Edmund Wilson observed in the mid-twentieth century that “only two reputations have never been affected by the shifts of fashion: Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s” (35). Austen certainly has been the subject of endless critical analysis, some from her own contemporaries and some from the literary critics of later generations, notably the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Early reviews of Austen’s novels, according to Gilbert and Gubar, which amounted to a masculine judgment by male authors who preceded the new wave of feminist critics, explain the reaction to the popularity of Austen from among her readers. This early tendency was to dismiss Austen’s novels as the artistic accomplishment of a lady, and the content of her novels as too light to merit serious discussion (108). During and since the feminist movement of the 1970s, Austen’s novels have been widely studied and analyzed, and much of the criticism has been in defense of Austen and has elevated her standing above those patriarchal views that judged her as nothing more than an insignificant and rather limited parlor writer. Examining criticism from before and after the feminist movement shows a shift in the interpretation of her novels from being too light to being considered works of intelligence. By looking at two historically, socially, and politically different criticisms of the very same novels at different times in history, this paper attempts to show just how much Jane Austen yearns to communicate with the world through her writing. Effectively, it is when reading her works in great detail that one can hear the author voicing her own opinions on the historical, social, and political realities facing women in her time.
Austen was never a self-proclaimed radical feminist or women’s liberationist. However, her critical observations of society in her time clearly convey the oppression of women by dominant male power. This paper will examine Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey, to discuss the author’s criticism of patriarchy in English society in the 1800s, by focusing on two main issues: Austen’s dialogues and her parodying of Gothic novels. The first part of the paper will look closely at some direct exchanges between Austen’s heroine, Catherine Morland, and the other main character, Henry Tilney. The next part of this paper will focus on the author’s parodying of Gothic elements and will analyze Northanger Abbey’s story structure in comparison with the typical structure of the Gothic novel genre. Just as with her clear and direct dialogues and narratives, Austen’s parodying of Gothic elements enables the reality of patriarchy in England in her time to be brought to light in the novel. Hopefully, both these discussions will give Austen the opportunity to answer directly back to the early judgmental masculine criticism that she once received. And who better to defend Austen from those early prejudices and that dismissive criticism than the author herself?
It should first be noted that Northanger Abbey, Austen’s earliest novel, was written in the year 1803 but was only published thirteen years after its completion. As is stated in the preface:
Without any further questioning, Austen moves on from the publisher’s apparent lack of interest or urgency in publishing Northanger Abbey to focus on how to succeed as a published author. Is this a sign perhaps of Austen treading carefully in order to avoid offending or contradicting the views of any would-be male publisher? Susan S. Lanser observes that Austen seems lacking in some respects as an unequivocal truth-teller, and that she comes across as powerless, especially when compared with male writers of the twentieth century who concerned themselves with weighty matters of the philosophy of the Enlightenment (61-65). Lanser also terms Austen’s own writing techniques as “‘reticence’ . . . ‘indirection’ . . . free indirect discourse, irony, ellipsis, negation, euphemism, [and] ambiguity” (62). All these signature techniques of Austen were employed in her first novel and further developed in her later works, perhaps affected by the initial failure of publication of Northanger Abbey. In order to become a published writer, she needed to develop those techniques further, in order to better disguise her intelligent criticism of the problematic nature of patriarchal society. And yet, Austen was clearly an ambitious young lady who had just completed her first novel, written with a naturally critical mind eager to express her sarcasm on and criticism of the sociopolitical issues of her time without fear in Northanger Abbey. Such criticism of the realities of problematic patriarchal society through her sharp dialogues, narratives, and parody of the popular Gothic elements in Northanger Abbey might well have been part of the reason why publication of the book was rejected in the first place.
Firstly, early reviews of Austen’s novels before the emergence of the feminist movement are significant in understanding how the social and political masculine views repressed female writers in general at that time. Their tendency was to reduce Austen to the status of a mere female writer whose space was defined by domesticity, her imaginative scope limited to gardens, drawing rooms, and parlors. For instance, Edward Fitzgerald criticizes Austen as someone who “never goes out of the Parlor” (qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar, 109). Emerson remarks that Austen’s novels are mainly about trivialized domesticity, as her characters only appear to be concerned with the amount of money and status that they might be able to marry into. Emerson further questions the popularity of Austen among her audience and decides that “suicide is more respectable” (109), rather than dealing with the relative degrees of suitability for marriage of the characters in Austen’s novels. Mark Twain did not disguise his own loathing of Austen either, commenting that her books were “unreadable . . . . Jane is entirely impossible . . . . a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death” (109). D. H. Lawrence simply dismissed Austen as one who “typifies ‘personality’ instead of character . . . thoroughly unpleasant, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word” (109-10). These vicious critiques of Austen claim that she is the one who is responsible for any lightness and limitations of boundary in her novels.
