Yes, novels

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Northanger Abbey (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 5

This passage has an edgy personal note to it, for Austen, in an uncommon departure, uses the first-person singular. 

It's no surprise that Catherine is an ardent novel reader, and no compliment to the form that the shallow Isabella is. But Austen, a realistic novelist, is not going to say that young women such as Catherine and Isabella don't read novels—they consume them—or that they find them "insipid." Nor will Austen have the two young women on a rainy morning reading David Hume's History of England, Pope's Essay on Man, or Addison's Spectator. That would be unrealistic of Austen and disloyal to the broad appeal of novels, far greater than that of any other genre.

Yet not all readers are equal, nor all novelists, nor are all novels of the same type no less quality. Austen's point is that the novel is not to be judged negatively by its huge and broad popularity. There are silly, young women who thrive on sentimental romances and Gothic fiction, some of it by silly novelists. That does not condemn the genre as a whole. Intelligent, talented, and morally serious women and men also read as well as write novels of all sorts. 

The first target of Austen's chastisement are those novelists who disparage their own art by describing heroines who disdain novels. Our "foes," she maintains, are almost as numerous as our readers. Though there was surely "trash," the works of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Goldsmith, the clever Frances (Fanny) Burney (the Cecilia and Camilla mentioned here, to whom we can add Evelina), Edgeworth (Belinda), Scott, and Austen herself, to take the best-known, were perceived as lustrous by many except the most stiff-necked and pharisaical sermonizers, such as the buffoonish Reverend Collins in Past and Present.

There were many histories of England, including those by the David Hume and Catherine Macaulay, and Austen wrote a youthful parody of Goldsmith's History. But a question implicit in the contention between fiction  and history is whether fiction is less true than history? The claim can be made that some fiction, such as Scott's Waverley Novels, is the closest we can come to "history," and some of the novels of Defoe (including A Journal of the Plague Year), Richardson, Fielding, Burney, and Austen ARE history—they are the history of fictitious characters in real conditions of which we'd have at best a paltry, sketchy understanding without the "fiction." Fiction and history are not mutually exclusive. In any case, what writers choose to invent or painters to paint in a given time is itself germane to the history of the time.  

Behind Austen's defense of fiction is also a matter of gender. Whether or not the writer was a woman, the reading of fiction was associated more with women, whose minds, it was thought, were unequal to the task of reading philosophy, history, political science, and economics. Hence the embarrassed "Miss" who quickly puts away her novel for fear of proving that she was even more fatuous than her sex was judged to be. Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication is particularly severe on novels and their readers: "These are the women who are amused by the reveries of the stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retained in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste, and draw the heart aside from its daily duties." She then contrasts novels and histories: "Unable to grasp anything great, is it surprising that they find the reading of history a very dry task, and disquisitions addressed to the understanding intolerably tedious, and almost unintelligible?" Histories "exercise the understanding and regulate the imagination" (Chapter 13, section ii).  All that she will allow is that reading novels is preferable to reading nothing at all.  

Wollstonecraft's views reflect an understandable prejudice against a genre that debased women readers by entertaining them with affirmations and reinforcements of the society's institutionalized view of women. But her view of women novelists and women readers is, even a generation before Austen, is parochial.

The great Victorian novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) has a relevant essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856).

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