Oh, that novel!—Northanger Abbey!

Time to oil and spin the gears, a new year—and a new set of blog posts—has come ’round.  Today’s topic is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; I guess I’ve got two things I like to mention about this book, its use of meta-fiction (as was wondrously brought up in lecture) and its use of gothic novels.

I discovered this novel a couple of years back actually and when I first read it was a novel about a young woman who was obsessed with gothic novels and then began to think she was in one, well, that seemed pretty meta-fictional to me (and what early metafiction too, written just before the 19th century!), a character thinking they are experiencing a gothic novel, because they are in a novel after all.  But Austen does do more than just this.  The first line, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine,” announces the meta-fiction in the book; the book tells the reader their reading a book by saying this Catherine Morland you’re reading about is a heroine, a character in this book; Austen even refers to Henry Tilney, the main male character, as the hero.  She also uses this smartly by constantly referring to Catherine as the heroine and how she should be up to more exciting antics, but always just falls back onto 18th century England, its banalities and social trappings.  Her famous “Yes, novels” passage on page 23 is also a telling statement of meta-fiction, the novel aware of the existence of novels, and therefore its own existence as one; the whole paragraph it appears in is really reminding the reader they are reading a novel, possibly in the same conditions; the description of Catherine and Isabella doing things together is really for the culmination to them shutting themselves up and reading followed by the passage; it really provides not too important exposition and is therefore fodder to the real point of the whole paragraph, again reminding the reader they are reading a novel, possibly even while being shut up in some room.  And Austen’s “tell-tale compression of the pages” line serves to remind the reader of the structure of the novel itself; as she has been parodying structures of gothic novels, she even lampoons herself: ‘what do you expect from my novels now,’ she seems to say, ‘they always end in marriage, “perfect felicity”‘.

Northanger Abbey is always said to be a parody of gothic novels, but as said in our edition’s introduction, she doesn’t just parody them but uses their structure.  The most telling way I saw was through Catherine’s ‘maturation’ through the last parts of the novel.  She suspects evil and murder to have happened at the Abbey by the hands of the General and is proven most wrong by Henry, who says how could something like that happen since it doesn’t go by their upbringing and circumstances.  But what Catherine finds then is the horrors of the everyday.  Soon after being corrected by Henry, Catherine receives James’ sad letter about his break-up with Isabella and later Isabella’s own letter, where Catherine finally realizes Isabella’s superficial nature and how horrifically it has affected her brother and therefore herself.  Then comes a quite similar character, General Tilney who after seeming so nice and friendly to Catherine, even allowing her to be invited to Northanger, shuns her crassly and immediately from it.  Both Isabella and the General had thought Catherine and her family rich, therefore their superficial amiability, but Catherine finds out their real want, money  and the cruelty they—and therefore any human—can inflict onto another if they do not get what they want; they both shun Catherine’s family and separate themselves from them, causing Catherine true horror, tears and all.  Thus the real lesson here is the cruelty of ordinary people; reality may not be cruel and horrific on the ridiculous scale of gothic novels as Austen parodies, but reality may be horrific and terrible in its own terms, people who don’t truly care for others unless they have something to gain from it, the true evil of real people.  Austen cleverly doesn’t just write a silly satire of gothic novels and their overblown-ness, but moulds their structure into a lesson and view on humanity, for true, things are not what they (you) seem if you become brainwashed by gothic novels, but in real life, some people are most definitely not what they seem sometimes; in reality the gothic is just not readily apparent, but festering beneath the surface.  As Catherine readily notes, though still a bit ridiculously as she still thinks on gothic novels, “that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

Now with the tell-tale compression of paragraphs, words, letter, my typing, I will say this is where I end.


3 thoughts on “Oh, that novel!—Northanger Abbey!

  1. Great post, Brandon. I now wonder if we can link the meta-fictional elements to the “moral” of how real life can be just as (or more?) horrible than gothic fiction, or something else the novel is saying or doing. What might be the point of reminding us that we are reading a novel, given what this novel says? Why might the metafictional gestures fit particularly well in this novel? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

  2. I think it may have something to do with how, as Miranda said in lecture, the novel works with verisimilitude and skepticism. Maybe the point of the metafictional along side the use of gothic novels is for another ‘life lesson’ Austen may be trying to show. It may be that true, verisimilitude and skepticism seemed oxymoronic in the context of the lecture, but in life we need both–in the ways of believing/questioning–they just need to be used smartly. We cannot be too gullible nor can we be always sceptical; it doesn’t always work. Catherine is a pretty good example of this; Austen doesn’t want us to be so naive like she is at the beginning of the novel, but nor does she want us to become extremely cynical upon figuring out the real workings of real life; Catherine certainly doesn’t by the end of NA, she just becomes more aware, which is what we should be in life, more aware. We should be aware that we are only reading a novel, but also believe in the very real descriptions of bath; we should be aware of the deceptions of Isabellas and General Tilneys but also of the kindness of Eleanors, etc.

    • Great thoughts, Brandon. I didn’t see them until now because you don’t have one of those checkboxes that allows me to get an email when there’s a reply to one of my comments. On the dashboard, go to “plugins” and find the one about notifying comment authors (can’t remember what it’s called) and activate it.

      I like the point about finding a balance between being too gullible/naive and too skeptical, and how Catherine finds this towards the end of the novel. We didn’t get a chance to talk in class about whether/how she changes over the course of the story, but it makes sense to me to say that she becomes less naive by the end, seeing through Isabella and recognizing that Captain Tilney never loved Isabella, even before having to have Henry tell her that (161–she figures it out and he just assents).

      I wonder also if the meta-fiction relates to the point about this novel being about novels (and gothic novels in particular) and what they can do to their readers. One could think about that message of this text while also recognizing that this too is a novel, and perhaps think that this novel doesn’t do those problematic things? That’s a first draft of a thought about this issue, anyway.

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