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Northanger Abbey

January 06, 2022

Northanger Abbey


January 06, 2022

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  1. “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?” The Pedagogy

    of Sensibility in Northanger Abbey
  2. The First Shall Be Last Austen secured a publisher for

    her Gothic parody in 1803. Although advertised, the text was never published by its original buyer. Some ten years later, Austen bought the manuscript back and started making revisions. A new preface suggests that she intended to publish a revised version in 1816, 13 years after its original publication date. Unfortunately, Austen did not live long enough to see Northanger Abbey in print. Her brother Henry published the work, along with her last novel, Persuasion, in 1817.
  3. What’s in a Name? In her personal papers and letters,

    Austen referred to her Gothic parody as “Susan” and then “Miss Catherine.” Northanger Abbey only came to be known as such when her brother published the novel posthumously. Unlike Austen’s own provisional titles, “Northanger Abbey” places great thematic and symbolic focus on the home of the Tilneys (the Abbey). Such a location-specific title suits a novel like Mansfield Park, which is literally grounded in the estate and thematically interested in the maintenance of familial ties, but it may not be as suitable for a work like Northanger Abbey, which focuses on characters that venture from family homes and productively oppose (rather than affirm) parental strictures.
  4. A “Minor” Work Admittedly, “Miss Catherine” is not a fully

    successful title either, as it does little to forecast the two distinct parts of the narrative (the section in Bath, which is realistically narrated, and Catherine’s time at the Abbey, which is an extravagant parody of the Gothic) or register the importance of Henry Tilney’s character. Some scholars consider Northanger Abbey somewhat uneven, and many argue that Austen’s early work lacks the narrative sophistication of her later masterpieces. That being said, even the harshest critics would affirm that Austen’s “minor” work has impressive literary merit: it is filled with her trademark wit and demonstrates the author’s keen ability to represent a range of individual psychologies in a flexible and focalized form of third-person narration.
  5. The Comic Gothic Austen’s “minor” novel grants a strong literary

    pedigree to the Gothic tradition. Northanger Abbey is one of the first works to integrate the realist mode with Gothic conventions, and Catherine’s stay at the Abbey stages the most successful parody of those conventions in English fiction. Miss Morland’s humorous misreadings do much more than set up Gothic clichés; they actually effect a comic Gothic by demonstrating how amusing the “explained supernatural” can be. Austen’s parodic novel lovingly recreates the Gothic tropes it gently satirizes and pays direct homage to numerous popular fictions, including the works of Ann Radcliffe. The problem, in Austen’s novel, is not with The Italian or The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with a specific character’s inability to distinguish her life from Radcliffe’s work.
  6. The Female Bildungsroman As the narrative progresses, Catherine learns that

    life is not a Gothic novel, and she acquires the ability to read literature, and people, with a more critical and discerning eye. Like Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot, Catherine grows as a character through epiphanic moments of self-realization. Unlike those other Austen heroines, Catherine’s growth is specifically linked to a maturation process that signals a movement from childhood (pleasantly rendered in her life at the Morland home) to adulthood (independent existence outside of the sheltered confines of Fullerton). Northanger Abbey can be considered a bildungsroman because it records Catherine’s social gestation and thematizes her character development.
  7. The Cult of Sensibility Catherine’s wide-eyed innocence may differentiate her

    from the rest of Bath society, but the pleasure she derives from emotionally excessive fiction betrays her kinship with the sophisticates of her age. In the latter part of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, it was fashionable for men as well as women to display “sensibility,” or sentimental responses that privileged extreme forms of emotion and sympathy. This “cult of sensibility” is evident in many early novels, including Austen’s own Sense and Sensibility, and serves as an important subtext for fictions produced during the Gothic’s Golden Age (1769-1820). Catherine’s appreciation of and for the deeply expressive Gothic is what initially draws her to the more worldly-wise Isabella and originally charms Henry Tilney. The queen of sensibility—Clarissa Harlowe
  8. Picturing the Picturesque Sensibility is not the only cultural preoccupation

    that Northanger Abbey addresses. It also lays strong emphasis on theories of the picturesque. When Henry and Catherine go on their long walks in the woods, he literally teaches her how to look at the landscape. In so doing, he gives her insight into an important aesthetic innovation of the Georgian era, which shifted focus from human action and intervention in a given location to the “natural” beauties inherent in the “backdrop” itself. His teasing discussions help Catherine to see that there is more to refined sensibility than overt displays of human emotion, and that emotional expression is not equivalent with overindulgent histrionics.
  9. A Vindication of Educational Rights As Henry’s lessons intimate, scandalous

    tales and shocking fictions are fine in their place, but they need to be supplemented by “history, real solemn history” and other important subjects, lest a reader forego intellectual and emotional balance. The ironic narrator notes and approves of the fact that Catherine was “heartily ashamed of her ignorance,” and it is clear that Henry is only willing to offer his hand in marriage once Catherine’s mind has been expanded with new ways of perceiving the world. Like Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous essay, Austen’s novel appears to vindicate the rights of woman by privileging an education that will make women capable of moral and intellectual discrimination.
  10. A Novel Defense Although the text does suggest that it

    may be possible for some people to read too many (horrid) novels, it does not posit the fictive form is itself a problem. As Captain Benwick of Persuasion so amply demonstrates, poetry can also have a deleterious effect on an overly susceptible reader. The problem lies not with idle female brains and the lowbrow novels that would addle them, but with an individual’s choice to see only what s/he wants to see in a given text. Refusing to disparage the novel in general or the Gothic in particular, the narrator of Northanger Abbey famously declares that novels are works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed . . . in the best possible language.”
  11. Austen’s ABC of Reading Austen’s famous defense of the novel

    comes in a passage that questions the societally defined hierarchy of literary forms. As Northanger Abbey shows again and again, how one reads is as important as what one reads. Although Austen makes clear distinctions among texts (privileging Mrs. Morland’s appreciation of Sir Charles Grandison over John Thorpe’s fixation on The Monk), she is ultimately more concerned with the reading practices that are evinced by her chosen texts (Mrs. Morland enjoys Richardson because she is fond of rereading and reflection, whereas John espouses Lewis because he skims novels for the “interesting” bits.) True reading, in Austen’s world, involves deep and penetrating understanding, not shallow familiarity with fashionable ideas, trends or sayings.
  12. Dancing Around the Conclusion In the end, the “discerning” reader

    most directly addressed in the novel is Northanger Abbey’s own. As the narrator wryly notes “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” is to “be settled by whomsoever it may concern.” Such over-simplified moralities may interest unsophisticated readers of formulaic fiction, but they should not “concern” discerning readers of Austen’s tale, who have been educated through the narrative to realize “that the world is full of tyranny, and that in order to survive emotionally in such a world it is necessary to learn to be ironic” (Schaub “Irony”). Such a lesson may frustrate the cult of sensibility, which focuses on emotional affect alone, but Austen’s sensible reader can still take pleasure in the fact that . . .
  13. “To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of 26

    and 18, is to do pretty well”