Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 4 - 5

To Austen-L

Re: NA: Will No One Stand Up for the Unprotected Novel (I)?

Reading over everyone's favorite or great novel list, I was struck at the coincidence of our reading a book which will enable us to allow Miss Austen to join our game.

Her nominations for three of the greatest books of her time, works "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 chosen language" (ch 5, p 34) are as follows (in no particular order):

Cecilia Fanny Burney D'Arblay

Camilla Ditto, sometimes referred to as "the French emigrant's wife"--I believe the author never put her name on her novels in her lifetime

Belinda Maria Edgeworth

The above may be taken as Austen's choice of great books.

She is ambivalent about gothic and sentimental or idealized romances. It would seem they have formed her outlook and she has read so many that they have taught her much about writing novels, and she has even been driven to write many a short novel and now this gem to parody and to comment on them as well as to use many of their insights into human nature. The choices here are

Sir Charles Grandison & Clarissa Samuel Richardson

Tom Jone Henry Fielding

The Italian Mrs Anne Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho ditto, and about whom Henry Tilney remarks:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again;--I remember finishing it in two days--my hair standing on end all the time" (Ch 14, p 95).

It may surprize some people to see Richardson's vast work placed in this set, but there are a number of satiric references in this novel to Richardson's books. I am thinking especially of the one where the narrator talks of how Catherine dreams of three masked men who come and whisk her away in costume from a ball: this is Harriet Byron abducted by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. Like Mrs Morland, Austen read and reread this one, perhaps because often she could not get any other to come near it.

The Italian, Udolpho, and Grandison are be Austen's entries for books that meant a lot to me (on the inclusion of Tom Jones and Clarissa see below).

She also has some books impersonally considered which are not dismissed but subjected to an intelligent and interesting dissection: histories. Catherine says they are so dull, all about war and politics, and no women in them, and much of them must be imagined. Elinor qualifies this by saying that nonetheless much is to be learned, and if the historians are "not as happy in their imagination" as novelists (?), nonetheless she enjoys the eloquence. She had rather read what Hume imagines than what Agricola probably said (ch 14, p 97). So great books impersonally considered might be:

Hume's and Robertson's histories (very popular in the century) to which I take a liberty and add Fanny Price's love of travel books and Anne Elliot's interest in biography and memoir. Anne Elliot says these strengthen and build the mind. These apparently include books in French.

Austen is nervier than some of us. She includes a list of trash. There are Isabella's famous "twelve:"

"Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries."

A small joke here: Isabella can't count, or she cannot stop exaggerating. Even in so small a point as giving an accurate account of the books she has in her lodgings.

And there The Monk which the asinine Thorpe says is the one book he found worthwhile. The Monk is trash. It is a book which appeals to minds like Thorpe's which mistake noise for conversation.

Now I infer from this passage and Austen's few comments on Tom Jones in her letters that we are to take it that what attracts Thorpe to The Monk and Tom Jones is the pornographic element. I need external evidence for this one, but as this is part of the backbone of literary studies (there is no argument from ignorance), I cite Austen's letters as evidence that Tom Jones a book she was fond of and knew well (her references to Tom Lefroy couple him with tiny details from Tom Jones; I also use the knowledge people have that Austen owned and kept a set of Clarissa in her small room, and that the technique of the strongly present comic narrator and development of psychological as opposed to calendar time come directly from (respectively) Fielding's Tom Jones (and probably Joseph Andrews of which there is a use later in NA, on which more in a later postings) and Radcliffe's novels and Clarissa.

Ellen Moody

Re: NA, Ch 5: Will No-One Stand Up for the Unprotected Novel? (II)

Austen argues that the reason people at the time admire

"the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens,"

and decry "the capacity" and undervalue" the labor of the novelist" is the result of "pride, ignorance, or fashion." I would like to point out this is not the usual comment made about novel abusers. Most of those who decried the novel decried it as amoral, immoral, encouraging young people to look to love in marriage, to sex outside, and even worse rebellion against their parents and families. It was seen as subversive of the establishment. Maybe it was. But this is not Austen's take, nor are her examples of types which are opposed to novels the gothic romances she elsewhere in this book parodies. No. She chooses works of scholarship.

