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.