Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Northanger Abbey - Chapter Five



Chapter 5 – the very short version Catherine and Isabella become closer friends. This chapter is, however, best known for containing Austen's "Defense of the Novel."

Chapter 5

Sing along with Catherine, won't you?

"Oh where, oh where has my clergyman gone? Oh where, oh where can he be?" Poor Polly Purebred Catherine Morland. Henry Tilney is not at the theatre, nor at the Pump Room, nor walking in the Crescent, nor at any of the other places she goes to over the course of a few days. WTF? thinks Catherine. In far more lady-like terms.

While pondering where Mr. Tilney may have gone – and I should note that his absence apparently only makes Catherine's heart grow fonder – Catherine wiles away her time in the company of Isabella Thorpe, with whom she is now on a first-name basis. Considering that one might know some people for years and never advance to first names, this is indeed worth noting. Also worth noting: Isabella's encouragement of Catherine's tendre for Henry Tilney, and her sighing over the notion of a young man being a clergyman, particularly in light of this tidbit from the narrator:

Perhaps Catherine was wrong in not demanding the cause of that gentle emotion -- but she was not experienced enough in the finesse of love, or the duties of friendship, to know when delicate raillery was properly called for, or when a confidence should be forced.

As per usual, Austen is accomplishing multiple things here.
1. She is revealing that Isabella has a thing for a man who is going to be a clergyman.
2. She is cannily contrasting/comparing the modi operandi of Isabella and Catherine. Isabella speaks in hints and innuendos; Catherine tends to be forthright. It therefore doesn't occur to Catherine that Isabella's sighs and veiled comments are hints that Isabella has a secret romance. She most likely believes either that Isabella is thinking of her (meaning Catherine), or that Isabella has a secret, but doesn't want to talk about it. Because Catherine always attributes her own rationales and motivations onto other people, as we shall see more fully later in the book.
3. She is, interestingly enough, omnisciently taking the part of Isabella (more or less) in overtly criticizing Catherine Morland, but I would argue that the implicit brunt of any actual criticism is Isabella, who is essentially passive-aggressive here. That this is so can be seen in the phrase "the finesse of love" (finesse here meaning "adroit maneuvering" – surely Catherine would not think that love requires or involves maneuvering) and "the duties of friendship" in conjunction with her choice of the word "raillery" (meaning ridicule, which is not something Catherine would consider one of the duties of friendship) and the notion of forcing a confidence (again, something not in keeping with Catherine's personality or her idea of what sort of duties one owes a friend).

Oh, Mrs. Allen! The "older" ladies in this book are probably in their late 40s or early 50s. I love that Mrs. Allen yammers on about her lace and muslin, her gowns and bonnets, while Mrs. Thorpe prattles on about her children. Neither of them really listens to the other, and neither of them really minds. There's something hilarious about that, and I'd be willing to call it farcical, except that I have more than once been in the presence of people who converse in just this sort of way.


The Defense of the Novel Midway through this very short chapter, Austen takes a few moments to rail. And I have to say that it is my opinion that it is Austen herself, and not her narrator, that we are hearing here. At the start of the paragraph, it's her narrator who steps up onto the soap box, but once up there, she stops sounding quite like herself – the narrator of Northanger Abbey. If the narrator is no longer sounding like the narrator, I feel pretty safe in asserting that the narrator is, at that point, sounding very much like the actual author.

Here's the Defense of the Novel from just where we leave off with Isabella and Catherine to spend time with a screed about respect for novels, fellow authors, and more:

[I]f a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; -- for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." -- Such is the common cant. -- "And what are you reading, Miss ----------?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. -- "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

Sing it, Jane! Sing it loud! It helps, I think, to know a few things.

1. Novels were publicly regarded as suspect by a large number of fashionable people during Austen's lifetime. You know how there are some folks now who publicly say they read "only nonfiction" or "only literary novels", but secretly they're devouring Dan Brown's books? It was just like that then, only more so.

2. It was so popular for people to disavow novels in public that libraries made a big deal out of not having only novels - even though the novel was an extremely large part of their income, which was earned by the volume (hence the popularity of three-volume novels, by the by - it wasn't that all the pages couldn't fit into one quarto or ottavo book, it was that the circulating libraries, who held a large amount of purchasing power with publishers, preferred more volumes, because more volumes meant more cash). Here is a bit from a letter that Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on December 18, 1798 (the day after Austen's 23rd birthday):
As an inducement to subscribe [to her circulating library], Mrs. Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of literature, &c. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel-readers and not ashamed of being so; but it was necessary, I suppose, to the self-consequence of half her subscribers.

I should note that Northanger Abbey's first draft was begun in 1798, and finished in 1799, so the inclusion of the same notion in her book that you see in the above letter is likely no accident.

3. It was so popular for people in society to disavow the reading of novels in public that a number of authors went out of their way to have their characteres disparage other novels. Novels written by women, in particular, were singled out for derision. (Camilla was by Maria Edgeworth, Cecilia and Belinda by Fanny Burney; Austen read them all. As a sidenote for Edgeworth fans, Austen read the early edition of Belinda which included a betrothal between a Creole man and an English girl, and the subsequent marriage of the English girl to a man of African descent.) Foreshadowing point: Look for a certain male character (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless) to do just this within the later pages of Northanger Abbey, and look also for a male character to adopt the same point of view as our author. (Care to wager on which one's the good guy, and which the cad?)

At the risk of being slightly ranty myself, I was reminded, as I re-read this passage, of so many "discussions" about various categories of novels today. Comments about YA novels, or romance novels, or science fiction, or fantasy, or graphic novels, or books with girls as main characters. There is always somebody somewhere wearing their smugpants who is willing to look down their nose at books of a certain type. And there are plenty of readers willing to sit back and allow themselves to be called something akin to "stupid" for reading certain things and liking them. I happen to think that's just, well, wrong. Also, unfair. I'd like it if writers everywhere would take a page from Austen's diatribe and avoid "that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding." I don't mean that one ought not write a negative book review for a particular title if it warrants it, but I do mean that one ought not spit at entire categories of work.


Tomorrow: The Northanger canon (books, not artillery!) and a better look at Isabella - will you like what you see?

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