2019 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Reading in Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey can be described as a book about books. There is, of course, the well-known "defense of the novel,” but characters also discuss their reading habits, name specific novels, and even consider history books. In her works, Austen often makes use of fiction, poetry or plays, either explicitly or indirectly. Explore how she does this in Northanger Abbey. High school students may bring in another Austen novel but are not required to do so; undergraduate and graduate students must bring in one or more additional novels.
“Everything They Ought to Be”: Conduct Literature in Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is notable for its satirizing parody of Gothic literature, but conduct literature and the themes they dealt with also play a role in the novel’s plot and characterization. The 18th century was a time of social upheaval which created concerns about traditional social standards, especially with regards to women. Conduct literature, such as the books contained in the compilation The Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor, preached submission, obedience, and modesty to young women, and was seen as an antidote to novel reading (Waldron 18). Austen was a vehement defender of novels and was also unafraid to point out the absurdities she saw in conduct books, and cleverly ridiculed them in Northanger Abbey and her other books, such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. In Northanger Abbey Austen takes on four major themes in conduct literature: that women should have no learning, or they should conceal it, that women should not be in love before they know the man is in love with them, that a woman must accept a man’s proposal of marriage if her parents approve, and that novels were unsuitable and dangerous books for young women. The references to conduct literature in Northanger Abbey suggest that Austen saw them as misguided advice with an unrealistic understanding of human nature.
The first point about women’s education was argued by Dr. John Gregory in A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. Published in 1774, and republished in The Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor in 1790, the book is in the format of Gregory giving advice to his daughters. One such piece of advice was: “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding” (Gregory 37). In Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s narrator satirically regards Catherine’s shame of being ignorant as misplaced, saying: “A woman especially, if she should have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” (106). She also hits back at the men Gregory talks about: “I will only add in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in a woman than ignorance” (106). Mr. Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey, is one of those men who do not desire ignorance in a woman. Catherine is not a woman of supreme intelligence, as she “shirked her lessons” and did not have great skill in music, drawing, writing, or French (16). However, she did possess an intellectual curiosity which she never tried to conceal. Embarrassed about not knowing anything about drawing, she asked Mr. Tilney to teach her (106-107). Perhaps more important than the fact that Catherine did not conceal her intelligence (or want of intelligence) was that she did not conceal anything at all. Her character is open and honest and wins the hearts of everyone around her. Advice such as Gregory’s encouraged young ladies to conceal their true selves in order to win men. This sounds like Isabella Thorpe, one of the villains in Northanger Abbey. Isabella is insincere and manipulative at every turn in order to attract the attention of men. Though authors of conduct literature may not have had this in mind, Austen uses the example of Catherine, Mr. Tilney, and Isabella to show how misguided their advice was.
In an essay titled “Coquetry,” published in the magazine, The Rambler, in 1751, Samuel Richardson lamented the decline of virtuous courtship in recent times and argued: “That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is a heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow.” In Chapter 3 of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s narrator references this position of the “celebrated writer” and sarcastically hopes that Catherine does not dream of Mr. Tilney before “the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her” (29). By using the act of dreaming as an example, Austen shows how unreasonable this idea was. Dreams cannot be consciously controlled or regulated, much the same as love, and Richardson seems to expect the impossible of young women. Gregory was of a similar position to Richardson. While he recognized that young ladies are often in love before they are assured of the gentleman being in love with them, he said that in such cases, “every motive of prudence and delicacy should make her guard her heart against them [the first impressions of love], till such time as she has received the most convincing proofs of the attachment of a man” (113). Austen undermines this idea in Pride and Prejudice in a more serious way. In Chapter 6, Elizabeth and Charlotte discuss Jane being in love with Mr. Bingley. It is obvious to Elizabeth that her sister is in love, but Charlotte cautions against Jane being too guarded about her affections: “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him…Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on” (210-211). This logical argument undermines the Richardson and Gregory ideal, and the fact that it comes from the conforming Charlotte Lucas rather than the rebel Elizabeth Bennet shows how even the most submissive woman can recognize the foolishness of such behavior. Austen also directly refutes this idea at the end of Northanger Abbey, when she describes Mr. Tilney’s relationship with Catherine: “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” (227). Had Mr. Tilney not been aware of Catherine’s affection for him, he may not have fallen in love with her.
