In today’s guest post for “Youth and Experience,” Deborah Knuth Klenck and Ted Scheinman discuss both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Next week, we’ll turn to Persuasion, with a post by Deborah Barnum on the publishing history of the novel. We’ll come back to Northanger Abbey towards the end of the blog series, in June.
Here’s a photo of Deborah Knuth Klenck visiting Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral in 1992, with her children Ted and Jane.
Deborah was in England that year leading a semester-long Jane Austen Study Group for Colgate University English majors, and, as it happens, she is there again right now, leading her seventh Austen Study Group. She is Professor of English at Colgate, where she teaches classes on Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, and other writers. She has spoken at several JASNA AGMs over the years, from New York City to Santa Fe to Lake Louise to Milwaukee, and she’s been a frequent guest at the annual Chapel Hill, NC Jane Austen Summer Program. For my “Emma in the Snow” blog series, she contributed a guest post on long and short speeches in Emma, and what they tell us about Austen’s characters.
Ted is a writer and scholar whose first book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, was published earlier this month. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, Slate, and a variety of other periodicals. He’s based in Southern California, where he works as a senior editor at Pacific Standard magazine.
I’ve been reading and enjoying excerpts from Camp Austen and I’m looking forward to reading the book, which Publishers’ Weekly calls “a loving and often humorous tribute to the Janeites of the world.” Here are a couple of excerpts: “How Dressing as Mr. Darcy Taught Me Not to Be an Academic Snob” and “Corsets and Cotillions: An Evening with the Jane Austen Society.” And here’s Ted’s “Guide to Jane Austen and Children.”
In the introduction to an interview with Deborah (“I Think of It as a Mom-oir”), Ted says, “When I began to write a short book about attending a Jane Austen summer camp, I did not anticipate how much the resulting book would be about my mother. In retrospect, it could hardly have been otherwise. … As a kid I read very little Austen, but I knew that my mother loved her and I admired my mother for this love. The novels seemed to promise transport to a realm of refinement and wisdom, and I wanted to go there with her.”
It’s a pleasure to introduce this conversation between Deborah and Ted.
DJKK: The cascade of 200th anniversaries in Austen studies in 2017 culminated in the simultaneous commemorations of Austen’s death and the posthumous publication of both her very first and her very last completed novels. Ted Scheinman and I have been reflecting on these two texts—and bandying words.
Though I have long thought that Emma is, of all the books in the canon, the one that best repays re-reading, this year’s juxtaposition of Northanger Abbey with Persuasion has surprised me. My most recent treats in 2017 were two conferences about Persuasion (the Jane Austen Summer Program at UNC Chapel Hill and the Halifax, Nova Scotia, meeting focused on the Austen family’s ties to the navy—and to Halifax itself), so I’ve chosen to focus on the Persuasion side of this pairing. But there turn out to be many commonalities between Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
The latter book opens with the opening of a book, of course, the Elliot family’s copy of the Baronetage, and with the blunt summary about the baronet himself, “Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation” (Volume 1, Chapter 1). This detail is the first of what I think of as the many gender displacements throughout the novel. In several events and relationships in Persuasion, it seems that the feminine takes the lead, whether it’s Captain Wentworth comparing his first ship the Asp with an old pelisse, Mrs. Croft taking the reins of the family gig to prevent accidents, or Anne’s statement about authorship “the pen has been in [men’s] hands” being contradicted before she utters it (“[the noise] was nothing more than that [Captain Wentworth’s] pen had fallen down”) (Volume 2, Chapter 11).
When we consider that naval heroes are also more or less pirates, it can be a surprise to find them all so genteel—and gentle.
The novel discusses Sir Walter’s personal beauty much more than any woman’s—which makes one wonder whether Mr. Darcy is wrong about vanity (“a weakness indeed”): perhaps Sir Walter’s vanity is indeed justified (Pride and Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 11). We never meet Lady Elliot, of course, but we can still be surprised that, as an “excellent, . . . sensible and amiable” woman, she married Sir Walter at all (Persuasion, Volume 1, Chapter 1). To attract the otherwise discerning Lady Elliot, Sir Walter must have been the George Clooney—or, for an “Austen” reference, the Colin Firth—of his day (and of course, it’s always still “his day”).
We are more accustomed to find sensible men smitten—precisely, in two cases, “captivated,” in fact—by air-headed women (Pride and Prejudice, Volume 2, Chapter 19; Mansfield Park, Volume 1, Chapter 1) than the other way around.
