An Ecofeminist Reading of Northanger Abbey and the Critical Discourse

Note: The following piece serves as a companion to another of Shollenberger’s works, The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine. Together, the pieces provide a comprehensive, and thrillingly new reading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. ‘Moral Landscape’ is a detailed historical and textual unpacking, while the text you are about to read examines Northanger’s critical reception and challenges accepted views on traditional readings.

If Jane Austen’s critics have unequivocally agreed that the final line of Northanger Abbey was satiric, the vast majority have also failed to see themselves as the butt of the satire. “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern,” Austen says, “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience.” The critics, it seems, have unwittingly taken Austen, on this point, at face value.

Traditionally, Northanger has been read as a Bildungsroman or as a novel of education in which the heroine, Catherine Morland, begins as an overimaginative reader of Gothic novels, who mistakes the ‘mannered’ citizens of Fullerton, Bath, and Northanger Abbey for heroes, damsels, and villains, and learns from the sober and meticulous Henry Tilney to navigate the ‘true’ social and moral landscape of her world. In a simultaneous parody of the Gothic genre that perverts Catherine’s judgment, the ‘heroine’ of Northanger Abbey expects at every breathtaking turn to find hidden chests and forbidden treasures, Laurentina’s skeleton[1] in her closet, and the bloody corpse of General Tilney’s late wife in his dedicated mariticide chamber, in a climax neither short of the Gothic novel nor its literary predecessors—mythology, fairy tale, and theodicy. Yet at every turn Catherine is disappointed by a world of modern comforts and quotidian concerns that pointedly does not correspond to her expectations; her parents’ only admonitions, when they ‘should’ warn the heroine about villainous lords and baronets, are practicalities like ‘wear a warm coat,’ and ‘spend money wisely.’

The most obvious critical reading of Northanger, has also been the most widespread, viewing Catherine’s expectations as her primary folly in a calm and rational late eighteenth century landscape, and Henry’s instruction as “an impressive defense of social convention [that] shows the egotism and futility of ignoring or scorning it” (Kiely 27). Henry’s logic offers an obviously clearer vision of many of the novel’s events than Catherine’s fantasies, as the novel makes explicit stops for his instruction, most famously in his ‘We Are English’ speech, in which Henry disabuses Catherine of her assurance that the General had murdered his wife, a notion which she formerly found ‘impossible to dismiss’ (130). Tilney says:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our lives connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (136)

In most cases, Tilney’s rationality, which might be defined as his intricate understanding of the laws and manners of polite society, leads him in Northanger to recognize the ‘proper’ place for Catherine’s Gothic expectations (in novels) and the place for the pointed normalcy Austen paints (the real Northanger Abbey). This distinction was the pervasive view in Austen’s time; Gothics were fictions, breezy entertainment at best and at worst morally depraved romps in rape, incest, and necrophilia, and the works from which “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained” (Northanger 7). Critics of Northanger cite Austen’s flat burlesquing of the plots and characters of Gothic and Romantic tradition in Northanger’s second volume as well as Catherine’s Gothic expectations, her “unconquerable horror of the bed [in her room]” (108), as proof that her obvious delusions are a product of Austen’s rigid attention to Gothic tropes. Yet in Austen’s time, the conduct book writers warned that the reader of Gothics would be curious, immoral, impractical, and lack a social compass, and so rather than read as a strictly Gothic heroine, Austen manages to implicate the dull Gothic reader, the contemporary female, in her characterization of Catherine. Though Catherine will follow the romantic marriage plot, and the tale will be as dark as any Gothic, her characterization is a pointedly average English girl: she is not beautiful, talented, intelligent or situationally predisposed to heroic events (her mother didn’t die, her father isn’t a tyrant, and not a single local boy has a dark, mysterious past).