Austen’s mockery of Richardson’s essay in Chapter 3 of Northanger Abbey is accompanied by a footnote that identifies the author and the publication information. However, most of the time Austen was not as direct and challenged the assumptions made by authors of conduct literature, rather than the authors themselves. A common assumption made by Richardson was that once proposed to by a gentleman, a young lady was required to accept his proposal. In “Coquetry,” he describes a young lady “thus applied to” as “all resignation to her parents.” Her parents were to be asked before the man proposed, meaning that the young lady must submit to her parents’ wishes and accept his proposal. Austen’s portrayal of marriage and proposal in Northanger Abbey contrasts with Richardson’s ideal. Mr. and Mrs. Morland have almost no hand in Catherine and Mr. Tilney’s relationship. Having just arrived at Fullerton, Henry offers Catherine his hand in marriage before he asks for her parents’ permission, and while his father is expressly opposed to the marriage (227). Mr. Tilney soon asks for Mr. and Mrs. Morland’s consent in marrying Catherine, but their approval is easily given, with the only condition being that General Tilney give his consent as well (232). Parents largely take a backseat in their children’s relationships in Northanger Abbey. The exception is General Tilney, who tries to promote a marriage between Henry and Catherine when he believes that Catherine is a wealthy heiress. His shallow motives paint a negative picture of Richardson’s ideal of parental action and female submissiveness. In fact, several Austen heroines challenge this ideal. Elizabeth Bennet goes against her mother’s wishes by refusing Mr. Collins. In an argument with Mr. Knightley, Emma Woodhouse defends her actions in encouraging Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin’s proposal. She says: “it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her” (438). Emma does not exactly have the moral high ground here, as encouraging Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin turns out to be a foolish move that negatively affects Harriet and herself. But this complexity is a key feature of Austen’s writing. She differed from traditional novelists who displayed heroines with no questionable motives or choices, and radical writers, whose heroines existed solely to make political points (Waldron 41).
Perhaps Austen’s greatest refutation of conduct literature comes in her “defense of the novel” in Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey. Authors of conduct literature thought the female mind was easily misled and should be protected against “sentiments that might perplex [them]” (Gregory 63). Many of them condemned novels as being improper reading for young ladies. James Fordyce, in Sermons to Young Women, published in 1766, says novels are “in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute” (75). Austen declares in Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey that unlike other novelists, she will not join “their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works” (36). She calls on other novelists: “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” and gives us a scenario of a young lady who says that she is “only” reading a novel, such as “Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda” (36). Austen goes on to defend them as:
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 (36-37).
Isabella Thorpe is the one who introduces Catherine to Gothic novels. Isabella is self-absorbed and frivolous, which at first seems to play into the stereotypes of women who read novels. However, Catherine never becomes like her, and Mr. Tilney soon comes along to present an alternate picture of novel-reading, one which is honest and educated. Austen shows us that novel-reading is not inherently good or bad, rather, people define their own novel-reading experience based on their personalities. Isabella is already a selfish and manipulative character and uses novels as a way to make Catherine her protégé. Catherine is adventurous and naïve, and reads novels for the thrill, eventually projecting their version of reality onto her surroundings. Henry Tilney is educated and observant, and reads them for pleasure and discernment.
Austen does use certain characters to portray a positive image of novels. She once again sets Mr. Tilney apart from the typical male breed as an outspoken champion of novels. Catherine assumes that Mr. Tilney does not read novels because “gentlemen read better books” (102). Instead, she finds that Mr. Tilney is a voracious reader who declares: “The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (102). In Northanger Abbey, the two most likeable and admirable characters profess the value of novels.
