An Ecofeminist Reading of Northanger Abbey
As a satire of the Gothic novel, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey quietly subverts the systems of Western patriarchy reinforced by the genre and its literary predecessors, questioning the structural domination of women and nature. The plots, tropes, characters, and conclusions of the Gothic romance derived from forms popular in Austen’s England: Greek mythology (Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone), fairytales popularized by oral tradition and by the collections of Charles Perrault (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella”), and narrative theodicy (the Eve story in Genesis, Pandora). Like these tales, Northanger relates the adventures of a favorite daughter (the “heroine”), whose heroic acts are modesty and submission. She is sent by her family to overcome monumental dangers hardly short of trips to the Underworld, transactions with Satan, and enormous helmets falling out of open skies, and, faced with such terrors, falls to the ground weeping until she is saved by the strength and ingenuity of the significant male characters, including, generally, the hero himself.
The heroine of these tales earns her troubles through curiosity and disobedience of the male figure. Psyche looked at the husband who forbade her to; Lot’s wife turned back to the city the angels forbade her to; and Bluebeard’s wife nearly became the next victim in her husband’s dedicated mariticide chamber—where she discovered the skeletons of his past wives under the inscription, “The Punishment of Curiosity,” in George Colman the Younger’s dramatization of the popular tale, “Blue-Beard; or Female Curiosity.” This snooping disobedience became the outright damnation of the female sex in narrative theodicy, a genre that explained the presence of evil in the world as a punishment for Eve’s appetite for forbidden fruits or Pandora’s inability to let alone the forbidden jar. In Eve’s case, female curiosity and disobedience of male figures released evil into a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent Judeo/Christian Creator; that is, the Genesis story offered one resolution to “the problem of evil” puzzled by centuries of theologians. Genesis resolved God’s perfect knowledge, power, and benevolence, and instead rested the blame for evil solely on female shoulders, reinforcing, through these often etiological genres, the Scriptural patriarchy that seemed the immutable organization of humanity to early modern English historians.
In 1764, the basic tropes of these stories evolved into the inaugural Gothic romance, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. “Gothic” was a widely used term in the mediæval period that had been displaced by Enlightenment rationality, but had, in the seventeenth century, been largely associated with architecture, and meant crude, unpolished, barbaric, or in bad taste, as reprobatively contrasted with refinement, morality, and manners. In 1749, Walpole had reinstated the gothic trend in architecture into England, as he remodeled his cottage at Strawberry Hill into a “gothic castle,” whose battlements and pointed arches, towers and decorative weaponry lining the halls were artificial; the baptismal font, though painted to look like stone, was made of plaster. Gothic novels were similarly entrenched in excess and artifice; they were fast-paced, gory, terrifying and sensationalist, favoring quick and twisted plots over poignant and realistic characters, and horrific emotional stimuli to the reigned control of the elder writers, the Shakespeares and Miltons, complained Wordsworth and Coleridge and Byron. At their most debauched, Gothic novels like Gregory Lewis’ The Monk were filled with rape, necrophilia, incest, and a lurid description of the broken-limbed, but still lucid monk’s week-long death being devoured by insects and eagles.
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 centuries, she was relegated to helpless acquiescence to male advice. She could not possibly act until the male told her how; she was, as the preacher Thomas Gisborne described, to become a mirror, with no image of its own, only receiving its stamp from the onlooking face (122-23).
Men advised her against all excesses—overeating, dressing provocatively, gambling, coquetting, speaking immodestly, craving flattery, frivolous or trifling employment, or even referring to her body; an average article in the Spectator read, “even the Maid who was dressing my Hair, burst out o’ laughing at the Idea of a Lady saying her Stomach ach’d, or that something stuck between her Teeth” (Spectator 217). Indulgence in one appetite implicitly and explicitly fueled a desire for others, as it became an overarching demeanor of cravings. Women were characterized as creatures ruled by desire, and a woman’s education was meant to govern temptations, which in large part meant reigning in the two dangerous characteristics that defined the Gothic heroine and her predecessors: curiosity and disobeyal of the male will.
Indulgence in excessive, trashy novels therefore became idol and immoral. In the Gothic, familiar themes from Greek tragedy (false inheritance, vengeance, mistaken identity, all themes that threatened male dynasty) were hyperbolized by the supernatural and the inexplicable animation of the inanimate (statues bleeding, skeletons offering advice, portraits exiting their frames)—a summation of Western terrors. The Gothic was a particularly dangerous read, moreso than its predecessors because it did not present fantastical events as entirely magical or unbelievable (in what Walpole called the “old” romantic tradition), but rather merged the supernatural of the “old” with the realism of the newer, mainly epistolary forms pioneered by the likes of Samuel Richardson, who conceived of his own works, which had licentious elements, as narrative-styled conduct books much in the vein of letters to the Lady’s Magazine wherein a lady might describe how she learned a lesson in propriety by making a mistake. Yet the type of mistakes “forbidden” by the male figure in Gothics (forbidden fruits, rooms, jars) was not the harmless female learning experience of the Lady’s Magazine, and the Gothic 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, which would confuse the female judgment.
Even more terrifying were the Gothic possibilities suggested by the emerging sciences 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). 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 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. Rather than themes to upset a single male lineage, the supernatural implications of the Gothic threatened rip off the sheet of polite society 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. The Gothic was defamed as idle, extravagant, ‘full of nonsense,’ or, in Austen’s satiric voice, the genre from which “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained” (Northanger 7). The conduct book postured itself as the salutary alternative to a type of Gothic disease—wherein readers’ realities became distorted; their judgment clouded, overimaginative, ignorant, impractical, self-interested, and immoral.
Despite or perhaps bolstered by the moralists’ warnings, the genre exploded in the 1790s. In 1796, the Critical Review complained, “Since Mrs. [Anne] Radcliffe’s justly admired and successful romances [most notably The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and the then-forthcoming The Italian (1797)], the press has teemed with stories of haunted castles and visionary terrors; the incidents of which are so little diversified, that criticism is at a loss to vary its remarks” (Garside 629). Though recent criticism has emphasized the heterogeneity of the genre, as the Austen critic Thomas Keymer explains, certain tropes were widely shared:
Gothic fiction was characterized in general by temporally or geographically remote settings – often mediæval, often Mediterranean – in which enlightened modern constraints on plot and action – manners and morals, customs and laws – were conveniently in abeyance. By locating climactic plot events in the winding labyrinths and gloomy recesses of ancient monasteries or ruined castles, it cultivated an atmosphere heavily laden with enthralling psychosexual connotation. (24)
In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the author cleanly evokes and avoids many of the criticized clichés that had become disposable and interchangeable, playing not on a single novel, but rather on the formula of monotonous extravagance and hyperbole.
