Northanger Abbey

New entry for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

Often taken to be a spoof of the gothic writings of Mrs Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho, Jane Austen’s first (and oddly final) novel is in fact much sneakier than that. It is a novel about novels; that fledgling and modern artform that was to become the preferred literary culture of the ascending English middle class in the nineteenth century, in opposition to the classical tastes of the aristocracy. As Austen notes in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in 1798, the family are ‘all great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so’.

Austen read novels for entertainment and edification. She kept serious critical notes on compositional errors to be avoided, and at the same time broadly satirised fashionable literary convention in her juvenile writings, intended for her own amusement and that of her family, to whom she would read them aloud. Her surviving letters indicate a disdain for the simplistic emotionalism and what she called the ‘unnaturalness’ of the then popular ‘sentimental novel’, in which the moral virtue of the protagonist is signalled by their melodramatic extremes. Beautiful and good heroines, deeply pious and accomplished in all the fashionable arts, weep and swoon uncontrollably, while heroes who are always brave, rich, and handsome prove their honour in excessive displays of compassion and generosity. There are no moral grey areas, and villains are bad to the bone. As Austen wrote in her 1816 ‘Plan of a novel’: ‘Heroine a faultless Character herself, – perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit’.

The tone of such novels is instructive, and in his critical dismissal of Emma, the actor William Charles Macready compared Austen’s novel unfavourably to Mary Brunton’s hugely popular Self-Control (1810) which does all of the above and which Austen privately described as a book ‘without anything of Nature or Probability in it’. This was because, argued Macready, ‘Mrs Brunton’s books have a far higher aim; they try to make us better’, adding that ‘the elevating influence of piety’ and its attendant ‘comforts’ that form the backbone of Brunton’s novels ‘never appear in Miss Austen’s’. And Austen would not deny this, writing to her sister after receiving a similar criticism that ‘pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked’.

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