In the same defense of the novel, Austen criticizes those who declare: “I am no novel reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels” (36). At Catherine’s inquiry, Mr. Thorpe says: “I never read novels” (47), an immediate degradation in his character. He mixes up the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho and declares Camilla to be a “stupid book” (47). Austen’s critique of Mr. Thorpe’s critique is evident in her sarcastic remark:
This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe’s lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son. (48)
Mr. Thorpe has been established as a detestable character, and his insult to novels is therefore an underhanded compliment. Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is a similarly odious character, whose pronouncements on literature can be taken in the opposite way. In Chapter 14, after being asked to read to the Bennet sisters, he “protested that he never read novels,” and chooses Fordyce’s Sermons instead (236). Mr. Collins’s choice taints the book’s reputation as well as his own. Though Austen’s “defense of the novel” contains biting criticism and a spirited argument, her characters’ actions speak for themselves in breaking down the stigma of novel-reading.
In addition to these specific rebuttals, Austen’s thoughts on conduct literature as a whole can be seen through the character of Mrs. Morland. We are told that Catherine’s mother “wished to see her children everything they ought to be” (17), a vague platitude that lacks any insight, much like all of Mrs. Morland’s advice. In many ways, Mrs. Morland is a representation of conduct literature. She has good intentions, but often misunderstands the situation. After Catherine returns from Northanger Abbey in disgrace, her mother mistakenly assumes that her melancholy is caused by her exposure to the grandeur of Northanger Abbey, leading to a disappointment with her home (225). In reality, Catherine is lovesick for Mr. Tilney, but Mrs. Morland does not understand her daughter well enough to see this. She mentions an essay about “young girls who have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance” and goes to fetch it when Catherine’s spirits do not improve (225). The work she refers to is “Consequence to little folks of intimacy with great ones, in a letter from John Homespun,” which was published in the magazine, The Mirror, in 1779. Mrs. Morland lacks the time and will to engage with her daughter and turns to what she believes is a piece of instructional literature as a remedy. Austen describes the book as a “volume from which so much was hoped” (225), showing the unreasonable expectations that were placed on conduct literature as a cure-all.
Austen was not an active reformer who directly challenged the authors of conduct literature. Her primary concern was creating characters and plots that were realistic and relatable. She showed a profound understanding of what society was really like, as well as the assumptions about women that were made in conduct literature. She integrates and then undermines these assumptions in her novels, with either a remark by a character or by the narrator herself. Her tone never becomes didactic or overbearing like the authors of the conduct books that she ridiculed. Ultimately, in Northanger Abbey Austen rebuffs some of the sexist claims made by conduct literature in a way that fits with the novel’s light and humorous tone.
Prescriptive or Descriptive?: Redeeming the Novel in Northanger Abbey
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (Austen 72). So declares Henry Tilney, the hero of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, thus insulting many of his author’s contemporaries. Prejudice against novels was widespread in Regency England. Even novelists themselves depicted novel-reading unfavorably, “degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they themselves [were] adding,” as Austen’s indignant narrator puts it (22). In her lecture “Men Reading Badly,” Robin Henry notes that women especially were the targets of crusades against the novel. Since they supposedly had weaker minds, they were cautioned against reading novels lest they copy the imprudent actions of the characters therein (Henry). Readers of Northanger Abbey at the time of its publication saw the protagonist, Catherine Morland, as a stereotypical “bad reader,” a naïve young woman whose difficulty discriminating between fiction and reality drives her to imitate her favorite Gothic heroines (Henry).
If this is the case, it seems that Jane Austen turns hypocrite. Even as her narrator exhorts the “injured body” of novelists to stand together against fiction’s opponents, the main character of Austen’s own novel reinforces every negative assumption about fiction and its female readers (Austen 22). Is it possible to reconcile the depiction of Catherine with the “defense of the novel”? A close reading resolves this contradiction and reveals the subversive nature of Northanger Abbey. With wit and subtlety, Austen vindicates the novel as a medium in two interconnected ways. She uses her narrator to explore the main purpose of fiction as descriptive rather than prescriptive, and this purpose applied to The Mysteries of Udolpho acts as a measuring stick to differentiate “good” and “bad” novel readers. By including both a man and an intelligent woman among the “good,” Austen challenges her society’s preconceptions about fiction and its readers, redeeming the novel as a valid form of literature.