In her parody, Austen subverts the tropes her audience would have expected of a number of genres, from novels of sensibility to adventure novels to the Gothic novel itself, by pointedly commenting on the heroine, Catherine Morland’s, apparent elusion of all hackneyed devices. “No one,” Austen informs her readers, “who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (5). And the list begins. Catherine’s father had no addiction to locking her up, she wasn’t the overwhelming beauty catching the eyes of princes at the ball, and the only potentially “evil” quality of her predominant female role model, Mrs. Allen, who ought to have “promote[d] the general distress of the work,” and “reduce[d] poor Catherine to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable” (10), was merely a happy stupidity that any conduct book of the day would have called a woman’s natural inclination. Far from being the traditional Gothic heroine, Austen emphasizes, Catherine Morland was average, even boring. Her family “were in general very plain” (5), and among the neighboring boys—the potential heroes of Catherine’s tale—not a single one had a dramatic or mysterious background (“There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown” (8). Yes, Catherine Morland was as pointedly unexciting as a novel’s heroine could be.
Yet if Northanger’s narrator pretends that Catherine was the unlikeliest of all possible subjects for the romantic, upwardly mobile marriage plot, by avoiding the supposedly most excessive, artificial, and unrealistic tropes of the Gothic genre, Austen is teasing her readers with false conclusions built on incomplete premises. Austen dramatically underlines Miss Morland’s evasion of regulated plot points with authorial commentary in lines like, “[Mrs. Morland] had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more” (5, my emphasis), yet she still sneaks in important conventions without calling similar attention to them, like Catherine’s affinity for forbidden flowers, the villainous General Tilney, and the romantic marriage plot. And though Catherine is not initially fond of the activities Austen’s narrator calls “heroic,” like “nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush” (5), and moreover enjoys the non-heroic activities, “cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country” (7), in Austen’s typically underwritten satire, Catherine is quickly equipped with all the requisite tools to become a heroine as she begins to curl her hair and pine for balls, becomes “almost pretty,” and fills her mind with a smattering of quotations from Pope to Shakespeare, (that is, with a female education ironically deemed by Austen’s narrator as sufficient).
By the end of the first chapter, though Catherine has avoided the thrilling Gothic opening, she simultaneously fits the formula for the Gothic heroine and the collective description of the ‘naturally desirous female’ beginning to be refined into the socialized Lady. She is affectionate, cheerful, emotional, stupid, and curious—all the traits that the conduct book sought to temper, and all those required for the Gothic heroine to get herself into a mess and cede to the male authority. In the controlled Gothic register, Austen here confounds the realistic and the hyperbolic; with the traditional “excesses” of the genre’s plot thrown off, the remaining Gothic conventions starkly mirror the absurd formula of the female as heroism is equated with femininity. Even the notion that Catherine could be a heroine arises in the text out of the literal manifestation of the conduct book’s warning that Catherine, as a reader of Gothic novels, would suffer the overactive imagination that would allow her to imagine herself a heroine. Ostensibly, Catherine will not suffer the Gothic’s terrors in this Bildungsroman, as Austen has pointedly expressed. Catherine will learn to navigate the manners and morals of English society through a trip to Bath, chaperoned by the harmless Mrs. Allen and the level-headed Mr. Allen; be the welcomed guest of the wealthy Tilney family; learn that her own judgments have been clouded by Gothic novels; and ultimately marry the romantic Henry Tilney. Yet If Northanger’s opening initially denies its own adherence to tropic fictionality, its elusion of the genre’s readily criticized excesses (violent noblemen, fearful abduction, entrapment) draws quiet attention to the conventional characterization and the analogies between the rigid artifices of the Radcliffean adventure and the no-less-confining or superfluous expectations of the quotidian trials of female conduct (reading, education, the ballroom, the theatre, an engagement to a friend). Through her own mockery of the ‘anti-realism’ of the Gothic, Austen seems to align herself with the moralists, or to be writing within the genres of institutional repression, wherein her plot will unveil to Catherine the absurdity of her convictions, and Catherine will emerge the social, moral adult, disabused of fantasy and “completely awakened” (136) to the righteous realities of England; on the surface, this is exactly the plot of Northanger. Yet disarming the Gothic and exposing its own shortcomings will only be a piece of the work, since Catherine, who may become the most enlightened of the novel’s characters, will never become ‘completely awakened,’ and will in fact be hardly better able by Northanger’s close to accurately judge the events of the novel, in an ironic commentary on English novels of education.
As a parody of such a novel, Northanger can be challenging for the modern reader to embark upon because its heroine is deeply enmeshed in her “anti-realism,” her own Gothic fantasies. The narration is complicated by its stylistic free indirect discourse, in which the third person, rather offer an omniscient or impartial standpoint from which to judge Catherine’s confusion, is itself infused with the dialogue and thoughts Catherine and her companions. Since Miss Morland acts as a caricature of both the Gothic heroine and the Gothic reader, whose judgments are ignorant and overimaginative, the narrator’s mention of avoided Gothic tropes acquires a dramatic irony only as the reader discovers through indirect discourse that Catherine’s love of Gothic novels has led her to confuse Gothic convention for societal reality. When the narrator explains that “[Catherine’s mother] knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter” (9, my emphases), it is not an objective narrator that believes Mrs. Morland ought to warn her daughter of the dangers she will surely face as she leaves home for Bath, but Catherine herself, who is disappointed that her mother directs her only towards practicalities—wearing a scarf at night and keeping an account of her expenses. Here Austen utilizes Ann Radcliffe’s successful Gothic trope, in which the absurdities of the form are explained by rational causes; Catherine Morland becomes so caught up in her artificial reality, as the conduct books warned the Gothic reader would, that she cannot accurately judge her situation.
Yet in Northanger’s introduction, Austen has opened a very narrow gap in the free indirect discourse between author and character, and the modern reader may find herself as lost as the heroine. Catherine, who is too romantic and fearfully imaginative to provide accurate information, is given almost free reign over the third person narration. As if the reader herself has read too many Gothic novels, Austen reports that Mrs. Allen has probably invited Catherine to Bath in order to facilitate the proper novelistic tropes, that Catherine’s father should have given her an unlimited order on his banker, and that the journey which was likely to be overrun with robbers and tempests was unfortunately no more alarming than a pair of forgotten clogs. Austen forces the reader to inhabit Catherine’s confusion and refuses correct it, to offer a state of non-confusion that would make the reader privy to the dramatic irony. To one of Austen’s contemporaries fluent in Gothic tropes and the modern social climate that warned against them, the irony would have rung through large gaps in the narration as in a children’s book like Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings in which Mr. Mallard, met with a swan boat in the Boston Public Gardens, quacks, “Good morning,” and McCloskey explains, “the big bird was too proud to answer.” Yet the modern reader, uncertain of the blurred line between fact and fiction that the Gothic revels in, is forced to muddle, as Catherine, through the world with nothing more than a dramatically incomplete female education. The reader is forced to feel Mary Wollstonecraft’s criticism: “And will the moralists pretend to assert, that this is the condition in which one half of the human race [women] should be encouraged to remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence?” (285).
