Northanger Abbey: Claudia Johnson: Austen's Contemporaries and the 1790s

To Janeites

February 9, 1999

Re: Claudia Johnson, Ch 1: On Austen's Contemporaries

This is a strong chapter. This my second time through this book; the first time I thought it the strongest in the book. What Johnson has done is effectively refuted Marilyn Butler's contention that Austen is an archconservative whose books carry the same message as those of Jane West. More: she has read Austen as the serious and dark author, the sardonic and at times subversive critic of society whom D. W. Harding said was filled with "regulated hatred", whom Marvin Murdrick said defended her powerless self and explored what she really thought about society through the ambiguous shield of irony. The problem with Butler's book is it depends on an oversimplication of Austen's books reduced to 1/8 of her text and a reading of the Jacobin novelists which is not convincing; the problem with Harding and Mudrick is they want us to believe their reading of the text based on our moral impulses today. How has Johnson done this? By a detailed reading of Austen's contemporaries, including the four we have read thus far on our list as well as Elizabeth Hamilton, Jane West, Robert Bage and more minor people still. I can see why this is thought an important or landmark book.

The only way one can test it against Butler -- would be to sit around and read all these minor novels and polemicists and decide for ourselves. One value of Butler and Johnson taken together is you get a whole host of names and books to read. I have read some of the novels Butler cites and analyses and some Johnson cites, and paradoxical though it may sound I think both Butler and Johnson persuasive. One can read Julia da Roubigné as radical, and place Jane West's A Gossip's Story against Austen's S&S and come away with Austen as deeply conservative; one can read Fanny Burney's Cecilia as one of these moderate books where strong criticism of society is couched in an acceptable idiom and come away seeing Austen as doing the same thing. As June remarks, in Johnson's book too we are left to believe Johnson is telling us the truth when she labels this book "moderate" and that "conservative" and the other "radical" or jacobin; still Johnson seems to be more even-handed because she is equally detailed when she approaches the authors she approves of and the authors she doesn't approve of.

Nonetheless, I think one can find a faultline between Johnson and Butler which explains why Johnson sees Austen as moderate and Butler sees her as conservative. The faultline lies in what you define as radical and what conservative. What perspective are you taking: a leftist or feminist one? Butler looks for economic, social, political equality for all; she wants individual freedom and autonomy, absolute fulfillment; she sees the state as a police organization and families as pretty awful. Austen does come out looking conservative from Butler's leftist readings. Johnson defines as radical a concern with women's freedom from what she calls patriarchy, women's equality with men, an interest in woman's concerns (whether they are equally educated, get equal exercise). There I think she ends up stretching Austen's text because she must defend indefensible heroines and attack heroes who are exemplary; but so too does Butler stretch Austen's text until it seems postively filled with stupid cant (Butler denies the ironies, doesn't look at details in the text). Still from the perspective of feminism Austen comes out moderate.

Johnson quotes Mrs Percival's stupendously pious and unfair attack upon Catherine as if Catherine had suddenly gone into prostitution and calls it "a very mean undertaking that reflects back unfavorably onto the speaker" (p. 3)

There's Mr Price's comment 'brutal remark about the adulterous Maria Rushworth, 'If she belonged to me, I'd give her the ope's end as long as I could stand over her" (p. 3)

Johnson made a good point when she said those who said to the radicals and revolutionaries, look at the horror you have sown as an argument against their vision and ideals for reform, were equating motives & ideals with results. Often in life the results of good motives & ideals are not what we might expect; it does not mean the motives or ideals were wrong. It may mean we went about our program wrongly or our motives and ideals need to be revised in the light of human nature. It certainly does not mean the old motives and ideals were right. That's what Burke argues. He says must hold to the old ideals since these new ones have produced horrors. No. Burke is trying to tie us forever to what has been as if because a thing has always been done it's good. That would have kept slavery in place forever.

Johnson says: "the plots of conservative fiction do not so much clarify or simplify moral problems as they deny that any exist." Yes. That's it. The same ploy is used today.

Johnson is right when she says "the objective of late-eighteenth century feminsits was not to apologize for adultery -- although it certainly seemed that way to astonished conservative readers -- but rather to plea for female autonomy, and htus to give woman a greater scope for 'liberty' than what they currently had.