Throughout Northanger Abbey, Austen suggests that the ultimate aim of the novel is to depict human nature rather than to promote norms for behavior. This aim is most clearly defined in the “defense of the novel,” in which the (presumably female) narrator confronts the stigma against novels and the women who read them. She claims that novels exhibit “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor... to the world in the best chosen language” (23). The superlatives sprinkled throughout the passage draw attention to what the novel does best: depicting human nature with all its subtleties and foibles. Nowhere in this list of the novel’s merits does the narrator claim that novels are a fitting vehicle for moral instruction. The novel is best suited for describing how humans behave, not necessarily prescribing how they ought to.
Elsewhere in Northanger Abbey, readers can trace the concept that fiction does not prescribe. While Austen does not say outright that fiction cannot prescribe behavior, she parodies the expectation that it should by alluding to moral discourses and using her narrator to dole out tongue-in-cheek moral lessons to her readers. Northanger Abbey contains many references to other books—mostly novels, but also guides to proper conduct. Several characters read novels, including Catherine, Isabella, Henry and Eleanor Tilney, and even Catherine’s mother (22, 72-73, 26). However, when they seek moral guidance, they turn to conduct books. Catherine recalls her great aunt reading a lecture on the evils of vanity in dress (49), and her mother recommends an essay “about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance” (166). By referencing such texts in a novel so concerned with other novels, Austen contrasts the two types of books, indicating that they serve different purposes. It is self-evident that novels are not conduct books, but the distinction is significant nonetheless. Austen’s contemporaries who disapprove of novels assume that women must imitate them, so Austen discredits this assumption by drawing attention to writing that truly is meant to be emulated.
Still, Austen herself may seem to blur the lines between novels and moral discourses; her narrator breaks the fourth wall to preach to readers on at least four occasions. In each lesson, however, irony or humor exaggerates the novel’s poor ability to sermonize. The first instance of such “moralizing strains” occurs when Catherine is engaged to dance with the disagreeable John Thorpe: “she deduced this useful lesson, that to go previously engaged to a ball, does not necessarily increase either the dignity or enjoyment of a young lady” (36). Just before the next ball, the narrator treats her audience to more “grave reflections,” this time on women’s dress: “excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim...No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it.” (49). In both cases, the mismatch between the overly solemn tone and the trivial subject matter further satirizes the idea that fiction’s purpose is to present readers with valuable moral lessons. The narrator again steps forward during Catherine’s first walk with Henry and Eleanor Tilney to comment that Catherine need not be embarrassed of her ignorance: “Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant… A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can” (76). This observation is as biting as Catherine’s first “useful lesson” is flatly obvious (36). Austen includes this flippant but blunt remark to subvert expectations about moral messages in fiction, hinting that readers should not come to their novels expecting sage counsel to fill every page.
The most significant example of an ironic moral comes at the end of Northanger Abbey. Readers might expect that if the novel were to close with a moral, the narrator would reiterate Catherine’s lesson that she should not let her imagination run away with her when she reads. Instead, the narrator leaves readers to decide “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (174). Neither, of course, is a desirable outcome, and the bulk of the narrative does not concern either. This facetious message undermines the obvious “moral of the story” and mocks the notion that fiction should merely be used as an ethical guidebook. Nevertheless, it is critical to realize the complexity of what Austen does with her satirical moral lessons. Simply by including them, she implies that novelists can slip moral messages into their writing. The particular advice given by Austen’s narrator does not serve as a total denial of fiction’s capacity to teach. Rather, she employs irony to underscore a claim central to the narrative: a novel should aim to tell a story that describes the human condition, and characters are not merely meant to prescribe models for behavior.
Both in the “defense of the novel” and throughout the course of action, Northanger Abbey demonstrates that fiction’s primary purpose is to describe, not to prescribe. Austen does not contradict the idea that fiction can have a prescriptive element, but she uses ironic morals to downplay fiction’s ability to preach, showing that novelists do not write conduct books and that readers should not expect them to. How does this fundamental truth about the nature of fiction illuminate the rest of Austen’s own novel? Characters in Northanger Abbey read well when they understand fiction’s aim, but they read badly when they do not. This dichotomy is seen most clearly in the different reactions of Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine unconsciously believes that fiction is prescriptive, leading her to emulate the heroines of the novels she reads. The Tilneys, however, read fiction in accordance with its true purpose of description. Austen uses Henry to challenge the assumption that men do not read novels and Eleanor to show that women can read them responsibly.
