2010 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Megan C. Webber
University of Victoria
Victoria, BC

Positively Medieval!: Historical Mayhem in Northanger Abbey

Incest, torture, and murder, oh my! Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Catherine Morland perceives threats lurking around every corner. The barbarity of the Dark Ages is far from dead and buried, according to the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In Catherine’s view, the dark hand of the past may wreak havoc even in Georgian high society. To Henry Tilney, this idea is laughable. Criticizing the flaws in her judgement brought on by an overdose of novels, he admonishes her to “[r]emember the age in which we live” (203). Had Catherine only paid more heed to her history books, Henry seems to imply, she would realize that she lives in the Age of Enlightenment where, as he puts it, “social and literary discourse is on such a footing ... and where roads and newspapers lay every thing [so] open” as to make medieval atrocities unfathomable (203).

Henry Tilney places all his trust in formal knowledge. To him, non-fiction print such as history books and newspapers are proof of humanity’s cultured sensibility and stand as bulwarks against medieval mayhem. However, Oxford man though he may be, Henry proves to be far from expert at applying the lessons of the past to the present day. Indeed, the “real solemn history” that, in Catherine’s description, he favors (109) blinds him to the possibility of the past repeating itself ―a possibility all too real in the turbulent England of the 1790s. In Northanger Abbey, Austen critiques Henry’s stilted, grandiose, masculine vision of history. It is women’s fluid and domestic history, based on subjective, natural judgement rather than formal education, that brings modern-day abuses to light. Northanger Abbey is a tale not only of a country girl who learns to divide fact from gothic fiction, but of a man who comes to comprehend that the upward progress of humanity is a figment of the imagination.

Like the ‘moors’ which are suggested in the Morland name, Catherine’s mind is barren and uncultivated. From the first page of the novel, it is obvious that she is no scholar. The tutelage of Mrs. Morland is wasted on a girl who prefers to roll down grassy slopes rather than apply herself to her studies (6-7). Young Catherine grows up largely in a state of nature, “being noisy and wild, hat[ing] confinement and cleanliness” (my italics, 6-7). Largely unimpeded by intellectual or social education, she is the antithesis of the accomplished young gothic heroines she so idolizes. She neither plays the piano, sings, or draws with skill, nor does she improve her mind with a rounded program of reading.

If Catherine’s mind is a moor, Mr. Tilney’s is ‘tilled’ in rows of orderly furrows. He has a university education, is well read, and is seemingly Catherine’s superior in experience: as he tells her, “I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!” (108). He obviously believes himself to possess greater intellectual capabilities than women, so often does he go out of his way to criticize their efforts. He decries the “general deficiency of subject ... total inattention to stops, and ... very frequent ignorance of grammar” in women’s letters, pokes fun at Catherine’s overuse of “nice,” and takes obvious pleasure in quashing Eleanor’s “stupid” fears of riot (20, 109, 114-115).

The disparate upbringings of Catherine and Henry result in two very different conceptions of history. Henry subscribes to the ‘onward and upward’ Whig teleology in which there is an inevitable progression from medieval tyranny, cruelty, and oppression to liberalism and reason in the eighteenth century. He places his trust entirely in the laws of the country to control unrest and barbarity. “[E]ndeavouring not to smile” and, by so doing, expose his blatant joke, Henry declares that “[g]overnment ... neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters [as riot]. There must be murder, and government cares not how much” (114). After having grown in influence over centuries, Parliament now checks the development of the tyrannical kings and over-mighty subjects who were so prevalent in the middle ages. Moreover, such modern communication systems as roads and newspapers allow vast numbers of people to engage in political discussion, preventing secrecy or tyranny from flourishing unobstructed as it did in days gone by (203). Religion, too, is integral to this historical narrative of amelioration. When Henry instructs Catherine to “[r]emember the country ... in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians,” he implicitly compares England to the tyrannical Catholic regimes depicted by Gothic novelists; to Henry as to these novelists, Catholicism is both foreign and un-Christian as it does not follow the Church of England (203). Tilney embraces the textbook argument that Henry VIII’s break from the Pope marked the pivotal transition from medieval mayhem to Enlightenment order.