Catherine will continue to literally apply her Gothic expectations to her experiences, allowing the appearance of situations and general formula to dictate her perceptions. She will imagine that Northanger Abbey must be a gothic castle, exactly as one reads of, and will be disappointed by the rational comforts—handsome marble and pretty English china—of the maintained modern home. She will judge an old-fashioned black cabinet, on the tropic grounds that she had never noticed it before despite its conspicuity, as containing an untold treasure in its false linings; she will uncover a washing-bill. She will remain suspicious of the General, who fulfills her every wish and showers compliments upon her, until, led by clues like an undervalued portrait and a forbidden room, she eventually entertains no uncertainty that he had locked up and murdered his own wife in a tale not short of Blue-beard. Finally, ‘the visions of romance’ will shatter, as, satirically, Henry Tilney offers the cure for female misconception: the proper explanation of reality, male rationality.
Fortunately, the modern reader does not need to bumble along with Catherine the entire time. If Austen refuses to offer a clean window through which to view the events of Northanger, the complexities of free indirect style can at least guide the reader to Austen’s irony by unraveling which words belong to the characters’ colloquial tongues and misperceptions, and which words are the aesthetic choices an author acutely attuned to her social milieu. In free indirect style, the literary scholar, James Wood, displays how a line in which the narrator has remained primarily objective can be complicated by a character-driven modifier, such as, “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears” (10). In this sentence, the reader does not assume that the narrator has scoffed at Ted for crying, but the reader could imagine Ted thinking to himself how stupid it is to cry in public. ‘Stupid’ is not the poetic choice of Wood, the author, but rather the degraded language of Ted’s colloquialism. Wood has sacrificed a more precise or literary word choice in order to simultaneously allow the reader to inhabit the Ted’s point of view and the author’s omniscience, drawing attention to the dramatic irony and offering a chance for the reader to better understand Ted than he can understand himself.
For Austen’s characters, hyperbolic and absolute word choices present a more complex style of corrupt language in their appearance of honesty complicated by an almost deliberate ability to misguide or confuse. The polite conversation of Austen’s England, though seemingly dressed up and logical, is loaded with its own excess and artifice, and creates, like the Gothic novel, its own alternative and misleading realities. From Austen’s juvenilia onward, characters’ speeches are pretty, yet perplexing; in “Jack and Alice,” Lady Williams says:
“What say you to accompanying these Ladies: I shall be miserable without you—t’will be a most pleasant tour to you—I hope you’ll go; if you do I am sure t’will be the Death of me—pray be persuaded.” (Minor 24)
Though linguistically sound, throughout Austen’s work, and dominatingly in Northanger, these hyperbolic statements regularly imply the opposite of what they intend or are so contradictory that no sense of the speaker’s intent can be drawn. Lady Williams’ tautological tongue vacillates between absolute certainty in one and another conflicting idea in a manner that can only confuse; yet by Northanger’s publication, which indisputably gained elements of Austen’s mature free indirect style in its later editions, Austen attacks an ultimately more misleading speech pattern—not speech which contradicts itself, but speech which is later contradicted by action. In “intentional inversion,” a character’s apparent intention will lead to an inverted reality every time they speak absolutely. Every time Isabella says she will always do one thing, she never keeps that specific promise. In the juvenilia, where a character was explicitly unreliable by way of blatant contradiction, the ideological corruption created by absolute statements was not nearly as profound would be in Northanger’s intentional inversion. “Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life?” (43, my emphases), asks John Thorpe regarding James’ carriage. “You might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch. It is the most devilish little rickety business I ever beheld!—Thank God! we have a better. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty pounds” (43). Thorpe’s statement is bold and assured, and Catherine is forced to believe him until proven otherwise. Only when Thorpe’s needs shift from bragging about his own carriage’s superiority to the need to reassure Catherine that James will be fine does Thorpe change his tune: “[it] will last above twenty years after it is fairly worn out. Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail” (44). As readers, we note how Thorpe’s absolute certainty shifts to support his interests, yet as Catherine puzzles out social convention, such hyperbolic speeches leave her “[uncertain] how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (44), and uncertain about the nature of her reality.
In Northanger’s plot, this model of reliably unreliable intentional inversion gestures towards a postmodern inquisition of the potential for any absolute reality. James Morland, Catherine’s brother, is the only man Isabella ever did or could love, (even though she left him for Captain Tilney, the greatest coxcomb she’d ever seen) (149). John Thorpe describes Blaise Castle (misspelled by Austen ‘Blaize’) as the finest place in England, the oldest in the kingdom when in a reality Catherine never sees (though Austen’s contemporaries would have known about), it was a modern folly akin to Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, complete with fake battlements and pointed arches rather than the towers and long galleries Catherine imagines (57). Likewise Thorpe finds novels “the stupidest things in creation,” as per the mainstream view, and yet the only one he likes is Lewis’ horribly depraved and characteristically telling, The Monk. This hyperbolic and absolute language is the same type that Catherine will eventually learn to call “a strain of shallow artifice […] rife with inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood” (150); and Henry Tilney will call it “an excellent satire on modern language” when Catherine confusedly says, “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible” (91).