The traditional reading has seen Henry’s mockery of Catherine’s literal application of fictive convention to reality as Austen’s call for a complex understanding of the society illustrated in the first volume, and thereby as proof that Austen champions ‘good sense’ over fictional delusions. The classic reading has heralded Mr. Tilney as Austen’s mouthpiece and thereby positioned Northanger as a liminal work between the burlesque mode of Austen’s juvenilia and the measured complexity of Austen’s masterpieces, her late social satires like Emma and Mansfield Park, which are glimpsed in Northanger’s satisfying first volume. Yet if recent critics have begrudgingly admitted that Henry’s socialization misleads him on occasion, and that even he is not above a bit of Austen’s light ribbing when he relies a too heavily on conventional assumptions, the critics have done so defensively, making certain to forgive Henry, to call him heroic, and to maintain that his teachings are as successful as Austen’s. Critics like Andrew Wright have held that “Like all parodies the book exhibits two sets of values [fictive aestheticism vs. conventional wisdom]: one is satirized, the other (by implication) is shown to be ‘truer’” (3). If these critics have concluded that Northanger somewhat transcends this basic structure by displaying the limitations of ‘good sense,’ or ‘conventional wisdom,’ they have maintained a dichotomous split between the novel’s values, and lauded Tilney’s social rationality as exclusively superior. If Austen’s message is one of balance, if Northanger proves that conventional wisdom cannot be relied on absolutely as Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney manage to divorce manners from the underlying morality they ought to, in Tilney’s eyes, have, then these critics have maintained that Henry is balanced, that Henry’s attendance to convention is moral, and that only through Henry’s instruction can Catherine understand the General’s perversion of propriety. If only everyone were a Mr. Tilney.

The logic of these arguments is inherently flawed; in one breath, these critics say that Austen’s message is balance and in the next that balance is achieved through absolute reliance on social convention. These critics have maintained the basic patriarchal logics of domination pervasive in Austen’s time—that humans are ‘perfectly rational’ and society is a moral bastion; Henry Tilney has been praised as a triumph of society. Rather than read Henry’s conventionalism and Catherine’s romanticism as parallel forms of fundamentalism, the critics, it seems, are still entrenched in Henry’s patriarchal submission, as they maintain the “futility of scorning it.” They have often failed to see that Henry’s cheery assurance in a calm, quiet England where Christian morality keeps wife murderers at bay leads him to a decidedly uncritical position in which he refuses to perceive the novel’s most important aspects of his mother’s death and father’s tyranny. It has not been until recent feminist criticism of Northanger that critics’ defenses of Henry Tilney have been read as participatory in Henry’s dualized language of blindness and insight, darkness and light, fiction and reality; far from holding up Henry as the victory of ‘Enlightenment,’ he is as blind, lost in his own fictions. Henry’s patriarchal submission misleads him as much as Catherine’s Gothic literalism; he is placated by tales of his own with plots as predictable as the Gothic novel’s. Both are rigid, invariable constructions. If in the largely unvaried Gothic register, the nobleman must be villainous and his wife must be victimized, in polite, moral England, in “a country like this,” as Tilney says, the characters and plots were equally homogenous. In Victorian England, the ‘real’ General Tilney of the novel could only exist in fiction, and despite the dark events of Northanger, Austen presents the happy ending, a smiling married couple fully willing to believe in their security and “perfect felicity.”

In a very real sense, Catherine’s Gothic expectations have unwittingly led her to the clearest vision of the novel’s plot; the comforts of Northanger Abbey continue to be funded by a wife’s imprisonment in a loveless marriage, familial neglect, and death just as surely as Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antiguian slaves provide the pleasures of Mansfield Park in Austen’s 1814 masterpiece. Far from Catherine being “completely awakened” (136) by Henry Tilney’s logic, as the narrator humorously assures us, Catherine’s eventual persuasion that in England, “Murder was not tolerated [and] servants were not slaves” (137), is evidence that, in a clever inversion of the novel of education, Catherine’s socialization has taught her little. She has merely switched from one fictional lens to another—from her Gothic literalism to Henry’s patriarchal submission. In Austen’s time, knowledge of the poor’s plight was repressed beneath a cheery patriotism and the ultimate justice of the patriarchal structures descended from the Bible; Mary Wollstonecraft likened the logic of women’s domination and that of the lower classes:

“In the same strain have I heard men argue against instructing the poor; for many are the forms that aristocracy assumes. ‘Teach them to read and write,’ say they, ‘and you take them out of the station assigned them by nature.’ […] But they know not, when they make man a brute, that they may expect every instant to see him transformed into a ferocious beast. Without knowledge there can be no mortality!” (286)