This is a bit disingenuous. What pray tell, do women mean to do with their autonomy? Among other things, have sex with the man they want to have sex with. Not be forced to enter into or stay in bad marriages. It is false to insinuate feminism has not at its heart sexual freedom. It does. True that's not the only freedom woman want, but it is a central one, not just a variant on some abstract thing called autonomy. The modern fight over abortion is a fight over women's freedom to have sex without dire consequences. And dire they can be still -- and certainly were before the availability of good prophylactic techniques and contraceptives.

Johnson takes more time on Jane West than any other of Austen's contemporaries -- as does Butler. West must write terribly irritating works. We don't know why Austen said she could be stout against West. Maybe she found West boring? At any rate West is Johnson's and Butler's bete noir; for Butler, West is a stick to beat Austen with, for Johnson, West is someone to use to argue Austen couldn't be like this appalling stuff.

I will concentrate on Johnson's paragraphs on Wollstonecraft as she is the one of our four thus far read whom Johnson singles out. Like Claire Tomalin, Johnson says that Wollstonecraft's A Vindication was not offensive to most readers when it first came out largely because it was anti-sex. Tomalin rues this as rigid and naive on Wollstonecraft's part, and finds it ironic that Wollstonecraft instantly became anathema when she grew up and began to lead a free life; then was betrayed and finally died from puerpereal fever, and Godwin, meaning well, published her memoirs. Wollstonecraft was after her death seen as another Caroline Lamb (those who have been reading Glenvarnon know what that means).

1st moral: don't believe the pious statement that people are unwilling to speak ill of the dead. They are. 2nd moral: be careful who you leave your papers with (this moral applies to Austen's letters too).

Johnson doesn't regret the anti-sex basis of A Vindication. She says people at the time attacked this as "dour and "asexual" (p. 18). When Wollstonecraft the puritan became Wollstonecraft the easy lay, she was rejected. Of course both are unfair simplications. But when have readers ever read carefully or disinterestedly?

Austen could not easily have avoided reading Wollstonecraft's thoughts in some form. Johnson agrees with so many authors who say that in Burney's The Wanderer, or, Female Difficulties "the anti- heroine's feminist ravings, though duly dismissed by the sensible characters, provide accurate running commentary on the humiliation and injustice suffered throughout the novel by the heroine, Ellis. Johnson says Elinor Joddrell is "indispensable" to the novel. She goes over Edgeworth's Harriet Freke in Belinda too -- a character much less sympathetically presented. Of cousre much of what Johnson says can only be checked by reading the novels she discusses.

Here's mine line and I like it because it applies to many novels beyond Austen's in the period: the way women in novels argued for reform was through "the use of ironic parallels or multiple plots which belie, rather than underscore, didactic contrasts between good and bad girls, good families and bad families, good attitudes and bad attitudes." These underplots and secondary characters reveal the over lesson in the main story is simply inadequate to the case or even downright pernicious: it causes the trouble in the first place.

What is painful is to read about the frustrated real lives of many of them. Not that people are particularly happy today.

For those who are overwhelmed by many titles, I'd like to recommend one I have not mentioned and June does, one which Johnson discusses, Charlotte Smith's Desmond. It's an excellent epistolary novel, available in a Garland reprint. There's a wonderful essay on it in _Fetter'd or Free: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edd Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski: Diana Bowstead's Charlotte Smith's Desmond. This book includes an essay by Doody on Francis Sheridan (whose Sidney Biddulph I read and wrote about on this list last year). ISBN 0-8214- 086802.

Ellen Moody

--- Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind's first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful it left her nothing to wish. ---Fanny Burney, Cecilia

In response to Nancy,

It's curious to me that so many critics include synopses of Jane West's work in their studies of Austen's novels and yet there is no edition or even selection from the woman's work available in anthologies or the kind of editions put out by 18th century societies. I too have never read anything by Jane West. Her work is in the Library of Congress, but in the rare book room -- and thus takes a real effort to get to. In general, West's work seems to be anathema to all who read her today. Yet, as Claudia Johnson concedes, she was very popular in her day. I wonder if she was the Danielle Steele or VC Andrews of her time, and 150 and more years from now critics coming upon their work would react with similar loathing.

