October 2011 meeting: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Prepared by member Jenny.

If Jane Austen was so concerned about Northanger Abbey being dated after only 13 years, how would she have felt about a lapse of 200 years?

The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it [Northanger Abbey] was finished many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books and opinions have undergone considerable changes (from Austen’s special preface, 1816).

So, after 200 years how much do we fail to appreciate when reading her early novel?

Various editions of Northanger Abbey: Surprise, surprise, Penguin wins again!

It is in many respects a teenager playing a game with her readers. Virginia Woolf apparently saw it as “a girl of 15 laughing at the world”. It is so clever, sophisticated, ambitious and playful that many of the allusions are lost on us today. For instance, Jane, as a staunch supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots, would have been only too aware that Sir Charles Tilney, hanged drawn and quartered for his part in the Babington Plot, in 1586 had planned to kill Elizabeth 1 (whom Jane detested). Further, his family coat of arms in the church at Shelly Hall in Suffolk revealed intermarriage between the Tilneys and the Thorpes. This in turn adds to the humour of General Tilney as a voluntary spy supposedly trawling through pamphlets in search of sedition in the dead of night, for the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property.

Robert Hawkins, to whom we owe the above idea, believes that the novel is the most political of Jane Austen’s works (see his “General Tilney and Affairs of State: the Political Gothic of Northanger Abbey”  in Northanger Abbey: A Norton Critical Edition). He argues that Henry Tilney’s reference on Beechen Hill to the inclosure of forests “establishes a tension between poetry and history, between the probably and the actual, so that the reader is encouraged to make comparisons between the fictional context of the narrative and the historical context outside the narrative.” This political context is further widened by the reference to the food riots in London (far more Gothic than those in the Gothic romances.)

Another critic, Susannah Carson (A Truth Universally Acknowledged. 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen), suggests that Henry and Catherine are the least suited hero and heroine in any of Austen’s novels. She attributes this to Catherine not being “a study of human nature but a study of a literary heroine.” One member of the group couldn’t believe that such an intelligent man would fall in love with a twit of a girl like Catherine. However, others thought Henry might not have been quite so sophisticated as he presents himself to be. Jane is at pains to point out that Henry fell in love ,“bound as much in honour as in affection.” Earlier she writes that “his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” And Jane, having a go at sentimental romance, underlines the point with her authorial comment “dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity”:

… for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity …

Carson points out that Northanger Abbey is a “special sort of novel that is highly self conscious of itself as a special sort of novel”, particularly in the way it borrows from “contemporary gothic and sentimental romance”.

In General Tilney’s character, Jane is able to show how real life is more Gothic than the novels. Here is a voluntary spy, whose appalling fit of anger enables him to throw Catherine out of the Abbey to travel home unaccompanied, by post, with no money, on a Sunday. He is a man, who shows an appalling greed and extravagance by growing a hundred pineapples when the poor are starving. He even reminds Catherine of Montoni (from Ann Radcliffe’s The mysteries of Udolpho) by his demeanour.

And, of course, we all agreed that Jane captures superbly the spirit of teenage romance with its uncertainty and longing.

Although often considered the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels, the group decided that the more levels one reads it on, the more one appreciates and enjoys it.

Business and next meeting

The meeting concluded with our regular challenges: the quiz and the quote. And once again the quiz master stumped most of the group with his questions. We were particularly intrigued by:

Who or what was John Thorpe referring to when he told Catherine “we had a little touch together”? (If you want to know the answer, all you have to do is ask in the comments below!)

The next meeting on November 19 will be a talk about Georgian Architecture by member Margaret.


One Response to October 2011 meeting: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

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