March 2017 meeting: Northanger Abbey (Part 2)

While the first 19 chapters of Northanger Abbey, which we discussed in February, engendered good-humoured but spirited disagreement, our discussion of the concluding chapters (20 to 31) found a greater alignment of opinion, particularly regarding our enjoyment of the novel. However, it was no less lively and we found plenty to tease out and, yes, disagree on, starting with…

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

… the fact that some enjoyed the second part of the novel more than the first, while others found it a little sluggish and preferred the first part. How could this be? Well, for a start, we are Austen aficionados and it is a truth universally acknowledged that Austenites rarely agree on anything. Who would have thought?

We started – and indeed spent much of our time – discussing Henry Tilney and his father the General.

The ‘less than ideal’ hero, Henry

Henry Tilney! Oh how Austenites love to disagree about him! A member commenced our discussion by sharing a quote which gave her pause about Henry, whom she has always loved:

I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. (to Catherine and Eleanor)

This provided the perfect lead in for another member to share comments from The bedside, bathtub and armchair companion to Jane Austen. Authors Carol Adams, Douglas Buchanan, Kelly Gesch’s book argue that Jane Austen sends up Henry Tilney whose “tongue-cheek antiwomen comments put down women”. They suggest that Catherine is Austen’s first heroine to settle for a “less than ideal man” (and that she wouldn’t be the last!).

From this propitious beginning, we discussed the idea that Henry Tilney could be Jane Austen herself! It was also suggested that Henry’s sermonising could represent Austen’s own experience from her father and brothers and that “she was jack of it”.

We also teased out the idea that Catherine settled for “a less than ideal man”, looking particularly at Henry’s love for Catherine. We noted that Austen (as narrator) suggests that his initial interest in her was stimulated by hers in him –

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 that his offer of marriage was partly due to his sense of propriety and rightness, after the General’s treatment of her.

However, members argued that there are signs of Henry having real affection for her. Catherine herself (though is she reliable?) had sensed some signs of affection from him. And his kind treatment of her, particularly after discovering her horrible suspicions about his father, suggests affection.

Some members found him more witty in first half of the novel, and too condescending in second half, but we generally agreed that both halves round him out!

We considered the idea that the book is not a romance. It can be seen as a coming-of-age novel. And we could argue that it’s more about moral or ethical behaviour.

The villainous General

A member suggested that the General encompasses two types of villain: the Gothic villain of Catherine’s imagination and the “real” villain that he is. He’s a bully and a snob. His true villainy is domestic, and Austen is perhaps suggesting that young girls need to see the “real” villains closer to home rather than the melodramatic ones they read about. Catherine doesn’t “read” him properly. We talked about his treatment of Catherine at the end – his sending her home, suddenly and with no escort. This is not the behaviour of a man of breeding.

It was suggested that Catherine, having experienced the “evils” of Bath, is then handed to the greater evil in General Tilney.

At this point a member admired Mrs Morland’s wise handling of Catherine on her return. She praises Catherine, noting that she proved

she is not a poor helpless creature, but can shift very well for herself

Also, rather than rant about General Tilney, she simply says that “he must be a very strange man”. And, on her son’s broken heart, she comments that

I dare say he will be a discreeter man all his life, for the foolishness of his first choice.

Our member felt this was some of the wisest parenting she’d seen in Austen, and wondered if Mrs Morland represented the sort of mother Austen would have liked. Another member, though, pointed out that Mrs Morland completely missed the possibility that her daughter was nursing a broken heart.

But, back to the General: is he a member of the nouveau riche rather than landed gentry, we wondered?

Finally, we had a laugh at Mrs Allen’s expense, at her agreeing with her husband’s judgement regarding the General, and reiterating the phrase “I really have no patience with the General”. Her final reference to the General shows once again what an airhead she really is:

“I really have not patience with the general! Such an agreeable, worthy man as he seemed to be! I do not suppose, Mrs. Morland, you ever saw a better–bred man in your life. His lodgings were taken the very day after he left them, Catherine. But no wonder; Milsom Street, you know.”

Sundry other thoughts

Other topics we discussed included:

The growth of consumerism: evidenced through various improvements at Northanger Abbey and Henry’s rectory at Woodston, the General’s comment about not replacing his breakfast set though it’s now two years old. One member shared her research of carpets – the rise of the Axminster company and wall-to-wall carpets in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries.

Style: A member felt that the author’s voice was less didactic, more playful in the second part of the novel. She also loved the bathos in the scene describing Catherine’s return to Fullerton:

A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand.

Some were concerned about various contrivances, including the marriage of Eleanor to a viscount at the end, which facilitates the marriage of Henry and Catherine.

It was suggested that this novel shows a young author with “so many ideas and passions” that she works her characters around her ideas. In her later novels she more adeptly makes characters carry the ideas. A member suggested that the book could be read as a precursor to Emma: both novels have a younger woman who makes mistakes, who “puts her foot in it”, and an older man who plays the role of advisor/mentor.

One member said she would have liked the novel to end at the end of Volume 1, and another wondered whether it would have been better ending on Henry writing Catherine a letter saying he’d see her in Bath next season! That would be a more modern ending, though, she realised!

Fictions and their realisations: A member shared a theory she’d read that volume 1 of the novel is about the Creation of Fictions (as in the way characters build up stories about others that are not founded in fact) and that volume 2 sees their Realisation (which, in most cases, means their collapse!)

The art of the novel: We agreed that one of Austen’s goals in the novel was to explore and defend the novel, and their authors. One member even used Austen’s plea to novelists as her secret quote:

Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.

Another secret quote used was Austen’s statement late in the novel that “the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

We discussed more things too – including Henry’s comment re English sensibilities, our enjoyment of the story Henry told on the carriage ride (and its role in the novel), and Austen’s enjoyment of writing about female friendships.

Finally, a member, who had heard Austen biographer Paula Byrne at the Adelaide Writers Festival, shared Byrne’s view that if Northanger Abbey had been published when it was first bought by a publisher we could have had another six novels by her. Darn that publisher!


We changed the date of our April meeting to April 22, as the third Saturday in April occurs during Easter.

We also decided to devote our May meeting to exploring the statement that her heroines never ask male characters for advice.


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