Friday, June 8, 2012

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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, novels;--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 of 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 insipid pages with disgust.  Alas! if one heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

I absolutely love that--the heroines of novels, they have to stick together!  Though it's uncharacteristically postmodern, with its focus on genre and form, this passage just is Jane Austen.  Look at the tangle of ironies:

1.) the way she simultaneously defends the novel while exposing its essential silliness,
2.) the way she manages to establish Catherine as a novelistic "heroine" while rejecting the requirements of that designation wholesale, and
3.) the way she pushes toward the semblance of reality (by asserting the ability of "heroines" to interact) while simultaneously retreating into fictionality (by dissecting the choices of the author).

And with such clarity as that final sentence.  No one else can write like that, and that's part of what makes Austen herself so fascinating: the genius of her style makes her presence as the author impossible to ignore, and yet she is obscured behind a veil of ambiguities.  What, exactly, does Northanger Abbey ask us to believe about novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho?
Northanger Abbey's literary pretensions were all I knew about the book before opening it.  I knew that, on some level, it is a critique and a parody of the sensationalist "Gothic" novel that dominated the popular market of her day, and Ann Radcliffe's Udolpho in particular.  In this case, as in others, I wish I knew less--I might have enjoyed the 200 non-parodic pages more if I hadn't been waiting for the parody to arrive.

Prior to the parody, Northanger Abbey--in fact, before the Abbey--is a pleasant if unsubstantial Austen novel.  Its heroine, Catherine Morland, is on holiday at Bath with an adult friend.  She makes friends there of two brother-sister pairs: The Thorpes and the Tilneys.  She and Isabella Thorpe are (as described above) instant friends, though she finds her brother John's advances unpleasant.  For her part she falls immediately in love with Henry Tilney, with whose sister Eleanor she strikes up a much slower-forming rapport.  It's the Tilneys who own Northanger Abbey, and when she's invited there much of her excitement comes from her association of abbeys with trashy novels like Radcliffe's, which she adores.

These scenes can be awfully funny, and somewhat embarrassing for poor Catherine, who is always getting caught poking around ancient chests and such.  At one point she discovers a mysterious document in an abandoned cabinet and it turns out to be... an inventory of linen!  When General Tilney, Henry's father, stays us to finish reading pamphlets, she concocts a scenario in which he is keeping his supposedly deceased wife captive in a secret chamber:

To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely.  There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed.  Shocking as was the idea, it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of things, she must ere long be released.  The suddenness of her reputed illness; the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time--a favoured the supposition of her imprisonment.--Its origin--jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty--was yet to be unravelled.

I'm not sure who gets the brunt of Austen's savage wit here: Catherine, whose childishness is exposed, or Radcliffe, whose writing relies on such tortured logic to cohere.  I love that line "stupid pamphlets"--an adjective that belongs to Catherine, who has no conception of morally serious literature.  And I can't help but note that it acts as a clairvoyant reply to Charlotte Bronte, who, when she was not stuffing secret wives in attics, was sneering at Austen for a lack of passion.

Catherine's fantasy is not innocent; it causes a great deal of pain to Henry Tilney, whose mother is very much dead, thank you.  His hurt is a muted hurt, which might have bored Charlotte Bronte, but in the usually buoyant Tilney it expresses a realistic and relateable grief that Bronte was not capable of.  Realism, wrought from fantasy; unseriousness, Austen tells us, has serious consequences.

And yet, Austen's use of the novel to say such a thing is clearly discordant, especially at a time when the usefulness and moral value of fictional literature were in question, and just the kind of thing that she was apt to do.  Are we meant to be left with the belief that the novel can be as thoughtful and morally serious as the Rambler or Spectator--that is, the "stupid pamphlets" of the time?  If so, isn't that complicated by Northanger Abbey's sheer silliness?  The parody bits are fun because Udolpho is fun; Samuel Johnson is decidedly not fun.  At time Austen's ridicule begins to resemble admiration.

Consider the book's last line: "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience."  The humor is crystal clear, but it's the irony that gives these words their real power.  Austen acknowledges the genre requirement that she provide a moral, but in giving it she actually asks us to choose between two opposite lessons, which is the same as offering no moral at all.  Not only does this fail to conform to the standards of the Gothic novel, it isn't much like the "stupid pamphlets" either.  In a nutshell: Modern fiction is bad, but we're not going it make it better by making it more like criticism, so here's something new.  That "something new" is pretty much the modern English novel.

I've focused on the Gothic parody part of the novel, but I do want to point out that it is a relatively small portion of the novel, and it seems completely incongruous, as if lifted from some other book.  I think the incongruity is part of the point; it seems more ridiculous against the backdrop of Catherine's mild teenage romance.  But without it Northanger Abbey would seem relatively minor, and the fact that it lets itself by overshadowed by the parody speaks to its quality among Austen's novels.  In other words, can you imagine tolerating such an absurd digression in Emma or Pride and Prejudice?

But I do want to point out something that Northanger does really well, and that Austen in general does well: present vivid, individuated minor characters.  There's Miss Allen, whose every remark (every) is about clothes.  There's John Thorpe, who brags like a frat boy.  And there's Tilney, who Austen gifts with her own powers of irony and humor, which combine to make him the most likeable of all of her menfolk:

'What are you thinking of so earnestly?' said he, as they waked back to the ball-room;--'not of your partner, I hope, for, by the shake of your head, your meditations are not satisfactory.'

Catherine coloured, and said, 'I was not thinking of anything.'

'That is artful and deep, to be sure; but I had rather be told at once that you will not tell me.'

'Well then, I will not.'

'Thank you; for now we shall soon be acquainted, as I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much.'

In the hands of the Brontes of the world, a man like Henry Tilney becomes a Mr. Rochester, whose teasing always threatens to become cruelty.  Now, I love Mr. Rochester--but if I had a choice, I'd be Henry Tilney.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Emma/P&P > Persuasion > Northanger > Sense and Sensibility. I can no longer decide between the top two with any measure of certainty.