Pride, ignorance, and fashion. On another list I am on people are talking of what they respect, and what they don't, and how we should tell which books to read and which not to. It seems the criteria is the imprimator of a university press. What is on the Net since it comes without this framework is probably trash. Anyway it's not safe. It has not been vetted. There are a number of people on this list who have dared, very gingerly, to suggest that the imprimator of the unversity press may just guarantee this book pleases this group of editors who have their own agenda. But they have not waded in too far with this one. Austen defends novels on the grounds that they are attacked because they are unprotected by the authoritarian guardians of culture of her time. She says these people are motived by pride, ignorance, and fashion.

How then to tell what is good from what is bad? Austen says we must tell by one looking to what really gives pleasure and instruction to readers and what they really read. Taste means choice, and it is an elitist concept in itself.

Austen herself passes this test. She offers the notion that some of the novels of her time will pass this test too when the latest production of the abridger, collector, and publisher of the great works of others will be forgotten. I don't think she attacks essays or other kinds of books which pass this test of time. She has nothing against history or memoirs or criticism, but she does ask that they be judged on their internal merits irrespective of any framework which comes with "a seal of approval" by some authority.

I find this interesting--and still radical. The reason novels are so admired today is they make money. If someone wants to write a great book today, he or she is advised, Write a Novel. Not an essay. Not a history. Not a play. Never a poem. Why? Because it is popular, makes money, and many of them appear to give many people pleasure. The "seal of approval" has changed from Austen's time: it is now money. There is of course "the success d'estime." But that is still controlled by the same authoritarian establishment which admired the abridgers, collectors, and publishers of Austen's day.


Re: NA, Ch 5: Will No-One Stand Up for the Unprotected Novel? (III)

Last time I posted under this subheading I pointed out that the context or standard against which Austen finds novels superior works of genius is unusual. In most such discussions the defender of novels argues against the notion that novels are amoral, and the context seems to be that the reader ought really to be reading a sermon.

Austen is defending the novel as a woman's production centered on a female character. The reason novels were despised, as Austen writes, were they came without the imprimator of the establishment, and why? They were by women. That editor and abridger of poems and essays would have been a man. By the end of the 18th century novels were regarded as somewhat characteristically a woman's form; intellect belonged to the male sex and produced scholarship, classical poems, essay; sensibility and feeling were the province of the women and produced novels. Those went into a local circulating library that novels were written by women, and women were to be found reading them (though it should be noted Henry Tilney denies that men don't love novels; he says when they have taste and imagination they read novels just as frequently as women).

Until the 19th century when men entered the field again in a big way and made big money, many of the attacks on the novel were in fact attacks on women. In a typical diatribe against the novel the Abbe Jaquin says novels are pernicious. I paraphrase one of his pieces: novels trouble the peace of families, they reverse the order of society; we see in them men obeying women--what else is the male lover but an individual living under a despot? What are these novels which put women at the center of the story? They teach women how to exercise a psychological tyranny over men. They also weaken male fibre because men who read them are seduced by their "morality."

He does not say these books make women money and take them out of the house, but but others did.

I therefore suggest that we have in Chapter 5 a defense of the feminine imagination and the novel as a genre which had reached a new height because women wrote it so naturally. Austen singles out Camilla, Cecilia, and Belinda because they have a female consciousness at the center as imagined by a woman.

I'll also note that the imagined reader in Austen's dialogue is a woman:

"'And what are you reading, Miss--?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' relies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame'" (Penguin Ch 5, p 54).

Is this a battle long ago won? I wonder if at least some of us on this list when we were reading Rebecca could not have been made to feel the same "momentary shame" had the book been mocked. "Oh! it is only Jane Eyre or Little Women --only works which have afforded "more extensive and unaffected pleasure" than many a novel or poem or play which is to be found in the canon of modern universities because they are "serious," are politically impeccable and are not feminine romances--which is what Northanger Abbey is too.

Ellen Moody

RE: NA, I:5: The Great Defense

Nancy remarked in one of her postings on Sunday: "We come to the great defense of novels: 'It is only Cecilia or Camilla or Belinda' . . ."

