May Meeting

May 15, 2017

The May meeting is this Saturday, May 20th, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. The topic for discussion is “who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?”

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

April 29, 2017
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).

The April Meeting

April 18, 2017

The April Meeting is this Saturday, April 22nd, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing Northanger Abbey through secondary sources.

March 2017 meeting: Northanger Abbey (Part 2)

March 18, 2017

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.

March Meeting

March 13, 2017

The March meeting is this Saturday, March 18th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Volume 2 of Northanger Abbey.

February 2017: Northanger Abbey (Part 1)

March 4, 2017
Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Cheng

The first half of Northanger Abbey, vol.1 was the source of such spirited disagreement that it is a fortunate thing we are a very good-humoured group. And given the surprisingly wide range of opinions by Austen academics it is no wonder no director has ever got the film right either.

‘This ambitious, innovative piece of work, quizzically intellectual about fiction itself’ [Marilyn Butler] is a comedy with serious overtones: a merger of two parodies. Vol.1 (Chapters 1-16) is principally a parody of Bath novels, which were popular social comedies of the day dwelling on marriage and money, such as those by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and a satire of Gothic novel readers. It is a sunlit introduction to Vol.2 which moves into a burlesque of the darker, Gothic world of Mrs Radcliffe.

Northanger Abbey has several intertwining themes but the strongest is BOOKS AND THE READING OF BOOKS. Jane Austen ‘presents reading as at once a trivial pursuit, a form of social bonding, the quest for pleasure and satisfaction, and a trainee’s preparation in reading the world’. [M.B.]

Her strong authorial voice was the most troubling aspect of the novel for several of our members. Self-consciously intrusive, using strong irony, she was likened to the most precocious child in the class – attention seeking and out of control. In fact, there is no hero or heroine. It is Jane Austen herself. For others, the lack of the subtlety of her later mature works was no problem; they delighted in the tongue-in-cheek joi de vivre of the young novelist emerging from the Juvenilia.

Through all the laughter however, come warnings about lack of parental guidance in ensuring a broad range of reading material for children and encouraging in them a healthy scepticism and discrimination: learning to read between the lines.

Jane Austen’s defence of the novel and novelists is a cry from the heart – one of the rare moments in her writing when she lets the sophisticated narrator’s voice drop and her own ring out.

The 21st century reader needs to have a thorough knowledge of 18th century authors in order to get all the sly jokes that readers of her time would have understood immediately and on a very different level. Austen uses the same plot motifs as Richardson, Burney and Edgeworth during the Bath scenes and obviously wanted her readers to spot the parallels of characters and events, make the connections and laugh all the more.

Sir Charles Grandison, Evelina, Cecelia, Camilla and Belinda were works she admired and all feature the entry of an inexperienced, vulnerable heroine onto the dangerous adult world. ‘Catherine… some senses is Camilla – young, inexperienced, impetuous, charming and fundamentally virtuous’. [M.B.] John Thorpe is a hopelessly clumsy  ‘version of Richardson’s villain who abducts the heroine in a carriage’, [M.B.], only Thorpe blusters around in a gig with a tired old horse.

One member pointed out that even the quotations in the first few pages, ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘Like Patience on a monument’, etc., intended to be serviceable and soothing to heroines in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives, are hilariously out of context. Austen is twisting their meaning – and pulling our legs.

The word ‘hero’ was first used as the central character of a work by John Dryden in 1697. The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or drama, cast with immortal gods, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections and for the first time we have access to his thoughts and feelings. He follows the great classic mythic cycle – he begins life in paradise, is displaced from paradise, endures a time of trial and tribulation, usually a wandering journey on which he achieves self-discovery as a result of his struggles and he returns to paradise – or a new or improved one.

We use the term far too loosely in our post-modern world. It has been devalued in the same way as Henry Tilney’s ‘nice’. Protagonist, main character, even simply main man and leading lady are more suitable. Henry and Catherine are more like anti heroes – examples of Austen’s cheeky sense of humour. Henry is also the least brooding of her main males, as a member reminded us.

are simultaneously the strongest and the weakest aspect of the book because the villains are far more memorable than the virtuous. One member felt that in her youthful exuberance Austen was juggling too many major themes: her belief in the importance and worth of novels and novelists, her send up of Gothic novels, the need for more discriminating reading and more naturalness and realism in novels. In her later works, with more discipline and control, her characters are all important. Nevertheless, everyone loved the little comic colour of supporting roles, such as Mrs Allen’s preoccupation with her gowns and the touching comfort she took from the superiority of her lace.

John Thorpe: definitely her most loathsome bully – as noisy as Donald Trump. Austen’s handling of this narcissist, so many decades before psychoanalysis, is brilliant. Catherine and her brother are John and Isabella’s prey, though Catherine is not so gullible as her naive brother. Thorpe has a long way to go in Austen’s writing before she develops his character into a smooth Henry Crawford. However, it is really he who drives the drama (as do all Austen’s bad guys). He is the catalyst for the most memorable scenes.

Henry Tilney: the character we differed on the most. For one member he was sickening, simpering, very much the cleric, preachy, dogmatic, role-playing – as predatory as John Thorpe. He was seen as after ‘fresh goods’, and so controlling: ‘I know exactly what you will say’ in your journal tomorrow. Is he a dominated son seeking to dominate in his turn? At the other extreme he was deemed a charming, intelligent, amusing metrosexual. And, after he declares

‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’

is obviously worthy of Catherine. Somewhere between these poles, a member enjoyed his company but found him lacking in substance, a bit too detached and not quite flesh and blood.

Catherine Morland: the main source of the novel’s playfulness, youthfulness and warmth. We become enchanted by her through some of Jane Austen’s most charming descriptions:

‘and her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home’. [vol.1, ch. 10]; and

‘Catherine…..enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. [vol.2,ch. 1]

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

Anxious attentions to the weather, Northanger Abbey (CE Brock)

Jane Austen rekindles memories of how we felt when we were first in love – watching excitedly for a glimpse of our beloved.

Her personal growth comes slowly and therefore, convincingly. When Thorpe cries

‘Thank ye, but I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about, and look like a fool. No, if you do not go, d- me if I do. I only go for the sake of driving you’

Catherine, harassed and pressured, utters her first sharp remark,

‘That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure’

and starts to think John Thorpe a very unpleasant young man. She starts to show the strong principles at her core, her honesty and determination to behave with good manners.

were touched on briefly – the accuracy of street scenes and the detailed programme of activities in Bath in the 1790’s and the eventual antipathy felt for it after six weeks. Austen had visited it twice in that decade when she also was an impressionable young girl, though with a sharper eye than Catherine’s. There was also the contrast of the domestic scenes – the rationality at the Morland’s home, to that of the superficial Thorpes, the repressed atmosphere at the Tilney’s and the odd contrast at Catherine’s lodgings of the quiet, sensible, intelligent Mr. Allen with his feather-brained wife.

were discussed even more briefly. The Tilney’s were an influential, politically active family in Tudor times, supporters of the movement to overthrow Elizabeth l and install Mary Queen of Scots.

So many ideas and topics had been tossed about that the meeting closed before we had even approached subjects such as accomplishments, sensibility, the picturesque and the advent of consumerism. The final chapters await us in March, when we will again ‘breathe the fresh air of better company’.

SOURCE: the introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler in the Black Penguin Classics 1995 edition

February Meeting

February 13, 2017

The first meeting of the year is this Saturday, February 18th in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be discussing Volume 1 of Northanger Abbey, that is Chapters 1-19 inclusive.