments and reduce their expenditure, without involving the loss of any indulgence of taste or pride.” Lower people are so good at that kind of thing, don’t’cha know; so clever. They just move a decimal point or something, and then everything’s rosy again.
Unfortunately, Mr. Shepherd, “a civil, cautious lawyer…would rather have the disagreeable prompted by any body else,” and so excuses himself from offering any advice at all, possibly also crouching behind a Chinese screen until all of this blows over. Which leaves the whole matter in Lady Russell’s capable lap, and she, unlike Mr. Shepherd, is “most anxiously zealous on the subject;” you almost get the feeling she’s been watching Sir Walter for years, biting her lip and just waiting for the day when she’d be able to sit him down and tell him everything he’s been doing wrong.
She drew up plans of economy, she made exact calculations, and she did, what nobody else thought of doing, she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having any interest in the question…Every emendation of Anne’s had been on the side of honesty against importance. She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity.
You can imagine how well this goes over. On being presented with this radical new proposal, Sir Walter lets out an affronted shriek that sets birds into frightened flight as far north as Sheffield, if not the Orkneys. For a man who considers himself already on a subsistence budget because he’s cut his monthly order of hair pomade in half, the slash-and-hack plan submitted by Lady Russell is “not to be borne.”
“What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table,—contractions and restrictions every where. To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch-hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraced terms.”
And possibly after this outburst he throws himself onto a couch, sobs into its pillows, and has a good, long, kicking-the-air tantrum.
But it’s too late; he’s opened the Pandora’s box by speaking the words “quit Kellynch-hall.” Mr. Shepherd clamps onto that phrase like a barnacle, and, since it was in fact Sir Walter who originally introduced the idea, he has no problem now in pressing for it.
There’s a lot of argument and ego-petting before the beleaguered nobleman is made to see that by moving to a smaller house his expenses will be accordingly reduced. Eventually a place in Bath is settled on, because it would be embarrassing to downsize in the country (everyone would know why), and Sir Walter can’t be trusted in London; and also, Lady Russell likes Bath. (We’re coming to realize that Lady Russell usually gets her way. Possibly in a “just do as she says and she’ll shut the hell up already” type of scenario).
Anne doesn’t like Bath, but of course that makes about as much difference as whether or not Anne continues breathing, which is to say, none at all. Even Lady Russell, who’s ostensibly fond of the kid, does some pretty fancy rationalizing to make it okay to flout her desires. “Anne had been too little from home, too little seen. Her spirits were not high. A larger society would improve them. She wanted her to be more known.” Also, the sea air will add color to her cheeks and two inches to her height. Plus, lending-libraries!
Living in a smaller house with a reduced staff, however, is only half the plan. The other half is to rent out Kellynch, so that there’s money coming in as well as going out. “This, however, was a profound secret; not to be breathed beyond their own circle.” Mr. Shepherd “had once mentioned the word, ‘advertise;’—but never dared approach it again”—ha! How much you want to bet his client’s reaction involved singed eyebrows? No, Sir Walter, being Sir Walter, prefers to just sit around and wait for some “unexceptionable applicant” to come forth and propose himself, presumably having discovered the house is for rent by a combination of Tarot cards and a keen sense of smell.
This is all rollicking good stuff. Many comedies since have gotten terrific juice from the set-up of snooty, despicable aristocrats being knocked down a peg or seventeen, and certainly we all enjoy a heaping helping of Schadenfreude as much as Austen herself probably did. But this being a novel, with two hundred-plus pages left to run, we’ve got to have a few other complications sewn into the weave, and Austen introduces one now.
It seems that Mr. Shepherd has a widowed daughter, Mrs. Clay, who’s returned home to live with Pop and, in the manner of literary widows everywhere, is basically out for whatever she can get. She’s “a clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing; the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch-hall,” which basically means she tells Elizabeth everything Elizabeth wants to hear, which is chiefly how magnificent a thing it is to be Elizabeth. Flattery, in Mrs. Clay’s case, gets her everywhere.
From situation, Mrs. Clay was, in Lady Russell’s estimate, a very unequal, and in her character she believed a very dangerous companion—and a removal that would leave Mrs. Clay behind, and bring a choice of more suitable intimates within Miss Elliot’s reach, was therefore an object of first-rate importance.
