Jane Austen

by O.W. Firkins

Chapter III: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey has a motive and a story, but the bearing of the story on the motive is very obscure, and, so far as the obscurity is penetrable, unsatisfactory. The author wishes to reprove the romanticism of a fiction-reading young girl. Sheridan had done the same thing not ineffectually in Lydia Languish, and an older form of the same dreamy and paralyzing romanticism had been rebuked by Lessing in the Schwaermerei of the heroine of Nathan the Wise. The obvious course in such a fable is to lead the heroine from daydreams into indiscretion and from indiscretion into misfortune or difficulty. Miss Austen, however, hardly pursues this course. Her heroine does indeed run heedlessly into two or three imprudent and improper acts in calling alone upon the Tilneys, but these are blunders for which it is difficult to make Mrs. Radcliffe and the Mysteries of Udolpho even indirectly responsible. Her romantic theory of General Tilney's conduct to which I shall refer later is unproductive of any evil to herself; and the semi-romantic misadventure which expels her from the General's house has its real origin in the dustiest of calculations in which Catherine has neither guilt nor share.

Catherine Morland is not even a romantic character; she seems intended as a rebuke and corrective to romance.

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard, and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings, and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and, instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on--lived to have six children more--to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, where there are heads, and arms, and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features; so much for her person, and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind.

Miss Austen allows her heroine a plain girlhood, but her courage falters at the threshold of maturity. She is no Charlotte Brontë to say to her sisters (in relation to Jane Eyre): "I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours." This is implacable self-discipline. Jane Austen was not bred among the rigors and self-macerations of Haworth. Abnegation in Kent and Hampshire has its limits; and when Catherine is to visit Bath and see young men, nature, equally friendly to budding girls and rising novelists, is called in to renovate her physique. The concession is large, but Catherine is not wholly untrue to the tradition of her noisy, dirty, and athletic childhood. Her first exploit, on venturing into the world, is to fall instantly and irreparably in love with a young man whose main attraction is his raillery, and the prime object of whose raillery is the absurdities of the producers and consumers of romance. At the end of the book she marries this young man, magnanimously overlooking his possession of a large income and an enviable position. There is, however, in Catherine's nature another coil for the analyst to unwind. She is unromantic, but she is romanticistic. At Bath she forms a passion for Mrs. Radcliffe which so far colors her view of life as to impart vividness to her expectations of Northanger Abbey. Miss Austen, in a word, has commissioned the same young person to serve as antithesis to the Radcliffe heroine and as illustration of the flightiness of the Radcliffe reader. I do not say that the combination is impossible; from reader to heroine is a far cry; and, in reading, a man may court those idealisms which subjection to the God of things as they are has remorselessly banished from his practice. But Miss Austen's art seems to me unwieldy and unthrifty in the appointment of the same person to both parts. It may be said that the difference between Catherine's real and imaginary self is the point of the book. If so, I cannot think that the point is effectively made. We remember the case of Julia Mills in David Copperfield--Julia who sang "Affection's Dirge," and married an old Scotch Croesus with great flaps of ears. We remember the case of Blanche Amory, who sighed for a paladin, and, after a vain assault upon a brewer, married a cook. If Catherine had married dollars after yielding her heart or her fancy to witticisms she might have been counted among these renegades to sentiment. But since her first, last, and only object is Henry Tilney, who is neither romantic enough nor unromantic enough to make his capture a pointed victory for either side, I cannot see that her daydreams really becloud her mind or that her conduct really unmasks her disposition.

The truth is that the satire on romance has no real or logical relation to the slender plot of Northanger Abbey. Imagine the story to have taken shape by itself; then four additions or modifications will bring the novel to its present form. First, a few paragraphs will be delightfully rewritten from the point of view of their contrast with the habits and prescriptions of romance. Second, Catherine Morland is lent a copy of the Mysteries of Udolpho. Third, the addition of a few Gothic windows and feudal trappings converts General Tilney's country house into an abbey. Fourth, Catherine is presented with two or three romantic misconceptions which are dispelled without the faintest damage to herself or the slightest profit to the story. The satire can be lifted clean out of the frame of the narrative, and the narrative will not even show a dent.

