December 16, 2020

Reading “Northanger Abbey” on Jane Austen’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Jane Austen is 245 years old today; she was a month short of 190 long ago when I found Northanger Abbey in a New Delhi railway station bookstall. The Indian paperback had a lurid cover (woman screaming) and a memorable blurb (“Cunning! Compassioned! Strangely Touchy!”). And although the paper was cheap and the print faded and irregular, Jane was there in the form of her heroine Catherine Morland, who grew up with “neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome,” was “noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” At 14, she was happier playing “cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country” than reading books.

Baseball? If you’re reading Northanger Abbey while waiting for the 2 a.m. train to Benares, the thought of the game you love, the National Pastime, seems as far from reality as the image of Jane Austen swinging a bat, running the bases, and sliding home in a pinafore. With smartphones decades in the future, however, I had no way to check the Net for information about baseball in Regency England. At the time I figured it might be a freak of typography, another malappropriate misadventure like the blurb on the front cover. Not so. The same reference shows up in subsequent editions, as well as the Project Gutenberg ebook, and now there are blogs headed “Jane Austen Invented Baseball,” where fans match hometown players with characters in her novels. I get it. We want Jane to be cosmically applicable to all things both great and small, mundane, modern, or marvelous, and the wilder, more unconfined and unladylike the better.

Yes, Novels!

Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen ever sold to a publisher (Crosby & Co. for £10 in 1803), but it wasn’t published until 1818, a year after her death. Why?

Not having read the novel since graduate school, what struck me this time is how commandingly she makes her presence felt early in the narrative, suddenly speaking directly to us mid-paragraph while describing her characters Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe meeting “in defiance of wet and dirt” to “read novels together. Yes, novels; 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, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust …. I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.”     

Great enemies, contempt, censure, harsh epithets, injured bodies — it sounds like war, with the novelist as the heroine. If the pronouncements about the “threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans” gave Crosby & Co. second thoughts about publication, imagine the response when the unknown young author aims at a loftier target, scolding those readers who patronize novels while taking seriously only “the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator,” all to be “eulogized by a thousand pens.”

Since the publisher’s negligence gave Austen time to revise the manuscript right up to the last year of her life, it’s possible that these passages are the work of an older, wiser writer. Yet there’s something admirably youthfully, naively bold in the warmth and force of the outburst, capped by the chapter-ending acclamation, which she begins by taking issue with “a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” After suggesting a hypothetical exchange in which one person is asked “what are you reading?” and answers, “only a novel,” Jane takes the cue: “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 humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Gothic Gossip

The next chapter follows a brief preface (to be discussed) with Isabella telling Catherine about “ ‘the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop window in Milsom Street just now — very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green; I quite longed for it. But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?’ ”

To which Catherine says, “‘Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.’” After a discussion of what lies behind the black veil (“‘Are you not wild to know?’”), and Laurentina’s skeleton, Isabella reads from her list of “more of the same kind,” including “‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries,’” with urgent promptings from Catherine, “‘But are they all horrid, are you sure they’re all horrid?’”

Austen prefaces the gothic gossip as if she were looking down on a pair of marionettes at Vanity Fair: “The following conversation, which took place between the two friends in the Pump room [at Bath] one morning, after an acquaintance of eight or nine days, is given as a specimen of their very warm attachment, and of the delicacy, discretion, originality of thought, and literary taste which marked the reasonableness of that attachment.”

Which is the author’s way of signaling future developments involving Catherine, who is 17, and Isabella, who is four years older, and who, besides being a schemer as monstrous as any in all of Austen, has a loud, boastful brother who lies, cheats, and bullies his way Trumpishly through life with a righteous abandon that eventually ignites the novel’s denouement, the heroine’s abject humiliation and glorious recovery.

A Confession

I have to admit that I was as indelicately, indiscreetly susceptible to Mysterious Warnings and Horrid Mysteries as Catherine Morland when riding through the Indian night with Northanger Abbey in my lap. As Isabella chattered of black forests and midnight bells, I was enjoying the way those Gothic phrases connected with the night mood of ghostly stops along the line, phantom rickshaws, spectral chai wallahs, and “strangely touchy” station masters. Reading by the dim, fitful light, I had the sense that the author’s little world of make believe was disintegrating in my hands, the ink smearing with the touch of my fingers, paragraphs caving in around elaborate typographical errors, England infecting India, India infecting Austen.

Once again I have this urge to somehow relate England’s Jane to everything everywhere, as if constantly looking for ways to counter the stuffy stereotype Mark Twain had in mind when he said “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Anyway, Twain’s aversion can be read as a backhanded compliment, as if he were shielding his eyes from the glare of her brilliance or recoiling from a sinister threat to his literary manhood. If she’s so intolerable, why does he keep reading her?

Jane’s Gambit

The Jane Austen who captivated me in graduate school had the perceptual rigor of a literary chess master gazing down at her characters as pawns, kings, and queens on society’s chess board. If you’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit recently, you may find yourself imagining Austen moving Catherine, her heroine, her queen, in and out of perilous situations — from Isabella to the Tilneys, Henry and Eleanor, to the General, from the Pump Room to the Abbey, from a wild unfinished ride to Blaise Castle with the cad John Thorpe that checked a move in the right direction. Too bad I know nothing about chess outside of my admiration for the series and its Medusa-eyed genius Beth Harman, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, whose previous role was as Jane Austen’s move-making Emma.

On the Money

In September 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was being read and wondered over, Austen wrote a letter to her brother Frank in which she observes “that the Secret [of her authorship] has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now … I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it — I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it — People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them.”

Jane Austen has literally been on the money since July 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death, when the Bank of England issued a new ten pound note featuring her image.