Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey: Ch. 5

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The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other's train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novelsd; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipidw pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cantw. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectatorh, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

X [d] Yes, novels

Writing & Reading

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 …

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X [w] insipid

Of food, lacking taste; tastelessness, vulgarity of taste, In the next chapter Isabella will use the word twice in a short speech, thereby indicating the voguish insipidity of her own language. Johnson defines the word "wanting taste...spirit...pathos" in the sense of feeling.

X [w] cant

"The special phraseology of a particular class of persons, or belonging to a particular subject; professional or technical jargon" (OED), with here the sense of its its being ill-informed.

X [h] the Spectator

Writing & Reading

A daily publication written and edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele during 1711-12 (then for part of 1714) of some 2500 words per issue, distributed in London and read widely; soon collected into seven vols. (1714's issues make an eighth volume) and read throughout the century by women and men for its intelligence, standards of taste, and clear, balanced prose.…

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