"Yes, novels; -- for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contempotuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they themselves are adding" (Oxford NA, Chapman ed, I:5, 37).

I enjoy Austen's pointing out to those who write in cowardly attack on themselves, apologising as they go, praying to the Gods (as it were) to please not to criticise me: you are yourselves contributing to the number of these things you deplore. Among other things, the statement is a direct exposure of a kind of hypocrisy very common in life.

Who would be without this one page and one half? It has been reprinted over and over again; it is part of the history of the novel. In a very few words she tells us how the contempt for novels is a contempt for those who are not part of an establishment; a contempt for those who measure worth by what that establishment has been pleased to notice; a contempt for women from whose experience and sensibilities the matter and outlook of this form grows -- all of which may be resolved into a contempt for the workings of the imagination since it is usually only the province of a very few.

It's written as an exhortation. She exhorts her fellow novel-writers to band together, to stand up for one another; if they do not speak with clarion voice on behalf of themselves, who will? "Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body" (I:5, 37). Ah, Jane, let us be brave and speak such truths about what we care about . . . (in this case novels).

Some of her criteria also emerge: she thinks novels should have probable circumstances, natural characters, and topics of conversation that are alive today. Note probability is not the same as what really happens: it is what is most common and probable to our eyes. Natural is not necessarily psychological realism: it is a character whose behavior strikes us as imaging how human nature works. Austen wants books that are not old- fashioned; she wants to speak to topics hot right now (thus her apologetic preface). Finally, she observes decorum, taste, delicacy: the Spectator includes "language . . . frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of hte age that could endure it . . " (I:5, 38). The reference is to how one should treat not only sexual but all experience.

Ellen Moody

October 11, 1997

Re: NA, Chs 4-5: Female Friendship

From the point of view of the plot, these two chapters begin Catherine's introduction to the Thorpes, and that Isabella Thorpe provides Austen with matter sufficient not only to provide a stinging portrait of female friendship in society but the pretense of sentimental concern that underlies many a renewed introduction between people who have not met for 20 years, and as far as any deeper or real feelings are touched by the meeting, could have gone on for another 20 quitely complacently. In the introduction of Mrs Thorpe to Mrs Allen and Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland, we find that friendship really means any port in a storm if nothing better offers. I recall how Elizabeth Bennet remarked that Lady Catherine de Bough was only to glad to invite the Collinses over when she had no-one else. Nothing propinks like propinquity is often thought to mean people who are thrown together fall in love; a harder view, such as the one we have before us, tells us it means people who are thrown together make do as long as they can satisify their vanity and pride and ignorance to their heart's content. Each talks past the other and no-one pricks the balloon of comfortable pretense called friendship.

Such of course are the friendships Gay refers to in The Hare and His Many Friends. Johnson has a Rambler in which he talks of how rare real friendship is, and how hard it is to make it last or burden it in any real way.

Still if we look at the text we find very little specific conversation. Both chapters are short, and there is little showing (dramatic narrative) and much telling (narrative meditation and commentary). More to the point what is "the turn" or real matter of these two chapters. Well after we have witnessed the naive country girl's loneliness in Bath, her eagerness for experiences she imagines will delight her heart (and Henry Tilney has), and now felt her naivete in her happiness and admiration for this "new friend," and felt how wide from the mark the Isabellas and Catherines of this world usually are, what do we find: a defense of novels. The progress of the two girls' friendship is luckily unimpeded by Catherine's "respect" for Isabella's "powers" because the "easy gaiety of Miss Thorpe's manner, and her frequent expressions of delight on this acquaintance with her, softened down every feeling of awe, and left nothing but tender affection" (Penguin Ch 4, p 30). But something is needed to keep the stream of words and gestures up. They neither of them have children; they neither of them are so supine nor obsessed with clothes as Mrs Allen (for, Lady Bertram herself, for whom Mrs Allen is an "early version," what else has Mrs Allen to think of?). So they turn to novels, and we get one of the more remarkable defenses of the form in the 18th century which I will turn to in a separate posting.

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Update 8 March 2003