As the critic Paul Morrison explains, Austen’s reader can see General Tilney’s true nature, his disregard for his wife’s life and happiness and his greedy and villainous entrapment, “not by piously aping the opinions of Henry Tilney, but by accepting the gothic as a legitimate, if highly circuitous, mode of comprehending [Austen’s] sociopolitical reality” (67). Though Morrison and others maintain that Catherine achieves this different form of ‘enlightenment,’ I will not. I will argue that Catherine’s classic mistake, her Gothic literalism, questions the absolute attention to social convention and patriarchal submission that had pervaded Austen’s England while Northanger Abbey masterfully operated behind a guise that appeared to champion the very structures it sought to upend. Since no character in Northanger espouses the feminist reading, I will argue that Austen has enabled the nearly ubiquitous critical misreading of her work and simultaneously undermined it; through a deconstruction of Austen’s language, the entire work can be read as a triumph in social satire.

The main critical debate surrounding Northanger has been the question of its aesthetic unity. Generally, the novel is seen as a disjointed work, partitioned into a fulfilling social satire set in Bath and a flat Gothic burlesque set at Northanger Abbey. Just as Austen illustrated in Northanger, in Austen’s England the Gothic novel’s fictions were seen as separate and irrelevant to social concerns, even potentially damaging to an otherwise rational and moral society. The same mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive divides between reality and fiction, meaning and insignificance, still exist in the works of the critics that champion Tilney, who have, in their readings, likened the social satire volume to Austen’s canonical masterpieces and regarded the Gothic satire volume as trivial humor. Though nearly 200 years have passed between Austen’s publication and the time of this writing, the Gothic novel’s position as low entertainment has survived to haunt Northanger’s critical reception, with Northanger’s genre parody existing on the fringes of canonical literature, implying that an ecofeminist reading of Northanger Abbey, which disassembles the dualisms prevalent in Austen’s work and social milieu, holds parallel implications for the classic critical discourse, and confers analogous meaning on our own patriarchal arrangment.

In Austen’s time, mainstream writers and thinkers characterized the Romantic and Gothic trends in literature and art as medieval fictions—invented family histories, mock castles and plaster battlements, and landscapes painstakingly designed to appear untouched by humans. In the face of the Gothic’s artificiality, conduct books postured polite society as a moral, practical, and realistic opposite. ‘Rational concerns’ included money, family, land, class, balls, dress, manners and propriety; these things were ‘real,’ ‘moral,’ and thereby, important, where the fast-paced and immoral Gothic fictions were idly escapist. They might not be harmful indulgences here and there, but they were “so full of nonsense and stuff” (31), as John Thorpe explains, and nothing meaningful could be accomplished by them. The Gothic inspired a love of novelty that could only be satiated by the awful forces that threatened humankind—massive mountains, erupting volcanoes, violent storms, gloomy oceans, tidal waves—features that the rational world framed as instruments of God’s displeasure. Enjoyment of sublime landscapes and exciting novels were an indulgence for the idle rich, an aesthetic hobby horse that was at best a socially tenuous luxury and at worst actually dangerous for the baron that forced approaching carriages to proceed through rocky ravines in order to reach his estate. Even the  bibliophile, Henry Tilney’s, famous ‘We are English’ speech is laden with this distinction; though Henry might enjoy a novel that makes his hair stand on end, he warns Catherine of the literal dangers of applying Gothic convention to social convention.

Gothic literature, medieval architecture, sublime landscapes, and picturesque beauty were, in their masterful renditions, a new type of aesthetic delight that suggested a vast, unpredictable, and terrifying natural order, though they were also dangerous, blasphemous, immoral, and untrue. The Gothic form in architecture was reinitiated by Horace Walpole, who also initiated the trend in literature, describing his new genre as a blend of the “old” romantic tradition, which presented its fantastical events as entirely magical or unbelievable, with the “new” mainly epistolary romantic novels pioneered by the likes of Samuel Richardson, which were meant to serve as narrative-styled conduct books, teaching propriety to young women. The Gothic novel adopted the supernatural aspects of the old tradition and illustrated the events with the rational explanations of the new; Gothics thereby presented serious concern for the conduct book writers in its confounding of the moral and the immoral, the realistic and the hyperbolic, the supernatural and the natural. This conflation of fact and fiction implied the inseparability of the two, which worked in tandem to create new and different realities, immoral realities, and the conflation itself was itself postured as the most dangerous fiction of all; reality, the conduct books and great writers said, had nothing to do with Gothic suggestion.

