Sara Malton is the author of Forgery in Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture: Fictions of Finance from Dickens to Wilde (2009), and her work has appeared in such journals as Nineteenth-Century Studies, Studies in the Novel, Victorian Literature and Culture, the European Romantic Review, and English Studies in Canada. She’s a past Trustee of the Dickens Society, and she hosted the 20th Annual Dickens Society Symposium in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 8-10, 2015.She wrote a guest post on “Refashioning Memory” for the blog series I hosted a few years ago in honour of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and I’m very happy that she agreed to contribute to my current series, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.” Today’s post is excerpted from her article “‘The Visions of Romance Were Over’: Recollections of a Golden Past in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,” published in 2017 in Timely Voices: Romance Writing in English Literature, edited by Goran Stanivukovic (317-37), and reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher, McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Sara is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Saint Mary’s University where she specializes in nineteenth-century literature. After receiving her PhD in English from the University of Toronto in 2004, she went on to a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at Cornell University. She joined the Department of English at Saint Mary’s in 2005.
Two crucial texts bookend Northanger Abbey: Thomas Moss’s poem, “The Beggar’s Petition” (1769) and the “manuscript” (or laundry list, as it turns out) accidentally left behind by Eleanor Tilney’s romantic interest. However mundane, the latter, by contrast to the former, tells a tale of economic inclusion—it is an index to ownership, property, and social hierarchy. Yet, taken together, both texts ultimately return us from the financial realm to the realm of romance.
It is in reference to the “Beggar’s Petition,” a well-known ballad often used in recitation lessons, that we first learn of Catherine’s limited powers of recollection, for “Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat” this single poem, and even her younger sister, Sally, could recite it more successfully (Volume 1, Chapter 1). While this seems a playful enough satire on the typical “heroine’s” education, the narrator is careful to underscore the ways that women’s very lives are shaped by the texts they are taught to memorize and memorialize. For as Catherine grew, 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). Of course the life of a typical young woman will normally be far from eventful; it is thus little wonder that the golden world of Northanger, with its enchantment and mystery, is so alluring for Catherine.
Yet Northanger Abbey ultimately proves hardly possessed of the gold of the integral kind, but is instead a world of illusion. Once more, a wondrous world of possibility merely covers over the quotidian, textual, financial realm. Turning to Catherine in her chamber at Northanger, we find her before the
high, old-fashioned black cabinet, though in a situation conspicuous enough [that] had never caught her notice before. . . . though there could be nothing really in it, there was something whimsical, it was certainly a very remarkable coincidence! It was not absolutely ebony and gold; but it was Japan, black and yellow Japan of the handsomest kind; and as she held her candle, the yellow had very much the effect of gold. (Volume 2, Chapter 6)
Three times (three that magical number of romance) Catherine must try the key before she can open the cabinet (whose various empty drawers render it as much an empty cash register as a repository of exquisite secrets). Therein she at last finds “a roll of paper,” “the precious manuscript” (Volume 2, Chapter 6). In this manuscript matters of fortune and fact miraculously converge; such a convergence informs the very language of Austen’s free indirect discourse here, as Catherine ponders over “The manuscript so wonderfully found, so wonderfully accomplishing the morning’s prediction,” and marvels, “how was it to be accounted for?” (Volume 2, Chapter 6; my emphasis).
To Catherine’s great disappointment, the manuscript has far more to do with matters of accountancy than she would have imagined. While she hopes it will grant her access to a gothic past, it proves merely a record of very recent, very dry domestic history: “for the roll, seeming to consist entirely of small disjointed sheets, was altogether but of trifling size and much less than she had supposed to it to be at first. . . . An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand” (Volume 2, Chapter 7). There are but four further such bills, along with a receipt for hair powder and soap, and a farrier’s bill. Such records of plain, objective fact serve as a humiliating counter to Catherine’s desire to uncover a vivid history long concealed.
For there are, then, no dirty secrets here, apart from that daily grime of which a male consumer has had to rid himself, its costs documented in but “coarse and modern characters.” This description echoes the narrator’s earlier characterization of the kind of writing one finds in such publications as the Spectator. Both sorts of texts are but mere inventories of the pedestrian. The laundry list and inventories of consumer goods should remind Catherine of the everyday domestic realities that were actually to be found in the Abbey, where, to her great disappointment, “The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste” (Volume 2, Chapter 5).