The delusions which are foisted upon Catherine are the least acceptable portions of the tale. She believes she has discovered an ancient manuscript in a cavity of a black and gold Japan cabinet in her bed-chamber; the morning light reveals nothing worse than a laundry bill. The childishness of this adventure would seem to be pretty evenly divided between Miss Austen and Catherine. This is the grade of burlesque which the Sunday newspaper might be glad to admit to its columns of syndicated fiction, or which the school-girl essayist might read aloud to the willing laughter of uncritical classmates. The second point is a little graver, but even more ridiculous. Catherine frames the notion that General Tilney has murdered his wife. This nightmare is detected and gently dispelled by the general's younger son. On first thought we are inclined to say that the attribution of the mistake to any person in his senses is as crazy as the mistake itself. A little introspection shows us that chimeras as frantic as this do knock at minds whose sanity we are indisposed to question, and that they are received with a hospitality which the hosts themselves would scoff at in another person. This is a fact, and yet our objection to the incident in Jane Austen proves impervious to our recognition of the fact. The truth is that delusions of this sort are on the same footing as dreams in their adaptation to record. Dreams are as much a part of experience as purchases; or conflagrations, but their irrelevance to ordinary reality is such that they are remanded to silence except where their aptness their influence is extraordinary, or where emphasis is concentrated on the hinterlands of the imagination. In Miss Austen's cool, clearheaded, good-humored narrative vagary of this sort seems as misplaced as a secret panel in a railway station.

The main plot may be condensed into two or three sentences. Catherine Morland, in a first sojourn at Bath, falls in love with a vivacious young clergyman, Henry Tilney, whose response to her affection is not the less sincere for being gentle and leisurely. Catherine spends several weeks at Northanger Abbey by invitation of Henry's father, General Tilney, by whose order she is later on ejected from the house with a cruel abruptness unsoftened by explanations. The General had invited her on the baseless report that she was rich, and now drives her out on the better grounded, but not quite accurate, report that she is penniless. The young son follows Catherine to her home, and marriage instantly follows on the ungracious consent of the muddle-headed father. The plot, though scant, is spacious enough to include two gross improbabilities, that the general should be prepared to risk his son's happiness with a girl whose fortune was atteated only by rumor, and that he should brave the tongues of the county by an act of violence which stamped him as dupe no less than ruffian.

I have omitted certain minor trains of incident; my ability to omit them in a summary of the main plot is proof enough of their logical detachment. Isabella Thorpe, Catherine's friend in Bath, engages herself to a young clergyman, whom she jilts for the sake of a young captain, by whom she is ruthlessly and promptly flung aside. These circumstances are related to Catherine's story only by the purely mechanical links that the clergyman is Catherine's brother and the captain is Henry Tilney's. There is also a bragging and brawling young bully, John Thorpe, who makes slapdash love to Catherine between oaths and whip-crackings. An attempt has been made to give this fact a bearing on Catherine's relations with the Tilneys, but the device betrays as much awkwardness as conscience. General Tilney's informant as to Catherine's wealth and as to her poverty is John Thorpe. Now John Thorpe's bluster hardly imposes on the artless Catherine, whose ignorance at eighteen is abysmal; General Tilney is a man of the world: yet in a matter vital to his interest General Tilney reposes implicit confidence in the word of a stranger whose blackguardism is vociferous.

It has been correctly observed that the second part of Northanger Abbey is less interesting than the first. There is a curious break and falling-off in the middle of the tale which I can only explain on the theory that it underwent some mysterious internal lesion. It was prosperous and joyous in its own course; it swerved from that course without adequate reason; and it ceased to prosper and rejoice. The Bath part has a charm peculiar to itself in Miss Austen's work, a charm almost anticipative of the lighter and readier touch of the later decades of the nineteenth century. There is a brisk patter of incident, a light, sprightly cursiveness, a gayety of movement that sweeps along even the disappointments and heartaches in the alacrity of its buoyant course. In a word it is the sort of story that thrives in a pump-room and mopes in an abbey. Why, then, send it to an abbey? I do not mind an Il Penseroso after my L'Allegro, if I can have a Milton to write it for me; but Miss Austen's Il Penseroso would tempt nobody to forsake "the gay motes that people the sunbeam" in Bath or any other cheerful watering-place. Miss Austen has not even the excuse of having wound up her affairs in Bath. Her affairs in Bath are most distinctly not wound up; the affairs of Isabella plead for further elucidation on the spot, and John Thorpe's pursuit of Catherine actually clamors for a settlement of its claims in the place of its origin. But Miss Austen packs us off, bag and baggage, with a peremptoriness which she might have learned from the hare-brained General Tilney himself. Of course there is the satire on romance to supply a motive; but if the satire on romance is to furnish us with no better amusement than we find at Northanger Abbey, I think the ghost of Mrs. Radcliffe is avenged.

