Northanger Abbey: The Actual or the Sublime?
For hundreds of years, women were among the many in the world that held little to no rights. Subordinate to their husbands, they were legally not allowed to own property, or even voice their opinions in the community. Clearly, this needed to change. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen explores the issues of women’s rights during the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. While defending the novel throughout Northanger, Austen criticizes society at the time and the unjust treatment of women by critiquing the most popular genre; the gothic novel.
When Austin wrote Northanger, novels were seen as the lowest form of literature. Only women were seen reading novels while men spent their time on other forms of literature such as poetry or historical readings. Austen writes, “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers,” to begin to explain the negative connotation that goes with being an author of a novel (22). She continues on to state, “From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers” (22). Austen realizes the hatred that goes with the novel and she does not want to feel as if her work is less than any man simply because it is classified as a novel. In Northanger Abbey, Austin uses her heroine Catherine to explain her own opinions about the degrading of authors like she, who finds novels to be much more than what men seem to believe them to be. Austen even includes conversations with Catherine and her fellow friends about novels to show how society truly views this form of literature.
The critique of novels is first viewed when Catherine is conversing with John Thorpe. To make conversation, she asks John if he has read Udolpho. John replies dramatically stating, “Oh, Lord! not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do” (31). While it may appear that John is just a busy character, he continues on to explain that ‘”novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff… they are the stupidest things in creation” (31). Austen then mocks John by the lack of knowledge on the actual novel that Catherine is referring to by showing him to truly know nothing about what he is talking about, and therefore proving his point to be invalid. This type of reaction occurs again later in the novel when Catherine is talking to another male character, Henry Tilney. Austen uses this conversation to show how women also are affected by the novels degrading lifestyle. In this conversation, Catherine mentions the novel but immediately replies with “Because they are not clever enough for you – gentlemen read better books” (72). By showing the woman’s knowledge on the subject of the novel in regards to intelligence levels, Austen points out the subordinate role that women played during this time. Men were right, women were wrong, and novels would never be read by men because they were far better than that.
During the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, as novels were looked down upon, the most popular genre that was read by women was the gothic novel. Gilbert and Gubar write, in their short essay “Shut Up in Prose”, that “The novel is a status-deprived genre, Austin implies, because it is closely associated with a status-deprived gender” (281). Austen uses this genre in an almost mocking way to criticize the treatment of the novel and the women that are surrounding the novel. In volume I, Austen starts her novel by explaining the plain life of Catherine Moreland, and how although she was not raised with abusive parents, heavy secrets, or ravenous villains, she was still a heroine (5). Austen clearly takes a strike at the gothic novel by beginning her own in this way, as it almost completely opposes a true gothic story. She keeps with the same theme of the gothic novel and the time period by having her two main female characters, Catherine and Isabella, be fans of this genre. Many times they are described as explaining their excitement for the latest book that they found and how marvelous it has been so far. In conversation, Catherine brings up Radcliffe multiple times. For this century, Austen’s characters describe the perfect die-hard gothic novel fans. Gilbert and Gubar state that “Austin rewrites the gothic not because she disagrees with her sister novelists about the confinement of women, but because she believes woman have been imprisoned more effectively by miseducation than by walls” (285).
In Volume II, Austen completely maximizes her usage of the gothic novel by adding some of the most common themes found in any gothic. This section of the novel is said to testify to the “delusions created when girls internalize the ridiculous expectations and standards of gothic fiction” (Gilbert and Gubar 290). As Catherine is riding in the open carriage next to Henry, he begins to mock her belief in the gothic, as well as plant ideas into her head that they may actually be heading to a home with many secrets. She begins by asking Henry about the home that they are going to by questioning, “Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?” (107). Henry replies by answering her with a description of a gothic scene, telling of an ancient housekeeper, a gloomy chamber, and a funeral appearance (108). Catherine is becoming all too excited by Henry’s words, though she states her fear, it is shown upon the arrival at Northanger, that she is truly hoping to find the gothic inside of their old home. Henry appears to be taunting Catherine’s gullibility and love for the gothic during this scene, and it is clear that he views her as not holding much intelligence or common sense to truly believe and enjoy this sort entertainment. By mocking Catherine in such a way as this, Henry appears to be critiquing the female reader of the novel.
Upon her entrance into the home of the Tilneys’, Catherine found that her living quarters were much different from that of which Henry described to her. Austen writes a scene where Catherine finds a heavy chest, and her curiosity gets the best of her as she must open it at that very moment. Catherine’s dramatic response to the chest clearly shows her yearnings for the gothic as she exclaims, “This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sigh as this! –An immense heavy chest! –What can it hold? –Why should it be placed here? – Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight!” (112). Just minutes later, after Catherine finds simple bedspreads in the chest, Miss. Tilney walks by and explains that she pushed the chest to the back of the room so it simply would be out of the way. Austen provides a simple, domestic answer to the mysterious chest to mock the way that these answers are explained in truly gothic novels. Gilbert and Gubar ask “Could Austen be pointing at the real threat to women’s happiness when she describes her heroine finding a laundry list?” to show that, at this time, the domestication of women is as terrifying as what Catherine had hoped to find in the chest (285).
While it may look as though these descriptions of Northanger and the constant talk about the gothic novel are what is “gothic” about this book, it appears that in view to the world that is being described, Austen truly does come out with a perfectly acceptable gothic monster: men. There are no secret passageways in the Tilney’s house, but there are greedy men who only view women for wealth. There are no dead wives in the closet of General Tilney, but there are unjust treatments of women. The real horror in this novel is society and how it is unjust to the women for they were viewed as unintelligible and as housewives. Gilbert and Gubar state that “Rather than rejecting the gothic conventions she burlesques, Austen is very clearly criticizing the female gothic in order to reinvest it with authority” (284).
In many eyes, Northanger Abbey could be seen as much higher than the forms that men at this time were reading because of the hidden messages that it reveals. Austen makes it clear that she realizes male authors are praised for their work, but their work is “neither original nor literary” (Gilbert and Gubar 281). Austen hints at the lives of women and shows the struggles that they must overcome even with the men in their lives constantly blocking the way, such as General Tilney, who can be viewed as one of Catherine’s biggest threats. To him, “Catherine is a wealthy heiress whom General Tilney can further fictionalize” (Gilbert and Gubar 280). Kicking Catherine out of his home, Catherine’s life is threatened because she has no money or escort to protect her during her travels. General Tilney views her as worthless when he realizes she has far less wealth than his family and from this, Austin is pointing out a greater threat than the gothic monsters.
Northanger Abbey was written in the form of a gothic novel, but one done strictly to show much deeper issues about society during this time. Austen uses her feelings about the issues in the world to write a novel that shows the underlying problems that the world was currently facing. She points out the bigger issues than monsters, curses, and hidden doors, and in a sense, this novel is much more frightening that the original gothic novel because what she writes is not simply sublime, it is real. Showing the terrifying truths of life during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Austin implies that “history may very well be a uniform drama of masculine posturing that is no less a fiction than gothic romance” (Gilbert and Gubar 284)
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Northanger Abbey: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Susan Fraiman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 5-174. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Shut Up in Prose.” Northanger Abbey: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Susan Fraiman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 277-93. Print.
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