Northanger Abbey

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

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This is In the nature of an introduction, though the reader might read the first paragraph and then return.

For a reader of that time the title Northanger Abbey connotes Gothic fiction, a novel with a specific setting (not the English country house) and likely traffic in specters, ghosts, miraculous signs, satanic villains, and supernatural events. "Northanger" conjures up the inclement, savage north as well as violent passions such as lust and revenge along with anger. With "Abbey" Austen evokes England's Catholic past, a world whose obscurantism, superstitions, secret rites, and cloisters offer a prurient delight to the Protestant mind. Austen's title might remind her reader of a famously lurid, quasi-pornographic novel, passingly discussed in Northanger Abbey, Samuel Lewis's The Monk,1796. 

The actual geography of Northanger Abbey's opening offers so complete an antithesis to the craggy north as to be comic. That is Austen's point. She sets most of the novel in the south of England. Within a few pages she'll move us to Georgian Bath, which epitomizes Enlightenment lucidity and urbanity. Nothing could be more distant from the abscesses of personality the Gothic indulges. The newly-constructed Royal Crescent and the assembly rooms communicate light, order, frivolity, and secularism. Bath is a spa-town dedicated to gregarious pleasures for the affluent—shopping, music, dancing, cards, and spouse-hunting. Bath's Royal Crescent and Pump Room are some of the finest public spaces in England. Public, but far from nature and natural. The public buildings and iron palings around the manicured greens control nature. Bath has so civilized nature as to reduce it to some frippery on a Corinthian column or a dress made of "sprigged muslin." The town is an engine for the repression of nature and the transmutation of personal fears and desires into refined social behavior. Though there's much busy courtship, there's very little real passion or even carnality, for Bath is more about money than love.  

Nor does Catherine Morland's background afford, as she hopes, the frisson of a Gothic life. Only her name is promising. Morland (different from the names of other Austen heroines such as Woodhouse, Bennet, Price, or Elliot) anticipates the Brontës' windswept world. Her Christian name associates her with two saints, Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena, the first of whom ranks high in the Catholic hierarchy, and was martyred, the second of whom died according to the Catholic Encyclopedia in a "mystical trance." But that's about all that she has going for her.  

She'd be far better off in a novel such as Pride and Prejudice where her conventional circumstances would advantage her. She’s the oldest daughter of an easy-going, affluent parson and his practical-minded, sensible wife. Her parents are enlightened and don't fuss over her; her nine siblings are blessedly ordinary, without a lunatic or poet among them. No one will abduct her for her beauty or money. Still, she's determined to be the heroine of of a Gothic novel. This makes her author unhappy. She's tied to a heroine who would much prefer Mrs. Radcliffe ("the great enchanter") to be writing her life. Catherine and Jane are a version of the Odd Couple. 

In fact, when we meet Catherine she's reading Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Radcliffe is the doyenne of Gothic novel and Udolpho a best-seller. But to complicate matters, Catherine, not beautiful and exotic enough to be a Gothic heroine, is so average as hardly to qualify as an Austen one. Her naivete, ignorance, and credulity make her an oddity among her sisterhood: independent, smart Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice); the bright, confident Emma Woodhouse (Emma); pious, earnest Fanny Price (Mansfield Park); and mature, insightful, quiet Ann Elliot (Persuasion). That leaves the truly romantic and talented Marianne of Sense and Sensibility, but alongside her Catherine looks klutzy. She's deaf to music and unable to draw a shrub no less a blasted oak. Her naivete is charming but so extreme that for a time it borders on stupidity. She's attractive, not beautiful, good-natured, plucky, and open to learning. Anyone seeing Catherine in her "infancy" (the word Austen uses, which is synonymous with "child" and refers to someone up to about seven) would know she's not destined to be a "heroine." That word suggests either classical tragedy, an Antigone, or a Gothic novel. The robustly ordinary Catherine (even her desire to be a Gothic heroine is normal for her time, class, and age) is finally a Gothic anti-heroine. Austen finds in her the vehicle to write a comically subversive burlesque of Gothic that also challenges its authority and popularity.  

Bath is the logical terrain. Austen lived briefly in Bath and disliked it. Her other posthumous novel, Persuasion, also has important scenes in Bath, which she uses to expose some of the follies and cruelties of the gentry. Yet Bath serves her well, for her novels stay within the public world of the manor house, village, or town. Bath is open and light and epitomizes the public domination of the private. Excepting Marianne Dashwood, Austen's heroines reveal little of their private lives. This is because Austen believes that we are or ought to be chiefly public beings with duties to the society that take precedence over those to ourselves. Civilization in a sense over the psyche. Our private lives, however painful, must not impede our public obligation to be useful and cheerful enough that we don't make others bear the burden of our unhappiness. 

