Study Guide

Jane Austen

Jane Austen Essay - Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)

Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)

Introduction

JANE AUSTEN (1775 - 1817)

English novelist.

Originally written between 1798 and 1799, but not published until 1818, Northanger Abbey is considered Jane Austen's first significant work of fiction, and is her only work to be widely studied as part of the Gothic literary tradition. The novel is in part a burlesque of the Gothic and sentimental fiction that was popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries particularly of Ann Radcliffe's novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. In addition to its parodic elements, Northanger Abbey also follows the maturation of Catherine Morland, a naive eighteen-year-old, ignorant of the workings of English society and prone to self-deception. Influenced by her reading of novels rife with the overblown qualities of horror fiction, Catherine concocts a skewed version of reality by infusing real people, things, and events with terrible significance. However, Catherine's impressions, though clouded by Gothic sentiment, often hint at an insightful, if unconscious, judgment of character that cuts through the social pretensions of those around her. In this respect Austen's novel carries on an ironic discourse which makes it not only a satire, but also a sophisticated novel of social education.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Austen began writing while she was still living at her childhood home at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England. Her life at Steventon, though sheltered from the world at large, gave her an intimate knowledge of a segment of English society—the landed gentry—that was to provide the material for most of her fiction, and by 1787 Austen had already begun to produce stories, dramas, and short novels. In 1795 she commenced writing Elinor and Marianne, an early version of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). One year later, she started First Impressions, the work that eventually evolved into Pride and Prejudice (1813). When Austen finished First Impressions in 1797, her father submitted it to a London publisher. Although rejected, the story remained a popular favorite among the circle of relations and acquaintances with whom Austen shared her writings. In 1798 and 1799 Austen wrote most of a novel that was later revised, bought by the publisher Richard Crosby, and advertised in 1803 as "In the Press, SUSAN; a novel, in 2 vols." It remained unpublished, however, and was later revised again and published in 1818, after Austen's death, as Northanger Abbey, along with the novel Persuasion.

MAJOR WORKS

Austen's career is generally divided into an early and a late period, the former encompassing the juvenilia, as well as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, the latter including Emma (1816), Mansfield Park (1814), and Persuasion. They are separated by a hiatus of eight years. There is a remarkable consistency in the work of the early and late periods, marked by a certain mellowing of tone in the later works. The plots of Austen's novels revolve around the intricacies of courtship and marriage between members of the upper class. Austen's detractors in more egalitarian eras find fault with what they perceive to be a rigid adherence to a repressive class system. Also, in commenting on the narrowness of her literary world and vision, some critics wonder if novels of such small scope can truly reflect the human condition. However, Austen's talents are uniquely suited to her chosen subject. Her realm is comedy, and her sense of the comedic in human nature informs her technique, which is judged as superb for its delineation of character, control of point of view, and ironic tone. Although Austen chose as her subject the people she knew best, she illuminated in their characters the follies and failings of men and women of all times and classes.

While ostensibly a burlesque of the conventional modes of Gothic horror fiction, Northanger Abbey is also a novel of education that focuses on the theme of self-deception. Austen portrays Catherine as an inversion of the typical Gothic heroine, making her neither beautiful, talented, nor particularly intelligent, but rather ordinary in most respects. In contrast, several other characters in the novel are presented as pastiches of stock Gothic characters—Isabella and General Tilney, for example, are parodies of the damsel and the domestic tyrant. These individuals seem to fit into Catherine's deluded perspective of the world which, in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, leaves her unable to distinguish between reality and the romanticized version of life she finds in popular novels. Other characters in the novel serve to balance the work. Henry Tilney is often regarded by critics as Austen's mouthpiece—though he, too, is occasionally an object of irony and ridicule. For example, he fails to realize that Catherine's delusions, though excessive, hint at the true nature of people and events. Thus, Catherine is the first to understand that General Tilney, although not a murderer, is cruel and mercenary. This ironic aspect of the novel alludes to a larger theme in the work, that of the moral significance of social conventions and conduct—a subject that Austen explored in greater detail in later novels.

