Judith Thompson contributed a guest post on the adoption plot of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for the blog series I hosted in 2014, and it’s my pleasure to introduce her guest post on Northanger Abbey for “Youth and Experience,” the series I’m hosting this year in honour of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Judith is General Secretary and archivist of the John Thelwall Society, and she’s a leader in the field of Thelwall Studies. Author of four books and editions by or about this romantic radical and polymath, as well as numerous articles and chapters, she’s currently writing the first full biography of Thelwall, as part of Raising Voices: The Legacy of Citizen John Thelwall, an archival-activist project that seeks to restore his lost legacy and connect his voice to communities that still struggle to realize the democratic rights and liberties for which he fought.
Judith is Professor of Romantic Literature at Dalhousie University, and this year she’s on sabbatical. Earlier this week, she arrived in the Lake District for the Wordsworth Winter School. The photos she posted on Facebook were so lovely that I asked her if I could share a few of them here as well.
“My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern—do you understand?—And you, Miss Morland—my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London—and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her stupidity. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general.” (Northanger Abbey, Volume 1, Chapter 14)
This passage, in which Henry coolly corrects Catherine and Eleanor’s overheated imaginations by mansplaining the difference between reality and fiction, is one of my favorites in Northanger Abbey. This is not just because this episode so neatly encapsulates the conflicts at the heart of the novel, and Austen so cleverly outdoes Henry’s rather pushy, self-satisfied wit with her own quiet but much more complex and devastating irony. Rather, it is because the mention of riots in London makes it the best place in Austen’s corpus to enter a discussion about the nature and degree of Austen’s political consciousness and her engagement with one of the most revolutionary critical moments in literary history, which she is often accused of, or assumed to be, ignoring. These much-vexed debates have been rekindled lately with the publication of Helena Kelley’s much ballyhooed book on Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. As a specialist in romantic-era radicalism, currently at work on a biography of its most outspoken representative and hero, John Thelwall, I was eager to read her book, and see how its arguments for Austen’s secret radicalism might compare with my own. I was, shall we say, disappointed.
This is not the place for a full review of Kelley’s work, which has been critiqued by abler pens than mine. But like others, I suspect she has not only overlooked the already copious criticism on Austen and politics, but cannot have read the books carefully, since she pays absolutely no attention to this passage, which might have been a test case for her argument, and also seems unaware or uninterested in Austen’s irony, dismissing it as mere jokiness. In place of real, historically-, critically- and technically-informed analysis of radicalism, she substitutes a breathlessly superficial revelation of sexual symbolism (masturbation by the washing-chest, oh my!) in a tone that mimics Isabella’s prurient faux-naïveté, without the saving grace of Catherine’s sincerity. Despite her title, Kelley shows little awareness of the subtle and multiple forms that radicalism takes in the period, or the reasons why a woman in particular might have had recourse to secrecy in an age (like our own) of ideological binaries that forced many intelligent thinkers into silence (clue: it’s not all about sex).
Leaving Kelley behind, then, let me look more closely at this passage. And notice, as anyone with any sense of history and awareness of Austen’s irony must understand, that Eleanor and Catherine are NOT at all wrong or naïve to be worried about civil and military upheaval in London. On the contrary, at the time of the novel’s original composition, as well as of its publication 20 years later, such worries were realistic and widespread, whichever political stripe one might wear. In 1798, under the threat of French invasion, naval mutinies, rebellion in Ireland, crackdowns on political dissent and the widespread use of spies and informers, the nation had riot on the brain, and the government might be said to have survived by cultivating it; in 1817, in the wake of the Spa Fields Riots and the Pentrich rising, and just before Peterloo, visions of mobs attacking, banks attacked and city streets flowing with the blood of insurgents and dragoons alike were matters for daily discussion in the morning newspaper. It is not Catherine and Eleanor, but Henry, who is being naïve. Or is he? After all, it was Henry who introduced the idea of politics in the first place, immediately before this passage; the discussion on their walk having descended from the picturesque possibilities of “a withered oak … to oaks in general, to forests, the inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands, and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” That silence is broken by Catherine, who merely picks up the same topic by introducing rumours of what might occur in London. In the discussion that follows Eleanor takes a law-and-order position, asserting that if subversive designs are known beforehand, “Proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect,” while Henry takes a more anarchic (dare I say radical) stance that “government … neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters,” caring nothing for murder. So is Henry being politically provocative, testing for loyalty or solidarity? or is he only flirting, teasing the girls about their ignorance of politics? Well of course he is flirting, but the ambiguity raises questions about his ideological position, and how we can tell; about how much young women should and did know about politics in the age of treason trials and Peterloo; about whose political interests were served by naïveté; about whether the Gothic offered an escape from or a means of confronting, the romantic culture of fear. And overarching all these questions, we must ask how radical Austen is, especially since the double-edged irony that she perfects and deploys with such precision yet ideological uncertainty is precisely the technique used by radicals themselves, who frequently turned to literature, including both Gothic and mock-Gothic forms, in order to say what could not be said openly, safely playing both sides of the fence to avoid prosecution for sedition.
