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Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 1

N.B.--I will only be writing here about the first volume of Northanger Abbey, which concludes with Chapter 15, dealing with James and Isabella's engagement. While knowledge of the novel's resolution may inform my writing, I will try not to give away pertinent plot details unless unavoidable.

 The tone of each of Jane Austen's novels, I feel, can be graphed using three main co-ordinates: the characters of the heroine, the hero, and the heroine's confidante. Now, of course, this oversimplifies the situation, as Austen is far too complex and subtle an author to be graphed using any number of co-ordinates, but it's useful for comparison. For example, in Pride & Prejudice, it is the relationships that Elizabeth has with Darcy and her sister Jane, and, indeed, Darcy's assessment of Jane, that define much of how the novel progresses. In Sense & Sensibility, the structure is complicated by essentially having co-heroines, but that just makes the importance of the relationship between them even more important (each is the confidante to the other's heroine at different times). In Mansfield Park, Austen will complicate the triangle by essentially overlaying two of the data points, a trick she'll repeat in Emma, with a twist. In Persuasion, she largely abandons the confidante role, a choice which underpins must of the central thrust of that book.We'll deal with these all later, of course, because we're talking here about Catherine Morland.

As Austen writes, no-one who meets Catherine could mistake her for the heroine of a novel. I'll address those opening lines more fully below later, but the remarkable thing about Catherine is how un-remarkable she is. She is a young woman of 17, with very little experience and education, come to Bath to be happy, and her raptures and sulks must remind any modern reader of the same upward and downward swings experienced by every adolescent girl (and boy) since. What forces Catherine onto a path of discovering who she is, unique from everyone else, are the people in Bath who come to play roles of her hero and confidante.

Henry Tilney, of course, is her chosen hero; from the first moment they met, Catherine was smitten, and she proceeded to fall deeper and deeper into smit with every subsequent meeting. There is, however, always the specter of John Thorpe to be reckoned with. Not a proper rival, rather more of a distraction, he still serves to confuse the issue and separate Catherine from both Tilneys. The choice of hero, however, is always clear.

In her choice of confidante, however, Catherine is more torn. Isabella, of course, is her oldest and dearest friend in Bath--their acquaintance having lasted the better part of a fortnight and several volumes of Udolpho. However, we have all been party to friendships that arise quickly, and just as quickly take on great import. Given Isabella's superficially charming nature and her willingness to push for more and more intimacy with her new friend Catherine, it's not surprising that the younger woman relents and, more importantly, feels special and loved for who she is.

Miss Eleanor Tilney, on the other hand, is not quick to push intimacies, and is actually, while not cold, certainly much less effusive than Isabella. She seems very pleased to make Catherine's acquaintance, but their friendship develops much more slowly--and much more traditionally for the era. Moreover, Austen plays an interesting trick whereby so much of the focus is on Henry Tilney in the scenes they share together, and Eleanor is given so little dialogue, comparatively, that Eleanor is something of a cypher.

So, as we conclude Volume 1, the battle lines are being drawn. Catherine loves Isabella--who is soon to be her sister by marriage--but she is repulsed by her brother. She also loves Henry Tilney (or is very near to it), but she is mainly curious about Eleanor at this stage because she is *his* sister. Being torn between Thorpes and Tilneys seems a very precarious position, indeed.

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While reading Volume 1, I was struck afresh by how the first sentence, "No one who had seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine," brought into play three key ideas that would percolate throughout the rest of the text. Aside from showing Austen to be an idiosyncratic comma user, this first sentence also raises three "-ists" that Austen certainly was, and that get borne out by later passages, namely: a novelist, a satirist, and a feminist. 