Poor, naïve Lady Russell. We know, as she apparently does not, that when a grifter of Mrs. Clay’s ambition finally gets a fish on the hook, it’s going to take more than moving that fish fifty miles away to break the hold. You’d have to relocate it to the Indian subcontinent, or possibly New Zealand. Or, to be really safe, the planet Neptune.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clay’s father, perhaps unaware of these undercurrents, is doing his best to find a tenant for Kellynch. He observes that the recent defeat of Napoleon “will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore”, and when Sir Walter predictably scoffs at the idea of some salty dog swanning about the Arcadian splendors of his ancestral seat, Mr. Shepherd reassures him that it’s really the totally ideal solution.
And he does so in such a spectacularly long-winded manner, that he instantly vaults to the upper echelons of Austen’s comic creations. You’re all familiar with that delightful English habit of not using two words where two hundred will do, right? Well, here’s Mr. Shepherd telling Sir Walter, in essence, that Navy men are cool, and he’ll do all the hard work.
“I presume to observe, Sir Walter, that, in the way of business, gentlemen of the navy are well to deal with. I have had a little knowledge of their methods of doing business, and I am free to confess that they have very liberal notions, and are as likely to make desirable tenants as any set of people one should meet with. Therefore, Sir Walter, what I would take leave to suggest is, that if in consequence of any rumours getting abroad of your intention—which must be contemplated as a possible thing, because we know how difficult it is to keep the actions and designs of one part of the world from the notice and curiosity of the other,—consequence has its tax—I, John Shepherd, might conceal any family-matters that I chose, for nobody would think it worth their while to observe me, but Sir Walter Elliot has eyes upon him which it may be very difficult to elude—and therefore, thus much I venture upon, that it will not greatly surprise me if, with all our caution, some rumour of the truth should get abroad—in the supposition of which, as I was going to observe, since applications will unquestionably follow, I should think any from our wealthy naval commanders particularly worth attending to—and beg leave to add, that two hours will bring me over at any time, to save the trouble of replying.”
I was basically destroyed by the end of this. I’d love to have heard Mr. Shepherd’s proposal of marriage to his wife. Possibly she conceived, carried to term, and weaned the child off her breast by the time he got to the main point.
Anyway, there’s a general pile-on as everyone flatters Sir Walter with how lucky some old seaman is going to be, getting this fabulous pile of bricks, and continually reassuring him that he needn’t worry about such a tenant abusing the place or anything. Mrs. Clay says, “I quite agree with my father in thinking a sailor might be a very desirable tenant. I have known a good deal of the profession”, provoking a laugh in us modern-types that I’m not a hundred percent sure Austen intended. (Though I wouldn’t put it past her. She’s quite a scamp.)
Despite this, Sir Walter isn’t at all sanguine about the idea of the idea of some Regency Popeye and Bluto types knocking about his hallowed halls, or his grounds either. “I am not fond of the idea of my shrubberies being always approachable; and I should recommend Miss Elliot to be on her guard with respect to her flower-garden.” So that ultimately, Anne has to speak up:
“The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.”
We expect this of Anne, because she’s been introduced as the only right-thinking (actually, as the only not-functionally-insane) member of the whole clan. But we’ll soon discover she has a more personal reason for her interest in the welfare of naval types; and we also get a clue, right about now, of how deep the opposition to that interest is, when Sir Walter snarks, “The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it.”
“…I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamed of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life.”
He then recalls seeing a man in society—“his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree, all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder on top”—and being told that this is Admiral Baldwin; and when asked to guess his age, he settles on “Sixty…or perhaps sixty-two” only to be told that the admiral is in fact only forty.
So there you go. Navy = Bad. Sir Walter Elliot and his anecdotal evidence has settled it. And he also has a solution to the problem he now broadly hints at: “It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age.”
Sir Walter is just a comedy machine in these chapters. He repeatedly mows us down on page after goddamn page.
Mrs. Clay, seeing an opening to further ingratiate herself, launches into a tiresome monologue about how all the professions destroy looks and vitality (“The laywer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours”) and concludes, in a style that could earn her a gold medal in ass-kissing, that it’s only people who have no profession, “who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more; it is only their lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost.” She might as well go for broke and add, “And only those whose initials are W.E.”