That the manuscripts are but records of laundering or “whitewashing,” we might say, signals how such texts provocatively concentrate the multiple concerns of what I would term Austen’s financial romance. For, as the OED tells us, the verb to whitewash means not only “to make a fabric lighter or whiter; to bleach,” or “to cover or coat a wall or building with whitewash,” but also, in the sense that we now may more readily assume, the act of rewriting or tempering a history, as in “to conceal the faults or errors of; to free from blame.” Yet there is an additional meaning of the term that, although now rare, notably emerged in the late-eighteenth century and underscores the crucial role these washing bills play in the romantic and financial resolution of Catherine’s plot: in 1761 “to whitewash” was first noted as meaning “to clear (a person) from liability for his or her debts, especially by judicial declaration of bankruptcy; to write off (a debt, etc.).” An 1819 issue of Sporting Magazine, for instance, reports on “Two baronets’ sons pleading to be white-washed, but remanded for frauds toward their creditors.”
Ironically for readers, in retrospect we come to realize the importance of such texts and their place in remedying any liabilities in Catherine’s financial history and in securing her profitable romantic and financial future. As it turns out, this “laundry list” in fact bears far more than the residue of dull domestic dealings, but both contains a trace of Eleanor’s romantic history and anticipates the novel’s romantic conclusion—it has far more, therefore, to do with Catherine’s fate than she realizes. As Mary Poovey argues with regard to Austen’s fiction, “by making the money plot first disrupt, then be absorbed by the domestic plot, Austen translates a monetary debt into mutual love” (Genres of the Credit Economy ). So it is here. The “man of fortune and consequence” (Volume 2, Chapter 16) who rather magically transforms Eleanor into his Viscountess at the novel’s conclusion is not a fictitious Byronic hero, but a “real” man possessed of his share of dirty laundry. This man, the narrator reveals, “was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills, resulting from a long visit at Northanger, by which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures” (Volume 2, Chapter 16).
As well as a record of domestic accounts, the list reminds us of what greatly informs the basis of marriage: matters financial, domestic, and, often, pedestrian. Our narrator knows what our heroine does not—that the seemingly slightest of texts (rather like Austen’s own domestic fiction, her self-proclaimed “little bit . . . of ivory on which [she] work[s] with so fine a brush” [December 1816]) and indeed, those bound up with both domestic matters and matters of the heart, may have far more historical import than literally meets the eye. In this manner the novel argues for the way that apparently trivial, marginal texts of the past in fact form a significant part of the historical record. The laundry list’s significance tells us that history is only superficially a tale of men’s financial transactions. Simultaneously it is much more. Austen’s trivial texts underscore the prominence of the financial record, yet also illustrate that those domestic concerns largely occluded from dominant narratives of history are in fact absolutely fundamental to its realization.
We recall that only Eleanor remembers that Catherine may have insufficient funds to see her through her journey away from the Abbey; this crucial moment of female financial guardianship recurs in the novel’s conclusion when Eleanor’s prosperous marriage sufficiently assuages her father’s temper in order for him to submit to the union between Henry and Catherine. Indeed, the violent intrusion of the economic in Northanger Abbey’s world of romance and enchantment is countered by the very intrusion that finally concludes it: Henry’s visit to Catherine at Fullerton. Recalling the frequent compression characteristic of Austen’s endings, such as that of Sense and Sensibility, the dashing hero’s arrival at the heroine’s humbler abode dramatizes the leveling process that the novel’s marital conclusion will in part bring about. Giving the last word, thus, to romance, the power of the landed Viscount trumps the evil actions of the General. Of course, in a final irony, this apparent triumph of conservatism enables the violation of conventional class-based relations—the “filial disobedience” (Volume 2, Chapter 16) that the young couple’s union represents. Like them, readers of Austen—and the realist novel to come—are certainly all the richer for the romance.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Northanger Abbey, edited by James Kinsley and John Davie and with an introduction by Claudia L. Johnson (2003), and the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011).
Twelfth 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 Kim Wilson, Dan Macey, and Laaleen Sukhera.