However, it seems that these traditional masculine criticisms ignore the impact that patriarchal society of England in the 1800s would have had on Austen and are unwilling to recognize that Austen’s fictions portray women who are bound by these very same patriarchal structures. In the dialogues and narratives of Northanger Abbey, Austen speaks of women’s stance against the patriarchal conventions of men and laments a lack of social meaning for the female identity. Indeed, there is clear evidence of Austen’s criticism of the male-dominated patriarchal view of women’s identity. For example, Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, insists “Mamma says I am never within,” when her male acquaintance Henry Tilney comments that women in general need to learn to love the hyacinth as this would help members of the fairer sex to exercise outdoors more frequently than they otherwise do. Catherine retorts, “[I]n fine weather I am out more than half my time,” explaining, “I do not want any such pursuit to get me out of doors” (165). Austen, through Catherine, answers back to Henry, to patriarchal men, and to the patriarchal society in general that it is wrong for men to define what women are. Austen opens up to her readers the reality of the society that tended to set the rules and confines within which women were required to remain. Other dialogues and narratives in Northanger Abbey show a similar inner frustration of Austen towards the unreasonable connivance of the male-dominated patriarchal society. The topics touched on include women’s letter writing, education in history and the arts, education in underclass families, and marital relationships.
One more interesting point to note at this point is how Austen gives her various characters differing degrees of depth and breadth. According to D. W. Harding, most of the secondary characters in Northanger Abbey seem to represent “outer layers of social behaviour” (qtd. in Nowak, 3) that in turn represent certain social identities. Isabella Thorpe is described as an unprincipled and indecent flirt who engages in crass fortune-hunting by angling for marriage to a rich man and is only capable of false friendship, while her brother, John Thorpe is depicted as a devious, self-centered braggart. Eleanor Tilney represents a well-bred young aristocratic lady who passively accepts her destiny as a victim of her father and her future husband, while her father, General Tilney, embodies the greedy, avaricious male authority of the patriarchal family. These secondary characters are all one-dimensional and continuously identifiable throughout the novel, because they fail to progress beyond their initial personalities. By contrast, Austen develops her two main characters, her heroine and hero, as differing from the traditional standard of the perfect and faultless heroic character. They seem to be developed into more meditative characters whose role is to deliver the author’s own opinions and views to the reader. The heroine, Catherine Morland is described very differently from the usual heroine. Neither a beauty nor a perfectly bred young lady of the middle classes, she is instead rather naïve and simple in her views, and is quick to reveal her shortcomings in education and in her artistic appreciation. At the same time, Henry Tilney similarly fails to meet the required heroic standard in terms of looks, wealth, status, and talent. He is instead the gentle clergyman, more of a brother or instructor to Catherine than a romantic, heroic poet and lover. What Austen consciously avoids here is the creation of a monstrous patriarchal evil male figure. Instead, she creates a male character who represents any one of the many educated young English gentlemen who grew up in Austen’s time believing that the widely accepted social limitations on women were a matter of common sense. Therefore, the intense dialogues between Catherine and Henry are considered in this chapter as the most important and valuable source to be examined next, in order to shed light on Austen’s criticism.
In Chapter 3 of Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney offers a typically stereotyped male perception of women, declaring that women write journals every evening in order to remember dresses and complexions of everyday domesticity. He starts with his vague compliment that “everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is particularly female . . . . [I]t must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal” (27). Austen then unmasks Henry’s real thoughts, veiled in fake compliments with his remark that “the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars . . . . [a] general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar” (27). Austen protests through Catherine that “You (men) do not think too highly of us (women) in that way” (27). Henry’s belittling of women’s writing ability and his insistence that women write letters with bad grammar and deficiency of subject, and that women are only able to produce journals and letters, clearly implies how many of the men of her time viewed women writers. It is no wonder that Austen bemoans Henry’s stereotypical masculine judgment on women, though in a typically and necessarily gentle and indirect way: “Upon my word! I need not have been afraid of disclaiming the compliment” (27).