TS: . . . and yet here we find an air-headed man captivated by himself! (One suspects that Sir Walter is susceptible to flattery from a striving lady because he has become so susceptible to his own.) I’d point out that, like Persuasion, Northanger Abbey opens with the opening of a book, or rather of several, in the florilegium of trite wisdom that Catherine’s biographer rattles off in the first chapter. But your remark on the Baronetage makes me think for the first time about how both novels include characters who are addicted to, and seduced by, the wrong kind of book, and are thereby confounded when the world does not conform to their literary expectations.
Speaking of literary expectations, Catherine seems to be half-right when she presumes some sort of Gothic moral decrepitude on the part of General Tilney. While she is wrong to suspect that the General murdered his wife—Henry informs her that he was present for the final days of his mother’s treatment, and that nothing suspicious happened—she is not necessarily wrong in thinking that the General’s relationship with his late wife involved an imbalance of virtue, in much the same way that Sir Walter’s marriage did; as Henry explains with a ginger diplomacy, the General is no gallant, but that Catherine has “’erred in supposing him not attached to her. He loved her, I am persuaded, as well as it was possible for him to—we have not all, you know, the same tenderness of disposition’″ (Volume 2, Chapter 9).
Catherine and the General are suspicious of each other in different ways, and each tests the other at various opportunities. Of course, the General is guilty of precisely what he accuses Catherine of—immoral, calculated fortune-hunting—and one of the most cutting ironies is that Catherine, however addled by novels, is still a better judge of character than the allegedly gimlet-eyed General.
What do you think, Mom? We see similar extended motifs of reversal in Persuasion, no?
DJKK: . . . Indeed. (And “captivated by himself”! Why didn’t I turn that phrase?)
Persuasion’s more obvious reversal is the shift among the social classes: the Crofts moving in to Kellynch Hall as the Elliots retreat to paltry rented rooms in Bath, just as the navy list supplants the Baronetage as the standard reference-book. Sir Walter’s complaints about the ennobling of naval heroes (even “’Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat’”) smack of the sort of unforgivable snobbery Emma engages in during her least fine hour—dismissing Robert Martin as one of “’the yeomanry’” (Persuasion, Volume 1, Chapter 4; Emma, Volume 1, Chapter 4). But Sir Walter’s comical mix-up of his ideas about class with his ideas about facial beauty almost blunt his disdain for naval arrivistes. The facial becomes farcical when Mrs. Clay tries to shoehorn herself into a conversation about the detrimental effects of seafaring upon naval officers:
“The sea is no beautifier, certainly; sailors do grow old betimes . . . they soon lose the look of youth. But then, is not it the same with many other professions . . . ? Soldiers, in active service, are not at all better off: and even in the quieter professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind . . . which seldom leaves a man’s looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all weather; and even the clergyman”—she stopt a moment to consider what might do for the clergyman;—“and even the clergyman, you know, is obliged to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of a poisonous atmosphere.”
Mrs. Clay’s fulsome, lengthy speech is a classic: it’s right up there with Mr. Elton’s proposal to Emma. The absurdity of a woman elaborately complimenting a man’s complexion is just the first instance of Mrs. Clay’s speech inverting social norms. Her style betrays her lack of delicacy, too. She repeats herself in a very pedestrian way (“soon lose the look of youth” adds nothing in style or substance to “grow old betimes”). Then, she starts reciting her list of three professions before making sure she has three separate things to say. Bad prose-stylists, overreaching for the cadence of a trio of phrases, often add a synonym of the second thing as a third thing in the list, for the sake of “three-ness.” Flummoxed in mid-speech, Mrs. Clay has used up on the physician words more appropriate for the clergyman, and finds herself at a loss, so that the clergyman’s dangers must become somehow those of a medical man (Emma, Volume 1, Chapter 4; Persuasion, Volume 1, Chapter 3). Her logical conclusion is that only landed gentlemen “’who can live in a regular way’” retain, like Sir Walter, “’the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost.’” Somehow, Mrs. Clay reminds me here of Mr. Rushworth as he meets his father-in-law-to-be in the aftermath of the Lovers’ Vows débacle, affirming that, rather than acting, “’I think we are a great deal better employed sitting comfortably . . . doing nothing’” (Mansfield Park, Volume 2, Chapter 1). A fitting “employment,” forsooth!
TS: Yes, and General Tilney seems to share in Mrs. Clay’s superstition about class and appearance; the General scours Catherine’s person and comportment for any hint of money, and finds those hints where he likes. In one passage that feels just a bit creepy, he extols the “’elasticity’″ of Catherine’s walk—an expression I always take less as lechery and more as a sort of classism. Persuasion too contains an important line about elasticity, and what it tells us about character—but crucially, there, it is not the superficial elasticity of the body, but an ″elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried [Mrs. Smith] out of herself, which was from nature alone.″ Anne correctly perceives a sort of moral aristocracy in Mrs. Smith’s elasticity of mind, where the General incorrectly perceives an upper-class breeding in Catherine’s gait.