On another issue: one of the reasons I like 18th century novels -- and Austen too -- is they tell the truth. For example, Austen doesn't lie: we see Lydia run off; the bribe from Darcy is fairy tale, but not the circumstances. Eliza Williams dies in a spunging house; Maria runs away and after a while they tire of one another &c&c. She often saves her heroines: Jane Fairfax doesn't become a governess, but the circumstances of the stories are real, not a complicated strained melodramatic mish-mash which is hiding the reality of lives that conventional books in the 19th century did not represent. Johnson is right: the way people are kept in their places by books is for the writer to deny the real problem.

Now in the 19th century the real problem is transformed into melodramatic stories of blackmail and long-lost relatives suddenly popping up. It seems to me in 19th century novels instead of talking about illegitimacy and how mothers were separated from such children, we get absurd stories of complicated melodramas explaining how for years and years this mother and child have been separated, and now someone else is blackmailed for his or her conduct with respect to them. We don't get stories of serial monogamy but mistaken bigamy -- with the man as villain. Much that one reads in these later 18th century novels really reflects the horrors of private lives. So I would be inclined to say, yes, the woman would go back to her husband, and try to forget. The emotional scene accompanying the return is nonsence, but not the return. Middle class women had little choice: live with a man or take on hard (housekeeping, landlady), difficult (ditto), or physically exhausting (laundress, brewer, agriculture, and later piece work) or degrading (be a prostitute) work.


To Austen-l

February 17, 1999

Re: Claudia Johnson on NA and other 1790s novels My response to this chapter of Johnson's book is scepticism combined with admiration.

I can explain my scepticism and why I reject some of what Johnson says quickly. Her bias is obvious and some of the interpretations perverse; that is, against the grain of what Austen mean. In brief, for Johnson just about everything a male does is no good; everything the females do she finds justification for. So Isabella Thorpe is found understandable and Henry Tilnery a tyrant. True he is not very respectful of women, but I took note of the bitterness of Johnson herself when she wrote of Tilney's comments on women: "the cool possession of privilege entitles them [as men] to disparaging banter, not the less corrosive for being entirely in the normal course of things" (p. 37). How Johnson has writhed at men.

I also thought she somewhat overread. One can take a simple story and pour into it very sophisicated meanings which work in the sense of explain the story, only they're not necessary. Occam's razor once again. Her language is also critical-awful. It's clear she isn't meaning to reach a wide readership when she can write:

"Austen's enterprise is ... to expose the perspectivity of various discourses and to demonstrate how stock figures expressions and paradigms are not faithful or innocuous representations of reality, but rather themselves are constructions, which promote certain agendas and exclude others (p. 32).

Her falling into too abstract academic style is the worst of the chapter. But there's much in it that is rich and offers up food for thought if you reread the book afterwards. Or other books. Interestingly like Moreland Perkins Johnson is on the alert for the most radical Austen; Johnson too would like to turn NA into a jacobin book. Jeannie has gone over the ways Johnson does this by examing the text of NA; I'll mention a few books she uses to contextualise it. I thought her comments good, accurate; I have read a number of these books.

For example, Johnson goes over Charlotte Smith's Desmond where the heroine "calls attention to how gothic 'excesses' figure forth realities which young girls ought to know about." Johnson writes of that book's heroine: "would that Geraldine had had the benefit of gothic fiction to show her how to be disobedient and to teach her what to suspect from her protector." (p. 33). The idea is Catherine's real experience mirrors what she reads in Gothic worlds. The gothic is not grotesque, but an unmediated representation of the inner world of women.

Johnson's good on Radcliffe's books which lie behind NA. Dark and dreadful passages lead us into labyrinths of the mind. The harsh treatment meted out to the heroines in these books justifies rebellion though Radcliffe moves away from this by the end of each book. Johnson gives many details which again link Catherine's experiences at the Abbey to the gothic.

There's a good comment on Inchbald's A Simple Story:

"Without trumpeting its political relevance, Inchbald shows in A Simple Story that breaches of promise are countenanced by the powerful of all time. When Dorriforth's wife break her martial vows, she is justly banished into oblivion. Yet Dorriforth, formerly a Catholic priest is permitted to renege . . .

and generally act in the most inhumane way in the second half of the book. She's right that Catherine asks embarrassing questions as naive which brings out the paradoxes between what people pretend to and how they behave.