Austen’s irony, walking the fine line between sedition and entertainment, is a more likely sign of the secret radicalism of Northanger Abbey than her sexual symbolism. Yet the elusive nature of such radical discourse, and the difficulty of distinguishing it from its anti-Jacobin mirror-image, makes it difficult to pin anyone down, and Austen has been claimed by both sides before. We cannot simply assume that her rural gentility made her conservative, any more than we can assume that Henry’s military family did. As in all times of civil and cold war (and the romantic period came close to both), allegiances are mixed and identities fluid. But here, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, John Thelwall offers a useful index, or at least an intertext, since he is definitely a radical, the most visible, notorious and persevering radical of the romantic period; while he may have moderated his views slightly over his long career, he never changed or disclaimed his principles: constitutional reform, democratic equality, universal suffrage, social justice, the rights of man (and woman). Furthermore, intersections between his writings and activities and the plot, imagery and dates of composition and publication of Northanger Abbey offer a useful context for understanding (though perhaps not in the end resolving) the question of Austen’s secret radicalism.
In 1797, shortly before Austen began Northanger Abbey, Thelwall took a Pedestrian Excursion from London that ended at Bath, where he took in the scenic prospect at the very location that prompts Henry’s lesson in the political picturesque. The motive and aim of his excursion was to combine “a passion for picturesque and romantic landscape with a heart throbbing with anxiety for the human race and the history and actual condition of the laborious classes.” Just before Bath he visited Old Sarum, a famous “rotten borough” that invited commentary on inclosure, waste lands, crown lands, and government, such as Henry (possibly) offers (and Thelwall certainly does). Shortly after this, Thelwall indulges some characteristic mockery of the Gothic with scathing comments on a convent in Amesbury (a mansion rather than an abbey, but equally marked by “barbarous Gothic” carvings and cornices,) where “young, inexperienced” women are “kidnapped into bondage,” chaining their consciences with oaths that “prohibit the progress of enquiry” and “annihilate the free agency of reason.”
By late 1817, when Austen’s novel was published, some of these radical Wollstonecraftian ideas about rational education and freedom of speech in women, had become a staple of the public lectures on elocution, history, poetry and drama that Thelwall had been offering for 15 years, replacing his earlier, more explicitly radical political lectures. Two of his regular subjects were the history of female education and the superiority of the female voice; he inveighed against superficialities of “accomplishment,” drew attention to historical heroines like Lucretia and Hersilia, and included recitations from women writers like Barbauld. In his Institution for Elocution and Oratory in London he trained and promoted actresses, treated cases of speech impediment and offered a full education for women as well as men. He offered his lectures throughout Britain, including Southampton, Winchester, and especially frequently, Bath; by the mid teens he was a charismatic celebrity and they were a staple form of entertainment, very popular among women, especially in the middle class to which Austen belonged.
I do not mean to suggest that Austen ever attended these lectures or read his Pedestrian Excursion, or is referencing Thelwall explicitly in any way. What I do want to show is that she could have; she was certainly as well-informed and politically aware as any other man or woman of the era; and there is nothing in what she does or says that might not also have been done or said by the notorious Mr. Thelwall, and vice versa.
In the end, I think, the best guide to deciding or decoding Austen’s “secret radicalism” is her use of irony. And perhaps it is here that the measuring her against Thelwall is most useful. For one of Thelwall’s most significant contributions to literature is the development of a style he calls “seditious allegory”: a form of discourse that exploits ambiguity, irony and the instability of language, originally to avoid prosecution for sedition by making it impossible for readers to pin down his meaning, but more broadly, to add complexity and improve the English language, which was the explicit object of his elocutionary lectures. The multiple ironies, puns and parodies in his fables and comic ballads, as in his lectures and his Jacobin novel, are directed at social critique, but they also offer a training in interpretation that encouraged readers to enquire, to become aware of complexities moral and discursive, and to judge for themselves as informed citizens. Now anti-Jacobin novels also use irony, and as I have already noted, they are sometimes hard to distinguish from Jacobin novels. However, the aim of the irony is different. Irony in the anti-Jacobin novel is usually directed at the excess idealism of Jacobin characters, showing how it is misplaced at best, and at worst hypocritical. With a few notable exceptions, its narrative tends to be quite preachy and obvious; its aim is definitely ideological; it has little interest in education except to encourage stability and the status quo. But in the best Jacobin novels (and I would include Thelwall’s single novel among these) the aim of the irony is not ideology but enquiry; they destabilize and subvert not simply in order to mock their opponents, but in order to raise consciousness, and foster enquiry.
If, as Margaret Atwood has recently said, “the aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity,” then the radical Jacobin novelist, like Thelwall, does the opposite. He fosters ambiguity in order to educate the reader. By that definition, I am proud to claim Jane Austen as a true radical, no longer wrapped in secrecy.
Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Northanger Abbey (1995).
Tenth 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, Sara Malton, and Dan Macey.