Catherine is exactly the sort of weak-minded reader censured by opponents of novels. Before she begins to read fiction regularly, Catherine takes for granted that everyone’s motives are as pure as her own. When Isabella is less than pleased with James Morland’s promised income, Catherine makes an effort “to believe that the delay of the marriage was the only source of Isabella's regret; and… endeavour[s] to forget that she had for a minute thought otherwise” (93-94). She even assumes that Captain Tilney asks Isabella to dance because he pities her for not having a partner (90). But after Catherine reads The Mysteries of Udolpho, her naiveté gives way to the heightened suspicion of “an imagination resolved on alarm” (137). She had tried to ignore the “terror and dislike” which General Tilney “had previously excited” (124). Now, Catherine plunges into the investigations and speculations of a heroine, breathlessly concluding that the General has “the air and attitude of a Montoni!” (128). Under the influence of novels, an unpleasant man becomes the heartless villain of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and she, the heroine, must expose his ghastly deeds. Reading novels has caused Catherine to confuse fiction with reality, leading her to model her own behavior after that of a Gothic heroine. She is the quintessential “bad reader,” confirming all her era’s stereotypes about women and fiction.
If the main character of Northanger Abbey is a bad reader, how can the book’s narrator hope to defend fiction against skeptics? The solution lies in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who break down anti-novel biases and show that both men and women can read well when they enjoy novels according to their purpose. Austen takes care to show that the younger Tilney siblings have good taste and education; they discuss “the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing...with all the eagerness of real taste” (75). As well as a background in art, the Tilneys have varied taste in reading. Eleanor mentions “Johnson and Blair,” indicating that she and her brother are familiar with these “authorities on the English language,” and she herself professes fondness for history (73, 73n2, 74). The siblings have not neglected fiction in their literary pursuits, either. Henry has read everything by Ann Radcliffe, and Eleanor enjoys The Mysteries of Udolpho without feeling the need to imitate its heroine (72-73). The Tilneys are not only well read, but they are also good readers, since they can appreciate novels without conflating them with reality. Austen emphasizes Henry’s taste for fiction to undermine the belief that only women like novels, and she writes Eleanor as a lover of history to deny that novels are the only books that women like. By depicting a man who likes fiction and a sensible young woman who reads without imitating, Austen destabilizes both sides of popular arguments against novel-reading. The Tilneys show that novels do not cause all women to behave foolishly and that not all men find them insipid and revolting.
Among Austen’s contemporaries were many who disparaged novels and their female readers as silly at best and dangerous at worst. Using the very medium these people despised, Austen engages her opponents’ qualms in two different ways that work in tandem. First, she uses her narrator’s voice—in the “defense of the novel” and in facetious moral lessons—to demonstrate that the purpose of the novel is to offer a description of, not a prescription for, human nature and behavior. To test this premise, she contrasts “good” and “bad” readers through three characters’ reactions to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Good readers understand the purpose of fiction and read accordingly, but bad readers do not, instead imitating everything they see in novels. As a bad reader and the main character, Catherine appears to uphold her society’s negative views of the results of combining women and fiction. Less noticeable are the good readers, Henry and Eleanor Tilney, both educated young people of excellent taste. Henry dispels the notion that only women read novels and Eleanor that novels lead women into folly.
Now only one paradox remains to be resolved. If we take it as true that fiction is not meant to be prescriptive, then why do generations of Jane Austen’s readers continue to draw truths from her writing and expound upon them in essays? Certainly Austen’s appeal would not have endured so long if her works had no prescriptive elements whatsoever. Is there a certain extent to which we can draw a “moral” from Northanger Abbey without falling into Catherine’s faults? Perhaps the secret lies in becoming not only a good reader, but a wise one. Perhaps each of us must determine which aspects of which characters we ought to emulate. But I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this essay be altogether to recommend Henry and Eleanor’s example as prescriptive—despite the novel’s main purpose—or to reward the refusal to learn from fiction.