Accordingly, the action in an Austen novels occurs mainly in social spaces, in drawing and dining rooms and when outdoors between the shrubbery and the house. Indoors or out, the repression of nature, human and earthly, is efficient. The most effective omnipresent is the unblinking gaze of the public itself. Bath's nightly balls are not masked, and its seductresses and rogues are, the reader will see, blatantly obvious and rendered nearly impotent by the equivalent of passport control. Youthful visitors to Bath come to gawp, display themselves, and flirt; the parents and others of the older generation enjoy conspicuous consumption, claim to be there for the medicinal waters that treat rheumatism, gout, and digestive disorders, but find their real cures in the rooms dedicated to card games and talk with new acquaintances. More conspicuous and important than the consumption is conspicuousness itself, seeing and being seen. 

 The Gothic novel favors dark, isolated places that can liberate private desires—bedrooms, sepulchers, caves, dungeons, and nunneries. Outlaws not in-laws figure heavily in the Gothic novel, along with renegade monks, androgynous nuns, and brooding, libidinous barons. The Gothic is the id's unfettered playground, whereas Bath is the triumph of the superego. The Gothic, energized by nature's sublimities and forces, unlocks the psyche. Bath engages civilization in the form of manners, amusements, architecture, and an unremitting voyeurism to keep the psyche out of sight. 

Sir Horace Walpole's clunky The Castle of Otranto (1764)the first Gothic novel, accompanied his extraordinary Strawberry Hill Castle (1749-1776), a fantasy recreation of a Gothic castle in Twickenham, close to London. The Gothic Revival is an instance of the return of the repressed. Not coincidentally it originates in the mid-18th c. as the Enlightenment crests. Gothic is in part a reaction against the scientific, rationalizing spirit that runs from Newton and Locke through the 18th c. to Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin.  The hope of Locke and his successors was that the mind would reveal itself to be as orderly and knowable as Newtonian nature and would lend itself to being as regulated and predictable as a spinet's mechanism. An instrument of repression and regulation was relentless public scrutiny. The gentry in Bath do little but take the measure of one another's dress, deportment, manners, family, wealth, and character, the sum of which defines one as "respectable" or not (the word's Latin root, re-spectare, is to look again). The iconic image of the controlling, disciplining public gaze governed Bentham's design for the perfected penitentiary, the Panopticon (all-seeing), in which every cell and its inhabitants were visible to a single omniscient guard. This was conspicuousness elevated to a more efficient but not a new level.

Yet Enlightenment hopes for domination incited a vehement reaction, of which the Gothic was a strong part. The Gothic hints that the mind cannot be mapped no less regulated. The irrational and perverse are inextinguishable. The mind itself and especially, its dark interiors might be so impenetrable that even a person's motives might be indiscernible motive among the welter of desires and fears composing the psyche. As for Newtonian nature, a clock-like mechanism reducible to mathematical formulae, appeared to many to be cold and inhospitable.

The Gothic restored mystery, wonder, and terror to nature and the mind. Gothic fiction, a branch of the growing body of Romantic literature, dealt in assumptions about the mind that felt more familiar to readers than Bentham's dry calculations of happiness or Godwin's reign of reason. Such writers might prefer to quote Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." For that matter Hamlet itself but especially Macbeth, with its prophetic witches, ghost, oracular riddles, hints of parthenogenesis, and walking woods, could have been a wellspring for the Gothic. Addison's Spectator for April 20, 1711, is devoted to the attempts on stage "to fill the Minds of an Audience with Terror...." But the best Gothic has an agenda. It shows that terror is not limited to a ghost "in a bloody Shirt" but will be found in the mind's own imaginings, irrationality, and unholy longings. Catherine Morland, naive as she is, rightly yearns for a world and a life that offer more than the cultivated blandness of Bath and the gentry.    

Whether she's trying to write a Gothic romance that will serve her heroine's desires or alternatively shoehorning Catherine into a realistic novel, Austen affects the persona of an author with a problem. Her heroine is betwixt and between. Her circumstances don't favor the Gothic and her naivete and still undeveloped intelligence offer little promise for the comparatively sophisticated people Austen usually writes about. What does an author do? Bath is no more promising than her heroine. It's a self-satisfied resort populated by fops, scheming women, neurotic men who are more a danger to themselves than to anyone else, a couple of petty rogues, and the rest who think only about muslin, balls, hats, cards, and horses. Is there a future novel in this? Yes, but it will have to be  a comic novel.

Austen's strategy is to keep her eyes open and report what she sees and hears. This will reveal to her readers' surprise and delight that Gothic bizarreness nests within the ordinary social world even of Bath. That means that Austen, a realist author, needn't abandon her customary venue. The people she observes in Northanger Abbey are sufficiently weird and self-serving. Reported drily, Bath's ordinary social life can induce wide-eyed wonder. Austen is the consummate observer of manners, speech, inflections, and the numberless small public gestures that compose our individual signatures. We learn from Austen's recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, that in the environs of Austen's home, Steventon Rectory, were enough lunacy, sexual deviation, and family dysfunction to gratify the most jaded reader of Gothic. Some of that enters Northanger Abbey.