So Sir Walter is reluctantly persuaded, and a good thing too, because in no time at all Mr. Shepherd is able to report that one Admiral Croft has expressed “as strong an inclination for [Kellynch] as a man who knew it only by description, could feel” and so there you go: tenant.
But not so fast: “And who is Admiral Croft?” Sir Walter demands to know, possibly screwing up his mouth as he speaks the name, like just forming the syllables produces a salt taste on the tongue. And Mr. Shepherd can’t furnish an answer beyond a few mere demographic commonplaces…but guess who can? Our gal pal Anne:
“He is a rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he has been stationed there, I believe, several years.”
“Then I take it for granted,” observed Sir Walter, “that his face is about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.”
This is apparently a deal-breaker for Sir Walter (why, I couldn’t say; you’d think his aesthetic sense would be pleased by his tenant’s face being color-coordinated to his staff), which sends Mr. Shepherd into several pages of desperate dithering about what a really, no kidding, totally super fantastic renter Admiral Croft would be, seriously, I mean it. This scattershot of testimonials includes such sterling character traits as “he sometimes took out a gun, but never killed” and that he’s a married man without children, which is cool because “A lady, without a family, was the very best preserver of furniture in the world.”
Then Mr. Shepherd reaches too far, and boasts that the Admiral’s wife isn’t just a lowly stranger to the ’hood, but is “sister to a gentleman who did live amongst us once;” which gets him into trouble because he can’t remember which gentleman, and spends a page frantically trying to remember, even asking his daughter what the man’s name was, except she can’t help because she’s too busy frolicking around Elizabeth’s chair and strewing her with rose petals.
Eventually, by the few clues Mr. Shepherd is able to provide, Anne—again—comes riding in to the rescue, by saying, “You mean Mr. Wentworth, I suppose.” It’s always Anne who keeps things rolling. She’s like a Greek chorus the dramatis personae can actually sometimes hear.
But alas this magical name does nothing to impress Sir Walter. You might as well tell him Admiral Croft’s wife is the sister of the roast squab he had for dinner last Thursday.
“Wentworth? Oh! ay,—Mr. Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property; Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common.”
Still, it’s not like Sir Walter has a lot of choice in the matter. He’s got to resign himself to accepting the admiral’s tenancy, or risk his finances totally bottoming out. And his vanity—which, remember, is basically his superpower—manages to come up with a little silver lining to the whole transaction.
“I have let my house to Admiral Croft,” would sound extremely well; very much better than to any mere Mr. ——; a Mr. (save, perhaps, some half dozen in the nation,) always needs a note of explanation. An admiral speaks his own consequence, and, at the same time, can never make a baronet look small. In all their dealings and intercourse, Sir Walter Elliot must ever have the precedence.
Reading this, we wonder whether the “half dozen in the nation” who might be “Mr.” with impunity, would include Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the fact that we do have to wonder shows us how far up the social ladder Austen has projected her imagination this time. The fact that this Olympus, from what we’ve seen of it so far, is peopled by characters every bit as ghastly and objectionable as any Austen has ever shown us, is wonderfully comforting; in fact, in our grubby little democratic hearts, we want them to be even worse.
The exception being Anne, who, as our heroine, is sort of contractually obligated to be a pussycat…and who’s turning out to be a champion charmer, despite very little push from her creator. (Austen obviously learned her lesson about trying too hard, by the visceral way we reacted to her flogging us with Fanny Price’s virtues.) We leave this chapter, in fact, with Anne escaping the room to “seek the comfort of cool air for her flushed cheeks”, without an accompanying explanation of why they should be flushed after something as relatively dry as a conference on the letting of the family estate to a naval officer. But we do get a pretty big freakin’ clue, as she “walked along a favourite grove, [and] said, with a gentle sigh, ‘a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.’ ”
Fortunately, for us, it’ll be quite a bit sooner than a few months. And he would turn out to be worth the wait, even if it were.
For the remainder of my analysis of Northanger Abbey, see Bitch In a Bonnet Volume 2, which you can purchase from Amazon and other fine sites.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
In my concluding remarks on Emma—a novel I otherwise regard very fondly—I lamented that it found Austen in lyrical, pastoral mode, rather than her usual urbane, satiric one. No such complaint can be made about Northanger Abbey. From its first pages, it drop-kicks us back to the sensibility of the juvenile Jane Austen, that merry subversive who would’ve booted the entire British empire down a flight of stairs if it made for a good joke.