Of course in Northanger Abbey, the General wishes to court Catherine’s admiration as well. He so enjoys showing off—whether it’s his own figure (“He was a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour of life” [Volume 1, Chapter 10]), his newly designed offices, or his succession houses with their pineapples (Volume 2, Chapters 7 and 8), that he sometimes forgets to interrogate Catherine about her family’s—or even the Allens’—finances (Volume 1, Chapter 10). And, as for the presumption that Catherine is the Allens’ heir, the General never questions the source of that story: one would have thought that the General, a man of the world, could see through a “rattle” like John Thorpe!
DJK: Given Sir Walter’s dual shortcomings, “vanity of person and of situation” (Volume 1, Chapter 1), he can easily become distracted from judging Mrs. Clay’s social (“situational”) shortcomings—he even becomes unconscious of her freckles over time: this confusion is just one instance of a curious quality I see in this novel’s treatment of social class. The Elliot family, with the exception of Anne, worry about their status with the anxiety of nouveaux riches, ever eager to assert their superiority: having conceded that he must let his house, for example, Sir Walter immediately demurs absurdly about terms: “’I am not fond of the idea of my shrubberies being always approachable’” (Volume 1, Chapter 3). (What would be the correct time for approaching a shrubbery? Need one genuflect before doing so?) This “tenacity,” as Louisa Musgrove describes it, referring to Mary’s insistence on always taking precedence of her mother-in-law, might remind us of another person of high rank behaving badly: Lady Catherine de Bourgh sneers at the Bennets for having no governess (Volume 2, Chapter 6), meddles minutely in other people’s business (recommending shelves for the parsonage closet [Volume 1, Chapter 14]) and laying down the law about how Maria Lucas should pack her trunk [Volume 2, Chapter 14]). She even takes it on herself to predict the weather (Volume 2, Chapter 6). Lady Catherine employs a dedicated aide de camp to support her assertions of superiority: Mr. Collins is tasked to brag about such extravagances as the cost of glazing Rosings’s windows (even though this detail actually betrays how very modern is the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s not-so-ancestral pile).
I’ve always found the Elliots’ harping on their status curious, because it’s so inconsistent. Anne seems to be the only family member who feels the “degradation” one would expect, when Elizabeth boasts of having two drawing rooms in their rented accommodation in Camden-place. Even the green-house plants that decorate the card-party must be rented (Volume 2, Chapter 3; Volume 2, Chapter 11). Elizabeth seems as insecure in her status as Mrs. Elton, who cannot mention her brother-in-law’s barouche-landau often enough (the over-precision of the carriage’s description is akin to contemporary brand-name-dropping by status-seekers: “I’m going to the store” becomes “I’m taking the Audi to Whole Foods”). We expect such behavior of Mrs. Elton—who is nothing if not a social climber—but the Elliots are already well up the ladder by birth.
TS: Absolutely—and, in a similar vein, there’s something dispiritingly arriviste about the General’s attempts to impress Catherine with his gardens and his “tolerably large eating room.” He seems to mount a whole production for Catherine’s benefit, a sort of parody of rural conspicuous consumption. He draws her attention to every detail, from the humble (but of course well-designed) offices to the latest in Staffordshire breakfast services, (albeit “quite an old set, purchased two years ago”). It’s worth noting that even Mrs. John Dashwood recognizes the superiority of her mother-in-law’s antique breakfast china, but the General is always after the next, shiniest thing, including Catherine. The General is especially complacent when he gives Catherine the tour of his succession houses, the little hothouses fastidiously maintained at different temperatures (Volume 2, Chapter 8; Volume 2, Chapter 7, Sense and Sensibility, Volume 1, Chapter 2).
Here, I keep thinking of that brilliant Raymond Chandler scene in the hothouse, from The Big Sleep, where Philip Marlowe goes to meet another general, General Sternwood; the General complains that orchids are “Nasty things! Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.” And it strikes me that General Tilney would very much like to keep Catherine safely potted in his house, at a resting temperature of his choosing, another ornament fitting the greatness of his family pile.
DJK: Great comparison! “[T]he rotten sweetness of corruption” seems particularly appropriate, from a Persuasion point of view, when I consider Mrs. Clay—whose surname is “like the flesh of men,” in fact.
When Lady Dalrymple and the Honourable Miss Carteret arrive in Bath and condescend to notice the Elliots, the family’s toadying behavior shocks Anne:
Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding.