As we uncover this linguistic aversion towards absolutes in Austen’s texts, it becomes apparent that when an absolute invades the third person narration, the hyperbolic thought distances itself from the narrator’s personal judgment and aligns with the misleading constructions of polite society. As with Wood’s example of ‘stupid tears,’ it is not the narrator that says Mrs. Morland entertained “no notion” of the mischievousness of lords and baronets (9); instead, Austen steps away, and lets Catherine speak. As with Ted, Austen’s narration allows the reader to imagine a line of Catherine’s dialogue that is almost linguistically identical to the provided third person narration, in which the young, shatter-brained heroine might say to her equally confused friend, Isabella, ‘My mother knows so little about barons! She entertains no notion of their general mischievousness! She is wholly unsuspicious!’ In such a case, Austen’s inclusion of colloquial ‘so’ and the absolutes ‘no’ and ‘wholly’ in the third person draw attention to themselves as non-authorial speech patterns; Austen’s own writing is clean, straightforward, and objective where the dialogue of her stupidest characters is excessive and artificial, despite being dressed up in the guise of polite speech. Likely, the pragmatic Mrs. Morland recognizes the Gothic convention of the villainous baron, and so entertains some notion of their general mischievousness in novels, and the existence of the hyperbolic modifiers ‘so,’ ‘no,’ and ‘wholly,’ rather than emphasize the veracity of the narration, are left where Austen’s sparse style would have trimmed them to underscore Catherine’s absolute immersion in the artificial realities created by Gothic novels and polite speech. But without authorial qualification, not only are lords and barons mischievous because Catherine’s mind has been corrupted by Gothic convention, but also because the narration has been infected with society’s absolute speech patterns, leaving no other options for the reader to imagine. The statement emanates from the narration, our authoritative guide, and thereby a proxy for society itself, and if the reader knows no better than Catherine, there can be no maneuvering around the narration’s insistence. Austen herself can speak well enough to be unintelligible as the reader’s authority, and if she will not choose objectivity in her narration, she leaves the audience to perform the male role, to judge for ‘himself,’ or, to assume the helpless nodding acquiescence of the female. Even when the reader senses something is askew, and cries out in upset, “How could you deceive me so, Mr. Thorpe?” (59), the text remains silent regarding any other possibilities. If anything, it is obstinate, defending itself, like Mr. Thorpe, very stoutly, in its winking refusal to have been wrong. Yet when all is said and done and the reader has, like Catherine, located herself within the world, she may damingly use the narration to imagine the inverted, yet ultimately identical diction a conduct book writer might have penned, ‘Catherine knew so little about barons that she entertained no notion of their wholly righteous characters.’ As the literal application of Gothic tropes muddled Catherine’s judgment at Northanger, the hyperbolic and absolute dialogic patterns of polite society become associated with Gothic absurdity as they turn out to be as false, confining, and misleading to Catherine’s conclusions.
If in Northanger, Austen illustrated the commonly decried warnings against the false realities created by the Gothic, she also questioned the possibility of any unconditional truths, or ‘facts universally acknowledged’ through the inversion of absolute statements. If Austen indicated the illogicity of an absolute’s always being true through intentional inversion, then the narrator’s few direct addresses to the audience betray Austen’s own skepticism of the unqualified prescriptions of women’s conduct books. As Catherine prepares herself for bed to dream of Henry Tilney, whom she has just met, the narrator, in an aside, mockingly attempts to maintain her audience’s perception of her heroine’s innocence:
“I hope it was no more than a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.” (17)
Of course, by the end of the novel, Austen addresses the audience again to note the inverted reality; “I must confess that [Henry’s] affection [for Catherine] 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” (168). Austen presents proper conduct as a neatly wrapped narrative with all the Gothic’s easy predictability, and just as deftly as she overturned the fearful tropes of the genre, she dissolves the unconditional prescriptions of polite society, suggesting an infinite spectrum of potential societal arrangement. Quickly, the Biblically ordained and immutable structures of patriarchy look as artificial and excessive as the Gothic tropes. The absolute language of the conduct book was the norm, not the exception, and far from being removed from its own argument that the Gothic offered an absurd, oppressive, and dangerous vision of reality, Austen here incriminates every ‘moral’ statement descended from on high that reinforced the domination of women and their culturally conditioned ignorance like, “[A wife] must not only obey [her husband’s] commands, but must bring unto him the very Desires of the Heart” (Utter 25), “Every appearance of vice in a woman is something more disgusting than in a man” (Reeve, quoted in Tompkins 154), and “if in [the injustice of women being held to a higher moral standard than men] the Sex lies under any Disadvantage, it is more than recompensed by having the Honour of Families in their keeping” (A Lady 2:73).
For Austen, the habitually criticized excesses of Gothic fiction were an easy target and a strong metaphor for the constructed nature of polite speech, of manners and morality, of dress and art, of propriety and patriarchy. If only in Catherine’s reading of marriage novels could she unrealistically dream herself an impoverished Camilla that might prove herself to be virtuous and innocent and thereby deserving of the fortunes and affections of an Edgar Mandlebert[i], then the patriarchal class striations of England would have, in their own created class reality, blocked so uneven a match as Catherine Morland to Henry Tilney, which is even visible in the declaration that such a plot was ‘romantic,’ ‘unrealistic,’ or ‘overimaginative.’ If the marriage novel, by convention, necessitated the Cinderella story, the real strictures of power diligently worked (as conduct books did, as General Tilney does) to disable so gross an upending of the dominant order. If the heroine was dictated by Gothic formula, the Proper Lady was governed by the no less constraining convention of conduct books. In this way, the dominant order could continue with ‘everything in its proper place,’ and Austen’s indictment of patriarchy echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s:
“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! Ignorance is a frail base for virtue! (286)
If Austen is not as forthright as Wollstonecraft, the effect of her metaphoric linking of the heroine and the Proper Lady is the same. The Gothic heroine was stupid because convention dictated it; Catherine and her gender were only stupid because they had been socialized to be so.
Under Austen’s pen, moral socialization and acculturation become as brutally damaging as the Gothics that the moralists warned would upend “civil” society. Rather than illustrating the polite and wealthy patrons of Bath as residents in a hub of righteousness, Austen presents the Thorpes, whose moral perversion is created by (in John’s case) or barely concealed behind (in Isabella’s) their outrageously constructed masculinity and femininity. John Thorpe’s boorish behavior, from his vile treatment of his mother and sisters to his extraordinary need to dominate all conversation, to be declared the best coachman; the heaviest drinker; and the owner of the most complete equipage in England, the neatest carriage, and the best-going horse, are hardly above the grotesque caricature of an anti-villain. Like Catherine’s unnerving stupidity and misguided trust, the despicable qualities of John Thorpe read just as Wollstonecraft suggested they would, as a societally inflicted disease of masculinity. His cartoonish need to be the stereotypical intelligent, rational male leads him to lie rather than admit ignorance; what he doesn’t know he makes up for with feigned information and “rapidity of expression” (43). Thorpe speaks with assurance on all subjects, often leading to what would have been humorous dramatic irony for Austen’s contemporaries—he declares his distaste for The Mysteries of Udolpho because it wasn’t written by Ann Radcliffe (it was), and describes Blaise as a mediæval castle (it wasn’t). If anything, we feel a bit badly for the buffoon, whose lack of diabolical foresight does not allow him to be mistaken for the greedy Gothic tyrant, and whose puppy-like attendance to the convention of the dominant male masks little more than a bit of misguided and underdeveloped romanticism; unlike his sister, he seems to earnestly believe that “to marry for money […is] the wickedest thing in existence” (86). Though perhaps good-intentioned, he has been socialized to think he is somehow an appealing mate to Catherine when he disregards her wishes, and only “laugh[s], crack[s] his whip, encourage[s] his horse, make[s] odd noises, and [drives] on” (59). Yet armed with only a bit of childish, trembling desire to have “the girl [he likes]” (86) and, moreover, without the villain’s sinister lust for the heroine’s massive inheritance, Thorpe becomes, in spite of his disgusting behavior, as much the comic victim of his prescribed gender role as Catherine.