Yet even the emerging sciences had Gothic implications, pointing to immeasurable supernatural forces as electric jolts galvanized severed frogs legs and set corpses smiling; medical plants magically relieved physical disorders like epilepsy; and natural scientists began to discover a far more complex and seemingly infinite natural order rife with new species, “many of which seemed as strange as monsters or mythical beasts” (Nichols 5). As the Gothic heroine and her ancestors looked into forbidden rooms, chests, and jars, these sciences looked into God’s forbidden rooms and jars, wishing, like Eve, for the forbidden knowledge of the composition and operation of the physical world, which chemical and physical scientists suggested could be understood and altered. Horrifically, scientists were declaring “the principal parts of men and plants are the same” (La Mettrie 77), directly challenging man’s Biblically ordained superior position in the Great Chain of Being, and presenting humans, instead of as God’s children, as the victims of an unconcerned and infinite universe, the organization of which could not be guessed.

The supernatural implications of the Gothic threatened rip off the sheet of polite societal organization and to expose the grotesque natural struggle beneath: a species with pretensions to exceptionalism in which the most admired person was the dominating Gothic figure, Napoleon, and transgressions against society’s victims (women, the poor), who were most honorable when passive, were often, by law, silenced. Though Gothic style was exaggerated enough to appear a burlesque of its own terrifying insinuations, the Gothic novel became, as a necessary means of controlling knowledge, a kind of forbidden fruit in itself, a forbidden genre, with its ‘absurd’ and ‘blasphemous’ connotations that gestured towards the notion of Western society’s own arbitrary, artificial, and oppressive organization. Yet the Gothic by no means held the type of control that it could have, as even their novelists themselves described the works as trivial novels of escapism. Though novels were as widespreadly read as Henry Tilney would have us believe, among the institutions of polite society and even among the great writers themselves, with, perhaps, the sole exception of Jane Austen, the consensus was that of John Thorpe: novels were “the stupidest things in creation” (31).

Yet Austen’s own work was a queer, and even more troublesome mixture of fact and fiction than the ordinary Gothic. While it masqueraded as a silly attack on an already defeated genre, and did not affirm fiction as a clearer lens than ‘good sense,’ it confounded Gothic absurdity with the absurdity of good sense, thereby likening social constructions to ‘the stupidest things in creation,’ ‘from which nothing like useful knowledge could be learned.’ Rather than the Gothic’s traditionally remote geographic and temporal settings, Northanger Abbey occurred (at its initial conception) in contemporary England. The abbey itself, rather than being “just like what one reads about” (107), is fine gravel rather than looming mountain, modern hallways rather than long damp pages and narrow cells in a ruined chapel. The heroine and hero, as Austen pointedly illustrates, are not the stock romantic characters, but rather, are decidedly average. And yet, in spite of the rational appearance of England’s moral characters and modern locales, the plot itself shares the horrors of the Gothic, though the horrors can barely be heard beneath Henry’s obnoxious protestations, “We are English! We are Christians!” Even Austen’s narrator is imprisoned in the text’s calm exterior, managing to betray her own sarcasm from behind bars. Though the narrator ends with the common romantic fiction of “perfect happiness” (174) through marriage, Northanger itself is a tale of marital villainy and parental tyranny, which, Austen’s narrator assures us, are actually conducive to happiness. Only her phrasing betrays her patriarchal puppetry.