Anne goes so far in this instance as to discuss her real feelings on the subject with Mr. Elliot:
“I certainly do think there has been by far too much trouble taken to procure the acquaintance. I suppose (smiling) I have more pride than any of you; but I confess it does vex me, that we should be so solicitous to have the relationship acknowledged.” (Volume 2, Chapter 4)
In Persuasion, the truly “superior” people regardless of class are superior in understanding, self-knowledge, and basic good-heartedness: people like the Musgroves senior, or the Crofts, or the impoverished Mrs. Smith, all of whom seem comfortable in their identities. Even Anne’s god-mother, her late mother’s close friend Lady Russell, betrays too much consciousness of her inferiority as “the widow of only a knight”; her “prejudices on the side of ancestry” affect her judgment of Mr. Elliot and her early advice to Anne about Frederick Wentworth (Volume 1, Chapter 1). Fortunately, in the eight years since Anne last followed that advice, she has learned to trust her own better judgment. In fact, Anne’s shift in confidential conversation toward the novel’s end from Lady Russell to Mrs. Smith can be seen to mark another shift in the novel’s treatment of class. Even though she engages in somewhat vulgar gossip, a means of communication she herself compares, in no way apologetically, to a sewer, Mrs. Smith shows more true gentility than her purported social superiors, like Elizabeth Elliot. It is telling to recall Elizabeth’s first, prompt proposal about how the family could try to pay its debts (or at least somehow “retrench”): “to cut off some unnecessary charities” (Volume 2, Chapter 9; Volume 1, Chapter 1). Compare Mrs. Smith, so straitened in her own circumstances: Nurse Rooke has seen the patient through some of the worst of her rheumatic complaint:
“As soon as I could use my hands, she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighborhood.” (Volume 2, Chapter 5)
Elizabeth’s abandonment of the lady-of-the-manor’s charitable role reminds me of Mrs. John Dashwood’s petty undercutting of her husband’s intended generosity to his step-mother and half-sisters (with her unforgettable proverb, “’people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them’”), even as she seeks the add the latest thing to the Norland estate: a greenhouse (Sense and Sensibility, Volume 1, Chapter 2; Volume 2, Chapter 11). Mrs. Smith’s generosity to those more desperately poor than she (and Nurse Rooke’s shrewd use of occupational therapy for her patient!) show true superiority.
TS: Yes indeed—and in a similar vein, General Tilney’s overweening kindness toward Catherine (insisting, for example, that the Woodston cottage not be pulled down—because Catherine admires it [Volume 2, Chapter 11]) promptly devolves into deep cruelty, once he discovers that she is not the heiress that he’d convinced himself she was. It’s another one of those princesses-turned-out-of-the-castle moments that we associate with fairytales, but which Austen consistently anchors in day-to-day realism (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park). The General, then, does a supremely cowardly and ungentlemanly thing, using his daughter as a cutout, compelling Eleanor to hasten Catherine out of the house, on the long journey back to her home, alone and without even pocket-money, until Eleanor delicately offers, and Catherine delicately accepts, a small sum to see her on her way.
The General’s meanness—in turning her out; in not providing for her journey; in refusing to write to her himself—is, as his son will later correctly charge, not at all in the character of a gentleman; this bit qualifies less as a class reversal than a basic betrayal of the decency with which the patrician class likes to associate itself. Hearing the story once Catherine returns to Fullerton, her family agrees that “it was a strange business, and that he was a strange man″—the euphemisms that decent people use when talking about indecent ones, however much richer the indecent ones might be.
Of course, Catherine’s mother soon begins to suspect that her daughter’s homecoming malaise is the result of having been raised too high, and recommends wholesome reading to bring Catherine back down to earth: assuming that Catherine, from her time at Bath and then at Northanger, has become addicted to “grand” French bread, Mrs. Morland remarks that “’There is a very clever Essay in one of the books up stairs upon much such a subject, about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance …. I am sure it will do you good’″ (Volume 2, Chapter 15).
Much like the General, Catherine’s mother begins by believing that her daughter has been seduced by the prospect of wealth and high company, rather than her simply having fallen in love with a modest clergyman. Distrust of graspingness or class aspiration is not limited to the wealthy; and often the more precarious members of the middle class can be quite as suspicious of social climbers as any General Tilney.
Quotations are from the Cambridge editions of Persuasion, edited and with an introduction by Janet Todd and Antje Blank (2006), Pride and Prejudice, edited and with an introduction by Pat Rogers (2006), Mansfield Park, edited and with an introduction by John Wiltshire (2005), Emma, edited and with an introduction by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan (2005), and Sense and Sensibility, edited and with an introduction by Edward Copeland (2006).
If you’re interested in the Jane Austen summer camp Ted talks about in his book Camp Austen, you can find more information here: “Northanger Abbey & Frankenstein: 200 Years of Horror,” June 14-17, 2018.
Fifteenth 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: Deborah Barnum’s guest post on the publishing history of Persuasion.