Northanger Abbey: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity

To Janeites

April 21, 1999

Re: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity: NA and Other Novels

I like the basis of Gard's argument that we do not have to have read other gothic romances of Austen's period or even be afficionados of the type in our period to respond to NA. He says the reason we do not have to have read Udolpho or some 20th century version thereof is:

1) Good satire always creates enough . . . of its object for us to grasp what is being parodied; and, even more,

2) since, whatever we may like to assert out of pride, most of us 'judge through what' we have 'read as well as what we experience'. However, far-fetched or local and particular a given convention, we recognize the archetype which is presented as well as parodied. Gard sweeps away hypocrisies: how many people today still deny enjoying romance? Still like to think they learn basically 'from life'. Gard refers us to the 'highly respectable epistemological category of 'knowledge by description' proposed by Bertrand Russell': 'Most of us would not know of the existence of China or Peru', much less anything about them except from knowledge given us through the media of books and nowadays TV, radio, movies. Gard's comments that Sheridan Le Fanu's magical Victorian Gothick Uncle Silas (1864) depends upon genetic inheritance. I have just now begun Lady Audley's Secret and am enjoying myself partly because it is so redolent of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

Gard goes further and says we enjoy Austen's parody and various discussions of romance (even those of the boor Thorpe) in Northanger Abbey because 'all of it is done with the greatest good humour'. It is Gard's idea that 'unlike political satire, literary parody is usually the tribute of love, or at least affection'. He finds Austen's parody of the gothic in this novel 'engaging, pleasant' and one which recovers the original evocation of the emotions of gothic romance. Austen recovers those which are rooted in the human mind (and to be found in our uncensored dreams) and repeated in the banality of experience in such as way as to make them fresh. He quotes Henry's long awesome recreation of the manuscript Matilda which he recites to Catherine on the way to the Abbey and Catherine's first evenings under its and Henry's spell.

I would add to Gard that one way in which Austen makes these passages so fresh is to mock and recreate at once.

Yet despite his argument Gard's argument that we don't need to know these novels in detail, he tells us a lot about them :). This includes an exegesis on Johnson's style and how it is justified by the weight of perception in the words while people like Mary Hamilton are mouthing dead cant. Here is Gard on Isabella and John Thorpe on a few of the novels Austen characterises in so many ways continually throughout the novel:

'it is obvious that Isabella's dismissal of Sir Charles Grandison . . . shows her to be as insincere a reader as she is a lover. John Thorpe's stupidly masculine Oxford-undergraduate 'Oh Lord! nor I; I never read novels; I have something else to do . . his contradictory admiration for the lurid, if amusing porno- mystical trash of The Monk, and his in every sense Chauvinistic description of Fanny Burney -- 'that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant' -- with his failure to read Camilla -- 'such unnatural stuff' (this from a reader of 'Monk' Lewis) -- merely deepens our sense of his boorishness. . .

We have in contrast Henry and Eleanor Tilney's admiration, even passion for Radcliffe. Gard's footnotes include a curious defense of some of the novels under discussion ('certainly Camilla deserves to be more widely frequented').

Gard's explains why Catherine is so endearing (my word for her) and Henry Tilney so 'captivating' (his word for Henry). Gard says we are charmed by the truth of the depictions, and by Austen's quiet deflation of grandiose and absurd notions about the self in love. Neither figure is idealised; Henry is full of himself, sure of himself; Catherine is not so very perceptive and inclined to exaggerate the importance of every small moment (as a young girl might). What they are is beautifully good natured. Here I'd add that what Gard calls our desire to be gratified (& flattered) by travelling with the ultra smart (a desire that he says Henry James feeds) is not satisfied because Austen seeks to take us down a peg. We are not so very different from Catherine or Henry.

Here I like something he says in the footnotes. He refers to the recent hostility in feminist criticism to Henry Tilney and remarks on 'some hostile pages on Henry in The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar that what we find here is a 'characteristic abstraction' of the literal content of the text from its 'mood or tone.'

His analsyses of the funny dialogues between the characters and the narrator's sudden outburst in defense of novel-reading, and of the scenes in which we see our 'honest, courageous, and good little adventurer [i.e., Catherine] confront the world are all well-taken. He sees far more parody of herself in Austen than the usual critic; he is far less solemn. He says the novel is constantly raising the question of what this fiction is like. At the same time it alternates the 'abashing, remorseful educative crises' of her heroine. He does agree with me that Austen works to make Isabella very dislikable even if she is not someone twisted and meaning to do real harm or hurt (such as Mrs Norris). It's a 'delicate oscillation' between characters as types in a parody and characters as believable fully alive presences. Gard agrees with me that one way in which we are led to love Catherine is by making us so 'intimate' with -- what I called close up to -- her.