As both a Gothic parody and an education novel centered on self-deception, Austen draws attention to the expectation that Northanger’s events will be fictional and fantastic, existing between covers alone, and playfully denies both her heroine and her audience many of the fearful literary tropes they expect, questioning the line between fiction and reality. Traditionally, the stark division between the real and the fictional has been upheld in criticism; if Northanger’s reader should expect the Gothic elements, Catherine’s own expectation of them have been read as her primary mistake. Catherine as a character is pointedly normal, Austen assures us in the first chapter; she is not beautiful, talented, intelligent or situationally predisposed to heroic events (her mother didn’t die, her father isn’t a tyrant, and not a single local boy has a dark, mysterious past). Yet if Catherine is meant to be ‘realistic,’ that is, closer to a representation of the average English girl than to the fictional Gothic heroine, Austen draws attention to the created fictions of her own England, a world in which the ball beaux had begun affecting the manner and dialogue of lovers in romance novels. What many critics have failed to notice is what the majority of writers and thinkers in Austen’s time attempted to deny—far from the Gothic and Romantic trends expressing fictional concerns separable from reality, reality and fiction blurred together into something new as they created new fictions about one another. As the Gothic novel created ulterior readings of England with dangerous implications for its oppressive societal structure, England fictionalized the genre’s merits with enough power to create a new reality in which they were nothing more than silly tales whose implications couldn’t actually upend Biblical patriarchy.

Rather than Northanger’s Gothic satire and social satire being somehow distinct, to satirize the Gothic novel was to satirize a pervasive societal force, and, moreover, to satirize the authority that made it impossible to openly defend the Gothic, the poor, women, wild landscapes, or aesthetic beauty on ‘rational’ grounds. The Gothic novel was work for the modern female, filled with stupidity, immorality, curiosity, and caprice; these descriptors were also the classic descriptors of women and the Gothic sharpened female vices. In a society where the moralists and proper conduct writers advised against profligacy of any kind, where “[A woman] who is first a prostitute to Wine, will soon be to Lust also,” (Allestree 14), the extravagant and trendy gothic, it was feared, would lead a woman to a fondness of novelty that very literally would become the most vile excess of all—sexual excess, a curiosity in other men and conjugal infidelity. Conduct books, dominantly written by men and often clergy, prescribed this moral self-discipline with the underlying motive of fitting women to a role that would allow her to reproduce the dominant structures of patriarchy—the economic, social, cultural and political order. She had to remain faithful to a husband so that wealth and power were passed down to their rightful male heirs. The moralists were self-proclaimedly necessary guardians of society because women could not determine moral action on their own. ‘The power of women,’ as a common idiom went, ‘[was] her sensibility,’ (the power of feeling or emotion), as contrasted with the strictly male power of reason, which the protofeminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, described as “the power of discerning good from evil” (285); she reiterated, “sensibility is not reason” (288). Since woman could not reason for herself, and yet she was paradoxically capable of being the male’s moral superior according to Puritan doctrine, which became prominent in the 17th and 18th century, she was relegated to helpless acquiescence to male advice.

The Gothic entered into these interlocking logics of the female character, creating a kind of synergy that made it impossible for the contemporary woman to see these descriptors—stupidity, immorality, caprice—as created description. By the time the Gothic hit the scene, its position as a dominated, female genre was implicit; it, as well as the many structures that reinforced female domination, profoundly shaped the nature of Catherine’s reality as it profoundly shaped the nature of Austen’s. If young women were expected to read novels because they were not expected to be intelligent, it was a social reality that the same powers that forced Austen to write within the structures of patriarchy forced a young woman, if she be damned with “the misfortune of knowing any thing [to] conceal it as well as she [could]” (76).

In ecofeminism as a critical discourse, these interlocking dualisms are the defining structure of patriarchy:

Capitalist patriarchy or ‘modern’ civilization is based on a cosmology and anthropology that structurally dichotomizes reality, and hierarchically opposes the two parts to each other: the one always considered superior, always thriving, and progressing at the expense of the other. (Mies 429)

As I have briefly illustrated here, and I illustrate in more detail in my essay, “The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine,” Austen’s work illustrates the illogicity of these absolute divisions. Henry Tilney’s logic is a fictional reality when it cannot move beyond a strict and literal standpoint that the Gothic plotline can only be fiction. Austen’s clever intermingling of fiction and reality not only models their enmeshment in Victorian England, but also suggests parallel faults between them when portrayed as distinct. The structures of patriarchy ficticiously bolstered themselves through religion and law; from Biblical sanction to preachers’ conduct books, from primogeniture to coverture, the system insisted upon its own equity and oppressed evidence otherwise. As Marilyn Gaull explains,

