Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman with a Novel:
Exploring the Benefits of Reading Fiction in Northanger Abbey
A heroine in distress, a dark tale of morality, and mysterious family histories are all aspects which you can expect to discover in early British novels. The 18th and 19th centuries marked a certain rise in popularity of the English novel, along with the exponential growth of the reading public and the presence of female writers, and of novels directed to a female audience. Along with the tremendous amount of books being published, some deemed by critics better than others, novel reading in the Romantic period became considered particularly dangerous for women to take part in. Considered an aimless distraction and an act which encourages an overstimulated imagination, novels were promptly placed in a negative light. Yet, in a time where women were confined to the domestic sphere, unable to aspire to very much and who were trapped in a life of confinement, novel reading provided women with aspirations. Gothic novels in particular, which focus on the fantastic and rely on a vivid imagination, may serve as a distraction or an inspiration to empower women to seek further opportunities. The negative critique of novels present in On Novels and Novel Reading and the contrasting, convention-challenging novel Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, presents a concern with novels allowing female readers to acquire an advantage over their imprisoned lives, and often creating an escape from the enclosed existence placed upon them by patriarchal society. The same qualities of novels that critics (and the patriarchy) deemed as dangerous were ultimately the exact characteristics which made novel reading extremely beneficial to women.
Since their rise in England in the 18th century, novels captivated readers to such an extent that debate over its dangers versus its benefits naturally arose. Although difficult to specifically define, novels are “the form of literature which most fully reflects individualist and innovating reorientation” (Watt 13). They are typically characterized as being fictional narratives written in simple prose (ordinary language) and have everyday people as characters. With the modernization of Britain came a rational people who craved realistic representations in their readings, which they discovered in the novel. Unlike classical epics which “were based on past history or fable” (Watt 13), novelists differentiated themselves with their creativity and willingness to experiment. Novels provided readers with something new, as the form “has set an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named” (Watt 13). With the rise of the middle class and a society in which nearly everyone read, this book type became fairly popular. Kelly emphasizes, “All ranks and degrees now read, but by general agreement fiction was the preferred form of reading” (221). Many did appreciate, or at least secretly indulged in the form, and as J.M.S. Tompkins emphasizes, there was “a large body of fiction which fed the appetite of the reading public, reflected and shaped their imaginations, and sometimes broke out into experiment and creative adventure” (Maxwell 13). Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1817 (decades after the earliest English novels like Tom Jones, 1749) is an attempt by Austen to challenge the typical conventions and form of a novel. She not only parodies the conventions but also breaks the rules in such a way that brings to light both the dangers and the powers of reading novels. The novel form basking in popularity was Austen’s opportunity to argue for what well-written novels were capable of, particularly for the female audience. For although novel reading became prevalent, it led to a divide between those readers who were “learned and professional (male)” and “entertaining and fanciful (female)” (Kelly 221).
Men considered themselves superior to romance novels, and did not judge novels which were entertaining for women to be worthy of their attentions, which created a divide amongst this new and emerging form. In Northanger Abbey John Thorpe represents these negative opinions of certain novels, as he says: “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one since Tom Jones, except the Monk” (Austen 46). John Thorpe is portraying the bias towards authors in the Romantic period like Fielding, Sterne and Lewis being the only ones worth reading. Behrendt describes this still present today in anthologies of British literature: “there is a sizable desert to be crossed between Sterne (and Mackenzie) and the early Dickens” (1). Austen depicts the shame involved in taking one side or the other, where women denied their reading of novels but embraced other works: “had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book” (33). The author of On Novels and Novel Reading, in contrast, considers it a tragedy that new novels are replacing those valuable books of “history or excellent poetry” and reminisces with a time before the rise of the novel where “the window seat, the table, and the mantle-piece, where now the worthless novel holds an undisputed throne, were covered with those admirable works, the Spectator, Tatler, and Guardian, and others not less laudable” (4). The author’s diction portrays a concern regarding novels replacing everything written which he considers intellectually stimulating. Some novels, therefore, were considered a danger to other books, even other works of fiction, which were deemed more respectable and valuable to society.
