Parental Tyranny and Filial Disobedience in Northanger Abbey

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Theresa M. Kenney says she’s “an Austenite by accident”: “I fell in love with Austen after being pressured to read her when I was an undergraduate English and Classics Major at Penn State by my graduate student friends, and when I moved to Texas to teach at the University of Dallas, I was hired as a Medievalist and Early Modernist. However, I was assigned the senior novel seminar when an older colleague was diagnosed with cancer, and taught that class for five years, advising almost 200 senior theses, and teaching Emma repeatedly every spring near the beginning of the syllabus. Then a graduate student begged for a class in Jane Austen, a writer not in favor amongst the builders of our curriculum. I offered the first Austen seminar ever at the university, a class that continues to be enormously popular over ten years later. From that seminar sprang not only that initial student, Joyce Tarpley’s, dissertation on Mansfield Park, now a book, but many student JASNA essay awards, and at least a dozen student publications, among which most recently is Kathryn Davis’s wonderful book, Liberty in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”

For my “Emma in the Snow” blog series, Theresa wrote about “Emma’s Regency Christmas,” and I’m glad she’s back to write about parental tyranny and filial disobedience for the current series, “Youth and Experience.” Her books include Women Are Not Human: An Anonymous Treatise and Responses. She’s on sabbatical this year, which she says “will allow me both to look after my two little girls (including superintending the education of my own ten-year-old version of Catherine Morland) and to complete two books, one on the Holy Grail, and another on Jane Austen’s sense of an ending.”

Theresa Kenney

On the strength of this, the general, soon after Eleanor’s marriage, permitted his son to return to Northanger, and thence made him the bearer of his consent, very courteously worded in a page full of empty professions to Mr. Morland. The event which it authorized soon followed: Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled; and, as this took place within a twelvemonth from the first day of their meeting, it will not appear, after all the dreadful delays occasioned by the general’s cruelty, that they were essentially hurt by it. To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience. (Northanger Abbey, Volume 2, Chapter 16)

Does the author recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience in Northanger Abbey? The novel rather hastily ends with Jane Austen’s usual method of panning out from the participants in the action to a wider, more general view of the drama that has just played out and a subtle sally, telling the moral of the story with tongue in cheek. The final chapter begins with the Morlands’ balking only at the General’s forbidding of the marriage before granting their own consent. Austen reminds us that they are the mildest and most unsuspicious of parents; moreover, they know the general has done their daughter a wrong that some might consider unforgivable. Nonetheless, they sustain the view that a parent’s consent is necessary.

To what extent is Henry, already in his majority and already in charge of a parish, compelled to obey his father or obtain his blessing for his marriage? Austen says clearly: “There was but one obstacle, in short, to be mentioned; but till that one was removed, it must be impossible for them to sanction the engagement. Their tempers were mild, but their principles were steady, and while his parent so expressly forbade the connection, they could not allow themselves to encourage it. That the general should come forward to solicit the alliance, or that he should even very heartily approve it, they were not refined enough to make any parading stipulation; but the decent appearance of consent must be yielded, and that once obtained—and their own hearts made them trust that it could not be very long denied—their willing approbation was instantly to follow. His consent was all that they wished for.”

Principle requires that the parents of the bride refrain from granting their consent to the marriage if even one parent of the groom disapproves. What is that principle?

In this final chapter Austen is balancing her own need for drama—a final obstacle to be overcome before the happy union of Catherine and Henry—with an investigation into a problem that concerned her throughout her career, even up to Persuasion. At what age does a child cease to have an obligation to obey parents? When does filial obligation cease to be the “primary directive”?

In all the novels she wrote, Austen makes applying to the parent for permission to marry the child an important step. One would think with Mrs. Bennet’s eagerness to marry off her daughters in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, consent would be a foregone conclusion, but Austen typically turns to such moments for drama specifically because the conclusion is not foregone, and even in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet might withhold his consent from the union of Darcy and Elizabeth—as he does conclusively in the case of Mr. Collins’s proposal. In Northanger Abbey, Mr. and Mrs. Morland at first withhold their consent, not because they dislike Henry, not because they are angry at the general, but because the general has a right to forbid his son to marry the lady he has chosen, the lady who has accepted his proposal.

Even Henry and Catherine do not resent the necessary separation the general’s angry stubbornness enforces upon them: “The young people could not be surprised at a decision like this. They felt and they deplored—but they could not resent it; and they parted…. Henry returned to what was now his only home, to watch over his young plantations, and extend his improvements for her sake, to whose share in them he looked anxiously forward; and Catherine remained at Fullerton to cry.”

Henry does not go home to Northanger; this is not because Henry chooses not to return, but because his father forbids it. Henry has already earned his hero credits with the reader by his angry defiance of the general, but he does not increase them by direct disobedience after the Morlands lay down the law. In fact, in a touching moment of the narrative, Austen depicts him remodeling his house to Catherine’s taste, looking forward “anxiously” to her living there while all the while thinking the general’s will is unalterable. Catherine’s tears attest to her desire to be with him. They want to be with each other but they remain apart: why? Because Catherine, a minor, is legally obligated to obey her parents, and they in principle will not defy the general’s ban on the marriage.

