Northanger Abbey – A Novel about Novels

In true Gothic fashion, the original manuscript for Northanger Abbey was held hostage by an evil publishing house until it was freed by the hand of its creator… duhn, duhn, duhn…

Northanger Abbey started life as a manuscript named Susan, which found itself moldering away in a forgotten closet somewhere in her publisher’s offices.  It was drafted around 1798 and was purchased by Richard Crosby sometime before the spring of 1803.  While a publisher’s purchase of a manuscript is typically its first step to publication, Susan remained locked away in a London publishing house for years to come.

Given what we know about Jane Austen’s personality, it’s no surprise that she fired off some angry correspondence to her publisher about his failure to publish the manuscript (even if the letter was sent from a Mrs. Ashton Dennis – M.A.D.).  After six years, she was offered the opportunity to buy the book back at the price he paid for it – 10 pounds (roughly 20% of her entire expenditure in 1807).  In 1816, Austen finally purchased her book; however, it remained unpublished until after her death. In 1817 (Nineteen years after its composition) her brother, Henry Austen, finally managed to get the novel publishedIronically, Northanger Abbey and its usage of the Gothic form (even if it was satirical) languished away (possibly in a dark, antique cabinet with a tricky lock) for nearly twenty years before it and its unconventional heroine saw the light of day (Adams, Buchanan, and Gesch 82-83 and Hannon 68-69).

This is a novel about novels and reading novels where the author provides herself a platform from which to tout her views on her own art form, views which include the scolding of persons who were critical of novels as unintelligent or inappropriate sources of the enjoyment of women.  She speaks of novels as being works of “genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”  She further makes her case for novels when she proclaims “the greatest powers of mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

While this defense might seem self-serving, the validity of the novel was certainly in question:  “ ‘And what are you reading, Miss – ?’ ‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ ” replies the young lady in a moment of shame…  However, even in the defense of her art form, she doesn’t miss the opportunity to take some jabs at the Gothic formula with its mysterious old buildings, secret hiding places, suddenly extinguished lights, night terrors, indecipherable messages, rumors of suspicious deaths, and powerful, menacing men (Tomalin 166).  She clearly satirizes all the “silliness” to be found in these novels.  However, as in all things Austen, nothing is as clear cut and simple as it may seem.  In an interesting twist, Austen uses this novel to both criticize a love of Gothic novels and acknowledge their value for pure reading pleasure.

Her criticism of the Gothic novel as youthful and ignorant is evident in Catherine’s foolish penchant to confuse characters who are “unnatural and overdrawn” and the ridiculous plot elements of Gothic novels with the people and behaviors which exist in the real world.  However, Austen also takes the opportunity to address their value for pure pleasure through Henry Tilney’s assessment of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; – I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time.”  Henry speaks for Austen in his acknowledgement of the enjoyment of the Gothic form without allowing it to overtake his common sense.  He is the voice of reason and common sense without being a complete “Debbie-downer.”  While he does like the novels, he is quick to call Catherine’s wild imagination back to reality when she begins to imagine the supposed murder of Henry’s mother by the general.  Much to Catherine’s shame and ultimately, betterment, he promptly and succinctly puts her back on the right track by recounting the “real world” version of the events which included genuine devotion and heartfelt grief.

Back to the question of why the publisher failed to bring Susan/Northanger Abbey to press… While it may appear that the big, bad publisher was completely out of line, and devoted Janeites ask how anyone who claims to be a reader could ignore such a charming heroine?   I have a response… I’m not sure that Northanger Abbey with its Catherine Moreland would have been a money maker at the time.  Maybe the publisher just didn’t think the book would sell?  It may have been too “cutting edge” in terms of its constant reminders of the novel as an art form, or maybe its heroine was too unconventional for the tastes of the general public – “neither clever nor beautiful, and without accomplishments or admirers – an ordinary girl, one of ten children of a plain country clergyman.”  Fielding got away with both of these in Tom Jones, but he was a man and his main character was a man… Maybe if Jane had been a James, and Catherine had been a Joseph, Susan/Northanger Abbey would have been published in its infancy.

Now, that does beg the question of why Richard Crosby purchased the manuscript in the first place.  Maybe as a reader, he really loved this new type of heroine?  Maybe he hated the wildly popular Gothic novels that he felt forced to publish and enjoyed Austen’s satirizing the detested form?  Maybe he thought that as tastes changed, Susan/Catherine might be the “next thing” as far as heroines went? Maybe the first draft of Susan just sucked? We will never know (there are very few examples of any of her early manuscripts to show us what changes she might have made).  For whatever reason, Crosby purchased the book and then chose to do nothing with it.  He tucked it away in some dark, antique closet (with a very tricky lock), where it languished until its rescue by its resolute and devoted creator… duhn, duhn, duuuuhn!