Ellen Moody

--- 'Oh! thou -- whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hand these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall . . . ' ---Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Re: Roger Gard on 'his name was Richard'

April 21, 1999

Gard did not mean to say that the following is not a family or 'in' joke of some kind:

'Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard . . . (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, I:1, 1).

Gard meant that we do not have to know what is joke or enjoy the passage.

This is a good example of where Gard leans too heavily on his argument that Austen's novels demand very little knowledge beyond that which an adult reader has gained in life and through books generally. The reality is while we can figure out that Richard was a name which had come to stand for the stereotypical poor, nelgected, and outcast clergyman of gothic romance, we feel we are somewhat shut out of something. Was it a particular novel that made the family light on this little joke? Was it a group of novels by a particular novelist? Was there someone in their family who had the name Richard? We do ask. We do wonder. We don't need to know it, but we remember it as an oddity which refers to something outside the book now lost.

There is an irony in the methodology of this chapter too. On the one hand, we are told we don't need to know these novels; on the other, Gard tells us a good deal and quotes modern critical books on them in his notes. Again we don't need to have read Radcliffe, but let us admit it helps to know something of Laurentina and her skeleton. If you've never swooned at the Matilda thing, you won't laugh as much. There is also the simple level of getting some of the jokes. A little later Austen plays on some line in Cecilia or Camilla; by the time you read the note at the back of the book, and come back to the text, a good deal of humour is lost.

We need to be interested in gothic romance, sympathetic to it, or people who once have read it. I will give a personal experience. A while back while in my car I made the mistake of playing part of my wonderful dramatic reading of the whole of Northanger Abbey read by Anna Massey (for Cover-to-Cover) while my husband was in the car. He was not entranced. Why not? He never has read romance; has no interest in it, and as he listened to some of the passages, he was not engaged at all. Now this may have been him. It's an anecdote. Still my experience is that those people who like NA best are those who like romance. (The same goes to some extent for P&P and Persuasion, different sorts of high romance, one comic, the other poignant and at moments bitter.)

Where Gard is right is you don't have to have read poor novels of the period to get Austen's inner meaning; they will not lead you into that aspect of her text -- its inner life.

Ellen Moody

April 23, 1999

Re: Gard's Art of Clarity: NA

Later on Gard talks about how the characters in Austen 'come alive.' One source of this sense of vivid 'thereness' comes from Austen's modulating from speech which we read as half-the narrator's or the narrator's into thoughts we identify as Catherine's or that of some other character's. It makes a spill over of intensity back and forth. Another result is concision: you can refer to a conversation through writing down indications of that conversation in snatches as it moves through a character's mind instead of writing down the whole. Richardson is so long because everything is told as it occurred, detail by detail, nothing referred to, indicated, or summarised through the medium of the character's mind.

On another issue, Gard argues that both Thorpes are meant to be appalling. John Thorpe exhibits a group of traits we found Austen presenting as anything from abhorrent to merely distasteful throughout her books: he is, among other things, unfeeling, a liar, a boor, mercenary, a hypocrite, valuing foolish things and boasting of cheating in getting them; he enjoys ridiculing others. It matters not what we might say in the sense that he's not a heinous monster; what matters is that in the scheme of Austen's values he stands for that which leads to the misery and evils we encounter in everyday life. It is he who first tells the General Catherine is superrich, and then he who tells the General Catherine is superpoor. Both are tales told out of vanity and spite. The irony is he helps her to get close to Thorpe. But Austen believes much less in virtue getting her reward and thinks the world runs by chance more than she is given credit for.

Gard suggests how Austen's characters live on in the mind.

Gard's disagrees with the school of thought that finds significant differences between the sections of NA that occur in Bath and that occur at Northanger. I belong to this school :). I find important differences in mood and aim; there is a problem for Austen in modulating from the one section to the next, but not between sections. However, since we are reading and writing about this particular novel to one another, maybe we should wait until we move into the Northanger section to see if there is a difference.

My favorite sentence from this second part of Gard's chapter on NA is: 'The novel is everywhere, albeit light heartedly, raising the question of what fiction is like.' I agree -- except I want to say I don't find this novel as light-hearted as Gard seems to. General Tilney is in a way one of the harshest males in Austen's oeuvre. He is far worse to live with than Sir Walter Elliot in some ways, and he can do as much harm continually. Yet he is utterly believable -- as Sir Walter is not quite. There's a strong substratum of serious criticism aimed at the gothic too. Austen takes them seriously -- as does her heroine. I have always thought she is an author who lived through books, who not only extrapolated a great deal from her small corner of the world but from the books she read.


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