With Isabella Thorpe, it is instead evident how the apparent observation of propriety can create dangerously misleading alternate realities. Isabella’s guise of decorum affords her the convenient character traits that went along with the Proper Lady; she and her mother somehow manage to unironically refer to her as modest, innocent, and unconcerned with herself. Yet we quickly see that far from having “no disguise,” “we [may still] perfectly see into [her] heart” (93). She is all appearances, all innocent show and all hardened economic substance, always doing whatever it is she says she won’t (and, of course, “of all the things in the world, inconstancy is [her] aversion”) (89, my emphases). The feigned humility, smiles and compliments, rather than indicative of some moral ends, are used instead to affect the requisite manner of polite and moneyed society to ensnare the most economically desirable mate and cover her tracks. The appearance of the romantic, sentimental girl that would be happy with “a much smaller income [than James Morland’s],” thinly veils Isabella’s tooth-and-claw fiscal brutality unconcerned to step on a few James Morlands in the same way that the English aristocracy looked to manners and civility as proof their removal from the terrifying violence and vastness of the natural struggle and secluded themselves in polite comforts from the escalating crime and poverty of the lower classes that resulted from the ongoing warring with France. Through intentional inversion, Isabella is reliably unreliable, and her constructed purity presents anti-realities of happy ignorance as treacherous as any Gothic.
Just as an 18th century critic would have implicitly understood the Gothic expectations—the dead parent, the daughter abandoned or sent away with a strange chaperone, the need to save the family in some way, curiosity-fueled transgression—Isabella recognizes the social expectations of propriety and femininity, which in Austen’s time were hardly less rigid. For a middle-class English woman like Catherine Morland, abiding the moral and social standards advised by women’s periodicals and conduct books had become increasingly significant as the middle class, English woman’s social import had reached its nadir in the shift from the domestic economic system of the Tudor era to the industrial capitalist system of the mid-1700s. In the resultant economic devaluation of the female, women lost a sense of purpose and self-worth that Puritanism, and later Evangelicalism, would come to replace with a meaningful—even superior—position in family life, domestic duties, and as the moral guardians of society that Protestantism had not offered. The importance of family and morality emphasized by Puritanism even suggested the notion of equality between the sexes despite the actual restrictions the faith imposed on women’s duties and actions. Moreover, as the industrial economic system enabled the upper-middle classes to attach larger and larger dowries to daughters in pursuit of the family’s upward mobility, the daughter’s increasing drain on the family’s wealth pressured her to acquiesce to behaviors that indicated celibacy, modesty, and fidelity, and that would, by extension, maintain the dominance of her husband’s lineage by ensuring wealth and power was passed to his own legitimate heir. It had therefore become increasingly socially fulfilling and economically necessary for the middle-class woman seeking purpose and upward mobility, like Catherine Morland, to model her own humors in the monolithic image of the ‘Proper Lady,’ who bore salient similarities to the Gothic heroine—ladylike; modest; emotional; virtuous; naturally desirous and curious, but constantly cultivating a morality and spirituality in order to rise above these destructive appetites. But as this social role evolved into an (often gratefully) accepted definition of essential female nature, women would find it “increasingly difficult to recognize that the stereotype was prescription, not description” (Poovey 15), and thus to resolve their own deviance from expectation into a cohesive and respectable definition of self.
The need for feminine propriety had arisen as a direct function of male, class-based power in a shifting economic system. Under the domestic economic system, the middle-class female had been needed by the middle-class male, who could not afford to sustain himself in a profession alone, and took her as a wife often out of the necessity for free labor. Yet with the shift to the factory system and division of labor that marked industrial capitalism, the middle class woman became increasingly devalued as the middle class man became increasingly wealthy outside of the home. Though the legal system of “coverture,” descended from Roman law, had remained throughout the Tudor period, and had long decreed that “the very being or legal existence of the woman [was] suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose protect and cover she performs everything” (Blackstone 442), woman had, under the domestic division of labor, retained some tenure on equality through her economic indispensability, which now faded. Consequently, women’s relegation to the domestic sphere became a gendered shift, and the female’s position was further denigrated by the new possibility for the increasingly wealthy upper-middle class families to fulfill their ultimate dynastic ambitions of purchasing their way into landed gentility through a large dowry attached to a daughter, who was reduced to a marital bargaining chip.
Since land acted as the primary indicator of class in England, superseding even its potential cash yield, and because the number of estates was effectively static due to the practices of primogeniture (the right of a first-born son to inherit the family estate), and strict settlement (a law that prohibited eldest sons from selling land, leasing land for extended periods of time, and made mortgaging difficult), dowries attached to middle-class daughters increased dramatically in competition for the limited number of first-born sons. The economic historian John Habakkuk illustrates that the average ratio of a bride’s dowry (money, assets, and/or land brought to the husband through marriage) to the husband’s jointure (an economic provision for the wife proceeding the husband’s death) was £660 to £100; by the early 1700s the ratio was £1,000 to £100 (Habakkuk 21); by the late 1700s, the time Austen was writing, the critic Joyce M. S. Tompkins explained that a financially “suitable” wife for a landed son “should bring her husband a dowry large enough to enable him to pay his younger brothers and sisters their portions under his father’s will, without altering his own style of living” (Tompkins 165-6). These grossly inflated marriage settlement prices eroded the female’s social purchasing power, while the financial gains of the landed, distinctly male lineages acquired through these marriages further distanced the economic class gap and reinforced a landed family’s social dominance. Meanwhile, a daughter like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, would have been pressured to model herself into the socially prescribed female if she heard remarks like those from Clarissa’s brother, James Harlowe, “A man who has sons brings up chickens for his own table, whereas daughters are chickens brought up for the tables of other men” (13). The social function of land both encouraged the ‘proper’ female role and perpetuated its own structural patriarchy as the middle classes sought to attain upward mobility through financial support of the upper classes.