Austen is also present within a divide between authors, represented by the anonymous writer which detests this new form, and another perspective which sees novels as possibly more beneficial than even those texts of history. Austen depicts that there is a shame in admiring novels which encourages authors to denounce their form: they are “degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding” (32). Austen’s voice protrudes from Catherine’s narrative, to make a plea to fellow authors: “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried” (33). She is pointing out that novels should be seen as a proud form, but instead are being frowned upon, or criticized by much of the reading public. When Austen states “we are an injured body” her unspecific diction can be referring to being a novelist, being a female novelist, or she is insinuating that women in general are an injured body, and in order to succeed, women must ally together instead of form a divide.
Novel critics of the Romantic period argued that this genre should be dismissed because of its ordinary tales and simple language which could not be judged as educational or on the same level as a history or learned book: “Fictitious history gives no exercise whatsoever to our active habits: the scenes represented in it differ from those of real life” (“On Novels” 2). Since women were associated with novel reading, their lack of education was linked with the novels themselves: “Women were the main readers of novels. Thomas Christie, writing in 1788, attributed this ‘fact’ to women’s defective and superficial education, which unfitted them for ‘solid learning’, such as history, usually assigned to men” (Kelly 221). Not only were women prohibited from gaining a proper education, but society considered their novel reading as even more detrimental, even more harmful to their education than before, since women apparently “lacked men’s training in critical reading, they were naïve readers and would see themselves as the heroines of the novels” (Kelly 222). However, Austen argues that novels are a significant source of education, claiming that novels can contain as much history as other texts and are better than the extensive pieces which society at the time viewed as proper, like “a volume of the spectator” (33). Rather, Austen argues that novels are works “in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world” (33). She praises novel reading in such a way that suggests more truth is to be found in novels than any other form, and by making Catherine an avid reader, is not necessarily mocking the form but is actually proving all that a novel is able to do. Catherine, for example, although unable to travel herself (common for women to remain immobile), learns about the world through the books she reads. When Henry asks her if she has been abroad, Catherine is able to reply “Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about” (112) Similarly, Behrendt argues that readers in Britain may have craved literature because of a “desire to know more about one’s world” (8). There is primarily a mixed review of novels for women here, where some critics considered them a danger to a woman’s education, and authors like Austen believed them to be a positive influence on allowing women access to information (although seemingly ‘fictional’) which would otherwise be unattainable for them.
Similarly, Austen demonstrates the way novels encourage women to speak their thoughts freely, which women of the time would consider as a great benefit, but men would see as a danger. Men desired their wives (or daughters, or sisters) to remain in the private sphere, uneducated in society, and silently tending to their needs. Austen even argues that some men rather have their women be senseless: “there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance” (118). Informed women pose a threat to the patriarchy created by men in the Romantic period. Catherine, the avid novel reader, embodies this threat, for she is an insightful and outspoken young woman. In her correspondence with Henry Tilney in the Lower Rooms, rather than cower in fear, she responds to his coy remarks. When he rashly asks her what is on her mind, she tactfully responds: “I was not thinking of anything” (Austen 23). Catherine is not afraid to speak her mind, and does so, whether it is against John Thorpe’s advances, or being sincere about her feelings towards Henry, she is exceedingly thoughtful with language. Cordon similarly relates her language to Catherine’s feminism: “Living in a culture that preferred its women to be simpering or silent, Catherine directly voices her thoughts and feelings, and being able to speak her mind makes her a feminist” (41). Cordon asserts Catherine’s willingness to have a voice debatably comes from her reading of novels: “She does benefit from Udolpho’s skepticism about masculine power figures, especially paternal ones… The Mysteries of Udolpho gives Catherine a template she can apply to her own experience, and so the female-authored gothic serves as écriture féminine for Catherine” (51). Not only does novel reading give women a voice but also women writers of the day, like Ann Radcliff, were inspirational for writing their feelings and serving as an example for other women to speak freely. The written text and the novel form are therefore associated with women “for good or ill” (Kelly 220). Ultimately, Catherine dangerously benefits from reading novels and because she reads, she is able to interpret the beings of others, and decide for herself her role in society, better than a woman who cannot read would be able to do.
