Northanger Abbey Chs. 4-6

Chapters 4-6

I love Austen’s commentary on empty-headed people. Her depiction of Mrs. Allen’s joy in meeting with her old friend Mrs. Thorpe is fabulous. Much is made of the fact that they talk more than listen with the goal of impressing the other. True communication is not what is important.

…Mrs. Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.

Chapters 5 and 6 I think are most important for what they show us about Austen’s opinion of novels.

“In general, heroines do not read novels except as a prelude to seduction” –J.M.S. Tompkins The Popular Novel in England

Part of what I love about Northanger Abbey is all the reading and the shared love of Gothic and Romantic texts. In the late 18th/early 19th century, books were extremely expensive. Catherine’s family certainly were doing relatively well financially, but buying books would have been a strain. It is also unlikely that they belonged to a lending library, which at the time would also have been a great expense. Bath, with its bookshops and greater access to books would have delighted Catherine, and thus the lists of books she gets to read. This was a real vacation for her in so many ways.  While Austen likes to make fun of many of the tropes of romantic novels, she doesn’t make fun of the novels or novel reading itself. In fact, Austen’s own family did belong to a lending library service, and in fact, she notes in letters that all her family happily read novels and didn’t go along with the times in condemning novel reading.

Finally, I constantly find things to admire about Catherine. She misses Tilney. She likes Tilney, but unlike what Isabella claims that Catherine must yearn for him, Catherine basically say, hey, I’ve got a great book to read and others to follow, so I’m good. Isabella is a bit gobsmacked by this. Catherine is an innocent, but she is honest and remains true to herself. She really is not a very good Romantic heroine.

What do you think? 

Are novels and libraries, as a character in Sheridan’s The Rivals says, “evergreen trees of diabolical knowledge” ?

I think it is interesting that Austen gives a bit of a lecture (and she isn’t prone to lecturing at all!) on the value of novels. Clearly, she is passionate about this.

Anyone out there a fan of Gothics?  Have you read any of the books discussed on Isabella’s list?

Are any of Austen’s characters at all similar to characters in a Gothic?

11 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey Chs. 4-6”

  1. These are such great comments and questions to which I have no direct answer. First, I love the intelligence presented in this book, whether it’s through conversation or narrative or narrative-about-narrative. All of it is a great contrast to Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen’s empty chit-chat about their lives (children and fine clothing). I can’t find the passage that made me laugh out loud, when Mrs. Allen commented to herself, in response to Mrs. Thorpe’s talking on and on about her children, that Mrs. Thorpe was not well-dressed), but it’s early on in their re-meeting. It’s near some fantastic writing by Austen, where she talks passionately about the value of novels and about reading them.. “‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” I learned the referenced novels are by women authors, which makes me feel like we are seeing Austen’s feminist/women-author-supporting-others side. And I find it cool that Catherine’s imagination is so sparked by the Gothic. The opening of Chapter 6 was very ‘bright’ to me: the discussion of the hat in the shop window, the mystery in Udolpho (skeleton!!) the “agony” Catherine put Isabella through in having to wait a few minutes for C to arrive, the list of novels (“Horrid Mysteries”!!!) shared, and then the social interactions in the Pump-room. It’s a lot of action, including the fact Isabella tells C that two odious-looking men have been eyeing her (Isabella) for some time, and to remedy it the ladies needed to get out of their corner and get a move-on.

    1. Yes to all of this! Isabella is such a type. Already establishing herself as less than honest. I guess we could be kind and say that she is just not particularly self-aware, whereas Catherine is so sweet in her taking things at face value and not understanding when, if you want to avoid the “odious” men, you would then go in pursuit of them. She’s wonderful.
      I think it is the way that Austen describes and shows her characters that makes me feel less alone in the world.
      I love Austen’s defense of women novelists, and unfortunately, unlike now when we live in a feminist paradise, women writers needed to be defended. Hell, the whole practice of writing and reading novels needed to be defended, and as such a new writer when she wrote this, she jumps right in.

  2. Yes – the novel diatribe was my favorite bit in these chapters. Banner-waving Jane: I love it!!!
    As I think I said already (or maybe just thought I did?) it’s interesting reading MP along with my Mary Shelley reading. Her mother’s life, and hers, was nothing like the lives of the genteel upperclass women in Austen’s novels. I think that maybe we’ve come to think of the Austen women as representative of what women were like then, but in fact probably there was a fair range of attitudes and lifestyles. Granted, that Mary S and her mother were outlyers, but still.

    1. Add to that, with Mary Shelley, that her mom was an outspoken and activist feminist who was often shunned by the “good” parts of society. And her father was a noted scientist who also had very liberal ideas. Didn’t they have an open marriage as well? And in terms of Austen, those who owned land in England were such a small percentage, and a slightly larger percentage were men who belonged to the clergy and held places at prominent churches, so Austen is dealing with a slice of the populace for sure. It makes it all the more interesting when Austen mixes in soldiers (like in Pride and Prejudice) and sailors (like in Mansfield Park). I kind of think (I’m actually not sure about this) that Austen was aiming at people/women slightly and more than slightly above her own rank/class?

      1. I will research Austen’s rank/class and reply. Very curious about this! In fact, there’s much about her life I would like to learn.

        1. I really like Austen, as a person based on the limited things I know about her life. She died way too young and never married though I believe there was a serious love interest. It sounds like she came from a happy family and she enjoyed her childhood. My sense is that Catherine’s family is quite similar to the one she had growing up, though her family had much less money then Catherine’s.

  3. Okay, so who has been to a party where you do not really care about what someone is saying, but you have to listen? Who has been the person who is not being listened to because you know while you are talking the other person is looking for someone better to talk to? I love these little bits of conversation that Austen creates and summarizes. We know exactly what interests each matron and why. Both are complacent in their own worlds and opinions. Is that what 19th C. life circumstances for women have done to them? Catherine and Isabella are all the ” normal intimacies” but we know the cue about Isabella having met James Moreland to be important. Catherine’s innocence is immediately known, not just because of her response about Tilney, but also her missing the whole point about her brother.

  4. When Isabella wants to go look at the hat in order to follow the two young men, I knew that I would not like her. I was trying to like her before that, but I did not because she is catty and self-satisfied.

  5. Yes to all of this.
    I love your comment about a party and how most people aren’t really interesting.
    I actually do worry that I’m boring people. When I am able to talk to someone who really seems to care, that is powerful stuff. I work hard to be a good listener, and that is in part because I would like to be listened to and know what it is like when I’m not.
    I can’t stand Isabella. I keep thinking about the enthusiasms of teenage girls. I was definitely an emotional teenager (just as I am an emotional adult) but I think this is why I like Catherine. I was known for my honesty, and not always in a good way. Gee–that’s followed me to adulthood though I think I’ve gotten better at keeping my mouth shut. OK, sometimes. Anyway, this is what bugs me about Isabella. It isn’t just high spirits and exaggerating for fun and passion; I think she is an untrustworthy liar. We don’t know where we stand with her.

  6. I thoroughly dislike/hate John Thorpe. He’s a braggart, liar, anti-Semite, and chauvinist. (He reminds me of Trump! It disconcerts me.) I am disappointed that James Moreland feels so happy that Catherine has befriended Isabella and thinks she can learn from her. Ugh!

    1. I love your comment, Kirsten! If Thorpe were alive now, he’d be in a fraternity, and he absolutely would be a Trump supporter. I am cutting James a little slack (this changes later) because he is so infatuated. He’s an idiot, but means no harm and clearly loves his sister, while Thorpe cares only for himself.

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