There is a problem, though; which is that this blog has been devoted to charting Austen’s development as both a novelist and a satirist. Northanger Abbey throws that plan a curve ball, as it was the first novel that Austen ever completed for publication, though it actually wasn’t published until after her death; and while she put it through another revision in the months prior to her decease, it represents, in any objective sense, the author as she was before Emma, not the one who emerged on the other side of that immortal triple-decker.
Still, it was Austen’s intention that Northanger Abbey (although that wasn’t her title for it) follow Emma, so we’ll have to take it on its own terms. Which are considerable.
In fact, Northanger Abbey is in many ways the most modern of Austen’s works. It is, for instance, entirely unsentimental, sometimes brutally so, in a way that prefigures Austen’s bracingly misanthropic successors (Kingsley Amis, Nancy Mitford, and Evelyn Waugh come immediately to mind). It’s also, I think, one of the earliest examples of metafiction in English literature. Northanger Abbey is a novel about reading novels—ostensibly in defense of the pursuit; though its heroine, Catherine Morland, is by any standard of measure mildly deranged by having read too many of them.
What should be made clear at the outset, however, is that the word “novel” in Northanger Abbey means something different than the associations the word calls forth today. In Austen’s time, the novel was a new literary form and slightly disreputable; its popularity was due in large part to the kinds of works we today would call “gothic”: overwrought tales of innocent virgins, hissing villains, passionate love affairs, dauntless heroes, and mysterious castles with secret chambers. Austen satirizes these works from the very first paragraph, in which she explains to us that her heroine isn’t the kind we’re accustomed finding at the center of a novel; she’s a very ordinary girl living in unremarkable circumstances.
Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters.
This is so exactly the tone of the juvenile Austen that it’s almost startling; like watching a middle-aged woman turn a cartwheel across the room, for old time’s sake. We’re still reeling from that salvo, when Austen says of Catherine’s mother that she “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing them into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on”—and we realize, okay, this is where we are now: back in nothing-is-sacred territory.
Austen spends a page or two really heaping it on, not merely about Catherine’s ordinariness, but about really her complete unsuitability for a heroic role of any kind. “She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught, and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.” She is, we’re told, a washout at music, at drawing, and at French. And yet for all these miserable failures, “at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper,” and her looks actually begin to improve as she enters her teens to the point at which her parents can remark, “Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl—she is almost pretty.”
Her one enthusiasm is for reading; “provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all.”
But even at seventeen, which is pretty much the age at which the heroines of such books come into their gory glory, Catherine remains completely unlike them; she has yet even to inspire any local lads to defy death or dishonor for her sake, to leap a barricade or sail on Troy or dare the depths of Hell or whatever. “This was strange indeed!” Austen remarks. “But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out.” And the cause for this one doesn’t take much searching:
There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.
From our point of view, it’s like Austen is impishly giving the Brontë sisters’ titties a twist, thirty years before there’s cause.
So there it is: by both nature and nurture, Catherine isn’t heroine material. Except…here she is, at the center of a novel. So what the hell? Austen, going meta again, explains.
But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.
And what happens is that one Mr. Allen, a landed big-shot in the environs where Catherine has grown up, invites her to accompany him and his wife to Bath—“probably aware that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” So off she goes into the big, bad, dangerous world, filled with wicked men on the make, the kind who don’t consider a day well spent until they’ve ravished a virgin and left her bereft of hope and honor. And before lunch, if at all possible.
Despite this, Catherine’s parents seem able to see her off with relative sangfroid:
Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farmhouse, must, at such a moment, relieve the fullness of [Catherine’s mother’s] heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness…Her cautions were confined to the following points. “I beg, Catherine, you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the rooms at night; and I wish you would try to keep some account of the money you spend; I will give you this little book on purpose.”
The travelers’ journey is uneventful. “Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming than a fear, on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.” I suppose there must be, somewhere, some sad, sour soul who, reading these chapters, gets tired of the same joke being told over and over again. What can I say, I personally find it hilarious every time. The juxtaposition of the over-the-top genre conventions of the period with the bland realities of Catherine’s life, is just a comedy gold mine…at least in Austen’s nimble hands.