Reading the World: Beneath the Surface of Books and People in Northanger Abbey
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen makes extensive use of references to books and reading. For Austen’s characters, “living in the world involves the reading of people, behaviour, dress and conversation as well as of books” (Butler xvi). Throughout the novel, Austen closely identifies the way her characters read books with the way they “read” the real world. Their various reading styles capture the different ways they approach life, shaping our understanding of who they are, particularly in the case of Austen's heroine, Catherine Morland. In many ways, Northanger Abbey is about Catherine’s journey to becoming a mature reader, both of books and the world around her. Throughout the novel, Austen constructs many parallels between reading books and reading real life to illustrate that truth and fiction are often tied together within the same package; mature readers must be able to look beyond surface appearances and discern the difference.
Austen famously skewers Gothic romance tropes throughout Northanger Abbey, humorously pointing out the ways normal, realistic Catherine, described in blunt terms as “often inattentive . . . occasionally stupid . . . [and] almost pretty” (16-17), and her comparatively uneventful life are unlike those of the ravishing beauties and melodramatic horror scenes in her favorite novels. Austen does not purely condemn the Gothic genre—after all, the sophisticated, witty hero Henry Tilney has proudly read and enjoyed nearly every one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels (102)—rather, she gently laughs at Catherine’s, and perhaps the reader’s, initial naive conflation of Gothic drama with the actual happenings of everyday life. Austen continues to weave this satire of the Gothic novel throughout Northanger Abbey, often by ironically pointing out the ways her own novel “falls short” of classic stereotypes while emphasizing her characters' realistic, relatable actions and emotions. When it’s time for Catherine to leave her family and travel to Bath, her mother doesn’t anxiously overwhelm her with dire warnings about powerful men who might snatch her away in the middle of the night, her sister doesn’t tearfully implore her to write as often as possible, her father doesn’t solemnly hand her all the money he owns; rather, “Every thing . . . seemed rather consistent with the common feelings of common life” (20). Austen constantly emphasizes that this story is not a sappy Gothic romance; “Feelings rather natural than heroic” (89) are what characterize Catherine.
Aside from adding a good deal of humor to the story and introducing the theme of reality versus fiction, Austen’s complex Gothic satire actually draws attention to the fact that Northanger Abbey itself is a work of fiction. Though she laughs at the unreality of Gothic stereotypes, she also recognizes that her own work is a story with a pure and virtuous heroine, a mysterious, dashing hero, a dramatic scene in a dark castle on a stormy night, and of course, a triumphant wedding to cap it all off. She draws from stereotypes even as she satirizes them; for example, though she points out that Catherine’s sister sensibly doesn’t beg her to write her every last detail of her journey, later in the story Eleanor does in fact throw herself at Catherine as they part, crying, “You must write to me, Catherine . . . you must let me hear from you as soon as possible” (213). By leveraging these Gothic archetypes as inspiration for characters that are still sympathetic and relatable, Austen shows again that her satire is not a blanket condemnation of the genre. Rather, she cautions against swallowing the stereotypes whole, taking their exaggerated face value for reality, as Catherine does. By placing the relationship between truth and fiction in the back of the reader’s mind, she sets the stage for Catherine to begin sorting the two out as she learns to read both books and people, and invites the reader along for the journey.
When she introduces Catherine as her unlikely heroine in the first chapter, Austen connects Catherine’s immaturity to her choice of reading material: at fourteen, she was partial to books that were “all story and no reflection” (17), and at her current age of seventeen, the way in which she devours Gothic novels is little better. The young heroine’s obsession with Gothic novels at the start of the novel introduces her sincere yet simple nature, highlighting her naivety. As the story progresses, the reader comes to see that “[Catherine’s] heart is all purity, her actions all innocence” (52), and “without conceit or affectation of any kind” (19). She is an open book, and a fairly charming one at that. But her “ignorant and uninformed” (19) mind manifests itself in the fact that she believes everyone else to be as straightforward and guileless as herself. When Isabella says that two “odious young men” have been bothering her and hopes that they will not follow her, Catherine innocently takes her word for it, oblivious to the flashing signs that Isabella is actually desperate for their attention (42). Anything that is not explicitly stated goes over Catherine’s head. And just as a reader who takes figures of speech at face value loses the richness, color, and depth of understanding they impart to the literary experience (and may even come away with a completely incorrect interpretation of the author’s meaning), Catherine naively misunderstands the words and actions of the people around her because she takes them at face value. Her inability to read beyond the surface of Isabella’s constant hyperbole, John’s less-than-subtle allusions, Henry’s satirical humor, and General Tilney’s mysterious character leads her into confusion and misunderstanding.