The view that women were only able to write tedious and badly written letters implies the existence of a social agreement of differing education standards for men and women. Austen’s clarification of the condition of women’s education precedes by about one hundred years the very similar protests of Virginia Woolf, who complained about educational discrimination against women in her book A Room of One’s Own, protesting that no women had access to any higher education in Oxford or Cambridge. Woolf describes how women in the early 20th century were not even allowed to walk on the turf of the colleges of Oxbridge, since the path was only for “Fellows and Scholars,” who at that time were all male: “His face expressed horror and indignation . . . . This was the turf; there was the path . . . . [T]he gravel is the place for me” (8-9). A century earlier than Woolf, Henry crassly tries to prove that he has received a much better education than Catherine: “Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home” (103). Henry’s comment indicates men’s assumed superiority, based on the mere fact of men having read more books and having received their higher education at Oxford, in the full knowledge that Catherine or any other women of the time could not even think of studying there. Woolf suggests that the quality of Austen’s writing is indisputable, as “The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world” (qtd. in Johnson 29).
Austen then dismisses the male interest in history in order to attack the masculine view of education. Catherine confesses her dislike of history, declaring to Henry “I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?” (104). His answer presupposes that men should be fond of history since it is a most important subject for a well-educated aristocrat. Henry’s younger sister also agrees with the importance of reading history. However, Austen, after first showing Catherine’s regret at being unable to enjoy this most important topic, then adds what she really thinks about history, insisting that:
In fact, Catherine’s direct questioning of the validity and relevance of the subject must have discombobulated not only Henry but also many of her male readers, who would have held history in such high esteem. It is thus not Austen’s revelation of the condition of women but her sarcastic critiques that instill her writing with the power to provoke and reform. Catherine continues her attack on history, calling it “torment of little boys and girls” (105), which reveals the difficulties faced by the lower classes in educating their children in the home environment. Unlike the Tilneys, the poor in Austen’s England had to cope with the daily struggle to survive. Just like Catherine’s family, those boys and girls had little or no room for the study of history. It would be impossible for the poor to consider the learning of history or art in the manner in which the members of the middle class would have been able to enjoy them.
Austen then touches on the middle class perception of the importance of taste in art. When Mr. and Miss Tilney talk about drawing and pictures, “with all the eagerness of real taste” (106), the narrator relates that Catherine “knew nothing of drawing -- nothing of taste” (106). Catherine is described as feeling lost while listening to their dialogue regarding art and drawing. After Catherine’s shortcomings have been acknowledged, Austen shows how Catherine’s aesthetic views are being challenged by new views on art by saying:
As with her criticisms on the subject of history, Austen seems to be sarcastically critical of the viewing of nature through an aristocratic artistic lens, rather than seeing things as they are.
Another significant topic is about marital relationships, focusing especially on the definition of sociopolitical roles for both men and women in 1790s England. As Catherine and Henry dance together, he comments that he considers “a country-dance as an emblem of marriage” (74). Catherine insists that they are both very different things, as married people must work harder to stay happy in a marriage while dancing partners only stand opposite each other for the short period of time that they are dancing together. Yet, Henry insists on the resemblance between matrimony and dancing, stating that “in both, man has advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; . . . in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each” (74). Catherine still disagrees with this comparison, prompting Henry to further lecture her on his patriarchal notion of men, women, marriage, and family, declaring that “In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman; the woman to make the home agreeable to man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile” (74-75). This is exactly what Poovey is referring to when she says that Austen “became more aware of what it meant to be a woman in her society” (209). In Northanger Abbey, the term “misplaced shame” (106) concludes Austen’s criticism of patriarchy with the narrator going on to state that “a woman especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” (106), because “a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man” (106). This narrative clearly reveals Austen’s desire to explore the reality of the position of women in her time and such pithy sarcasm spells out her opposition to the pervading patriarchal views.
England in the 1790s and early 1800s was a country in the midst of social upheaval influenced by the French Revolution. Rapid social change placed the conservatives and the reformists of the time under pressure and forced them to recognize the failings of the governing aristocracy. At the same time, both had to deal with an economic crisis that saw drastic wage and food price inflation. Yet during this transitional period for British society, both conservatives and reformists managed to defend and to maintain the status quo patriarchy. The protection of patriarchy offered stability to a nation that had a shaky leadership and a sense of lost morality (Poovy xxi). As Mackenzie observed, middle class women in particular were expected to embody qualities of “public virtue, honor and benevolence” since the very existence of the middle class depended on the establishment of “creditworthiness” (686) for women, who were coerced to present “domestic harmony, the aspiring middle class, patriotic sentiment, reproductive sexuality, and the community of taste and decency” (681) for their communities. This explains why English patriarchal men of the time demanded that their wives and daughters endow them with creditworthiness, and why society imposed on women the expectation that they should uphold their patriarchal responsibilities.
