April 2017 meeting: Ways of appreciating Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (2)

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

More from our discussion of secondary sources on Northanger Abbey … from member Sally on

  • Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016), Chapter 3: The Anxieties of Common Life
  • Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel by Claudia L Johnson (1988), Northanger Abbey

Helena Kelly beings her chapter on Northanger Abbey by writing that:

Everyone knows what the novel is about – Catherine’s inability to read properly, her inability to interpret texts correctly, to separate fiction from reality. Excited, and rapidly obsessed by Gothic novels, she convinces herself that they present an accurate picture of the world around her … Henry discovers her suspicions, shows her how absurd they are, and she obligingly abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for ‘the anxieties of common life’. That’s the point, the moral.  Silly girls shouldn’t read silly novels. (p 39)

But, she asks, are we sure that we’re reading properly? And, after following a rather convoluted path, which passes through:

  • contemporary literary and dramatic influences on the novel (such as the comic operetta Blue Beard);
  • the history of its delayed publication, and Jane’s concerns that this would hinder readers’ ability to understand it;
  • its three bedroom scenes (unusual, and unmistakeable in their sexual element);
  • demographic data about she dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in the era, including in Jane’s own family, and Jane’s own comments on these events;
  • a discussion about what Catherine didn’t read or, at any rate, finish (somewhat unexpectedly it’s the Gothic novels she professes to love) and; finally,
  • a discussion about what she did read (which included English history and Shakespeare);

Helena Kelly concludes that Mrs Tilney’s death was related to her pregnancy:

For those who wonder, endlessly, why Jane never married, there’s a reason right here. Mrs Tilney’s room – the only marital bedroom Jane ever shows us in detail – is associated, indelibly, with death. Not only is the room in which … Mrs Tilney died, it’s a room haunted by the ghosts of literature … It’s haunted not just be dead women, but by women who’ve been murdered by their husbands. (p 68)

Does General Tilney’s behaviour with respect to his wife and her bedroom indicate a guilty conscience? she asks. Well, yes, perhaps. Jane is saying ‘sex can kill you …. all of the women in the novels who marry – are taking a terrifying risk. They’re placing their lives, potentially, in the hands of their husbands.’ (pp 69-70)

Catherine, Jane tell us, abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for the ‘anxieties of common life’:

There may come a time when the anxieties of common life – pregnancy, childbirth – begin to seem more threatening than the nightmares conjured up by Mrs Radcliffe. (p 70)

I am not sure that I was entirely convinced by Kelly’s argument, but I did find it quite plausible. It’s also illuminating to read it in conjunction with the chapter on Northanger Abbey in Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel by Claudia L Johnson (1988) who writes (among other insightful comments):

But gothic fiction represents a world which is far more menacing and ambiguous, where figureheads of political and and domestic order suppress dissent, where a father can be a British subject, a Christian, a respectable citizen, and a ruthless mean-spirited tyrant at the same time, one, moreover, in some legitimate sense of the term can “kill” his wife by slowly quelling her voice and vitality. (p 40)


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