In Bath, Catherine’s reading habits form the foundation for her friendship with Isabella Thorpe. The discussion the two girls have about Gothic novels in Chapter 6 reveals a key dynamic of their relationship: Isabella, as the older and more dominant of the duo, confidently recommends books for Catherine to excitedly absorb, much as she wonderingly listens to Isabella’s opinions about men and fashion. At a glance, it appears that perhaps observant, worldly Isabella will be the one to help Catherine grow out of her immature reading. However, Isabella’s view of novels hints at her shallow, manipulative nature, a side Catherine is too naive to spot at this point in the story. Isabella is clearly no avid reader and keeps trying to steer the conversation to herself, hinting at the selfishness she will continue to demonstrate throughout the novel. For her, literature is nothing more than a “fashionable display, a commodity to be conspicuously consumed” (Benedict) but not truly digested and understood. Distracted by Isabella’s laundry list of horror novels and the plot of Udolpho, Catherine doesn’t notice, but Austen’s reader quickly sees the way Isabella can't help but slowly bring her sweet acquaintance Miss Andrews, and then an event she attended, and then the captain she danced with, and so on, into their supposed book discussion (39). Her kind of “reading” is superficial, merely a tool for socializing; in this case, a feigned interest in literature serves as an easy way to capture Catherine’s affections (Benedict).
Indeed, when considering Catherine’s reading tastes, her quick adoration for Isabella is no surprise. Isabella, linked both explicitly through her conversation and implicitly through her behavior to the genre, is a veritable incarnation of the Gothic novel. Catherine tells Isabella, “I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from [my book] for all the world” (39); it is only to meet Isabella that Catherine is willing to put away her Gothic novel, further identifying Isabella with the unreality, drama and sentimentalism of the Gothic genre. Both are passionate, sentimental and unrealistic; Isabella’s dialogue overflows with superlatives, dramatic declarations such as “My attachments are always excessively strong” (39) and blatant contradictions to her actions. They are both rewarding in the short-term and deceive Catherine, who must realize their falsity in order to mature later in the story. Just as she mistakes Gothic novels for reality at Northanger Abbey, so she mistakes Isabella’s manipulation for true friendship. Isabella’s betrayal illustrates the importance of being a critical reader not only of books, but also of people; open, accepting Catherine is “little . . . in the habit of judging for herself” (65), and absorbs Isabella’s opinions (and deceptions) with hardly a second thought.
As Austen introduces her readers to John Thorpe, it becomes clear that the literary devices of hyperbole and allusion run strong in the Thorpe family, and that Catherine has no more success reading John than Isabella. John is constantly exaggerating everything from the speed of his horses to the quality of his gig, throwing out pompous assertions and often complete falsehoods (64). When referring to James and Isabella’s gig, John tells Catherine, “I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds,” and then practically in the same breath, swears, “I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail” (64). Catherine is left utterly confused, not knowing how to “reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (64). Unfamiliar with the idea that not every source, whether written or real-life, is credible, she is unable to see that such extreme, conflicting statements can have little merit coming from John’s brash, ignorant personality. Likewise, she completely misreads John’s blundering attempt to propose to her. He asks awkwardly as they discuss Isabella’s wedding, “Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’ . . . You know, we may try the truth of this same old song” (117). Catherine completely misses his allusion to marriage and replies innocently, “May we? But I never sing” (117). As with Isabella, Catherine completely misreads the greedy motives beneath the surface in her relationship with John.