Obviously, her standing as a novelist is clear. But Austen here is speaking of a novelist who is a reader of novels--she is creating the sort of art that she wishes to see in the world. If everyday novel writers think Catherine is too dull or everyday to be the subject of a novel, well, Austen will show how that simply isn't true. In the process, she helped create the realistic novel, a genre that largely didn't exist before her time and didn't really come to the fore until later in the 19th century. The great earlier works of Richardson and Fielding were highly exaggerated, either for humorous or emotional effect, and we certainly know how far from reality the Gothic fiction of Mrs. Radcliffe was. Austen is doing something very different here, self-consciously bringing the novel into the real world. That said, as she makes it clear, she adores the novels of earlier writers, and ensures that her characters do, too, since if fellow novels writers can't speak well of each other, who can?

However, as Austen was a satirist, the more ridiculous flights of fancy of both the Gothic and the sentimental novel come in for criticism in Northanger Abbey. While the Gothic elements really come to the fore in the latter half of the novel, once we get to the titular abbey (it's coming, I promise), we already see Austen subverting the tropes of Gothic fiction for her own ends. For example, instead of having her heroine kidnapped by a cruel and vicious count, Austen has Catherine taken against her well on an open-topped carriage ride instead of going walking with the Tilneys. She's taking the emotional beats of the Gothic story, as it were, and applying them to real-life situations. She also pokes fun at the excesses of the sentimental novel, making it clear that, while Catherine is upset by things that go against her, she's generally of good spirits and doesn't spend days, or even hours, weeping her life away. She also is decidedly imperfect, which is another reason many authors might have found her lacking a certain something a heroine requires.

Lastly, and perhaps most subtly, Austen was a feminist. Now, obviously, we can't know where Austen would have stood on questions of equal pay, or even voting rights for women, as those issues were far, far beyond her time. Mary Wollstonecraft, the grandmother of the feminist movement, was just a generation older than Austen, and her major works involved proving that women were not naturally inferior to men with regard to reason, and that only lack of education made it seem so. Indeed, these questions are taken up strongly in Austen, particularly in Northanger Abbey, where Eleanor Tilney avows that her brother believes there to be no difference in rational capacity between men and women and we're clearly meant to see that this paints him as an intelligent, insightful man.

Back to that first sentence: part of the reason Catherine is so unsuitable as a heroine is because heroines are meant to be paragons of distinctly *female* virtue. Catherine is, depressingly, like every other human before or since, in that she never earned anything she wasn't taught, and sometimes struggled even then. Austen is making it clear--there is nothing about her sex that impairs Catherine being a better student. Rather, it's the fact that she's just not that into the subject matter--possibly because history (for example) is so dull when it's all stories of men, with hardly any women at all. Two hundred years ago, Catherine Morland, and Jane Austen, were asking for a feminist history.

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There's a lot in Volume 1 I didn't touch on: the characterizations of the vapid Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe, each defined by their obsession with one thing; Henry Tilney's decidedly odd personality (which I will be dealing with later--don't you worry); the striking lack of parental, especially maternal, oversight that Catherine experiences (a recurring trend in Austen); the implication of Catherine's moral superiority to her brother (James thinks she should break her plans with Eleanor Tilney); the difficulty in determining character's moralities based upon the art they consume (Shouldn't Henry, intelligent, well-educated, man of the cloth Henry, be "above" the Gothic fictions that Catherine and Isabella love? No, because that's not how it works.); and one of the most famous and extended discussions of marriage in all of Austen, Henry's long discourse comparing it to a country dance. As mentioned, some of these will receive better treatment in the fullness of time, but others will simply go on the pile of "ideas I never got to." 

Now's your chance--tell me, in the comments or over on Twitter (@Austen2014, #Austen2014), what stood out to you about the book so far? Is this your first time reading it? Or reading Austen generally? If so, is it what you expected? If someone expresses an interest in a particular topic of theme, I'm much more likely to write about it. Of course, as illustrated above, I am rarely at a loss regarding what to say about Austen. 

Comments

  1. Catherine's comment about history having hardly any women at all struck me particularly on this reading. I look forward to reading your views on Henry Tilney's personality - I hope you're going to touch upon his understanding of muslins.

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