Due to the complex organizations of these economic, class, and inheritance systems, and coupled with a persistent male psychological fear that only a female could be biologically certain which of her children were her own, it is not surprising that these structures dovetailed to create the role of the female out of the male’s primary desire in a wife: fidelity. The fear that “A woman could, by one act of infidelity, imperil both a man’s present security and his dynastic ambitions” (Poovey 5), lurked in the minds of many male writers, whose fears of inconstancy, fraud, and self-control undermined by sexual desire caused woman to absorb the accusations that these traits were her character. Joseph Swetam wrote in 1617, “women deuour [men] aliue, for a woman will pick thy pocket & empty thy purse [… they are] full of fraud, flouting and decit, vnconstant, waspish, toyish, light, sullen, proude, discourteous, and cruell” (43). Samuel Johnson expressed more lucidly, “Consider of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends” (Boswell 250) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau illustrated the male fear:
“Can any position be more wretched than that of the unhappy father who, when he clasps his child to his breast, is haunted by the suspicion that this is the child of another, the badge of his own dishonor, a thief who is robbing his own children of their inheritance?” (324-5)
The hero of Northanger echoes the same fear in his linking of the duties of a country-dance to the fidelity and complaisance of marriage and his questioning, “Have I not reason to fear, that if the gentleman who spoke to you just now were to return, or if any other gentleman were to address you, there would be nothing to restrain you from conversing with him as long as you chose?” (52). The need to control dynasty through female fidelity arranged the feminine duties; propriety served to harness the vagabond female appetite under the will of the male. As the critic Mary Poovey explains, “Most of the activities that moral essayists consistently described as ‘unladylike’ or ‘unnatural’ were the ones that might jeopardize conjugal fidelity: frequenting the theater or masquerades, coquetting, or dressing provocatively or immodestly. All attacks on female ‘appetite’ were also, implicitly, defenses of female chastity” (19-20). The belief echoed by the moralists was that any indulged appetite would become insatiable and degenerate into illicit romantic affairs. Even novels were an indulgence; the preacher, Thomas Gisbourne, issued a sober reminder:
“[A woman should] not be seduced from a habitual study of the Holy Scriptures […] at other parts of the day let history, let biography, let poetry, or some of the various branches of elegant and profitable knowledge, pay their tribute of instruction and amusement. But let her studies be confined within the strictest limits of purity.” (402)
By impurity, Gisbourne of course meant the extravagant Gothic, with its blasphemous implications that threatened to upend the dominant order.
As the upper-middle class female dowry towered over the few potential landed sons’ jointures, the notion that a Catherine Morland, a young, lower-middle class girl, arguably conceived by Austen in 1798[ii], might marry a Henry Tilney, a clergyman, as second sons from wealthy families often were, with a parsonage at Woodston, would have been daydream. The same land-thirst that drove the upper-middle classes would have also urged a landed patriarch like General Tilney to pursue a wealthy match for his son, Henry, to prevent “attrition [of the estate] through debts or taxation” (Poovey 12) and thereby reinforce his own power. The thrust of the second half of Northanger’s plot, the General’s warm invitation to his estate at Northanger Abbey, derived from the happy felicity that the hyperbolic braggart, John Thorpe, secretly believed he would soon marry Catherine, and in conversation with General Tilney, exaggerated the size of her dowry (ten or fifteen thousand pounds) and insinuated that she was “the almost acknowledged future heiress of [Mr. Allen’s estate at] Fullerton” (169), since the Allens had no children of their own.
Yet the General’s lust for what he believes to be Catherine’s towering inheritance also mirrors the motives of Udolpho’s prototypical villain, Montoni. Upon General Tilney’s discovery of something closer to Catherine’s real fortune (the rejected and bitter John Thorpe has now called her impoverished), the General ejects Catherine from Northanger in an inversion of the classic abduction trope Austen’s readers would have expected early in the novel, and Austen brushed off in the second chapter. As Catherine is forced to leave Northanger Abbey, in a rented carriage, in disgrace and without money, which the editor Susan Fraiman explains would have been a “real threat to Catherine’s physical safety” (158), the English class and socials structures acquire the horror of the Gothic that Austen has alluded to throughout the novel in her linking of Gothic expectation and proper conduct. In the most important sense, Catherine’s sense of fear and suspicion instilled by novels has in fact allowed her the best perception of the General’s kinship with the Gothic villain. Suddenly, Henry Tilney’s ‘rational’ speech, which disabused Catherine of all misjudgments, has itself misjudged. Far from Catherine being “completely awakened” (136) by the unquestionable male reason, as Austen’s narrator purports, the presence of the absolute modifier completely in Austen’s third person narration should already have evoked Austen’s inverted intent in Henry’s exceptionally cheery and trusting speech:
“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 laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated in a country like this […] where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?” (136)
If Henry’s speech finally elucidated to Catherine the absurdity of allowing the Gothic to be literally applied to modern England, as Keymer notes, it is “also a masterpiece of double meaning on Austen’s part, and [Henry] inadvertently implicates General Tilney even as he exonerates him on the surface” (30). If the General did not have Blue-beard’s mariticide chamber, he was at least metaphorically implicated in the Gothic’s imprisonment, confining his wife in a marriage without “tenderness of disposition” (Northanger 136). It is not unlikely, given his own children’s low spirits in his presence, that while he did not literally murder his wife, that the anxieties of common life again provided the Gothic trope; his temper injured her if his judgment did not, and perhaps being chained to a neglectful, violent, and angry husband did not provide sufficient reason for the long-diseased General’s wife to continue fighting.
Moreover, Henry’s speech illustrates the repressive political climate of the period. The structures of patriarchy 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 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 Northanger’s luxuries continue to be funded by his mother’s hefty dowry as earnestly as Sir Thomas Bertram’s slaves on his Antiguan plantation will provide the comforts of Mansfield Park. 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.
That Henry will not declare the oppression of women to be tyranny and imbecility as Bentham did is unsurprising. Henry’s authoritative patriarchal worldview has forced him, on other occasions, into too much happy confidence in the ultimate righteousness of the system; he defends conventional wisdom down to the ‘proper’ definition of the word ‘nice’ in the Beechen Cliff scene. Interestingly, the word, which had then recently generalized into its modern, nearly ornamental usage (“this is a very nice day, and we are having a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a nice word indeed!—it does for every thing,” Henry quips), originally referred specifically to “propriety, delicacy, or refinement” (74), that all too authoritarian ‘proper’ arrangement of society. Eventually Henry will prove his sister right; he is “more nice than wise” (74), more conforming than critical. We recall the Tilneys’ belief in male-dominated history, which Catherine declares must be mostly invention, and the Tilneys qualify as only a little embellished (74). Where Catherine questions Henry on Fredrick’s flirtations with Isabella, which are plainly visible and lead to James and Isabella’s eventual split, Henry is made uneasy by Catherine’s close questioning. He asks, “Are you not carried a little too far? […] Real jealousy never can exist between them [James and Isabella]; depend upon it that no disagreement between them can be of any duration” (104 my emphases). By now Henry’s use of the absolute ‘never’ appears to the reader to be Henry’s desperate attempt to bolster his own happy ignorance in the face of damning evidence that James and Isabella’s break will be as much Frederick’s fault as the coquetting woman’s. Moreover, his speech seems to suggest the “cool reasonings of family partiality” (151) that Catherine is not attuned to. Henry’s speech betrays none of the worry he expressed during the country-dance that Catherine would leave him for another partner, in which her leaving would have been caused by her female caprice. Instead, Henry blames James for not keeping his fiancé interested enough (“is [James] only to be secured by her seeing nothing of Captain Tilney? Is he safe only in solitude?—or, is her heart constant to him only when unsolicited by anyone else?”) (103).