The first remark on Catherine Morland's character has been anticipated in my comments on the plot. She has a taste for romantic novels, but the texture of her mind is wholly unromantic. Romanticism has not struck in; it merely dusts the surface of the character. Her charm lies very largely in an incipient good sense which is held down for the moment by her ignorance of reality and her delight in fiction. The body has barely flowered, and the mind is still unblown, and the result is a grace which is rather seasonal than personal. Her mind is not only simple; it is plain; she will pass from girlhood to matronhood without any interval of young-ladyship. Strangely enough, I find her the most winning of Miss Austen's heroines in the absence of nearly every quality which makes the heroines of other novelists pleasant in my eyes. I am rather shocked to find myself preferring her to Elizabeth, that "darling child," on whom her parent lavished a fondness that reminds one a very little of Sir Waiter Elliot and the Elizabeth whom he blindly favored.

I think I am drawn to Catherine by the fact that she is the only one of the heroines who acts like a young girl. Anne Elliot's youthfulness is past; she already wears the willow, and her attitude imitates its droop. Emma, Elizabeth, and Elinor (they run to E's like the early Saxon kings) are not really young.

I reject the futility of baptismal register young. and the vain umpireship of the family Bible. They all impress us as having sat on boards; we are lucky if we do not feel that they are sitting on them in our very presence. Marianne's conversation is ten years older than her behavior. I shall be told that Fanny Price is a young girl. Miss Becky Sharp was obliged by circumstances to be her own mamma; to my mind, Fanny Price is obliged by nature to be her own maiden aunt. But Catherine Morland is young in the fashion of young girls whom I actually know, simple, warm-hearted, pleasure-loving, diffident between her impulses and eager behind her shyness, a few strong interests and vivid likings checkering the unresponsiveness of girlhood to the proffers and urgencies of life. Miss Austen has stinted her of attributes and yet kept her distinct. The note of her small but clear personality is never hushed in that Bath turmoil in which Isabella shrills and John Thorpe bellows. Isabella and John may silence Catherine, but her very silences are audible. There is little to Catherine perhaps, but what there is is firm. You may call her a particle if you like, but the particle is a granule.

Henry Tilney is a dancing shape, an image gay; in other words, his humor is the best and biggest part of him. His virtues are unmistakable, but they efface themselves in the company of his spirits like obliging aunts and grandmammas in the presence of madcap juniors. Goldwin Smith finds him so like his clerical brother. Edmund Bertram, as to threaten the stability of Macauby's famous observation on the unlikeness of Miss Austen's young divines. To my thought he resembles Edmund Bertram about as much as tomato salad resembles peach marmalade. His gayeties and railleries are not definitively clerical, and in this point he reminds one of Mr. Breckon, Mr. Howells's young Unitarian pastor in the Kenions. Mr. Breckon paid his calling the deference of an occasional doubt as to whether a person so jovial and quizzical as himself was qualified to lead his fellow-men in worship. No such doubt visits the mind of Mr. Tilney. The clerical profession in Miss Austen's day appears never to have pestered its votaries with any scruple as to their qualifications; in fact it gave little trouble of any sort. Its unobtrusiveness was quite endearing.

I confess that I am drawn to a young man who can make much of a young girl in the very act of making fun of her; the combination is sound. Henry's treatment of Catherine, if free in appearance, is really delicate. Perhaps amusement and condescension pass a little too speedily into love; if the growth of his affection is too slow to keep pace with Catherine's, it is quite swift enough to outrun nature. One of the capital points in which Miss Austen flouts the romantic tradition is conveyed in the following words: "I must confess that 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." On this point Miss Austen's courage is delightful, and there is no doubt that in principle she is entirely correct. The only adverse comment on the specific case is that gratitude is among the most fragile of human traits, and it is difficult to conceive that plank so slender should adequately bridge a chasm so broad as that which divides the minds at least Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. Miss Austen crows over the insulted romanticist in making Henry Tilney love Catherine Morland because she loves him. But does not romanticism turn the tables Miss Austen when she arranges a match between so ill-matched a young couple with an appended guarantee of lasting happiness? Catherine's strong points are South and artlessness, and both these qualities have a reckoning to make with Gratitude is a shortlived passion. Can we trust the longevity of a love which is its offspring?

Of Henry Tilney's relatives little need be said. The general is an ogre quite unfit to be the father of the young prince in a modern fairy tale, and conducts himself with a blind folly from which even the possession of a single eye should have protected him. He qualifies himself equally for the straitjacket and the halter. Elinor Tilney is little more than a suave excuse for the approximation of Henry and Catherine.