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Sense and Sensibility – Finis

After finishing Sense & Sensibility, I’m not sure that I’m really happy with the ending here.  I never fell in love with a character, nor did I find myself really despising one either.  I find myself (usually quite opinionated and passionate) quite hum-drum with the novel.  Maybe all the talk of money and the focus of financial security really took some of the emotion out of the novel for me, but I find that I’m not really bent out of shape one way or the other about these characters.

  • Elinor  – She clearly deserved better than to be a second choice to Edward.  I know Austen painted it so that his love for Lucy had “obviously” faded and that only his honor had bound him to her.  I get that, but I can’t help but think that Elinor deserved someone much more like Colonel Brandon. She was steadfast and loyal to those she loved.  That should have earned her more than to be a consolation prize to Edward behind the vulgar and tawdry Lucy Steele or the heiress, whatever her name was….
  • Colonel Brandon – I am in love with Colonel Brandon myself, and I just can’t make myself happy with his marriage to the 19 year old Marianne, even if she did do some “hard living” in the years from 17 to 19.  He and Elinor seem a much better fit than he and Marianne.  Although, a the ripe old age of 35, maybe he needed to get a young woman to keep him kicking.
  • Edward – Eehhh, I’m just not very interested in him.  Maybe it took me too long to really get into the novel, or maybe my lack on interest stems from my personal distaste for people who are are wavering and flighty.  Maybe he just strikes me a little too “feminine” in his penchant for changing his mind.
  • Marianne – I’m not really buying her miraculous transformation.  She had many of the same lessons that Emma learned, but Marianne’s redemption doesn’t feel as hard won.  She really reminds me of Tom Burtram in Mansfield Park– the only thing they really did to redeem themselves was survive a deadly illness.  I guess that can be added to getting married and dying as a way to forgive all of one’s sins.
  • Willoughby – got what he wished for, but he’s really too shallow for it to matter very much.  I am disturbed that Austen didn’t make a bigger deal about Col. Brandon’s granddaughter… Did Austen drop the ball here, or would it have been impossible for us to have any forgiveness for Willoughby with that sin front and center ?  Austen does have Elinor remind us of it when she says that she thinks that’s where all of Willoughby’s problems started.  I would like to know the entire story with that one.  I wonder how Marianne will react to that little wrinkle in their domestic peace?
  • Mrs. Jennings – love her by the end – hated her in the beginning.  Her loyalty really won me over, though.

Some of the same these appeared in S&S…

  • city/country
  • the haves/havenots
  • the clergy
  • rebelliousness of youth
  • love within a family connection – not just random attachments

All in all, S&S left me a little cold, especially after Emma. 

 

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Sense and Sensibility – Part II

Marianne’s growth continues…

Marianne’s ideas of love are quite childish in their intensity and devotion.  Even though the destruction of many of those ideals is necessary for survival in an adult world, their loss is saddening.

It’s like when a child discovers that the things of childhood which held his/her unquestioning faith are not real – there is something tragic in the moment that a child learns the truth behind Santa, and invariably, the adults around him suffer along with him.

Colonel Brandon does a beautiful job discussing this when he and Elinor are speculating about Marianne’s absolute denial of the worth of a “second attachment.”  Colonel Brandon says, ” There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.”

This really spoke to me because as we grow, we are forced out of the ideas that we held as absolutely sacred.  Youth perpetrates phrases like  “Well, I would never do ___________” and “I will always make sure I _________________.”   Trust me when I say that everyone lives to eat their own words, and Marianne is no exception.

Marianne acquires her first adult dose of humility when Willoughby turns out to be other than what she believed.  All of her self-assured talk comes to mean very little in the face of her disappointment.  Her heartbreak is tangible to the reader, and I found myself truly feeling sorry for her as the tragedy unfolded (although, I did see it coming) .  My adulthood has taught me the same hard lesson that Marianne learns – if it seems too good to be true, it is.  This is one of the hardest lessons of growing up because once a person learns this nearly universal truth, it isn’t a very far leap to cynicism.  I’m interested to see how Marianne responds to Willoughby’s betrayal.   Will she “take her lumps” and be better for the wisdom and perspective gained or will she take the other route and become cynical and bitter?  We all know people who followed one path or the other; however, knowing what I do about Austen so far, I can’t imagine anything other than the perfect “happily ever after” ending for Marianne.  I know it’s what I’m hoping for anyway. 😉  (I am a little concerned, though, because I don’t see a “family member” suitable for Marianne – I’m interested to see how that works itself out).