Catherine is suitably awed by the size and bustle of Bath, and settles in with the Allens, looking forward to a happy stay. We’re now given a brief profile of Mrs. Allen, who is, Austen tells us, “one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner.” What she does have, we soon discover, is style. She’s an unregenerate clotheshorse, with an extensive wardrobe and a husband who can afford to keep it cutting-edge. In fact, Mrs. Allen has to take Catherine’s dress and grooming in hand so that she’s sufficiently fashion-forward to stand beside her when they finally go out into society—a companion being, for her, apparently just another accessory, like a trained monkey, or a chapeau.
On their debut at the principal ballroom, Mr. Allen dashes off to the gambling tables, leaving his wife and Catherine “to enjoy a mob by themselves.” And a mob it certainly is; the two women squeeze themselves through the crowd looking for a place to survey the action, but manage to see “nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies.” At last they find themselves in a passage where the view isn’t quite so impeded, and Catherine feels herself longing to dance, but of course they don’t know anyone in the place who might ask her, and also, getting back to the dance floor at this point would take about a week and a half and probably involve some loss of limb.
Mrs. Allen did all that she could do in such a case by saying very placidly, every now and then, “I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.” For some time her young friend felt obliged to her for these wishes; but they were repeated so often, and proved so totally ineffectual, that Catherine grew tired at last, and would thank her no more.
The two women drift for a while, like flotsam, eventually arriving in the tea room, where they feel “the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim, no gentleman to assist them…without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other.” But never mind, one of them at least has found a silver lining.
Mrs. Allen congratulated herself, as soon as they were seated, on having preserved her gown from injury. “It would have been very shocking to have it torn,” said she, “would it not? It is such a delicate muslin. For my part I have not seen anything I like so well in the whole room, I assure you.”
Mrs. Allen is shaping up to be an early favorite. Her preoccupation with costume, and costume alone—to the exclusion of family, faith, king, country, and probably health and happiness—mark her as a new and extremely promising type of Jane Austen character. We’ll be watching her as the novel progresses (but not nearly so closely as she’ll be watching herself).
Catherine, however, isn’t quite so worthy of attention, as Austen points out while getting in one more encore of her running joke: “She was seen by many young men…Not one, however, stared with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran around the room, nor was she once called a divinity by anybody.” A couple of strutting dudes do give her passing marks within her hearing, and being a humble sort of kid, that’s enough for her to chalk up the evening as a win.
The next few days pass uneventfully, with Mrs. Allen dragging Catherine all over Bath, where they stand around looking swell but never talking to anybody. “The wish of a numerous acquaintance in Bath was still uppermost with Mrs. Allen, and she repeated it after every fresh proof, which every morning brought, of her knowing nobody at all.” But hey, at least she looks sensational.
Since the novel would pretty much stall out if this situation continued, eventually they’re paired up at a dance with a certain Mr. Tilney. “He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, and had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck.” What’s more, he’s pretty much a gold medalist in small talk, and while they dance he hits Catherine with such a barrage of disarmingly arch nonsense that she almost trips over her own hem.
“I have hitherto been remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been in the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.”
He then rewinds and asks her every single one of these questions, one right after the other, to which she replies in bleats and squeaks and other barnyard noises, but never mind, it’s really only his own voice he wants to hear anyway.
“Have you been long in Bath, madam?”
“About a week, sir,” replied Catherine, trying not to laugh.
“Really!” with affected astonishment.
“Why should you be surprised, sir?”
“Why, indeed!” said he, in his natural tone. “But some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprise is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable, than any other. Now let us go on.”
Tilney is, astonishingly, the hero of this novel. Yet clearly, his precursors in Austen’s canon are the smooth-talking sumbitches like Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, and Frank Churchill. What are we to make of an Austen hero who’s a silver-tongued bon vivant? We certainly know what his predecessors would have made of him. Five minutes in the same room, and Mr. Knightley would want to smash a piano bench over his head.
This is where our chronology problem rears its head. We can’t know for sure whether Austen is deliberately giving us a hero who’s a complete 180 from her previous stalwarts, who were so cloaked in gravitas it’s a wonder they could stand upright, or whether Tilney is just a holdover from Jane’s juvenile period who survived multiple edits. All we know for sure is that, by the self-consciously zany way he talks, he might have stepped out of a Lewis Carroll novel—if Lewis Carroll had written any at this point.