Catherine’s reading of gothic fiction allows her to judge and interpret people further, for instance, with the judgement of General Tilney. Jane Austen creates a scene in which Catherine, taken away by her gothic fantasies, assumes that General Tilney is a murderous gothic villain who hated his wife. While mocking fantastical elements of gothic fiction, Austen is simultaneously layering this scene with ideas of truth behind these assumptions, because Catherine judges General Tilney’s character (although not the act) correctly. Austen is therefore parodying gothic fiction in such a way that serves to defend it, and by defending novels is also defending the abilities of female novel readers. Catherine, based on her critical reading of gothic fiction and of people, concludes that “The general certainly had been an unkind husband” (Austen 194). Henry Tilney, although he rejects her ideas of his father being a murderer, confirms her good judgement as he admits the general did injure her in some way: “I will not pretend to say that while she lived, she might not often have had much to bear… his temper injured her” (213). Catherine’s reading allows her to see through characters, and she sees the truth behind the general’s disguise. Cordon emphasizes, “After reading the novel, Catherine has a way to understand her own feelings of discomfort around General Tilney by seeing him as a gothic villain. She misreads the exact nature of his crime, but she is right to be suspicious about his charming and approving social façade”. The benefit of being able to interpret others would have been something considered a danger by men, who did not want women to see the truth behind their tyranny. Novel reading, leading to the ability to see the truth, is something which allowed women to be one step closer to escaping the imprisonment of their constricted lives.
Novel reading also allows women like Catherine to make imprisoned life more interesting. By giving pleasure, novel reading serves an important role in entertaining women when they needed it most. As Behrendt details, “the Romantic novel offered its readers very desirable choices among alternative realities, whether those alternatives took the form of gaudy Gothic romances… or sentimental social romances” (Behrendt 8). Particularly for women, these “alternative realities” were very much desired. For example, Maria in The Wrongs of Woman finds comfort in reading when she is physically imprisoned by her husband. Similarly, Catherine`s novel reading brings excitement to her otherwise dull life. She describes novel reading as an “extensive and unaffected pleasure” (33) and it makes her “plain” and “awkward” (4) existence become an adventurous one. To make Catherine such a boring women to begin with (very much unlike typical heroines) but to give her an advanced imagination due to her reading of fiction, is a statement about how novel reading should not be seen in a negative light, but rather as a tool of improvement for women. This, which to women would be considered a good thing, would have been seen by men as a terrible danger because the entertainment of novel reading leads them to be distracted from their duties in the private sphere.
Although a distraction from their imprisoned existences would be considered a good thing for women of the day, men looked down on the act of novel reading because they rather their wives remain focused on the duties expected of them. The act of reading was considered “a breach of domestic femininity” (MacFadyen 428). Men expected women to be busy tending the household or doing something of use, not reading novels, and so men shunned the idea of novel reading because they saw themselves busy doing something else of importance. When asked if he read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe states, “Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do” (46). Kelly asserts that the perspective of the period saw novels as a waste of time: “Novel reading, like dram-drinking, is addictive and destroys a taste for superior stuff” (221). However, in truth, the political and social turmoil that Britain was going through at the time was maddening, and novels like Austen’s could discuss social issues in such a way that was not depressing, or could serve as a healthy distraction from them. Behrendt discusses its ability to distract from trauma: “these novels proceeded with such determination not to depict social and political events which were arguably the most significant the world had known… it is surely human nature to avoid dealing directly with trauma” (Behrendt 11). Therefore, although a seemingly dangerous thing, distraction can serve as a benefit to people who need it so as to not go mad, like socially imprisoned women. Novels have an ability to displace readers from their existence, and into another, better, more admirable world, which served as a benefit, particularly to women, like Maria or Catherine, in the Romantic period.
Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey serves as an example of a girl who, having read many fantastical novels has awakened her imagination and is nearly taken away by it. As is described in On Novels and Novel Reading novels tend “to fill young minds with fancies, wishes, hopes and expectations… It excites fears where there are no dangers, hopes without possibility of fruition, and wishes without end” (1). Although written as being a dangerous outcome, Austen proves that although Catherine does undergo such things, she learns from them, and is very much capable of becoming a critical reader. When Catherine is consumed by her imagination, James must bring her back to reality: “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live… Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (214). In Novels & Novel Reading, such a mistake is considered extremely detrimental and only fixed with death itself: “judgment and cool experiment are completely excluded, till when too late, he repentantly finds, that he has lost a good friend by his rash decision, or has formed an intimacy, the ruinous effects of which, it is probable, time itself cannot entirely cure but with the help of the grave” (2). However, Austen presents Catherine as not being too far off in her judgement of character of the General, and even then, she logically learns from her mistake of concluding so rashly. Catherine admits, “nothing could be shortly clearer than that it had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion” (216) and “charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature… was to be looked for” (217). Austen is brilliantly creating a paradox here, for although she allows Catherine to discover novels may not contain human nature exactly, by depicting Catherine in such a human-like way, and doing so in the novel form, Austen proves the form’s capabilities. Catherine knows in the end, “not to let an appetite for such works be carried too far, nor to misapply them so grossly, as to take them in lieu of experience, or to consider the incidents or characters they contain, as things to be met with in real life” (3). An important learning experience formed, therefore, from her novel reading, as Catherine concludes with “her resolution formed of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense” (217).
The mixed opinions for and against novels are evident here, where the seemingly dangerous reasons to stay away from novels are the same which women should appreciate and benefit from. Novels, which since their existence have held debatable opinions, are considered both horrible and beneficial when in the hands of women, depending on if one sees it from the perspective of patriarchy or the perspective of oppressed women. For women who are forced to remain in the private sphere, disallowed the luxuries men can indulge in like seeing the world, novels can be educational, giving women a clearer picture of history and humanity. With the emergence of female novelists, came the power for novels to ignite confidence in female readers, providing them with examples on how to speak up for themselves, and escape their expected slave-like position in British patriarchy. The imprisoned lives of women lead them to desire something which will give them pleasure, which they can find in novels, for they serve as a distraction, making their lives more gratifying. All of these instances of benefits of novel reading are things which were also deemed as dangerous, because an outspoken, educated, distracted woman full of pleasure is not the ideal housewife of a typical family in the Romantic period. However, authors like Austen who, with their early feminism and ideals of women as companions rather than slaves, were able to shape the idea of female identity through their novels, proving that female identity should embrace literature, rather than dismay from it.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Gutenberg Press, 1994. eBook.
Behrendt, Stephen C. “Questioning the Romantic Novel.” Studies in the Novel (1994): 5. Article.
Cordon, Joanne. “Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (2011): 41-63. Article.
Kelly, Gary. “Unbecoming a Heroine: Novel Reading, Romanticism, and Barrett’s The Heroine.” Nineteenth-Century Literature (1990): 220-241. Article.
MacFadyen, Heather. “Lady Delacour’s Library: Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and Fashionable Reading.” Nineteenth-Century Literature (1994): 423-439. Article.
Maxwell, Richard. The Cambridge Companion to Fiction in the Romantic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Book.
“On Novels and Novel Reading.” The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor (1811): 86-94. Article.
Watt, Ian. The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: University of California Press, 2000. Book.