“While the aristocracy and some clergy enjoyed the personal liberties of a gothic villain, dramatists were prohibited by law from presenting them on the stage, while journalists and publishers were imprisoned, sometimes without trial, for protesting their loss of freedom, or the hunger and deprivations of the working classes.” (231)

If Catherine’s literal application of Gothics to daily life was understandably absurd, the oppressive aspects of power that attempted to perpetuate patriarchy through the silencing of its victims, have lead Henry to very really misjudge his own family’s situation. Henry’s denial that “in the country and age in which we live” that there could possibly be any forbidden knowledge for Catherine to uncover in his mother’s room unwittingly reminds the reader that the General used Henry’s mother, the former Miss Drummond, as he has attempted to use Catherine Morland, merely for economic purposes. “His value of her was sincere,” says Henry, “and if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death” (136). Certainly, his mother’s £20,000, at most twice what the General thought Catherine was worth, was highly valued by the patriarch whose incessant doting on Catherine was coupled with “an almost positive command to his son [Henry] of doing every thing in his power to attach to her [Catherine]” (169). Yes, Henry is correct; his education has not prepared him to understand how to confront the notion that his father used his mother as a disposable asset. His education has not prepared him to see the structural domination of women as anything other than the proper arrangement of society; if Henry Tilney is romantic enough to see that in marriage the man has the advantage of choice, his conclusions stopped short of a Jeremy Bentham, who likened the position of women to that of the slaves that toiled to supply the extravagances of Mansfield. His education does not prepare him to accept the suggestions of the emerging sciences and arts—that nature does not privilege one species and that societal arrangement is entirely human-sanctioned and curiously dark. Henry will not see his villainous father as the man who used his mother for economic gain, overtook her legal person under coverture, and imprisoned her in a marriage that may have ultimately killed her.

Austen attacked her society’s absolute, dichotomized notions of masculinity and femininity, fiction and reality, humans and nature, the moral and immoral, conduct books and Gothic novels, the sublime and the beautiful, religion and science, the public and the private, and gestured towards a worldview which recognized the multiplicity of reality. Just as Catherine’s judgment becomes equally murky in the switch from Gothic aestheticism to patriarchal submission, Northanger does not recommend the either/or tendencies of the society it illustrates. Rather than Henry’s facetious claim to think “very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world” (79), Austen suggests that such a view would be as misleading as dismissing the rationality of an entire gender.

If the classic critics had to choose between parental tyranny and filial disobedience, it seems they must choose the former, as Henry says, “to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonymous words […] That little boys and girls should be tormented […] is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny” (75). Though Henry’s argument here is on the importance of education, and notably satiric, he is ultimately the victim of his own satire as his instruction robs him of objective clarity. His classic education, which has taught him these roles, has indeed tormented him, albeit in minor ways in comparison to the structural domination of other groups in Austen’s England. Parental tyranny, it seems, is the only means of achieving ‘good sense’ and the romantic marriage, as Austen’s plot makes literal the notion that General Tilney’s overbearing greed could facilitate the marriage between Henry and Catherine that otherwise would not have been. If the effect of Northanger Abbey then is not to recommend parental tyranny, if the classic critics’ logic is to be extended, and one set of values is to be satirized and the other, by implication, shown to be truer, then the work must recommend filial disobedience. Of course, such an absurd argument must show the illogicity of the dominant trend in Northanger’s criticism.

The effect of this essay, and my detailed ecofeminist reading of Northanger Abbey, “The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine,” has been to illustrate the need for not only a new reading of Jane Austen’s text, but also to display through such a reading that Austen’s work was her own condemnation of the pervasive critical readings of the text. Feminist readings of the text, analyses of Austen’s treatment of landscape, and deconstructions of Northanger’s fictions have made this analysis possible, and I have adopted a similar reading in many important aspects, including the newly dominant analysis, incorporated in the recent Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, which views General Tilney as a gothic tyrant akin to Montoni.

