Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 14 - 15

To Janeites

May 4, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 14: A Picturesque Literary Walk

This is one of my favorite chapters in Austen. It is a kind of conversation piece: this was a mode popular in the paintings of the period in which a group of characters are pictured conversing with one another, sometimes inside a drawing room, sometimes as they walk through a landscape. In the case of the latter kinds of paintings, the characters are usually depicted as very small. They point and gesture, carry walking sticks, but also books, and materials for drawing with, sometimes baskets with food, blankets, and of course books. Sometimes publishers place such pictures on the covers of Austen's novels.

IFirst the characters discuss books. Who reads novels and what kind of person enjoys Mrs Radcliffe? Who reads history? This shades into Henry's insistence that we use words meaningfully. The word in question is "nice;" words which are similarly scattered through conversations today like so much blather are "amazing" (Henry says this one was a noise then too), "incredible," "awesome," "wonderful." A little later he plays with the words 'torment' and 'instruction.' Synonyms, eh? Well yes. Catherine has been tormented by the Thorpes in the previous chapter, a form of the world's instruction. There's no doubt Henry Tilney irritates feminists and that's because he assumes a posture of superiority and much later in the conversation we see him teasing both Eleanor and Catherine about their misunderstanding of the exaggerated language of novels.

From cliches, our three friends proceed on to a perceptive commentary on the close relationship between history and fiction. Through her characters Austen points out to us history is as much a narrative as fiction, that narration is an art whose expansion and dramatic vitality demands imaginative realization. It's worth noting Eleanor says she likes history as this part of the dialogue is often ignored. All too often critics just quote the bit about history featuring men only:

'"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history--and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made--and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great" (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:14, 109).

Here is where they proceed to discuss whether learning to read is a torment to children, and the fact that many an author finds his book used in ways he never imagined it would be. Catherine is of the opinion that if the torment is worth it (and who among us doubts that?), it is a torment still, especially to the teacher or mother who has to labor with slow minds. Now there I'm with her.

The talk about books concludes with a quotation from a sister-author, Burney. The final phase of the conversation I want to deal with is concluded by Austen's ironic reference to a sister-author, Burney ("The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author"). By a sort of twist Austen qualifies Burney's comment and does justice to men by adding:

'that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance' (I:14:111).

The middle passage of the chapter is on the picturesque. I suppose if you have read many books on the picturesque in the 18th century (I can recommend a few if anyone is interested) and love such pictures (as I do) this part of the chapter is charming and funny. It gently tweaks the reader for what she likes. It is self-reflexive because it is the characters on a hill overlooking Bath talking about how one looks in a picture of such a thing. What I like here is how somehow Austen manages to suggest a lovely scene (as she does in _MP_ at Sotherton) by a number of few well-chosen suggestive words, e.g.,

'They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real tast . . . The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day . . . He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances -- side-screens and perspectives -- lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape" (I:14:111).

Nonetheless, before we conclude it was such a lovely day, so good, so consoling because of the things discussed or the landscape itself, let us remember the coda ending on Maria. It was not what Catherine talked about or where she was, it was the people she was with, her companions, their sensibilities that made the moment what it was.

Ellen Moody

To Janeites

May 8, 1999

RE: 'The capital pen of a sister author . . .' (_NA, Ch 14)

The line in Chapter 14 of NA is an allusion to an actual line in Camilla. Austen's sister author is Fanny Burney. The Penguin edition of NA edited by Marilyn Butler says the line comes from Camilla, Bk I, Ch 6, and is part of a disquisition on a character called Indiana (between pp 96-101 in the 1796 edition). The Marilyn Butler edition of NA is superior to that of Chapman because in her notes she catalogues numerous references to passages in novels by Radcliffe and Burney. It would seem from the passage in NA Austen is qualifying Burney's comment:

'She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance' (Oxford _NA_, ed Chapman, I:14, 110-11).

Austen's justice to men looks forward to Knightley's correction of Emma Woodhouse's belief that what men want in women is beauty and submission. Until men are disposed to fall in love with 'well-informed minds' instead of 'handsome faces' (and docility), Harriet will be a sort of honey-pot to so many flies. To this Knightley replies that Emma is misusing reason, and distorting reality: 'Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives' (Emma, I:8). Men as well as women marry to position themselves in the world (and Harriet is illegitimate and without a dowry). I would argue that Emma is speaking out of a vein of sex antagonism and bad-mouthing all men for what some men do (shades of what is to be found in CJohnson's Women, Politics and the Novel and other books).

I may be wrong but I think there is no Norton of NA -- or at least there has not been a recent Norton. I own no Norton of NA at all, while I have updated versions of other Austen novels (two for Emma). If I am right -- and would happy to be corrected or be told a Norton NA is even as I type this on the way -- this is ironic as it is perhaps this novel among all the others which would profit from a long section of excerpts from the novels it comments on, mocks, parodies and seeks to replace. These include four by Radcliffe (Sicilian Romance, Romance of the Forest, Udolpho, and The Italian), three by Burney (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla), one by Charlotte Smith (Emmeline). By no means does this exhaust the list. I speculate that this lacuna exists because NA has been for many readers the least interesting or 'deep' of Austen's novels. It used to be said that NA and S&S were disregarded. We can no longer say this of S&S (three books on just this novel in the last couple of years and a smashing successful movie puts paid to that one). Perhaps after all a book in which a major crisis is when the heroine is a wallflower and whose bedrock literary terrain is feminine romance carries as little weight (finally) among modern feminists as it did after the 1790-1810 craze for these books seemed to cease -- or was tranformed by people like Collins into a more 'respectable' book --- detective fiction which can appeal to males too. It is curious. You'd think the deconstructionists who argue all books are words about words in other books would love NA.

----- I have read all Mrs Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. ---Jane Austen, NA

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