Happy New Year! It’s a pleasure to introduce Lynn Festa’s contribution to “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
(If you missed the first two posts in the series, you can catch up here: the first one was by Deborah Barnum, on the publishing history of Northanger Abbey, and the second was by Peter Sabor, on Henry Austen’s “Biographical Notice of the Author.”)
Lynn was JASNA’s North American Scholar at the 2014 AGM in Montreal, and she gave a fascinating lecture on “The Noise in Mansfield Park.” She suggested that the novel is “Austen’s noisiest book, filled with clamor and disharmony” (Persuasions 36 ). I love what she said about the way Austen invites us to listen carefully, to remember that “the right to hear and to be heard is not impartially distributed.”
Lynn is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, and the author of Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France, as well as of articles on the slave trade, the history of human rights, wigs, dogs, the eighteenth-century novel, and Jane Austen. Today’s guest post on Northanger Abbey addresses the question of what it means to learn by memorizing quotations.
Early in Northanger Abbey, Austen’s narrator tells us of Catherine Morland’s youthful reading preferences:
[P]rovided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she never had any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories, with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives. (Volume 1, Chapter 1)
If Catherine’s preferences in leisure reading—“all story and no reflection”—indicate the appetite for plot that drives the Gothic reader, her subsequent embrace of higher-minded texts is prompted not by a revolution in taste but by the mandatory curriculum for a wannabe heroine. The embattled Gothic protagonist, after all, must be able to deliver her lines on cue—and where do these conveniently apropos quotes come from, after all? Exposing the labor behind the Gothic heroine’s cultural literacy, the narrator offers a sampler of the great wisdom Catherine has harvested from the works of great authors and set aside for future use:
From Pope, she learnt to censure those who
“bear about the mockery of woe.”
From Gray, that
“Many a flower is born to blush unseen,
“And waste its fragrance on the desert air.”
From Thompson, that—
“It is a delightful task
“To teach the young idea how to shoot.”
And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information—amongst the rest, that—
“Trifles light as air,
“Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
“As proofs of Holy Writ.”
“The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
“In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
“As when a giant dies.”
And that a young woman in love always looks—
“like Patience on a monument
“Smiling at Grief.” (Volume 1, Chapter 1)
Misquoted, condensed, and veering precariously close to clichés, Catherine’s catalogue of portable bromides converts the national poetic canon into an inexhaustible trove of trite sayings—so many platitudes plucked from their original contexts and stored up in wait for an occasion to which they may be triumphantly applied. In exposing the ease with which the artifacts of high culture—the male poets Pope, Gray, Shakespeare, Thomson—may be reduced to quotable quotes, Austen savages a literary hierarchy that unquestioningly values the writings of men—or even anthologies recycling their words—over the novel.
Quotations reproduce received wisdom with an impersonality that pretends to universality. They offer a fast-track to wisdom or a shortcut to the appearance of it. But quoting may not display our refined taste or education. Instead, it may become the quasi-automatic disgorging of partially digested required reading, revealing us to be the vacuous parrots of wisdom that is not our own. (I’m thinking of you, Mary Bennet.) Yet what should we make of Austen’s mockery of literary quotation in a novel that parodies the conventions—and clichés—of a genre? Northanger Abbey, after all, is a book that repeatedly quotes the Gothic genre it affectionately parodies, mercilessly using the genre’s figures and conceits against it.
Northanger Abbey is, I think, fascinated by the question of quotation—in part because Austen recognizes that we are all quoting others, all the time. Cultural literacy involves the recognition (and quotation) of the already known. Henry Tilney’s much-vaunted cleverness is ultimately as derivative and formulaic as Catherine’s beloved Gothic; his disquisition on the picturesque is a jumble of jargon—“fore-grounds, distances and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades.” Henry traffics in more sophisticated clichés, but they are clichés nonetheless, an elaborated set of conventions, no better and no worse than those governing the Gothic mode. All education involves quotation: the adaptation of others’ language and ideas for ourselves. Yet, when (and how) do the words we quote become our own? Seen from one angle, Catherine’s education in Northanger Abbey involves learning to quote something—someone—different, replacing one set of clichés with another. Yet Catherine must also learn the difference between naïve and skeptical quotation—the difference between simple iteration of someone else’s words or ideas and repetition with a critical eye.
