Monday, 3 April 2017

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, and Gender Relationships

'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.'

Focusing on Volume One, Chapter Three of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, I would like to explore how the relationships between the sexes are represented, how the chapter relates to the rest of the novel and what is its function?

This early chapter is the point in the novel at which the hero, Henry Tilney, is introduced to the heroine Catherine Morland. Although Austen narrates that their initial conversation is based on trivialities, she switches to dialogue as Tilney begins to satirise social norms: he does this by playong a game with Catherine during which the conventional course of polite conversation is mocked: 'forming his features into a set smile... affectedly softening his voice... with a simpering air' ( Northanger Abbey, p.12). Catherine colludes with the execution of the game, and Tilney makes barbed comments upon the conventions he mocks: '...some emotion must appear to be raised... I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.' With this verbal game, Tilney demonstrates that he understands the underlying silliness of affecting modes of speech and referencing specifically trivial subjects for the sake of 'manners'. Catherine, however, is less confident; although she plays her part in the game, she is unsure whether she should laugh at the end of it.

  Henry then teases her, regarding what he believes that she will write in her journal about him, but here Catherine challenges his assumptions. To the reader, this asserts that Cstherine is possessed of a degree of independence: she is willing to play Henry's game, but will not be dominated by his putting words in her mouth. However, she lacks confidence over the depth of his mock-solemnity - her response to his comments upon ladies' journals is not to simply repeat or emphasise her earlier denial, but to remark that she doubts the quality of female writing is superior to the male style. Here, at the close of their conversation, they reach an agreement... for Henry too believes that 'excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes' (Northange Abbey, p.14).

  This initial conversation betwern the heroine and the hero reveals the differences in their personalities: Henry as a shrewd and satirical observer of Bath 'society', and Catherine as an observer who has yet to develop her critical faculties. She asserts her independence when Henry attempts to speak for her, yet falters when faced with more hypothetical topics. Despite Henry's eventual agreement with Catherine on the subject of writing, his behaviour has been interpreted as an accomplished form of 'bullying' by the critic Claudia L Johnson, who believes that Catherine's lack of confidence is a result of Henry's refusal to admit he could be wtong - as when he asserts, wtongly, that Catherine keeps a journal. For Johnson, Henry 'takes away the power of refusal, simply by turning a deaf ear to it' (Johnson, 1988, in Regan, 2001, p.183).

  The conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Allen, engaging in her favourite pastime of talking about clothes. Once again, Henry appears to be gently mocking, with not only his discourse upon a subject associated with the feminine sphere but his use of phrases which echo the language of Mrs. Allen herself: 'a prodigious bargain', 'I do not think it will wash well' (Northanger Abbey, p.14). He also grasps the opportunity of another joke at Catherine's expense by suggesting that her gown may provide useful material for smaller items - all the while disguising his satire as the semblance of sound economic sense: 'Muslin can never be said to be wasted.'

  Austen somewhat ambiguously states that Catherine, listening to the dialogue between Henry and Mrs. Allen, wonders if 'he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others' (Northanger Abbey, p.15). It is unclear here whether Catherine has missed Henry's satirical point, or is expressing criticism of his manner. As the chapter closes, Henry asserts that he now has the right to 'tease' Catherine whenever they meet.

  The function of this chapter is, principally, to introduce the character of Henry Tilney. Beneath his mocking/bullying are the roots of his rolebasbankind of 'teacher' to Catherine, a man who shows her how to challenge what she sees, an occupation he carries out himself through the medium of satire. However, as his assumptions show, he is not perfect. While teaching to others, he is also marked by his inability to listen to others.

  The chapter's relationship with the rest of the novel is one of both continuity and contrast. Continuity is provided by the Bath setting which had been introduced earlier, and which continues to form the environment backdrop for the rest of the volume, and by the characters of Catherine  Mrs. Allen with whom the reader is already familiarised. Contrast is provided by Austen's familiarising her readers with other new characters in the surrounding chapters. Catherine herself is introduced in the opening chapter, the Allens in the second, Mrs. Thorpe and Isabella in the fourth, with James, John and Eleanor being introduced later. It is a systematic way of emphasising the characters' differences by allowing breaks in chapters between introductions. This is a subtle allusion to individuality. After Henry's introduction in Chapter Three he vanishes from the narrative until Chapter Eight, during which time Catherine's sojourn in Bath becomes dominated by the boisterous Thorpes. However, his presence in the novel remains, as Catherine is eager to continue the acquaintance and looks for him at the Bath landmarks that she visits, and when he finally reappears , once again at a social gathering, he provides a contrast with the uncritical James and the oafish John.


Northanger Abbey, Austen, Jane, 1818, OUP, Oxford.
The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, ed: Regan, Stephen, 2001, Routledge, London.

'And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady…in short, only some work 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 humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.'

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