“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—“I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”
“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”
“Shall I tell you what you ought to say?”
“If you please.”
“I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.”
“But, perhaps, I keep no journal.”
“Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible.”
Did you catch the bit about the sprigged muslin?...Not the kind of detail Austen heroes are accustomed to finding worthy of comment, or even noticing at all. Colonel Brandon could die and be reincarnated six hundred thousand times; he’ll never know muslin from sackcloth. But there’s something epicene about Tilney—today, we’d call him a metrosexual, and that’s only if we gave him the benefit of the doubt. Just listen to him as he boasts of his expertise to Mrs. Allen, who is exactly the sort to be flattened by admiration of it:
“…I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin.”
After a whole evening of this kind of conversation—witty bon mots spiked with an occasional jibe at someone else’s unfortunate dress sense—Catherine departs the assembly “with a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance.” We twenty-first century types aren’t surprised; what teenage girl doesn’t long for a gay best friend? But this is the nineteenth century, when accepeptable varieties of acquaintance between men and women were fewer than they are today. It was basically cleave-to-and-bear-children, or fuhgeddaboudit. So Catherine’s stuck with actually falling in love with the guy.
Not that she complains. She isn’t an ambitious girl, or a particularly savvy one, points that are driven home about ninety-three times on every page, so falling in love with the first man who speaks to her is just fine, thanks. Couldn’t ask for better. And as we’ll increasingly see, Tilney’s tender feelings for her are pretty much triggered by one thing: her good taste in choosing him. When he looks at her, he might as well be looking in a mirror.
Clearly, we’re a long, long way from Elizabeth and Darcy. But never mind, this is all going to be tremendous fun—trust me. If only because this couple—and this novel—are the biggest rebuke ever to Austen’s reputation as a romantic. Her dewy-eyed dowager fans, fretting over their Earl Grey and therapeutically stroking their seventeen cats, have no idea what to make of it. No. Idea. Nor does anyone else, apparently. Ask yourself: which is the only Austen novel never to be made into a major motion picture? Studios cough up new versions of the other five every few seasons, but Northanger Abbey—whose tone is more Monty Python than Masterpiece Theater—completely defeats them from the get-go.
So, great, we have our hero and our heroine. But Catherine’s pursuit of her man is dealt a serious blow when he suddenly, seemingly, evaporates into thin air. Everywhere she goes she looks for him, and everywhere she goes, she’s disappointed. Which at least allows Mrs. Allen the pleasure of reviving her catchphrase, “How pleasant it would be if we had any acquaintance here.”
But she soon loses even that privilege (maybe she can fall back on “I see no one whose muslin moves me to regret my own”) when she encounters a Mrs. Thorpe, whom she immediately recognizes as an old school chum. “Their joy on this meeting was very great, as well it might, since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years”; and they fall into “talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said.” Who but an unrepentant misanthrope could pen such lines? But wait, there’s more:
Mrs. Thorpe…had one great advantage as a talker, over Mrs. Allen, in a family of children, and when she expatiated on the talents of her sons, and the beauty of her daughters, when she related their different situations and views…Mrs. Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.
Then it occurs—England still being a small country, and enough with the lack of supporting characters already—that Mrs. Thorpe’s daughters have met Catherine’s brother, and they exclaim and clap their hands and cavort around Catherine’s chair in delight over her tremendous resemblance to him. The Miss Thorpes then declare their “wish of being better acquainted with her; of being considered as being already friends, through the friendship of their brothers, etc., which Catherine heard with pleasure”. The eldest of the sisters, whose name is Isabella, asks Catherine to take a turn about the room with her, which pretty much cements them as inseparable besties for the rest of the novel—Catherine being about as discriminating in choosing her closest confidante as she is about the man she adores. In both cases, it’s first come, first served.
Their friendship is actually a pretty equitable one, despite the rather casual way it falls into place, because Isabella’s specialty is talking, and Catherine’s is letting her. Isabella is also four years older, which gives her the experience with which to “compare the balls of Bath with those of Cambridge, its fashions with the fashions of London”, and other vitally important issues which Catherine would probably be too dim to pick up herself even if she were the senior of the pair by four, or ten, or thirty-five years.