Although Catherine is invited to reject the Gothic in favor of more refined pleasures, Austen recognizes that the Gothic also involves a form of cultural literacy—conventions that make visible distinctive aspects of the world. Catherine’s quotation of the Gothic—her application of its clichés to the world she encounters—offers language for states of being that seem otherwise inexpressible and creates communities (mainly of women) who recognize the same allusions. For if quotations at times short-circuit the intellectual and emotional labor required to know how one feels or what one thinks, at others they lend words that enable us to give voice to otherwise inexpressible sentiments or feelings. Indeed, one might say that quotations serve as vessels—even crypts—that contain meanings or histories that may supersede the understanding or intentions of those who wield them. Gothic, indeed!
When we quote, we speak someone else’s words, and words repeated often enough start to erase the quotation marks, making the words our own. In written texts, we use quotation marks to designate the transition from one person’s speech to another separate people and to distinguish levels of discourse in the novel by separating the narrator’s voice from that of a character. Yet we should recall that Austen’s most famous contribution to the novel is Free Indirect Discourse, which erases the division between the narrator’s and character’s speech, excising the quotation marks that separate off one voice from another. Not least of the Gothic hauntings in Northanger Abbey issues from the narrator’s dissolution of the quote marks that separate the character’s mind from the narrator’s knowledge and commentary, a doubling of voices that suggests the permeability of the barriers between our mental worlds.
While Free Indirect Discourse removes the quotation mark and thus erases the division between a character’s thoughts or words and those of her narrator, Austen in Northanger Abbey is also fascinated by the assertive marking of the fact of quotation—by what we now call scare quotes. We might say that the quotable quotes from Pope, Gray, and Cowper, with which we began—like her quotes from the Gothic—are surrounded less by quotation marks than by scare quotes. Quotation marks designate words as belonging to one person, one text, as opposed to another; scare quotes (whether as a typographical “feint” or an air-quoting gesture) convey knowingness or skepticism: a common ironic distance from the naïve affirmation that something exists. Yet scare quotes are also a sign of dependency. We retain an expression and put quote marks around it because the term or concept seems in some way indispensible: we may not quite know what to do with a term around which we put scare quotes, but we can’t quite do without it. If, for example, we put scare quotes around a term like the “Gothic,” we change it from the actual world to which language refers, to something already marked off as, if not necessarily fiction, then not simply and self-evidently there.
The point I am trying to make is that Austen’s quotations from the Gothic in Northanger Abbey are surrounded not so much by quotation marks as by scare quotes. In nesting quotations from Shakespeare, from Pope, from Gray, and Cowper in a text in which she repeatedly quotes from mass-market Gothic romances, Austen wants us to see through the Gothic and its conventions, but she also wants us to see that quotations shape—and are shaped by—the world in much the same way as these lofty lines culled from great works of literature by men. Indeed, the Gothic perhaps has more than these great canonical poets to tell us about the work done by quotation and cliché in fashioning our everyday lives—for if the Gothic frequently lapses into cliché, it also has a meta-critical relation to it. In offering a parade of quotable quotes, Austen puts scare quotes around quotations, holding them up for mockery, to be sure, but also enabling us to reflect on the ways our worlds, whether we are readers of Shakespeare and Austen, or Radcliffe and Lewis, are pasted together from language that is never just, never fully, our own.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Northanger Abbey, edited by James Kingsley and John Davie, with an introduction by Claudia Johnson (2008).
Third 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 Serena Burdick, Kate Scarth, and Lisa Pliscou.