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?