Where Henry does appear to be defiant of cultural norms, or to occupy the position of a protofeminist like Bentham or Wollstonecraft, it seems he is as posturing as John and Isabella Thorpe. If he recognizes that he will not achieve Catherine’s friendship through John’s brute attitude, and he seems to have a relatively romantic disposition for Austen’s time, some of this attitude is certainly painted for appearances. He does marry the lower-middle class heroine and ostensibly challenges the general opinion on novels (“The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”) (72). Certainly, Henry has read enough Gothics to blend convention in his scintillating description of the conventional tale and Eleanor even recounts an incident in which Henry was so excited to continue reading while she herself took a break that he ran away with the book. Yet there is still a bit of uneasy overstatement on Henry’s part in the admission (‘intolerably stupid’) and at least a few jabs at the classic excesses (‘my hair standing on end the whole time’). If Henry genuinely enjoys these tales, he still seems to be made a bit uneasy by their association as female literature. There is even greater playful sarcasm as Henry panders to Eleanor and Catherine, his female audience, regarding his feelings on ‘the understanding of women:’
“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world—especially those—whoever they may be—with whom I happen to be in company. […] Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” (79)
Henry’s speech is supported by his sister’s affirmation that he must be misunderstood if he appears to say an unjust thing of a woman; “His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just” (79), yet we recall that Henry lived in a society in which it was ‘just’ to condescend on the female ability. Damningly, Henry is here hyperbolic, and noted to be facetious by to his sister. His littered use of absolutes is uncharacteristic, and suggests that Henry is only playing to his female audience—the females with whom he happens to be in company—while opening interpretation to any eavesdropping ear of his being blatantly sarcastic. It seems that Henry understands that his female audience will prefer the flattery associated with the emerging protofeminist view the way Isabella understands that the guise of propriety will win her a favorable image, and that Henry has postured himself here to gain Catherine and Eleanor’s favor. His previous statement in the same conversation is more straightforward, less damningly hyperbolic, and likely closer to his actual views:
“I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute—neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit.” (78)
Ultimately, Henry will seriously suggest that he has disabused Catherine of her overly romantic views, and that his male rationality offers a clear lens through which to see the world.
The true Gothic tragedy of Northanger will be Austen’s final attendance to the comforting artificialities of the courtship novel, and the structures of patriarchy that rendered Catherine’s “perfect felicity” only achievable through submission to Henry’s warped assurance in his society’s general integrity. That Catherine, who has best discerned the despicable realities of Isabella and General Tilney, accepts Henry’s acquiescent version of the novel’s events as literally correct, is an ending as dark as any Gothic, and suggests that she has learned little. Through Catherine’s education, she has merely shifted from one misguided mode of judgment (Gothic literalism) to another (patriarchal submission). As Catherine accepts a more realistic version of her world, she suffers all the pains of patriarchal reality while forced to submit to them – Fredrick Tilney’s cheating, Catherine’s acknowledgement of Isabella’s true character, General Tilney’s unexplained dismissal of her from Mansfield. Supposedly she is comforted, at last, by what she has wanted all along—the “perfect happiness” (174) of a marriage to Henry Tilney.
Yet, of course, Austen’s final absolute acts as her last redflag of intentional inversion. Here, rather than the conventional happy ending, which Austen ostensibly provides, we are left with the cleverly punctured cliché, through which we see the dark ending, a silenced Catherine, whose superior judgment suggested by Wollstonecraft and made literal by Austen, is ultimately suppressed. In Northanger Abbey, Austen alludes to the ways in which her cultured world, though seemingly free of the corruption and imprisonment that the Gothic openly operated on, utilized the same devices, quietly functioning instead behind a veil of polite society, feminine propriety, male dominance, and assured rationality. Austen has warned against the black and white absolute realities created both by Gothic novels and polite society; if Catherine’s original fears of the General were “self-created delusion” (137), her terrors were not, as she says, “causeless.” Henry’s sunny assurance in patriarchy is as flawed as Catherine’s gloom, and Austen has illustrated a woman whose literal potential to be more ‘rational’ than a man, is both halted by her lack of education and her eventual need to submit to her husband’s perceptions. As Catherine numbs herself with Henry’s comforting delusions, Austen presents this imagery of her enslavement to them; Catherine:
“Would contend no longer against comfort. She had resisted its approaches during the whole length of a speech [and the novel], but it now carried her captive. Henry Tilney must know best. She blamed herself for the extent of her fears, and resolved never to think so seriously on the subject again.” (104)
If Austen is finally as silenced as Catherine in her need to conclude with an affirmation of the system’s continuation, she is not resigned to the same ends as her heroine. If her prose is locked up in patriarchy, if she cannot openly publish the ending in which a defiant Catherine questions the oppressive structures of her society, then Austen invites us in on her final joke. As usual, Austen draws attention to the excesses of her own language, and questions such a neatly concluded meaning. Are the comforts of patriarchy ultimately worth enslavement? A muted heroine? Austen leaves us finally with the ironic question, whether her work “recommend[s] parental tyranny, or reward[s] filial disobedience” (174). As is traditional in satire, Austen asks her readers to conclude what she does not. She speaks within the bounds of patriarchy, curtseys in all the right places, and allows the male critics their fortuitous delusion in which Austen’s works were a happy accident by an inspired amateur, yet her intentional inversion also affords her a cleverly permeable disguise that allowed her, as a woman with “the misfortune of knowing any thing [to] conceal it as well as she [could]” (76). With her questioning of absolute meaning, Austen seems to imply, though does not provide the structure for, the potential for a superior social and cultural structuring built on transparency and equality. As a meticulous, though muted social documentarian, she has left us with all the necessary pieces to dissect her society, and gestured forward to a more explicit ecofeminist interpretation of the structures which necessitated this ending.
