What does Jane Austen really think of the novel?

In Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” she frequently comments on novels and their value, either by speaking directly to the reader as narrator, as at the end of chapter five, or through the characters within the novel, such as avid novel consumers Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. The latter is especially unashamed to have read hundreds of novels, and our mock heroine seems to have gleaned most of her life experience through them, having grown up in the country far away from 18th Century English society. Her opinions are shaped largely by the novels she has read — particularly Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel “Mysteries of Udolpho.”

However, I find Catherine’s inability to distinguish the fiction of novels and the fact of reality to be in great dissonance with Austen’s repeated refutations of the idea that novels are something to be ashamed of (“…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…” [58]).

On one hand, Austen is touting the value of the novel, but on the other, she is showing how Catherine’s naïvety is only increased by her avid appetite for novels. For example, while reading Radcliffe has given Catherine an idea of what to expect at a Gothic setting such as Northanger Abbey, she is clearly not wholly prepared for what she finds there and is disappointed that it does not live up to her expectations.

Even worse, instead of viewing General Tilney as a man still mourning his wife after nearly a decade, she paints him as a “not amiable” individual who is clearly lying about his wife’s death, and who most likely keeps her imprisoned in her bedchamber within the abbey. Henry Tilney soon sets her straight, saying:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to — Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you — Does our education parepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admiring?” (196).

Also, the fact the most of the novel satirizes other novels and novelists of the time (hilariously so, I might add), it is even harder to believe that Austen was defending novels as wholeheartedly as it appears at the end of chapter five.

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