Before these two girls run away with the novel (because of course they’re going to; at least, Isabella is, leading Catherine by the hand, no doubt with Catherine looking over her shoulder and asking please, hold up a minute, I think I dropped a glove or something), Austen pauses to give a little back story on Mrs. Thorpe, the gist of which is: widow—not very rich—pleasant—spoils the kids—oldest girl a beauty—the others, meh. None of this is vital stuff or even wildly interesting, till we discover it’s all been the set-up for another of Austen’s satiric jabs at her chosen genre:
This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.
She’s having a whale of a time here, our J.A.
As I noted earlier, Isabella and Catherine are now inseparable. But having what is basically an incessantly talking parrot clamped to her shoulder doesn’t prevent Catherine from looking everywhere for Mr. Tilney. Alas, it’s in vain.
He was nowhere to be met with; every search for him was equally unsuccessful, in morning lounges or evening assemblies; neither in the upper nor lower rooms, at dressed or undressed balls, was he perceivable; nor among the walkers, the horsemen, or the curricle-drivers of the morning. His name was not in the pump-room book, and curiosity could do no more. He must be gone from Bath.
Of course there’s an easy way know for certain whether he’s still in town. Just hire Liza Minnelli to play one of the assemblies. If Tilney doesn’t show for that, he ain’t within crawling distance.
The inexplicableness of his disappearance makes him a figure of mystery to Catherine; and if that’s not sufficient to feed the fires of her crush, there’s Isabella constantly pressing her for details, eager to live vicariously through Catherine’s spectacular new romance.
Isabella was very sure that he must be a charming young man…She liked him the better for being a clergyman, “for she must confess herself very partial to the profession”; and something like a sigh escaped her as she said it. Perhaps Catherine was wrong in not demanding the cause of that gentle emotion—but she was not experienced enough in the finesse of love, or the duties of friendship, to know when delicate raillery was properly called for, or when a confidence should be forced.
It’s just as well. “Delicate raillery” is probably not in her repertoire. You might as well ask her to spew obscenities in Punjabi.
But we get a pretty good clue as to “the cause of that gentle emotion” when we learn, a page or two on, that Isabella and Catherine’s favorite activity is “to shut themselves up, to read novels together.” Which launches Austen into a mini-manifesto on the art form, which has become the single most excerpted section of Northanger Abbey:
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.
“Alas!” she cries, going meta again. “If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.” She later laments that “there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”
“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”: or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Austen is playing a very sophisticated game here. She’s mounted a spirited defense of her chosen art form, and a sound one; but she’s done so in the pages of a novel in which her heroine—who, unlike those other heroines whose snooty derision she scoffs at—is a novel-devouring fanatic, and whose mind is so deranged by this illicit passion that she almost can’t function in the real world. In fact, she’ll ultimately suffer very real consequences for it.
So what is Austen playing at?...My own view is that she’s just exhibiting her own exhilarating, diabolical genius. Jane Austen, issue a tub-thumping pronouncement on the excellence of the novel, in the rhetorically polished phrases of a member of Parliament?...Not without her alter ego—that other Jane Austen—slipping in behind her back to subvert her arguments within her own plot. Austen’s is simply too expansive a mind to chart a course and follow it through, like some dutiful pack horse. She’s compelled to make it interesting for herself.
In the end, of course, it’s this very paradox that prevails. Austen proves her point by disproving it; the fact that we’re here, two hundred years later, still talking about Catherine Morland and Northanger Abbey in a way we don’t talk about, or even remember, Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda, is because of this novel’s complexities—its dissonances—its strangeness and its irreverence, its little bouts of fisticuffs with itself—all of which render it endlessly, agelessly delightful. Yes, in fact a novel is a magnificent thing; but not the kinds of overstuffed Gothic doorstops with which Catherine Morland benumbs her brain; rather the kind whose quicksilver flashes of the divine Jane Austen, perhaps alone among her immediate contemporaries, helped to invent. And which no one since has ever done better.
Maybe as well…but never better.
For the remainder of my analysis of Northanger Abbey, see Bitch In a Bonnet Volume 2, which you can purchase from Amazon and other fine sites.