It is interesting that the Morlands do allow Catherine to receive letters from Henry, as we are informed subtly: “Whether the torments of absence were softened by a clandestine correspondence, let us not inquire. Mr. and Mrs. Morland never did—they had been too kind to exact any promise; and whenever Catherine received a letter, as, at that time, happened pretty often, they always looked another way.” Henry and Catherine’s engagement may be informal as long as his father withholds consent, but it is enough for the Morlands that the two are sincerely committed. However, other, more proper, parents might not have allowed it. Austen often uses as a plot device the understood impropriety of letter writing between unmarried persons: in Emma, between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill; in Mansfield Park, between Henry Crawford, using his sister as his proxy, and Fanny Price (and also between Edmund and Fanny, but that is more of a gray area). In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne writes to Willoughby, although they are not engaged, but her doing so seems proof that they are to her family and others. And even in Pride and Prejudice Mr. Darcy writes to Elizabeth Bennet after her refusal; Darcy justifies his writing of the letter and attempts to keep any word of affection out of it, but it is still a breach of etiquette, although in this case it is not direct disobedience to a parent.

Catherine Morland

Other parents, more scrupulous about these standards than the Morlands, might even have confiscated the letters. We modern readers smile upon the Morlands because of their mildness but the narrator also shows them to be rigorous about not acting like the parents of a golddigger might do; we are to understand they are morally good people in part because they await the general’s decision.

I asked my students a question: when is one no longer obligated to obey one’s parents? Answers varied: when you aren’t living under their roof, when you can vote, when you’re eighteen, when you’re sixteen, when you go to college—but of course the answer is never, if you are to obey the fifth commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” In Ephesians, St. Paul even says this is the first commandment to have a promise attached to it, emphasizing its importance. Whit Stillman’s Lady Susan in the 2016 film Love and Friendship manipulates her daughter by invoking this central teaching on family relationships in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and reveals her own Romish leanings by nominating this the fourth commandment, as it is in the Catholic Bible). The Morlands understand Henry is bound by this obedience even though he is a grown man and has independent means. As a Christian minister, he would be even more aware than the normal English layperson of its import, although he initially seems more disinclined than the Morlands to think of it at this juncture.

Fordyce in his famous sermons (which Austen knew well), provides an example of some of the most well-known advice of the era on this matter:

Of filial duty in all its branches she will naturally acquit herself best, who has the deepest sense of religion. “Keep thy father’s commandments, and forsake not the law of thy mother. Bind them continually upon thy heart, and tie them about thy neck. When thou goest, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest, it shall keep thee; and when thou wakest it shall talk with thee. Whoso revileth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness. The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.” Jesus was subject unto his parents. “Children obey your parents in the Lord; for this is right. Honour thy father and mother (which is the first commandment with promise) that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” All this a Christian daughter has read with attention, and reflects upon with awe. It corresponds, in substance, with the instinct of nature, which it contributes at once to corroborate and exalt. She who truly reverences her parent in heaven, would tremble at the thought of dishonouring his representatives on earth. From their authority she has acquired the idea of his; and this last, including all that can be conceived of great and good, is the commanding idea of her life.

Austen never shows Catherine reading sermons, even in her youthful exposure to Elegant Extracts and other works. However, the two young people’s lack of resentment of the general’s tyrannical interference, which the narrator insists on, needs some explaining. Fordyce’s standards are not in any way out of the ordinary, but perfectly normal for the period. Austen is thinking of exactly this kind of expected obedience in the final pages of her novel; the hero and heroine’s last test is one of patience and obedience, and they pass it. Instead of eloping, Henry and Catherine wait. And Austen rewards them with the deus ex machina of Eleanor’s fortuitous marriage, which mollifies the general so, he gives Henry leave “to be a fool if he liked.” In fact, the disobedience of Henry consists only in the proposal, and the disobedience of Catherine, only in receiving and writing letters which she must know Henry’s father would disapprove. Austen clearly approves of both actions, in spite of their irregularity, so she seems to take a position resembling an Aristotelian mean. The “Great Forbidder,” General Tilney, is reduced comically to a convenient plot device for the author, and the disobedient children mildly await his paternal nod before their union, their love made stronger by his opposition and their forced separation. Rather than destroying the young people’s chance for happiness, General Tilney creates it and provides the opportunity for the comic ending of the novel.

Quotations are from the Cambridge edition of Northanger Abbey (2013), and from James Fordyce’s “On Good Works,” in Sermons to Young Women, Corrected and Greatly Enlarged (8th edition, 1796).

“It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!”

“It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!” Illustration by C.E. Brock (from Mollands.net)

Ninth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Margaret C. Sullivan, Judith Thompson, and Sara Malton.

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