Jane Austen has something to say about conspiracy theories, Henry Tilney is the ultimate mansplainer, and we continue our series on Austen and democracy.
Your essay on the exchange between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey , and your series on Jane Austen and Democracy is admirable for a number of reasons.
First, they ( the essay and the series) invite us, as readers, to think deeply about Miss Austen’s intentions in her work, both in Northanger Abbey, and throughout her writing. Austen’s genius lies not only in creating stories and characters that engage our romantic imaginations, but in allowing those characters and narratives to critique the underpinnings of the society in which they lived, the same foundations (Empire, Sexism, Colonialism, Racism) on which our current civilization so unfortunately rests.
Second, your choice of Henry Tilney's speech is an excellent starting point for recognizing Austen’s skillful framing of her commentary. She limits herself to the world she knows, the experience of a young woman in conversation with a presumably more worldly and slightly older man. And while she may may be inviting us to recognize Tilney's prejudice, she also, as you point out, invites us, through Mr. Tilney, into our own consideration, in the form of a question, “What have you been judging from?” and an invitation to self reflection, “Consult your own understanding!” rather than than making accusations or indictments. I only wish she had been less circumspect, if not in her novels, then in her letters or perhaps in an essay, so we could appreciate more fully her opinions on the considerable injustice that ran through every aspect of life in Regency England (and through our own time and place).
Third and last, though there is much more to be said, I am grateful for your courage in recognizing in Miss Austen and her novels a discourse which is current and relevant as relates to the cultural and social questions so prevalent both then and now. So many of contemporary fandom seem to appreciate only the romantic and sentimental (admittedly wonderful) aspects of her novels. And there is so much more !
Thank you, I look forward to future posts.
Preferring, for now, to remain anonymous, I will sign myself,
Plain Jane, thank you for your recent post. You do such a wonderful job of relating Austen to twenty-first centuries readers. And you are absolutely correct to focus on Henry’s verbal chastisement of Catherine because it is based on the Whig interpretation of history—a piece of historical disinformation. While it is true that a text stands on its own and is open to whatever interpretation a reader can justify from the text itself, I personally think Austen would absolutely agree with your takeaway from Henry’s speech (after all, human nature does not change). While Professor Helena Kelly does a wonderful job of explicating Northanger Abbey in her book, Professor Roger Emerson Moore arrives at much the same conclusions you reached but comes at it from a very different point of view. He is an historian by training, specializing in the Reformation; he is an Austen fan by preference. In his book, Jane Austen and the Reformation, he argues that Austen participated deeply in the nostalgia for the lost monasteries of England and Scotland, which were dissolved by Henry VIII; that nostalgia permeates her works from the Juvenilia through Sanditon and her final poem “Venta,” on St. Swithen. As Professor Moore shows, that nostalgia dates from the time of the dissolution and involved both Protestants and Catholics; for instance, Archbishop Laud, a firm supporter of the Protestant Reformation, preached sermons before Henry VIII condemning the sacrilege of transferring sacred properties into secular hands (what obviously happened with the fictional Tilneys in Northanger Abbey), Others bemoaned the lost of hospitality to travelers and charity to the poor that the monasteries used to provide (something that the fictional Northanger Abbey no longer provides as well). As late as the 1820s, William Cobbett, in his Rural Rides, talks about how the dissolution of the monasteries deprived the poor of England of their rightful patrimony. The sacrilege narratives all predict dire consequences for those families who hold sacred property in their secular hands, predicting that God might wait a number of generations before punishing a family. The abbey-meditation poems associated with many ruined abbeys (including one Austen visited outside Southampton, Netley Abbey) show people punished for their sacrilege. Dr. Moore’s explication of Catherine’s visit to Northanger Abbey demonstrates persuasively by the sheer volume of his examples how Austen’s narration and her diction recall the lost convent of Northanger Abbey. In Henry’s speech, according to Dr. Moore, “Henry assures Catherine that violence and injustice are rare in the English past; in good Whig fashion, he implies that an event like the Dissolution was inevitable and, if any unpleasantness occurred, the end more than justified it” (71). Professor Moore would go further: “The dismantling of sacred buildings, the desecration of saints’ shrines and relics, the eviction of sometimes unwilling inhabitants – all of these ‘horrid scenes’ played out in every monastery in the land, and Northanger’s occupation by the Tilneys in itself gives the lie to Henry’s Whiggish optimism in its testimony to the reality of past conflict” (72). Professor Moore concludes, “Henry's speech cures Catherine of her false beliefs, but Austen does not necessarily celebrate the ‘revolution in her ideas’ that results in her disenchantment with the Abbey…Although Catherine gets her man in the end, we might well wonder about the wisdom of [her] marrying into a family whose past misdeeds could come back to haunt them at any time” in the form of Divine retribution (135). I would take Dr. Moore’s argument a step further and say that, in the end when Henry breaks with his father over his treatment of Catherine, not only are Catherine’s fears about the violence lurking at Northanger Abbey proven correct but also that General Tilney is punished for his family’s sacrilege of owning sacred property by his estrangement from his son Henry. Although the General and Henry are “reconciled,” sort of—just as Eleanor and Edward are “reconciled” to Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility—Henry’s eyes have been opened by his father’s actions, and he can no longer believe that all is really well in his family—and in England as a whole. In the end, it is Catherine who is proven right, not Henry. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I agree with your post, Plain Jane.
Of course, I love Henry. How could I not? Not exactly to your point, but here's this: What a coincidence that when my granddaughter was small, I gave her all of Austen and this last week subscribed her to your Substack. She's now 13 and has been reading ALL of Austen. She texted me that she was reading Northanger Abbey and said something about seeing herself in the gothic novel. I wrote back that when I read the novel, I thought it a satire of the gothic novel. And she replied, "totally"--so though not exactly on your point, isn't it a fab coincidence that we're all reading or rereading the same novel you discuss in this post.
Love how you manage to make Austen still relevant to current issues! I remember studying 'Northanger Abbey' as an undergrad and finding it one of the most humorous of Austen's novels.
Great lessons from Austen here -
"Because imaginative, misinformed conspiracies can be extremely attractive. And this part of Henry’s question we might find relevant today." Yes, it's the enticement of 'fun' in the real world! Maybe it has to do with reality tv taking over as well?