Henry’s relationship with Catherine is a fundamental part of her maturation as a reader. As a far more sophisticated thinker, he shows her how to look beyond surface meanings to the more complex truth beneath. His specialty is dealing in double meanings, which is precisely the skill that Catherine lacks. From the very beginning of their relationship, his unique, ironic brand of humor “[interests], though it [is] hardly understood by” Catherine (25). In that first conversation, he introduces Catherine to satire by making fun of Bath social conventions and imagining the stereotypical journal entry she is sure to write about him (25-27). She is slightly confused by his satirical wit, “not knowing whether she might venture to laugh” (26), but she is making progress, able to grasp at least that she should not take him completely seriously. In another conversation, Henry tries to teach Catherine to understand another key literary device: symbolism. He explains to her that a “country-dance” can be seen as “an emblem of marriage”; both involve a mutual agreement to be pleasant and faithful, and men who choose not to marry or dance should not interfere with the wives or partners of others (74). Literal-minded Catherine is not yet able to grasp the comparison, protesting, “People that marry can never part . . . People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour” (74). Finally, when Catherine misreads General Tilney’s character and her wild imagination begins to suspect that he has locked up or murdered his wife, Henry teaches her the importance of reading in context. “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you” (186), he urges her.
Eleanor, too, teaches Catherine to grow as a reader. One of the most important aspects of her instruction of Catherine is her demonstration of true friendship. The more time Catherine spends with Eleanor and Henry, the more clearly she can read Isabella’s deception for what it is, until finally she is disgusted and “ashamed of having ever loved her” (204). Interestingly, Eleanor is actually the female character who most clearly fits the model of a stereotypical Gothic heroine—a virtuous young woman who has lost her mother and lives with an overbearing, greedy father, ultimately rescued from her troubles by a miraculous marriage to “the most charming young man in the world” (234). Yet she is the opposite of Isabella, Austen’s caricature of the negative aspects of the Gothic genre. A far cry from Isabella’s exaggerated flattery, Eleanor’s conversation with Catherine is filled with “simplicity and truth, and without personal conceit” (70). Through Eleanor, Austen makes the important point that pieces of genuine truth can be found even when mixed with fiction, as Eleanor proves genuine though she falls into the Gothic heroine stereotype that has been so often satirized as fake throughout Northanger Abbey. As Catherine learns, containing truth does not mean the entire stereotype, book, or person can be completely accepted at face value.
Despite their reading prowess and kindness to Catherine, the Tilneys are not perfect teachers nor perfect examples. They clearly see that Catherine is misreading the greedy motives behind their father’s hospitality; when she gushes, “Your father is so very liberal! He told me the other day that he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children,” they glance at each other, knowing the opposite to be true (193). Yet, perhaps out of embarrassment, they fail to correct her misreading. And, experienced reader though he may be, even Henry isn’t able to come up with an accurate analysis of his brother Frederick’s entanglement with Isabella. He says that he can “only guess at” his brother’s motives (143), and wrongly predicts that the affair will soon blow over (144). Austen uses Henry’s mistakes to illustrate the importance of humility in reading; even the most sophisticated of readers is not free from the danger of misinterpretation. Through their flaws as well as their virtues, both of the Tilneys aid Catherine on her journey to becoming a mature reader. A key sign of her maturation is the moment when Catherine recognizes that unlike the flawless protagonists and villainous fiends of her Gothic novels, in real people there is a “mixture of good and bad,” and even her beloved Henry and Eleanor are likely to have “some slight imperfection” (188). With this realization, she has finally come to see that the real world is a much more complex read than the world of a Gothic novel (Hall).
As Austen resolves the plot at lightning speed in the final pages of Northanger Abbey, one could argue that it feels almost too contrived. Henry’s appearance in Fullerton, the proposal, Eleanor’s marriage, the General’s approval, and then Henry and Catherine’s marriage—it all seems to fall into place just a little too easily. Yet in those closing chapters, Austen hints to the reader that she is actually emphasizing this feeling on purpose. Though it permeates the novel as a whole, her recognition of the fictions she herself is creating becomes especially explicit towards the end: she “[leaves] it to [her] reader’s sagacity” (230) to work out all the details of the plot resolution, admits that Henry and Catherine’s love story is “a new circumstance in romance” (227), and even openly states that “the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with [her] fable” (234) so near the end. By emphasizing the fictional aspects of her story, Austen points out the inherent artifice of her craft as a fiction writer. It is as if she is winking at her readers, offering a reminder as the story closes that they, too, could fall into the same pattern as Catherine: uncritically accepting everything they read, whether in their favorite books or in the people around them, without recognizing the extent of the fiction intertwined with the truth.