April 2017 meeting: Ways of appreciating Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Jenny.

How do you like your Jane Austen – humorous, ironic or deeply critical of the ways of the world?

Exploring secondary sources about Northanger Abbey members of our group found them all.

John Wiltshire in The Hidden Jane Austen,2014, depicted her as a lively amused narrator taking an opportunity to deliver a passionate defence of the novel. Whereas Tiffany Niebuhr in Persuasions #34, 2012 (“The Ethos Humour: A Study of the Narrator in Northanger Abbey”) sees her as using humour to engage her readers “in the dance” in her playful moralising about against Gothic excess and detractors of the novel.

George Justice in Persuasions #20, 1998, believed the book was an anti-courtship novel on the basis of the meaning of the word “court.” Seemingly the word evolved from the manipulative behaviour of courtiers but was in flux in the 18th century and became more settled in relation to marriage. The word occurs only three times in the novel and Austen condemns the baseness of courtship characters who dupe each other. The attraction between Henry and Catherine ends unromantically but is a true connection. They refused to act simply in their own interests.

Meanwhile Helena Kelly in Jane Austen; The Secret Radical, 2016, addresses the anxieties of common life in relation to Catherine’s inability to read character and thus distinguish between reality and the social stratagems around her. Kelly also suggests the idea that Mrs Tilney’s death related to pregnancy thus implicating General Tilney in an alternative way to Catherine’s belief. Group members felt sceptical.

Brian Southam in Casebook: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1976) revisits D.W.Harding’s essay on regulated hatred and believes that Jane Austen’s irony is profound, citing Henry Tilney’s speech about “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies” when he discovers Catherine in his mother’s bedroom. He argues that

The fertility of Henry’s imagination betrays him into conjuring up the very Gothicism he supposes himself to be denying.

While Southam goes on to develop the contextual dark side of Regency England and the fear of revolution, Wiltshire believed that Austen was, in fact, channelling Samuel Johnson’s fears and that the speech was not meant to be ironic. (And people wonder why we Austen fans can find so much to talk about year after year, when even the scholars and critics can differ so markedly in their readings.)

An entirely different approach was taken by German born architectural historian, Nicholas Pevsner. He believed that Jane Austen used locations to reinforce her characterisations. He bewailed the fact that she included little architectural detail in her novels, unaware that the writer believed firmly in restraint in such matters. Judy Stove-Wilson believes his view is worth consideration because his scholarly approach to Austen’s work was among the first to treat her as a proper subject for study. (New Guides to Bath: Society and Scene in Northanger Abbey. Sensibilities June, 2016.)

General Tilney’s treatment of Catherine on discovering that she is not an heiress enables Northanger Abbey to be seen as a form of class warfare between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’. This gives strength to Southam’s argument linking Henry’s two speeches about “spies” and earlier about “riots in London” as having deep  significance. It was moral rebellion against the ways of the world. According to Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen’s irony is a way of keeping her distance and this irony stands between her and moral engagement, writes Elizabeth Hardwick (An Engaging Story of Human Beings 1965: Afterword in the New English Edition of Northanger Abbey).

In Austen’s later novels her style was much more subtle according to Wiltshire, her opinions were ‘scarcely perceptible shifts of inflection or the subtle merging of points of view.’

It would appear that it is precisely because Jane Austen’s work can be read on so many different levels, thanks in part to psychology professor Harding’s 1940 interpretation, that it has such lasting appeal to so many.

If Austen could answer her critics would she be equivocal like Somerset Maugham, who, when asked about the meaning of his poetry, said words to effect that ‘my work means whatever it means to the person reading it at the time that they read it’?

Other business:

News about how Basingstoke and Winchester marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in 2016

  • A sculpture of Jane Austen walking by Adam Roud
  • Sculpted ‘open book’ benches positioned in places that influenced Jane’s work
  • Winchester’s wet pavements following rain will remind walkers that Jane walked there too. (the art is only visible when wet)

Schedule: we decided on the schedule for June to October: it can be found in the blog sidebar.

Next meeting will be on the subject of whether Jane Austen’s heroines asked for or responded to advice (particularly from men).

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