Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: a review

Posted on October 29, 2010

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What use is a novel that refuses to discuss metaphysics? What on earth is it good for if it does not examine the Soul? Or Death? Or explains, as Douglas Adams has it, Life, The Universe and Everything? These are the themes I want in the novels that I read. I want the big questions answered. Which follows that the only book for me is Moby Dick, which by the criteria listed above, can only be The Greatest Novel Ever Written. Or at least a good enough to be read continually over and over, for the rest of my life.

(A friend of mine once told me, “My dad hated Moby Dick. For some reason he made me read it and I hated it. I’m going to make my kids read it and they’ll hate it to.” Hating Moby Dick. For over three generations.)

So it is really quite remarkable then that I have found time to read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. A book that, judged by the profundity of Metaphysics, the Soul, Death, and Everything, would seem to fail miserably. For it does not seem at all Profound, Morbid, Soulful, or Metaphysical by any means whatever.

Charlotte Bronte, no doubt the dumbest of the Bronte sisters, shares this same assement of Miss Austen:

what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death – this Miss Austen ignores…

What would otherwise come off as a fine indictment—that Jausten lacks heart, lacks the passionate life—comes off as a rather obscene description of an erection. But then again Charlotte, as a Bronte, may just have been that depraved, in which case her indictment is even more cunning: that is, Jausten’s works are not interesting simply because she was a lifelong virgin. Still it would seem that Jausten would agree with her, at least concerning the lack of passions. “Let others dwell on guilt and misery,” Jane writes in the last chapter of Mansfield Park. “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

All the rest of course being those profound things such as the Soul, Death and Existence itself. But what is truly amazing about Northanger Abbey, is that though it allegedly was written as a response to Radcliffe and gothic literature in general, it is, in reality a parody of Charlotte Bronte’s rather beloved, but generally crummy novel, Jane Eyre which had yet to be written for another 50 years. There in both of them is the mysterious gothic mansion, there is the terrifying Byronic man, there is the abused and banished wife, and of course there is the plucky heroine, whom Jausten described thusly:

To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine’s life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character. Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips.

The irony of this passage is so finely tuned as to be almost imperceptible: all purity, all innocence, peculiarly belong, she suffered (suffered because a boy she’d only just met, failed to attend a ball). These small tweaks of hyperabole give the knife to their more literal significance and in an amazing act of reverse anachronism (a spooky prolepsis from beyond the grave) Jane Austen is making fun of Jane Eyre before Charlotte Bronte was even born. And Charlotte deserves it too, for Jane Eyre must be the most annoying Miss Priss of all literature that we are forced to have to read literally (Emily Bronte showed the truer make: there’s real hell represented in Wuthering Heights, real death and darkness that Charlotte could only pretend to contrive).

And that is exactly what makes Northanger Abbey a kind of cipher: one cannot read it literally. Were one to read it without any irony, were one to adapt it to film, it would certainly be reduced to a horrendous bore, a long, dull anti-climactic upwardly social hop by a thoroughly mediocre, not-very-pretty girl. “She is almost pretty today.” Her parents gloomily remark. And indeed compared to any of the other Austen protagonists, Catherine is really quite dull, very nearly as dull, in fact, as Jane Eyre.

But throughout the novel Jausten perseveres to describe the most un-heroic Catherine explicitly as a heroine. Which description proves to make her into a joke and to kick the stuffing right out of the term, while landing a few more vicious kicks on boring girls everywhere. For it should be known and I hereby declare now, that Jane Austen, contrary to popular assumption, is not at all nice, and is, in fact rather misanthropic and cruel. Nor does the default marriage to the “the most charming man, in the world,” at the end of the book mollify the contempt, for it is as if the marriage is forced upon us by the mechanics of the plot of comedy, so much so that Jausten seems to yawn as she ties up the loose ends. The couple’s anxiety, she writes, “can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”

(Jausten’s malice and nihilism, her general hatred of children, will be proved by algebra, in my forthcoming novel Jane Austen and the Death Apparatus. Please await details.)

The contempt however, is of course, hidden. And if I said ‘almost imperceptible’ before I meant it. For that can only be one of the first definitions in Irony’s Dictionary: to quote Jesus Christ, “he who has an ear let him hear.” Irony is by definition, exclusive, one must have an ear, to get it. Joseph Conrad proved his deafness, by asking famously, “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?” the joke of course is on Conrad. So to Mark Twain, who was very loud about his hatred of Austen, and claimed that the key to having a great library was to exclude her books from it. Far be it from me to claim that Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad are on the Broad Path to Destruction because they don’t know how to read Austen, but they’ve made their position clear. For, to truly read Jane Austen is alike to walking the narrow path. This exclusive Irony does not cancel the happy marriages and glad characters, but it does haunt them with grave doubt. So Jane whispers in our ears, is this really it? is this what happiness is?

It is to those questions (and not glory and angels) that Jane’s narrow path leads to. Questions indeed of a certain nihilistic nature. And isn’t the concept of Nothing, of Ecclesiastes’s “vanity, all is vanity”- a sentiment that Jane Austen certainly reflects in the novels- aren’t those ideas  inherently metaphysical?

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