During this social and political transition period, the growing influence of the female reading public emerged on the horizon, not least since reading a novel was one of the few activities permitted to women who desired to participate in any kind of public and social discourse in such a male-oriented society (Jeon 221). Despite this growing female readership, many early published novels were authored anonymously by women. As Johnson adds, while the sphere for female writers widened in Austen’s England, women’s discursive authority came to be understood as something that might be threatening and hazardous to the male-focused patriarchal society. It is clear that women writers were well aware of the tacit warning that they should write nothing to harm the entrenched patriarchy. Lanser recognizes this limitation upon women writers at the time:
Instead of the deconstruction of patriarchy, women writers were expected to produce ‘textbooks’ outlining good behavior for their female readers. In effect, the majority of the novels published during this period almost always featured one or two female characters of a sensitive disposition, cultivated with homely and domestic qualities befitting a proper woman. One thing that was not acceptable at the time was the depiction of any female character hinting at any adverse effect that patriarchy might have been having on women (Kim 5-6).
Austen also faces this same contradiction between an inner desire to reveal the unreasonable social repression of women, on the one hand, and her need to conduct herself according to the demanding expectations of English patriarchy, on the other. Given this apparent contradiction between authorship and femininity, Austen (along with other women writers of her time) might have felt powerless to exercise her authorial force. Yet, Northanger Abbey shows her rejection of the typical role model of the patriarchal heroine, while still reflecting Austen’s understanding of social commonsense for a female author desiring to be published. Some of Austen’s characteristic writing style developed in response to this contradictory dilemma, including her use of parody. Northanger Abbey shows how Austen parodies Gothic fiction and how she directly and indirectly elucidates several typical Gothic elements and weaves them into the mesh of her story as a way of showing the horrors of patriarchal society in England of her time.
Gothic fiction flourished between the 1790s and the 1820s, and represented the decay of feudal and aristocratic rights in general, while at the same time revealing women’s eagerness to exercise individual freedom in marriage and inheritance. Therefore, Gothic novels and Gothic romance were popular among women at the time, offering up tales of terror and suspense, usually set in gloomy old castles or medieval monasteries, with the help of ghosts and demons and scenes of cruelty and horror (1-2). Contemporary patriarchal society in some ways mirrored, for women at least, the dark oppression of the serfs by a feudal, aristocratic authority in the Gothic novel since in the Gothic novel, violence, rage, and cruelty were always directed against victimized heroines, who were threatened with rape or incarceration. Northanger Abbey is not a Gothic novel, although interestingly it was introduced as a Gothic romance in 1965 when first published in the USA, because of its title and the Gothic setting (Jeon 225). Yet, Austen indirectly parodies elements of the Gothic novel in her story and in this attempt, “clarifies and reclaims . . . gothic conventions in distinctly political ways” in her first novel (Johnson 34). As Johnson claims, Austen emphasized the political subtext of Gothic conventions throughout the novel so skillfully that the settings and characters metaphorically revealed the Gothic horror of the reality that women faced under patriarchy.
As mentioned above, a typical Gothic novel contains certain elements such as a gloomy setting, a demonic monster, a victimized heroine and cruel violence, as the story unfolds. Northanger Abbey can be interpreted as a tactical Gothic novel that contains all these necessary Gothic elements and is set in two different locations that together clearly reflect the horror of social reality for women in the 1800s. The first location is Bath. This luxurious town noted for the socialization of its noblemen can be interpreted as a dark dungeon, where the progeny of the English aristocracy, these lords and baronets, came to make new acquaintances and find marital partners, joined by those hoping to elevate their social status and wealth through marriage. Here, the monster can very well be one of those typical English gentlemen, like John Thorpe, who are looking for a future wife who can offer them the creditworthiness they need to maintain their status as noblemen. They are either already monsters or they will become monsters as they assume the traits of the patriarchal husband in the future. Violence takes the form of various kinds of oppression toward those young ladies whose duties, according to Henry, are regarded as only smiling and waiting to be selected by the man, since it is the man alone who can confirm their future direction. Austen casts Catherine, her heroine, as a victim abused by the broken promises of aristocrats, such as Isabella Thorpe’s fake friendship and John Thorpe’s attack, throughout her stay in Bath. Isabella and John Thorpe are a brother and sister who have come to Bath with the sole purpose of finding wealthy partners for themselves. Austen exhibits through them the lost promises of the middle classes in the 18th century. Time and again, Isabella and John shatter promises that they have made with others, and Isabella even breaks off her engagement with Catherine Morland’s brother in order to seek marriage with a wealthier spouse. Johnson observed that social stability in England depended in large part on the keeping of promises, thus Austen dramatizes Isabella and John’s devaluing of promises as typical of the horrors being perpetrated in England at that time. Austen is indirectly, yet fairly implicitly, describing the destruction of moral rule in the society of the time. Her depiction of their deceit is a thinly veiled criticism indeed of the patriarchal society in which she was living at that time.