The Bath party cannot be quite so brusquely dismissed. Mrs. Allen, whom Miss Austen despatches in a few cavalier strokes of brilliant exaggeration, is perhaps as good a portrayal of pure inanity as the history of literature can supply. The creation of Mrs. Allen points to a momentary suspension in Nature's proverbial abhorrence of a vacuum. She undertakes the duties of a chaperon with that cheerfulness which is the outgrowth of a complete indifference to their fulfilment. She is the most amiable and the most selfish of human beings, and human nature is of course both shamefully maligned and tinglingly enlivened in the mere tip or extremity of itself which it sees reproduced in the unequalled Mrs. Allen. The odd thing--the all but impossible thing outside of Miss Austen--is that inanity should be clean-cut. Even emptiness for Miss Austen is not vague. If she drew a zero, she would give it angles.

Miss Austen's treatment of the redoubtable Isabella Thorpe may be said to have found a model in the dash and smartness of Isabella herself. On the surface this young lady is all modesty, sensibility, devotion. Inwardly, she is heartless, impudent, perfidious. Hypocrisy is inevitable, and it is the fashion of this hypocrisy that imparts to Miss Austen's treatment its rare vivacity and its real unsoundness. Isabella Thorpe is fool as well as hypocrite, and, at the very moment when her hypocrisy is covering her meanness, her folly is drawing away the screen from her meanness and her hypocrisy alike. Her rule is to say one thing and within the space of five minutes to do or say something that; is in open and violent contradiction to the initial speech. The rawness of this method is incontestable. Even a fool would avoid the constant recurrance of these obvious clashes, and Isabella's excuses show an agility which ought to have fitted her to evade the continual necessity of evasion. It is Miss Austen's way to bestow great alertness on persons to whom she peremptorily refuses an atom of sense.

In view of the widespread belief in the delicacy of Miss Austen's craftsmanship--a belief which is as beautifully justified by a part of her work as it is refuted and mocked by another--I shall clarify my point a little further by contrasting Isabella with Hialmar Ekdal in Ibsen's Wild Duck. Hialmar, like Isabella, is a sentimental hypocrite, masking selfishness and heartlessness under professions of tenderness and magnanimity. Ibsen's portrayal, though very forcible, is not remarkably delicate; it scores too constantly against Hialmar to maintain an agreement with reality. But in comparison with Miss Austen's Isabella, Ibsen's not over-scrupulous portrait is delicacy itself. Hialmar, like Isabella, falls into open self-contradiction. The beer which his plaintiveness has refused is accepted in the next second by his magnanimity, and his semi-abstraction consumes the bread-and-butter which his self-respect had imperiously declined. But in a very long and minute portrayal this unsoftened self-reversal occurs only a very few times. Other means are freely used for bringing out the weakness of the character; there are even times, though never long times, in which the exposure of its littleness is suspended. Miss Austen's method is as monotonous as the character she draws is unshaded. It is only fair to the Englishwoman to repeat that she has not failed to attain the vivacity to which temperance and truth have been so ruthlessly sacrificed. Those who smarten up reality have their reward, and the reward in Miss Austen's Isabella is considerable.

The last character that demands attention is John Thorpe. What will Jane Austen do with such a character? That a keen woman should succeed with a young springal and prodigal like Tom Bertram, that she should succeed with unbending and powerful masculinity in Mr. Knightley, need not surprise us overmuch. But what will the sheltered and circumspect spinster, the young girl born and bred in an English vicarage, make of a sheer blackguard mildly qualified with dunce and booby? The answer is that the success is extraordinary. John Thorpe is drawn with absolute clearness, with great apparent accuracy, and with a hidden zest from which a cynic might infer that the horror women feel for insolence and rudeness is often only an inverted sympathy. If Sheridan had dramatized Northanger Abbey for Drury Lane, I doubt if he would have found it necessary to add one coarsening or one enlivening touch to the demure novelist's portrayal of this loud-mouthed and bullying young Englishman. In saying this I concede that the picture is highly charged, but the excess, if I may be indulged in the paradox, is not excessive. What is excess from the point view of the painstaking and conscientious historian may be moderation from the point of view of the painstaking and conscientious artist. The cases of John and Isabella are essentially different. Isabella is disclosed by an obvious artifice, by assigning permanence to what in the real world is merely occasional. But loudness and impudence are capable of indefinite prolongation even in life itself, and Austen has done nothing more than magnify the truth without altering its quality.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.