Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen's Manifesto for the Novel by Julia Jones

The ideas in this blog were
developed for a recent talk
at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Northanger Abbey is a novel with reading at its heart, a coming-of-age novel in which Catherine Morland, the seventeen-year-old heroine, discovers the fallibility of Gothic fiction as her guide to life:
Charming as were all Mrs Radcliffe’s works and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.
“At least in the midland counties…”  
Of the Alps and the Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine did not dare doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities.

Catherine is reading Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 bestseller The Mysteries of Udolpho but there’s no evidence that she finishes it. The events of her own life become so compelling that she stops worrying whose skeleton lurks behind the black veil.  She is made ashamed of her silliness investigating locked chests that contain only laundry lists and the bed chamber of a dead woman that contains nothing at all except fresh neat tidiness. "The anxieties of common life began soon to succeed to the alarums of romance". She worries that she hasn't had a letter from her best friend, Isabella, in Bath, therefore doesn't know whether she'd managed to match "some fine netting cotton on which she had left her intent." Alert readers will be quicker to guess that more than that may be happening back in Cheap Street and the Assembly Rooms...

Northanger Abbey is meta-fiction, It’s overtly self-reflective and ironic and its denouement – when all is revealed between the happy lovers – allows Catherine to wonder whether she’d not been right all along, when she allowed the Gothic horrors to blacken her view of the world. (She) heard enough to feel that, in suspecting the General of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character nor magnified his cruelty. Her shocked understanding typifies her emotional, responsive innocence. Catherine is a teenager bewildered by her new experience of adult falsehood and complexity:That he was very particular in his eating, she had, by her own unassisted observation, already discovered; but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people at that rate to be understood?

Helena Kelly’s provocative and stimulating book, Jane Austen: the Secret Radical confirms that if Catherine HAD finished The Mysteries of Udolpho she would have discovered that the villain had only ever been interested in the heroine’s money – just like the English General Tilney, owner of the impressively modernised and autocratically controlled Abbey who welcomes her with disturbing flattery then inexplicably ejects her into "a hack post-chaise".  It's not until the final chapter of Austen's novel that Catherine learns that her only crime, in General Tilney's eyes was “being less rich that he had supposed her to be”. Money and love are inextricably entangled throughout Jane Austen's novels - as W.H. Auden pointed out in his poem "A Letter to Lord Bryon":

But now the art for which Jane Austen fought
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of brass.
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society. 

Austen did fight for her art but it was a technical battle -- and Northanger Abbey is the novel in which she set out her terms of engagement. It's a "how to" novel. The means by which Catherine discovers both personal happiness and the truth about the General's greed is conventional enough; she goes on an unchaperoned walk with the hero. But it’s not a very long walk “You can see the house from the window,” says her guileless younger sister. The author adds a comment
I leave it to my reader’s sagacity to determine how much of all this it was possible for Henry to communicate at this time to Catherine; how much of it he could have learnt from his father, in what points his own conjectures might assist him, and what portion must yet remain to be told in a letter from James. I have united for their ease what they must divide for mine.

One of JA's notebooks
Northanger Abbey includes far more direct narrative guidance than any other of Austen's novels -- and the explanation may lie in its place in her writing history.  Northanger Abbey was first drafted somewhere around 1798 when Austen was aged 23, still living in Steventon Rectory but having holidayed in Bath. This was after the first drafts of the novels that later became Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Northanger Abbey was completed by 1803 and then sold (as Susan) to a publisher who did nothing with it.  In 1809 Austen tried to force publication or to have the manuscript returned but failed as she had not the £10 necessary to repay the initial purchase.

The manuscript was not re-purchased until 1816, the last full year of her life and its return seems to have been felt as a mixed blessing. The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.Austen sounds disappointed and uncomfortable with her earlier work and appears to have done nothing more with the book. In March 1817 she told her niece, Fanny, “Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present and I do not know that she will ever come out.” Austen was ill for most of the time after that date and died in July 1817. Northanger Abbey was published posthumously, together with Persuasion.