Although Johnson says Austen's NA is strongly influenced by attitudes of mind we find in Burney's novels, she really has little to say about Burney. Johnson may not think the Burney influence makes for her thesis Austen is tending towards subversion; it makes for Marilyn Butler's idea that Austen was conservative. Both Burney and Austen were sceptical and disillusioned. Butler's idea is one must believe in progress to be a reformer. Not so.

I thought this a strong chapter with many interesting side lights and commentaries despite its bias, over or perverse reading and occasional indigestible passages.

Ellen Moody

--- Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind's first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful it left her nothing to wish. ---Fanny Burney, Cecilia

To Austen-l

February 26, 1999

Re: Narrow-Minded Harsh Light on the Henry Tilnery and Austen's Males

In reply to Dorothy,

I agree that while Austen subjects Henry Tilney to some satire and can be found at a distance from him, what criticism of him there is is in the tone of Austen's criticism of Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and even at moments Mr Knightley. It is fond, affectionate, occasionally tart but basically cordial; the light thrown on him suggests that he, like some of the other male characters in NA tends to dismiss female altogether too easily, but that in his case he is judging the particular female on her moral qualities (or lack of them). There's a kind of spectrum set up in the novel with John Thorpe at one end and Henry Tilney at the other with the other males inbetween, each of them taking a view of females which is a function of his moral nature (Captain Tilney sees them as sex objects, General Tilney as possible pots of money).

The key to the objection to Claudia Johnson's discussion of Henry Tilney -- and Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon and later in her book Sir Thomas Bertram -- is she throws a harsh light on them which is not in the text. Were she to make clear that she is finding these meanings in this text, that would be one thing; but she does not. She attributes her reading to Austen. Sometimes as I read her I am reminded of the theory that the author has died. She will say "Austen demonstrates" and then a long abstraction emerges which shows a sharp overreading of the text and comes out of her own theoretical jargon. No Austen does not demonstrate that at all. It is you Ms Johnson who finds that meaning in the text. I wish she would use words in their true sense. To do this is to turn the word Austen into a meaningless noun and hitch it to a verb whose meaning cannot be parsed precisely.

I really recommend (in his Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility), Moreland Perkins's replies to Johnson's criticisms of Edward Ferrars, e.g.,

"Edward is made out to be such an abomination I hardly recognize him."

For Colonel Brandon he writes protesting the distortion of Brandon's deeply melancholy comment his cousin's child would have been better off dead than known what she has known; Brandon is the romantic man of sensibility, the disillusioned kindly one (a bit ghostly). Of Johnson's comments on Willoughby, Perkins writes:

"she cannot imagine how a desperately selfish man, who is nonetheless other things, can play the villain to a woman he desires and yet be horrified at the thought he may have caused her not only to die but to die thinking him to be worse than he is".

The points Perkins makes about Johnson's narrow-mindedness are applicable to her views on Henry Tilney. I haven't got the time to type out the pages (pp 109-115), but will offer up what I think is the at the heart of real objection to Johnson's approach as a whole and her berating of Austen's heroes whenever she can:

"Johnson's reading suggests her disposition to accept the mixed moral composition of most humans is less firmly entrenched than Austen's . . . "

As I say, the real question is, Is the distorted reading of old novels the way to create a feminist revolution? Do we do the world a social service to write a book of literary criticism which will only be read by a small minority of people who probably are interested in Austen or the later 18th century which twists the texts? Were Ms Johnson's purpose to do some social good, she ought to have gone in for some activities which would bring her thoughts to a wider range of people :). And how can teaching through a perspective shot through with anger and resentment produce anything but the same? And precious little enlightenment about ourselves. One purpose of literature is to hold up the mirror to ourselves. Johnson only sees herself in the good heroines; the bad ones she explains away as surrogates for the males.

Wait till we get to Frederick Wentworth. As I recall Johnson really lets him have it. She rejoices when Knightley moves into Emma's house. I find her celebration of Elizabeth running through the field unconsciously funny. Really the best thing is to keep one's sense of humour high when you reach some of these passages, and take from Johnson much that is good, winnowing out what is obsessive and absurd. At least Henry Tilney is a fiction; R. W. Chapman was a real person whose books we build our work on and whose texts we read, and she does belittle him. There of course we find the ambition motive (as Virginia Woolf would put it).

Ellen Moody

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