Lyn Bennett is an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University, and her most recent book is Rhetoric, Medicine, and the Woman Writer, 1600-1700 (Cambridge UP, 2018). Her current research focuses on the self-fashioning rhetoric of the professions and, in collaboration with Edith Snook of the University of New Brunswick, on the circulation and production of recipes in early modern Atlantic Canada. She’s also the author of Women Writing of Divinest Things: Rhetoric and the Poetry of Pembroke, Wroth and Lanyer (Duquesne UP, 2004), and her work appears in publications as diverse as Christianity and Literature, Genre, and the Journal of Medical Humanities.
In 2014, in the first guest post for the first blog series I hosted, Lyn analyzed the complexities of the opening paragraph of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It’s a pleasure to welcome her back with today’s guest post on Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey’s happy ending, as Sara Malton wrote here last week, hinges on the understanding that “even the slightest of texts . . . may have far more historical import than literally meets the eye.” Catherine Morland’s worldview and her expectations, Northanger Abbey makes clear, are very much shaped by the Gothic novels she adores. Influenced especially by Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, our heroine’s fruitful imagination runs free at the Abbey, where she persuades herself that the General, her host and prospective father-in-law, had actually murdered his long-dead wife. It is for this reason, Catherine wrongly infers, that she is suddenly sent unaccompanied home to Fullerton—as much as the novel’s action is precipitated by reading, it is driven also by misreading.
What Catherine does not yet understand is that she is sent packing not because of the story wrought by her over-stimulated imagination, but because of a fiction spoken about her. As Catherine later learns, her unceremonious expulsion had naught to do with her own offense but the General’s discovery that the fortune ascribed to her by the once-hopeful John Thorpe was a fantasy of his making. The damage wrought by boastful braggadocio, Austen makes clear, inflicts not only the self-important and aspirational Thorpe, the “boorish, inattentive reader whose crude nature,” Claire Grogan writes, “is made apparent by his preference for Matthew Lewis’s The Monk” (Introduction to the Broadview edition). It is, we later learn, Thorpe’s tall tale of Catherine’s fortune that misled the General to proceed on “such intelligence” without question. As it turns out, the General is an equally an undiscerning reader: about the intelligence gleaned on Catherine, we are told, “never had it occurred to him to doubt its authority.” A rational and reasonable doubt would, one suspects, have tempered the General’s angry response to the unraveling of a fiction his ambition wished to believe, Catherine “guilty only of being less rich than he had supposed her to be.” Instead, his recognition of faith misplaced in “false calculations” and the resulting belief that Catherine’s “necessitous family” constituted “a forward, bragging, scheming race” who aimed “to better themselves by wealthy connexions” propel him into a rage that proves shockingly uncivil (Chapter 30).
In Henry Tilney, however, Catherine finds a reader more discerning that the lying Thorpe or the too-credulous General. On the walk round Beechen Cliff with the Tilney siblings, Catherine learns that Henry shares something of her own taste in reading. Contrary to her expectations, Henry does not disparage the novel in favour of the “better books” Austen’s heroine supposes him to read in her belief that “young men despised novels amazingly.” On the contrary, Henry defends the often-maligned genre, pronouncing that anyone “who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The operative word here is “good,” and Henry turns out to be a keen reader of the novelist Catherine so admires. Not only has he “read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works,” he tells his appreciative listener, but he has done so “with great pleasure.” The novel that fuels Catherine’s imaginative fancies during her visit to Northanger seems equally admired by Henry who, having “once begun” The Mysteries of Udolpho, he tells her, the novel he “could not lay down again,” and he was compelled to finish the book in a mere “two days.” It is telling that he also did so most sympathetically, responding, as the attentive reader should, with his “hair standing on end the whole time” and sharing much of it aloud with his sister (Chapter 14).
Sympatico they may be, but Henry’s reading ventures beyond Catherine’s. The history that he is fond of, Catherine complains, she takes up “only as a duty.” Lacking the excitement of the novels she prefers, history offers “nothing that does not either vex or weary.” Androcentric and political, history centres on “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences,” featuring men who are “good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” All this, Catherine concludes, “is very tiresome.” Yet Catherine also understands that her impatience with history books denies who she is as a reader: “I often think it odd,” she elaborates, “that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Recognizing that novels and histories are in some ways not so different, Catherine senses that her distaste for written history is misplaced and contradictory. She does know that the writing of history is to some degree imaginative, and that “The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs” are equally the product of “invention.” And invention, she concludes, “is what delights me in other books” (Chapter 14).
Invention is, of course, the first of rhetoric’s five canons, that which Aristotle describes as “finding the available means of persuasion.” Not to be confused with fabrication, invention is the process of discovering how best to represent the truth one wishes to impart, the persuasive means as crucial to the writing of history as it is to the writing of fiction. For Henry, persuasion depends not on the ingenuity of invention, but on the accuracy he insists upon and for which Eleanor chastises him:
“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.” (Chapter 14)
Invoking Hugh Blair along with Samuel Johnson, Eleanor complains that her brother’s preoccupation with linguistic precision renders him overly fastidious—or too “nice” in the more precise parlance of an earlier age.
Dr. Johnson is, of course, the author of a famous dictionary and an influential literary critic. Less famous than his contemporary, Blair was in his day well known as the author of the enduringly popular Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Tellingly, Blair is of Henry’s mind in insisting that the first aim of language is accuracy. For Blair, meaning must be illuminated and not obfuscated by the judicious employment of rhetoric’s third canon, and style must not ornament but accurately represent. Plainer is therefore better, Blair argues, for “the richest ornaments of Style only glimmer through the dark and puzzle” when the aim should be “to make our meaning clearly and fully understood” and “without the least difficulty” (Lecture 10). A straight shooter with a low tolerance for obfuscation, obscurity, and imprecision, Henry admires Blair and equally disdains the undisciplined imaginings that prompted his sister to infer that the “expected horrors in London” he discusses with Catherine refer not “to a circulating library” but to insurrection and riot (Chapter 14).
Catherine, Eleanor, and the General are notable mis-readers of texts spoken and written. Henry, who eventually sets all to right, seems to offer a corrective, or at least a counter-balance to the hasty and fanciful inferences of the others. Yet Henry is not exempt from Austen’s readerly critique. It may be that Henry also errs in his unyielding attachment to clear and fixed meaning—and not only in his resistance to the various nuances of an evolving and unfixed “nice.” Upon learning the reason for his father’s change of heart toward Miss Morland, Henry is not dissuaded from his pursuit but instead “sustained in his purpose by a conviction of its justice.” Truth be told, though,
He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland, and believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain, no unworthy retraction of a tacit consent, no reversing decree of unjustifiable anger, could shake his fidelity, or influence the resolutions it prompted.
Austen may give us the comic ending we expect, but Henry’s rigid attachment to an ideal of “honour” that at least matches his “affection” lends more than a hint of irony to the narrator’s insistence that “My own joy on the occasion is very sincere” (Chapter 31). With the happy resolution of a plot predicated on misreading—and where the whole truth turns out to be nebulous and complex—Austen leaves us wondering whether we have, indeed, read aright.
Quotations are from the Broadview edition of Northanger Abbey, edited and with an introduction by Clare Grogan, and the Eighteenth Century Collections Online edition of Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres (1783).
Thirteenth 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 Laaleen Sukhera, Dan Macey, Deborah Knuth Klenck, and Ted Scheinman.