This sequence of events means that Northanger Abbey is most interestingly read as Jane Austen's first novel. Though Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were drafted earlier, they were extensively re-written before their publication in 1811 and 1813 respectively. Their voice is different -- worlds away from the comic raucousness of the very young Austen. Northanger Abbey, moth-balled on the publisher’s shelf from 1803 sits somewhere in between. It's the work of a writer in her mid-twenties, setting out -- as she hoped then -- on her professional career. It's assertive, even strident. Austen is telling her readers what she wants to do and how she intends to achieve this. It's almost a manifesto.
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. 
   (That's the novelist's job and she gets straight on with it)
  Mr Allen, who owned the chief of the property around Fullerton, the village in Wiltshire where the Morlands lived, was ordered to Bath for the benefit of a gouty constitution and his lady, a good humoured woman, fond of Miss Morland and probably aware that, if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad, invited her to go with them.
The perception that a heroine must "seek" adventure (ie that plots need happenings) is the author’s, not her character's The word “probably” is the clue. Mrs Allen’s placid stupidity ranks with that of Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park -- she could never have achieved that awareness herself.  
There are many other examples throughout Northanger Abbey where Austen draws attention to her technique -- including a moment in the final chapter where she find herself in a quandary of her own making. She has built up the General as a modern-day monster of the midlands but her heroine's mild, right-thinking parents insist that he must consent to his son’s marriage with their daughter. How can he be manipulated into doing so?
The anxiety which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity. The means by which their early marriage could be effected can be the only doubt: what probable circumstance could work upon a temper like the General’s?
Here again the key word is "probable". Whatever she chooses must be credible. Apparent ordinariness is Austen's particular achievement -- as Sir Walter Scott was one of the first to recognise:
(She) has a talent for describing the involvement of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself, like anyone now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common place things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. 
(Diary description of his responses to Pride and Prejudice) 
Deliberate mundanity is a form of literary radicalism. "No one who knew Catherine Morland from her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine" From the novel's opening lines Austen insists that her readers accept Catherine's limitations. She is naive, sometimes lazy, occasionally stupid, only "almost pretty" but she is truly a heroine because of the moral choices she makes (to walk with one friend rather than drive with another) and because of her everyday qualities of goodness. The hero, Henry Tilney, teases and patronises but sees her beautifully as herself: “You feel as you always do," he tells her, "What is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated that they may know themselves." And that could be a credo for the novelist as well.
In Jane Austen: The Secret Radical Helena Kelly attempts to set this radicalism in the political sphere.  “I’ve been working quite hard in this book to convince you that Jane is an artist, that her work is carefully considered, structured, themed, that she uses her writing to consider the great issues of the day.” She re-reads the novels as cleverly coded attacks on slavery, enclosure, religion, the class system, the subordination of women – etc. This may be so but it's not enough. Austen IS an artist -- and that is something different from being a politico-social commentator. 
The "radical" conclusion to Kelly's discussion of Northanger Abbey veers alarmingly off course. Kelly is rightly appalled by the maternal mortality of Austen's time and is considering Catherine's future after her marriage. We can only hope that she carries on reading novels, that she keeps up a library subscription. There may come a time when the anxieties of common life – pregnancy, childbirth – begin to seem for more threatening than the nightmares conjured up by Mrs Radcliffe. Catherine might learn to value a library more for the medicines it sells – the Balm of Gilead, the ‘female pills’ that promise to ‘restore’ the menstrual cycle than for mere novels.
"Mere novels"! How could Helena Kelly have become so fascinated by her own – admittedly fascinating – research in the sale of abortifacients that she reaches a point that she can use the phrase “mere novels” in a discussion of Northanger Abbey?  
‘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’; in short it is only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
If this were a literary hustings Jane Austen could count on my vote.

Julia Jones will be talking about Jane Austen in "an afternoon of romance" at the Felixstowe Book Festival July 1st 2017


Sandra Horn said…
Thank you! Great illuminating post! Jane gets my vote too - every time! It is so easy to read her novels as simply and amusingly reflecting the manners and aspirations of the middle class in her times, but that gives her craft, her wit and her sharp perceptiveness no credit at all - and they are exceptional. Although she didn't finish Sanditon, I hope no-one ever tries to do it for her - impossible. And her shorter works are a complete delight especially the spoofs.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Julia, for highlighting a book which so many see as a lesser success than Jane's 'later' works. I put the 'later' in quotes because when, out of embarrassment as much as anything else, I eventually thought it was about time I read some of her books, a misleading article listed Northanger Abbey as her first and I'd determined to start at the beginning. I was hooked immediately, not by the things which make the 'later' works so irresistible, but precisely by the meta-fictional aspects that you identify so well. I hadn't expected her to be so funny, so 'real', so aware of the co-existence of both the reality and the artificiality of narrative prose. I got the impression that she'd really enjoyed writing the book. It gave me a taste for her works, I read and enjoyed them all, but I don't think that compelling presence of the author herself in Northanger Abbey is repeated as clearly elsewhere. Your post has brought back the memory of the revelation the book was to me. Thank you.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this enlightening post. I never read Northanger Abbey, but I will now, as well as Helena Kelly's book.
Lydia Bennet said…
I love all Austen's novels (though not so much Mansfield Park) and she often playfully sets herself challenges as a novelist, and invites the reader to join in - in Emma, claiming to create a heroine nobody but her will like. Another distinction of Northanger Abbey is that it contains the first use of the word 'baseball' in writing, I remember how it took me by surprise!
julia jones said…
Thank you all for your comments -- I knew I was going to enjoy writing about Austen for other write. (And Lydia I never forget how much I loved your "blog". The last time I spoke at the Wolsey Theatre -- which was on P & P -- I read them the opening and they loved it too. Have you ever published it as a paper version?)
Lydia Bennet said…
Thank you for the kind words Julia, no I've not done that, I had it in mind but as a book it gets lost amidst hordes of Austen prequels, sequels, romances about Darcy, etc etc and hasn't been easy to market. So whether it's worth trying createspace or some such i don't know.

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