One more thing that I would like to point out is that, once again, the city seems to be “bad news.”  Everything about London has potential for disaster.  The Misses Steele are from London and bring with them all sorts of problems and miseries for the Misses Dashwood, particularly Elinor with the news of Edward’s unfortunate engagement to Lucy Steele.  I haven’t made it all the way through Elinore and Marianne’s visit with the wonderfully oblivious Mrs. Jennings, about whom my opinions may be changing.

I’m really seeing her in a little better light.  At first, I thought she was a mindless gossip with cruel intentions towards those about whom she spread rumors, lies, and assumptions.  However, I am beginning to see her a little differently.  Her reactions to Willoughby’s betrayal have earned her a little favor in my eyes.  She has been very respectful of Marianne’s heartache in not mentioning it directly in her presence, the effort of which must have been extreme for such a committed old gossip.  I also like her loyalty to Marianne and her willingness to cut Willoughby whenever she gets the opportunity – the threat of which hardly amounts to much, but its the thought that counts.

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Sense and Sensibility – Bildungsroman

While there is a lot going on in Sense and Sensibility, I find myself really drawn to the idea that this novel is about Marianne and her being forced out of her youth by life’s experiences.  Whether Sense and Sensibility can be classified as a Bildungsroman remains to be seen.

Maybe this theme really stands out to me because I spent so many years watching high school seniors transform throughout their final year in high school.  Marianne points out that her thoughts on love (that she would never find the perfect man) when she was sixteen and a half have all changed now that she is seventeen.  While her motivation for rethinking the “perfect man” scenario might be foolish, the idea that a young person’s world can change in six months is very real.  I am reminded of a poem by A.E. Houseman:

When I Was One and Twenty (from Bartleby.com)

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Houseman’s poem highlights the idea that an individual’s maturity is not a product of time, but rather experience. The passage of six months or a year is minimal in terms of time, but events that take place in any time period can be monumental in terms of growth.   I am only about a third of the way through and have avoided all summaries and commentary, but my best guess is that by the time Marianne is eighteen, her idea of the “perfect man” and her ideas of love and devotion will have taken a drastic turn.  This raises the question of Elinor – is she destined to suffer the same maturing forces that her sister will face?  I don’t think so.  Marianne is different from Elinor because Marianne must touch the stove to know that it will burn her; whereas, Elinor is smart enough to watch someone else get burned and learn the lessons of life that way.  Does Elinor have some maturing ahead of her? Certainly, but the misery will be less for Elinor because of her practicality and ability to watch the mistakes of others. 

As always, this learning process is not easy.  My grandmother used to call it “personal growth” and it comes with its own special growing pains.  People learn best by their mistakes, and Emma is almost the poster child for this idea.  She grew by her mistakes, and by the end of the novel, became a character that even her harshest critics find much improved.  While Marianne doesn’t have quite the same type of “personal growth” ahead of her as Emma did, she still has much to learn about the way the world works, and I see disappointment in her future as her greatest teacher.

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Emma – Volume 3

I love Austen’s happy endings!  Everyone is accounted for and happy; however, I do wish there were some more comeuppance for a few of the characters… Mrs. Elton for example.  I do hate her…

After reading two of the Chatworth novels, I am beginning to see some overreaching themes.

  • The truly happy and successful relationships (the ones without ANY hiccups) are born out of some sort of familial connection.  Emma and Mr. Knightley are brother and sister (by marriage) just as Fanny and Edmund were “siblings.”  Emma and Mr. Knightley’s regard for one another was born out of a connection that transcends  anything as superficial as being neighbors or even friends.  Their love was born of Mr. Knightley’s brotherly care for Emma’s person and habits.  He treats her like a younger sister in his desire to help her mature into a proper and pleasant young woman.  Throughout the novel, Emma’s missteps are almost always addressed by Mr. Knightley in a forthright and instructive manner.  (I  must admit there were times when he did upset my feminist sensibilities, but I was always forced to acknowledge Emma’s silliness and his wisdom).
  • There is a distinction between the idea of the city and the country.  It seems that anything related to urban populations is almost always temptation and destruction (with the exception of the John Knightleys – they may break this seeming cardinal rule).  When Frank runs off to get his haircut in London, there is definite distaste from Mr. Knightley (as expected) but even Emma seems to think this need to go to “town” to have one’s hair cut a bit ridiculous and excessive.  The Churchill’s seat of Enscombe is another source of contention and constant problems.  Nothing that comes out of that place is for the good of anyone… well, the news of Mrs. Churchill’s death might count as a good thing.   I can’t even really like Frank; however, he really is just the male reflection of everything that causes me grief in Emma…. hmm. I’ll have to think about that one.
  • Money and wealth is another of Austen’s hot topics in these two novels.  There is a clear distinction in the haves and have-nots in Mansfield Park, but the lines are less clearly drawn in Emma.  Although we do know that the Bates women’s finances are a source of concern for them, their behavior and decorum do not set them apart from the rest of the characters.  They are often included in the same activities and functions (even if there is the constant reminder that they come from a lower financial caste).  I have almost decided that they exist so that Emma can achieve another level of redemption.  She has to get over her snobbery and the Bates women provide the perfect tool for her to accomplish this.  Her insult to Miss Bates (a perfectly tedious, but wonderful person) is a turning point for Emma.  She is forced to acknowledge her poor behavior and slight to someone who was technically her social inferior.  Emma must humble herself, and it proves a worthy exercise for her.