Catherine's introduction into society begins when Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her neighbors in Fullerton, invite her to vacation with them in the English town of Bath. There she meets the somewhat pedantic clergyman Henry Tilney and the dramatic Isabella Thorpe, who encourages Catherine in her reading of Gothic fiction. Her circle of acquaintances widens with the arrival of James Morland, Catherine's brother and a love interest for Isabella, and John Thorpe, Isabella's rude, conniving brother. The setting shifts from Bath to Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilneys, when John deceives General Tilney, Henry's father, into believing that Catherine is an heiress. Austen's satire of Gothic horror novel conventions begins as Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey and the former plays on the heroine's romantic expectations of the estate. When Catherine reaches her destination she is disappointed to find a thoroughly modern building, completely lacking in hidden passageways, concealed dungeons, and the like. Later, Austen allows Catherine's imagination to run amok, only to reveal the objects of her fears as ordinary and mundane. At the climax of the novel, General Tilney—whom Catherine suspects of having murdered or shut up his wife somewhere in the abbey—turns the heroine out after learning that she does not come from a wealthy family. At the close of the novel, the outraged Henry proposes marriage to Catherine, now divested of her delusions by Henry and his sister Eleanor. General Tilney, who proves to be not a murderer, but rather an individual of questionable moral and social character, eventually gives his consent to the marriage after learning that his daughter Eleanor is also engaged—to a wealthy Viscount.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Critics have generally regarded Northanger Abbey to be of lesser literary quality than Austen's other mature works. Some scholars have observed occasional lapses in her narrative technique of a sort that do not appear in later novels. By far the greatest debate surrounding Northanger Abbey, however, is the question of its aesthetic unity. Critics have traditionally seen the work as part novel of society, part satire of popular Gothic fiction, and therefore not a coherent whole. Detractors, focusing on the work as a parody, have found its plot weak, its characters unimaginative and superficial, and its comedy anticlimactic due to its reliance on an outmoded style of fiction. Others, while conceding the lack of an easily discernible organizing principle, argue that the work is unified on the thematic level as not merely a satire of popular fiction, but also an ironic presentation of a self-deceived imagination that is quixotically wrong about reality but right about human morality. In addition, critics have considered Northanger Abbey a transitional work, one that moves away from the burlesque mode of juvenilia and toward the stylistic control of such masterpieces as Mansfield Park and Emma.

Representative Works

Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811
Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813
Mansfield Park (novel) 1814
Emma (novel) 1816
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 4 vols. (novels) 1818
Lady Susan (novel) 1871
The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871
Love and Friendship and Other Early Works (juvenilia) 1922
[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925
Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others (letters) 1932
Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933
Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951
Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

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Primary Sources

SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Chapter 14." In Northanger Abbey. 1818. Reprint edition, pp. 107-16. New York: Signet, 1996.

In the following excerpt from Northanger Abbey, first published in 1818, Catherine discusses the pleasure she derives from reading Gothic fiction—Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, in particular—versus what she perceives as the drudgery of reading nonfiction works, such as histories.

The next morning was fair, and Catherine almost expected another attack from the assembled party. With Mr. Allen to support her, she felt no dread of the event: but she would gladly be spared a contest, where...

(The entire section is 3443 words.)

Title Commentary

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SYNDY MCMILLEN CONGER (ESSAY DATE 1987)

SOURCE: Conger, Syndy McMillen. "Austen's Sense and Radcliffe's Sensibility." Gothic, n.s., 2 (1987): 16-24.

In the following essay, Conger argues that rather than denouncing Ann Radcliffe's Gothic "sensibility" in Northanger Abbey, Austen affirms its essence and expands upon its utility as both a heroic virtue and a means of achieving growth.

The intrinsic value of...

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Further Reading

Bibliographies

Handley, Graham. Jane Austen: A Guide Through the Critical Maze. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 139 p.

Provides a guide to Austen criticism from early reviews through the 1980s.

Roth, Barry. An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1984–94, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996, 438 p.

Offers a bibliography of studies on Jane Austen.

Biographies

Austen-Leigh, James. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: R. Bentley, 1870, 364 p.

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(The entire section is 952 words.)