Jane Austen and the Conventions of the Novel
by Zoe Eckman
It is largely known that Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Northanger Abbey is a criticism of the Gothic genre that became so popular during the end of the 18th century. Yet its late publication date in the second decade of the 19th century (20 years after Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian was first “brought out”), obscures the fact it was the very first of Austen’s novels to be completed. Originally titled Susan, the work was written during 1798-9, and would have been extremely timely, as most of Radcliffe’s most famous novels were published in the 1790s.
Even before Susan, it is clear that the young Jane Austen was extremely concerned with the conventions of popular novels. In her “Juvenalia” — all written between 1787 and 1793, when Austen would have 12 to 18 years old — her story “Frederic and Elfrida” pokes fun at the ridiculousness of certain of these unrealistic conventions:
It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, and to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place.
She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up and buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida and Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body and her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.
These sweet lines, as pathetic as beautifull were never read by any one who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they should fail of exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them. (7-8, in Catherine and Other Writings, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray. Published by Oxford UP, 1993.)
An overly dramatic heroine who dies a pathetic death, only to be praised by a “beautifull” and utterly horrible epitaph, is just the sort of quick-witted lampoon a well-read young woman might write for the amusement of herself and her friends. It is short enough to read aloud, and the satire is broad and obvious. The “author’s” pushy address to the reader is yet another object of Austen’s ridicule. Even in this short, early piece, her criticisms of the novel are of its divergence from the actualities of everyday life, and the stereotypical behaviors of its characters.
Thus it is, that Austen’s criticism in Northanger Abbey lies most heavily on the elements that lack a basis in the real-world, and not with the novel itself. Austen “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” (58, 2004 Broadview Literary Texts edition). Contemporary female writers are themselves the object of Austen’s censure here, and she may even have in mind Maria Edgeworth’s “Advertisement” to her novel Belinda. Perferring to call it “a Moral Tale,” she objects to the “denomination” of novel: “. . . so much folly, errour, and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wi[s]h to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are laudable, and not fastidious.” [source]
Indeed, Austen agrees with Edgeworth’s criticism of the folly and vice in some works, but she does not believe that this is the fault of the form, but rather simply the difference between bad novels and good ones. The best novels are those “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 nest chosen language” (60).
Catherine Morland’s “lesson” is not not to read novels, but to learn to “read” (properly) the people and situations in her own life. Her error is believing that life imitates the unrealistic Gothic fictions she has been consuming. When Henry Tilney discovers Catherine’s suspicions about his father, he is horrified — not by her excessive reading — but by her seeming inability to judge reality rationally. He tells her: ”[c]onsult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you . . .” (195) — to, in a sense, read the real world in the same way she would read a novel. If certain things are bound to happen in a Gothic novel — which are set in Catholic countries, and very often, in the archaic Middle Ages — then certain things are proper to Regency England and certain things are absolutely impossible.
It would be a mistake to think Austen’s criticism is of the Gothic alone, or that there is criticism without praise. Henry Tilney himself puts forward his enjoyment of Radcliffe’s work in Chapter 14, and claims that the person “who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (120). The distinction lies between a good reader, and a bad one, and an author who uses their powers to write a good novel, or who fills their work with bad poetry and improbable characters.