The story then moves on to the second Gothic location, General Tilney’s residence at Northanger Abbey. Here, the patriarchal authority ruthlessly exploits its power over the female members of the family. The demonic monster is General Tilney, who is an oppressive father to his own daughter, Eleanor, and is described as a man who is “accustomed on every ordinary occasion to give the law in his family” (Johnson 35). Austen hints at her parodying of Gothic novels when Catherine begins to grow suspicious of some involvement by General Tilney in the murder of Mrs. Tilney. Catherine’s own conspiracy theories evolve to the point where she almost persuades herself that the General has murdered his wife and buried her under the staircase of the abbey. Catherine even reminds herself of one monstrous character from her favorite Gothic novel: “It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!” (NA 176). In the end, Austen goes on to later expose the true horror of General Tilney, not as a murderer or a fictional devil but as a man whose exploitation of Catherine and cold rejection of her is even advanced and real in the style of Gothic horror.
Austen’s Gothic violence starts with General Tilney’s invitation to Catherine to Northanger Abbey on the grounds of his belief that she is the heiress to Mr. Allen’s estate. When he hears that this is not the case from the cunning John Thorpe, this ‘respectable country gentleman’ who seems “so polite, so well-bred and . . . so particularly fond of” (188) Catherine at once changes his demeanor towards her completely. He therefore acts on his violence towards a victimized heroine, Catherine, by ordering her out of the abbey at a moment’s notice without even a servant to guide her on her journey back home. Austen describes his manner thus: “so grossly uncivil, hurrying her away without any reference to her own convenience . . . . such ill-will against a person” (211-12.) Austen is clearly implying that for her monstrous male characters, General Tilney, John Thorpe, James Morland, and other bachelors in Northanger Abbey, women are considered as mere credit values for those noblemen who need women’s social, financial, and moral credit in order to retain their status as nobles in the eyes of their peers. Austen, through Catherine, expresses the terror being meted out on women by revealing the inequities of gender status in Bath and Northanger Abbey. Both locations are depicted by Austen as the real dungeons of 1800s England, where men exercise power and authority over victimized heroines who struggle to be free from the horrors of patriarchy.
As an author, Austen is unsurpassed in the simple yet powerful way in which she observes and depicts the limitations imposed on women’s daily lives by the patriarchy of her time, and therefore her novels have conveyed to generations since then the impact of that patriarchy on her contemporaries. Marilyn Butler, recognizing the importance of Austen’s exploration of the institutional repressions of women’s social position, describes Austen as “a literary genius who was a woman, and with a genre aimed at women readers” (208), and her ability allows her works to challenge her readers’ expectations and desires to increase women’s “self-expression and fulfillment” (212) in a changing society. Accordingly, this paper has examined Northanger Abbey in order to show the author’s playfully provocative views on patriarchy through two key conduits; her characters’ narratives and dialogues, and her characteristic parody writing style. The intense dialogues between Henry and Catherine and the narrative in Northanger Abbey are explored to give Austen the means with which to defend herself against early masculine judgmental and dismissive criticism. At the same time, Austen’s highlighting of the Gothic fiction genre in Northanger Abbey, through Catherine’s listing of Gothic romances as being among her favorites, and the author’s indirect use of fundamental Gothic elements in the construction of her story, are telling signs of her use of parody to disguise her criticism of the patriarchal nature of society in her time as well as to mock it. This paper has hopefully provided in both chapters ample evidence with which to defend her from the criticism of early male writers who simply could not accept Austen as an intelligent and professional writer.
In an article celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen in 2013, Paula Cohen commented that Austen has achieved a postmodern stardom that “meshes so well with our postmodern culture” (1). This suggests that Austen’s novels display major postmodern characteristics, such as “the nature of individual identity, the implications of gender roles . . . [t]he disparity between appearance and reality” (1). There is no doubt that Austen’s novels are not only utilized to support feminist studies, but they can also be applied to postmodern research on the margins of any society around the world, against any form of authoritarian power. This explains why the author has always had and, particularly today, continues to attract such popularity, while academics have dug deep into her novels in every period throughout the last two centuries. As Cohen suggests, the postmodern era seems fated to be in need of Austen, and one can hardly deny that, at the start of the 21st Century, we continue to celebrate Austen as someone whose brave and playful voice triggers discussions on universal issues that matter as much today as they did in her time.