This reading has weighed in on several central critical debates in new ways. I have suggested that not only is the text unified on a thematic level in its interlocking web of delusions, as recent critics have suggested, but that its normally perceived division into genre and social satires is actually a full-fledged social satire incorporating fiction as a central aspect of Austen’s England. This reading views fiction and reality in England as helplessly entrenched, as they historically were, and suggests that far from the view prevalent in Austen’s time and the criticism that followed, that patriarchy was a repressive fiction shaped by the tales of religion, conduct book writers, and, of course, novelists as well. The effect of this masterfully unified social satire is a condemnation of patriarchy as strong as in Austen’s late works; this reading naturally presumes that much of this text is the result of late edits, the impact of which are not agreed upon in the critical debates.

Much as readings of Austen’s language have in the past, this reading recognizes Austen’s distaste for absolute and hyperbole, extending these fictions to conventionalism. The effect of Austen’s work is to recommend neither parental tyranny or filial disobedience, neither man or woman, neither human or nature, et. alia, but to recommend balance, objectivity, and a critical eye.

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Wright, Andrew H. “Heroines, Heroes, and Villains.” Jane Austen’s Novels: a Study in Structure (1953): 83-172. Print.

Zimmerman, Everett. “The Function of Parody in Northanger Abbey.” Modern Language Quarterly XXX (1969): 53-63. Print.


[1] A reference to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the primary work satirized in Northanger Abbey. Along with her later volume, The Italian (1797), Radcliffe was a rare critical darling in a genre dominantly complained about for its formulaic monotony. In Volume I, Chapter VI, Isabella Thorpe rattles off a list of lesser, largely forgotten works, the titles of which characterize the explosion of unvaried, opportunistic works in this niche that occurred in the 1790s. Isabella’s list manages to offer, among seven titles, horror, mystery, orphans, indecipherable warnings, the supernatural, villainous nobility, gloomy and medieval settings, and of course, these descriptive titles. Austen had originally titled her work Susan, after its protagonist, and later, Catherine, as she was renamed, making Northanger sound more like the novels of society that its first volume is modeled after (ex. Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), Evelina (1778), Camilla (1796), &c.). The novel was posthumously renamed by Austen’s brother, Henry, rooting the text in the Gothic tradition, among which, the Austen scholars Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye’s count, there were thirty-two novels published between 1784 and 1818 containing the word ‘Abbey’ in the title. Though in her famous defense of the novel, Austen remained conspicuously silent on the value of the Gothic, mentioning only social novels in her list of the works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, [et al.]” (23), Austen remained fair regarding Radcliffe’s critical accomplishments. If Austen sent up the absurdities of Gothic convention, she utilized Radcliffe’s successful trope, the logical explanation of the supernatural, which helped the genre gain traction. In Northanger’s typical satire, the trope is inverted, with the supernatural offering a clearer view of General Tilney’s character and the fate of his late wife than Henry Tilney’s patriarchal and patriotic logic ever could.

Jane Austen Books

Jane Austen Books

About Brett Shollenberger

Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies.
This entry was posted in 19th century, Austen, austenite, biography, Ecofeminism, Ecofeminist, font, Jane Austen, Jane Austen biography, Jane Austen book club, Jane Austen Emma, Jane Austen font, Jane Austen movies, Jane Austen persuasion, Jane Austen quotes, Jane Austen society, Literature, movies, Northanger Abbey, Northanger Abbey quotes, Northanger Abbey read online, Northanger Abbey summary, Northanger Abbey text, parody of Gothic novel, Pride and Prejudice, satire, Sense and Sensibility, tour of literary criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to An Ecofeminist Reading of Northanger Abbey and the Critical Discourse

  1. rohit says:

    Must be an enjoyable read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by “to read” list.

  2. Thanks for this article. I am linking to an introduction I made for a book club. Certainly it is more than a satire and instruction book. I liked it.

  3. Thank you, Lizzy; what a valuable resource you’ve provided. An accessible introduction to the many things Austen.

  4. Cedric Bruin says:

    Thanks for such an educational article.

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