As a parody of the Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey cleverly bound itself up in the prominent 18th century tendency to equate aesthetic and ethical values. If the Gothic’s aestheticism expressed an immoral excess, it embodied an argument that Austen entered, spanning the age’s most representative arts, architecture, and landscape gardening, in which control equated to morality. Throughout Western history, wilderness, like women, connoted a fecundity in need of taming. Uncontrolled nature and uncontrolled women terrified. Wilderness could only useful in the ways it could be turned to human use, farmland, a city upon a hill; it was wrapped in Biblical undertones as the location of Christ’s temptation. Wild nature was vast and dominating, the land outside of civilization in which one lost their way, a treacherous moral landscape that described the fallen life on Earth and contrasted with Heaven’s salvation. In 1684, Thomas Burnet described mountain ranges “as being the physical manifestation of God’s displeasure with mankind” (Garrard 63); and throughout the Renaissance, into the 1700s, the trend in Italy, France, and England was one of formal gardens, rigidly ordered into geometric patterns spoken of in architectural terms. Walls of hedges and stairways of water were joined by hallways that led to other rooms and vestibules. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, writers and thinkers like Anthony Ashley Cooper and Alexander Pope began to describe such gardens as unnatural or ugly; true order, they said, was God’s order, and they called for the harmony of a simple, unadorned nature. Such a seemingly relaxed gardening style could become the moral trend because it still expressed safety and control; it more closely resembled, after all, God’s plan, and did not call for the frightening overgrowth of nature run rampant. Even as the new trend connoted a dangerous love of variety, that is, a ‘curiosity,’ the emergent ‘picturesque’ landscape meticulously controlled its variety with books of suggestions derived from the painting aesthetics of Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin describing, “three cows are picturesque while two will hardly do and a fourth must be a little detached from the rest to prevent heaviness in the scene” (Gilpin, Observations 254). A landscape designer still improved the landscape, which became a work of taste, decorum, order, harmony, proportion, and simplicity—the prevalent aesthetic terms, which mirrored those of polite society. Through these dual connotations, a landscape designer could improve a wild landscape as he trimmed it into a serene pastoral scene reminiscent of Eden or Arcadia, and Catherine Morland could “sometimes [hear] her father and mother remark on her personal improvement,” as her “noisy and wild [disposition that] hated confinement and cleanliness” (6) gave way to hair primping, an inclination for finery and hygiene, and a longing for balls and the male counterparts to be found there.
Increasingly, however, the assured control of the 1700s gave way in fashionable society to a hobby-horse lust for the sublime; Edmund Burke’s definition in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was the age’s authority:
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (39)
Burke contrasted ‘sublime’ nature with ‘beautiful’ nature, which was “loved for its smallness, softness, [and] delicacy” (Garrard 64), and explicitly linked the beautiful to the female for the same reasons (“The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy”) (Burke 219). The sublime, for the same reasons as the Gothic, was considered irrational or impractical; its seekers loved the feeling of smallness and helplessness illicited by volcanoes, mountains, violent storms, tidal waves, and vast oceans, all of which were still tied to notions of God’s wrath. The mind and soul were elated by immense and mysterious phenomena and drawn to the sense of something larger than the human from which they appeared to shrink. Astronomy newly suggested an infinite universe in the sublime and geology new suggested an Earth born from the infinity. At root, the sublime urge, Burke explained, was curiosity, which he defined as ‘pleasure in novelty,’ binding the sublime to the same feared lack of restraint as infidelity and Gothic transgression.
By Austen’s time, a prominent public debate raged between landscape gardeners regarding proper mediation between sublime aesthetic principals and the rational concerns of the human habitation. The most famous designer of the time, Humphry Repton, criticized “scenes of horror […which] did not suit the comfort of his clients,” such as rocky ravines through which a carriage had to pass on the approach to the estate (Blaise). Such features, he said, “ignored the […] social considerations of a garden” (Blaise). These terrifying landscapes were both the settings of the Gothic novel and the backdrops of the estates of many of the idle and extravagant rich. Austen herself mocked the absurd decisions informed by an aestheticism free of practical social concern as Catherine fashionably rejected the entire city of Bath for its unworthiness to be included in a landscape in the Beechen Cliff scene, further entrenching the character in her stereotypical construction as the ‘impractical’ aesthete. While Repton’s criticism of other designers like William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight therefore echoed the moralists’ calls for control, Repton’s critics warned that his use of geometric formality in the French fashion risked rendering all landscape interchangeable in a mirror of Northanger Abbey’s suggestion that like the nearly homogeneous Gothic, England abounded with identically constructed, ordered, and oppressed “Proper Ladies.” Repton’s critics had their own vision of morality, calling his “readiness to impose self upon the world […a] failure of moral sympathy” (M. Price 268) in its own right. Just as Northanger Abbey challenged the absolute prescriptions presented by the dominating ideologies of patriarchy, criticisms of Repton expressed, “[Repton] asserts so much, and assumes so much, as to make me irritable, for he is one (of the many) who is never wrong; and therefore why debate with him?” (Byng 9). In such a view, the “improvements” of “improvers” like Repton and his intellectual predecessor Lancelot “Capability” Brown, could only be considered so to themselves; and Northanger links Catherine’s female socialization into these critical debates regarding male and human control. Though Catherine’s (mis)education was useful in its deflation of her purely aesthetic sensibility, it was ultimately as damaging in its lack of concern for non-male, non-human principles. Through Northanger’s political consciousness and adoption of an oppressed genre, Austen displayed the theoretical, linguistic, and experiential similarities between the structural domination of women and nature and the multitude of cultural associations shared between them.
Though a critical discourse like ecofeminism was unavailable to Austen, her careful documentation of the society in which she lived illustrates the linked logics of domination that existed, in which:
“Capitalist patriarchy or ‘modern’ civilization [was and] 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.” (429)
Austen attacked her society’s absolute, dichotomized notions of masculinity and femininity, 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 Austen patronized the majority of Gothic novels, she lauded the achievements of its most esteemed contributions, which were above the head of the generalizing John Thorpe and those who “slight[ed] the [novels] which [had] only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them” (22). If she mocked the absurd and fashionable extremes of the picturesque in Catherine’s rejection of Bath, Austen’s brother, Henry, assures us she “was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” from a very early age (Biographical Notice). It seems that Austen recognized that a simple up-ending of the dualistic structures of society was to implicitly support its dichotomizing and subordinating logic by perpetuating its discourse. Rather than othering or villainizing males and morals, of recommending parental tyranny or filial disobedience, Northanger Abbey motions towards the dissolution of patriarchal dualisms while managing to speak within them. If the ending was dark, it was hopeful; if the Benthams and Wollstonecrafts were the minority discourse and the Gilpins, Prices, and Knights were too, at least they had begun to imagine a liberating, plural reality.
[i] The plot of Frances Burney’s Camilla was conventional; also see Evelina and Cecilia (Burney), Belinda (Maria Edgeworth), or the central work parodied in Northanger Abbey, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. These works, and numerous others not mentioned in Northanger were linked by the common themes of romantic love and, often, a female’s upward mobility via marriage.
[ii] Northanger’s publication history is rife with critical debate, though it is generally agreed that it was written about the years 1798-1799. As a work of historical fiction, these are the primary years that concern my argument.
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