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Leslie Nyman is the author of an historical novel, The Sound of Her Own Voice, which tells the story of a young woman traveling to the California gold rush. She blogs at soundofherownvoice.wordpress.com, and she lives in Western Massachusetts where, she tells me, she “re-reads Jane Austen regularly, writes fiction, and enjoys retirement.” Leslie is currently working on a fictional biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s travels to the Ottoman Empire in 1716. It’s a pleasure to introduce her guest post on Henry Tilney’s defense of novels in Northanger Abbey.

The Sound of Her Own Voice, by Leslie Nyman

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 performance 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. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

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 the 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 and while 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, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens,—there seems almost 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. (Volume 1, Chapter 5)

I have often wondered about, and completely enjoyed, Jane Austen’s impassioned defense of novels. Sarah’s invitation to participate in her delightful blog has given me the excuse to look more deeply into why Jane Austen wrote this paragraph and what cultural conversation she was joining. I have not been disappointed.

Gillian Dow notes in her essay “Reading at Godmersham: Edward’s Library and Marianne’s Books” (Persuasions 37 [2016]) that “The 18th century was an explosion of literacy in all classes, and ideas of appropriate reading material and the serious nature of reading, were discussed and debated in the private and crucially the public sphere.”

“By the last years of the 18th century the female novel reader had become the epitome of the misguided reading public. She was depicted as filled with delusive ideas, swayed by false ideas of love and romance, unable to concentrate on serious matters—all of which would lead to frivolity, impulsiveness, and possibly sexual indiscretion,” John Brewer says in The Pleasures of the Imagination [1997].

Conduct books came into their own at this time trying to provide a counter weight. Brewer quotes from a 1772 book called New and Elegant Amusements for the Ladies of Great Britain, by a Lady, in which young women were urged to “avoid the swarms of insipid novels, destitute of sentiment, language and morals.”

All this self-righteousness, and sexism, was ripe for Austen’s satire. But she was also a woman of her times and thus added a moral corrective. Catherine Morland, whom I never loved so much as in this latest reading of Northanger Abbey, is the answer to all the busybodies’ concerns. Here is a “heroine” who is often perceptive without understanding what she sees, and who knows right from wrong. One conversation with Henry Tilney easily brings her back to reality from a lurid fantasy. Despite her imagination in a dark room in an Abbey, or her vulnerable position in a coach alone during a long, disappointing ride home she does not resort to hysteria. Jane Austen has given us a practical, common-sense girl. Her moral center and reasonableness remain constant. Her flirtation with Gothic novels is ephemeral and does not threaten her despite Maria Edgeworth’s warning that “Books of mere entertainment … should be sparingly used, especially in the education of girls,” as quoted by Laura Cappello Bromling in “The Novel Reader’s Blues” (Jane Austen Sings the Blues [2009]). Catherine Morland puts the lie to Hannah More’s admonishments that novels “take off wholesome restraints, diminish sober mindedness, impair the general powers of resistance, and at best feed habits of improper indulgence…” (quoted by Bromling).

Jane Austen’s defense continues: “’I am no novel reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant.”

Sadly, three hundred years of attitude and judgements are not easily shaken off. I hate to, but must, admit that when I was a younger woman I often found myself apologizing for reading novels. I wanted to be taken seriously. As Elaine Bander writes in her article “O Leave Novels: Jane Austen, Sir Charles Grandison, Sir Edward Denham and Rob Mossgiel” (Persuasions 30 [2008]), “both Burney and Edgeworth, the two authors whose novels [Austen] praises here, had labeled their own novels ‘works,’ rather than expose them to critical disdain by classifying them as ‘novels’” (my emphasis). Happily, with age and maturity I have been cured. I openly join my favorite author in claiming that in novels “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.”

Quotations from Northanger Abbey are taken from the 1880 edition published in London by Richard Bentley.

"The luxury of a ... frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho"

“The luxury of a … frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho.” Illustration by C.E. Brock (from Mollands.net)

Seventh 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 Gisèle Baxter, Theresa Kenney, and Judith Thompson.

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