 Austen's polarization of Gothic and realist invites her to address literary issues here more extensively than she does in any other novel. While this is not her greatest novel, it deliberately challenges those readers who have turned to the Gothic for thrills to reconsider their choice. Why eat out when the food is at least as exotic at home? As for her devoted readership, she reminds them that the realist novel is far from bloodless. She doesn't traffic in brute force, no less rape and murder, but Bath and the gentry, their manners notwithstanding, belong to the world, and it is not the world of pastoral romance. Their world centers on money and appearances, which that iniquity and egotism abound, even if they're draped and scaled to the Pump Room. 

Northanger Abbey is partly Austen's defense of her fiction's scale. Scale must be distinguished from scope. Desire, sexuality, and potential mayhem exist in Austen (consider Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park especially) and can precipitate a disturbance that in the drawing-room may be shocking—as loud as a pistol shot in a bathroom. When the settings are both social and small, a failure of sympathy, a careless word, or a spasm of selfishness assumes painful proportions. (If there is a limitation to Austen's world it is not her scale but her vertical range, for she confines herself largely to one class, the gentry.) But even so her world is not rarefied: her subjects are money, desire, love, courtship, marriage, elopement, adultery, pride, disastrous wills and entailments, vanity, meanness, anxiety, selfishness, laziness, depression, shame, abominable child-rearing, and the precarious future of a family. And to the degree the family is emblematic, of a class. 

In parodying the Gothic, Austen is also satirizing her age's hunger for an escape to a hyper-world that makes it unnecessary to observe, discriminate, and judge intelligently the real world in which they live. (That our time has Gothicized and Vampirized Jane Austen says something about our own craving for stimulation.) To observe, discriminate, and judge, and then formulate our understanding in words that are precise and clear, as she does, require insight and thought. She expects those of her readers. Yet she offers precious rewards in the form of refined irony and comedy. These, it just happens, are fatal to Gothic fiction. Even a snicker will collapse Gothic's fragile machinery. 

Comedy, Austen believes, is vital to the life of the mind and redeeming. Without it we become self-satisfied and parochial. Comedy makes transforms the unendurable into a matter of zestful thought. Her greatest comic creations are entirely earnest and humorless. Comedy expands the world by doubling it with irony and burlesque. The Gothic only seems large by comparison with, say, Pride and Prejudice, because we're apt to believe that the presence of raw iniquity is somber proof of a greater reality. Yet the Gothic is at least as exclusive as Austen's manor houses. They lack dungeons and instruments of torture, but the Gothic excludes levity.

A devoted reader of Gothic fiction or spinoffs such as the romance novel for excluding desire, force, and terror. But in fact these are present throughout her novels though, so subtle and intrinsic a part of the life of her class, as to pass for the wallpaper. They've fully insinuated themselves into the normal commonplace. They're not discussed overtly—manners conveniently overrule that—but suppressed. Their near invisibility makes them all the more insidious.  Force and fear subtly drive the lives of many of her characters, especially the women but some men, too. All bow to respectability, a pitiless god. For her characters to remain tightly in control, to be conspicuous without appearing so, and to be pleasing require Herculean energies. The reality Austen documents is that uselessness and a life of trivial occupations, amusements, and conversation result in the boredom, hypochondria, and depression that have so numbed many of her men and women. 

Force and fear in the form of daily life in a patriarchal, class-bound, rigidly hierarchical society have much to do with money and gender. The conditions drive some young women into marriage because they have little money and dread even more than an affection-less union becoming a governess. This is practically the only viable occupation for a woman of this class, apart from making a living writing novels. The alternative to marriage or economic independence is a penurious aloneness clinging to respectability and a barren old age at the edge of a society whose matrix is the busy manor house. 

We glimpse these conditions in the novels. However, Austen, to make room for the comedy, Austen keeps them more implicit than explicit, as in fact the society works at doing. Her novels are comic and tell the truth, so far as both are compatible, with the weight given to our delight. Austen supplies in measured doses, any one of which would vaporize the Gothic novel—irony. But the comedy has its cutting edge. She's knowing, truthful, judgmental, and witty, while letting us sense the omnipresence of public force and sometimes private fear and thwarted desire (overtly present in the gentle Persuasion). In Northanger Abbey the comedy lives in the gap between Catherine's desire to escape into Gothic darkness and her being made conscious of the weirdness around her. Austen requires her heroine and her reader to scale their vision to their surroundings. That done, we smile, though it requires some courage and much hope, Austen knows, for us to remain wholly amused at what we see. 

 

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