I must admit that I enjoyed Emma much more than Mansfield Park. I must admit (reluctantly) that Emma is really a version of me – big personality, big mouth, susceptible to those around her, bound to make missteps, but always remorseful for the pain she might cause others.  

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Emma – Volume Two

As I read through Volume Two, a few things strike me as worth exploring.

1) Where has Harriet Gone?

This may bother me the most.  She became such an important part of the novel in Volume One that I can’t really understand how Austen could so quickly dismiss her from the plot lines. I had also really begun to like her,  and to my great disappointment, a sweet (if not smart) young woman has been replaced by an arrogant, vulgar, manipulative harpy – Mrs. Elton.  I hate this woman (just as I am supposed to), and miraculously, I miss Harriet – Harriet who was easily led, unintelligent, and quite foolish.  She’s not usually my kind of character, but I guess compared to Bridezilla, Mrs. Elton, anybody is preferable.

2) Why does Emma hate Jane with such vehemence?

I was studying Emma’s hatred of Jane as it unfolded, and I was incredibly disappointed in Emma for it.  I love Emma in spite of her snobbery and meddling, but I was afraid that I was not going to be be able to get past this inexplicable hatred.  Thankfully, Mr. Knightley’s honesty and wisdom provided me with an explanation and Emma with an opportunity to redeem herself.

“Mr. Knightley had once told her [Emma] it was because she saw in her [Jane] the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

I love this because even thought it isn’t terribly flattering to Emma, it does give Emma an opportunity to own the knowledge that she is jealous of Jane’s accomplishments, and Emma’s ability to be honest with herself refuses to allow her to completely ignore the wisdom of Mr. Knightley’s words.

3) Why such a focus on illness – real and imagined?

We hear Perry’s name over and over again within the text, and this started me thinking about the medical practices of the 1800s. This was a time of great development in the medical field.  Cocaine and opium became the go-to prescriptions for EVERYTHING, but neither are mentioned in Emma.  As a matter of fact, Perry seems to give few if any instructions besides things like ensuring that the ill stay dry and warm.  Austen also seems to tackle the idea of being a hypochondriac.  She uses two characters who are obvious hypochondriacs – Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Churchill, but her treatment of the two characters is incredibly different.  Mr. Woodhouse is treated with patience, love, and understanding, but Mrs. Churchill is treated with disdain and dismissal. It is clear to me that Mr. Woodhouse’s neuroses are extreme but sincere; he truly worries about people doing things that he thinks might harm them.  Mrs. Churchill’s “failing health” is used as a tool to manipulate and manage those around her – not for a perceived benefit to them, but for her own benefit. I wonder what Jane Austen’s inspiration for this part of the story line was.

4) What is a gentleman?

I love the contrast that Jane Austen has created between Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill.  Churchill claims to be a gentleman, tries to appear to be a gentlemen, and does things to make others think he is a gentlemen, but his less public actions are often very ungentlemanly. His gossip and snarkyness towards Jane Fairfax during the word game is an example of his capacity to be cruel and vicious.  In addition, I hate the way he “manages” his aunt through manipulation and deceit. He isn’t thoughtful, giving, or generous, unless it will somehow benefit him.  I just don’t trust him at all.

Mr. Knightley on the other hand, is a true gentlemen, evidenced by his acts of kindness like sending his carriage (which he never uses for himself) for the Bates women the night of the ball.  He would just as soon had walked himself, but his care and concern for those who needed something prompted him to act.  (I also loved that it served as a way to chide Emma’s materialistic and elitist attitude – nicely done Mr. K.)  He also practices a philosophy that my grandmother tried and tried to get me to adopt  – “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”  He tries and mostly succeeds in avoiding criticism of everybody (except Emma 😉 ).  He is older, wiser, more grounded, and more genuine than any other  character in the novel, and I adore him for it.

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Austen Quote of the Day

“Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.”  – Emma

I guess this is true.   The only thing someone has to do to recover her reputation is to either get married or die.  No one ever says anything bad about a bride or a corpse! I guess that means that a zombie bride is forgiven ALL her poor choices and missteps in life.   It’s something to think about….

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