However, “the quarrels of popes and kings, ... wars and pestilences” hold no allure for Catherine (110). She rejects entirely the masculine history so favoured by Tilney and the other men in her life: Mr. Allen, her father, and two brothers (110). She does not view the past as a sequence of ages, ranging from the primitive to the advanced. For Catherine, the themes of the past remain relatively constant: tyrannical fathers are as prevalent in the late eighteenth century as they were in the fifteenth, and cruelty is as much at home in a Bath townhouse as in the Castle of Otranto. If any pattern can be found in history as Catherine understands it, it is one of decay over time, although paradoxically this decay is indistinguishable in her mind from novelty. She is entranced by the crumbling ruins of Northanger Abbey but “would willingly have been spared ... a walk through scenes so fallen” as those provided in the brand-new wing of the house (my italics, 189). While Tilney associates cruelty exclusively with the Dark Ages and ‘backward’ Catholic countries, Catherine perceives barbarity to be an all too imminent threat in England.

Catherine also rejects history books because they contain “hardly any women at all” (110). She prefers familial and domestic histories and turns to gothic novels for the tales of family conflict which she so craves. Historical novels are more lively and more pertinent to her life, she believes, than the serious volumes of the Spectator which feature “unnatural characters ... no longer concern[ing] anyone living” (31). Henry ridicules this womanly propensity to focus on petty familial squabbles in lieu of grand events of national import. When Eleanor mistakenly believes a riot to be imminent, Henry describes the scene which he believes his sister envisages: “a mob of three thousand men assembling at St. George’s Fields ... and the gallant Capt. Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window” (114-115). The humour lies not only in the frenetic exaggeration of the scene, but in Frederick Tilney’s presence in the action. With “the streets of London flowing with blood” and anarchy threatening hierarchy, liberty, and reason (114), how typical that a woman should think only of her brother.

Catherine’s domestic history, garnered from gothic novels, certainly leads her to over-estimate the potential for cruelty in late eighteenth-century England. She melodramatically claims education to be no less than “torment” and accuses the General of murder where he is only guilty of neglect (110-111, 202). However, Henry’s attack on women’s version of history is unfair. He employs the stereotype of the hysterical woman to prove that females are too unreasonable to engage in serious history, yet he never makes the effort to discern the inherent merit of women’s interpretation. When Eleanor is frightened by rumours of unrest, Henry puts words into her mouth. He ridicules the riotous scene which he believes Eleanor to have imagined. Yet, the reader never learns from Eleanor herself whether she envisioned the riots in such a way. Henry not only excludes women from acting in history (the imagined mob is composed solely of “men”), but also excludes them from authorship (114).

Catherine and Eleanor do not deserve to be labelled as hysterical and delusional. Indeed, astute as she is, Catherine proves herself worthy of authoring history. If she exaggerates the degree of the General’s cruelty, she is nonetheless correct in identifying the presence of cruelty in the Tilney household. Furthermore, Catherine has a natural ability to discern right from wrong. This wisdom exists in spite of (or even because of) her lack of formal education. Gothic novels help Catherine understand her own age not through a depiction of grand events and improving forces, but by making Catherine aware of the complexity of human nature and of family dynamics. By displaying “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties” (31), novels develop Catherine’s natural powers of discrimination. Catherine’s understanding of human nature allows her to correctly identify disorder. She recognizes the engaged Isabella’s flightiness by observing her dance with Frederick and first clues in to the General’s selfishness by examining his treatment of his own family (156). She remarks upon his harsh chastisement of his servant when she rushes unannounced into the Milsom-street house, and wonders at his refusal to alter his morning walks to suit his daughter or herself (103, 93-94, 181).

While Catherine’s perception of history opens her to the potential for domestic mayhem of a medieval variety, Henry’s approach to history blinds him to reality altogether. Secure in his belief that England has risen above barbarity once and for all, he fails to acknowledge evidence to the contrary, in spite of the fact that it is right in front of him. He finds Eleanor’s fears of riot to be ridiculous, yet does not take seriously recent historical events, which render unrest by no means improbable: the Gordon Riots of 1780, the mobbing of the King in 1795, and increased incidence of food rioting in the 1790s, not to mention the French Revolution (O’Gorman 266-269). In a series of poorly substantiated arguments, Henry declares that security is ensured by systems of spies (203). But does not the very need for spies underline the lack of trust and openness in England? Henry claims that literary discourse and newspapers prevent atrocities by “lay[ing] every thing open” (203). Naïvely, he views literature purely as an improving force, but fails to consider that this very expansion of the literary marketplace often facilitated social unrest. In the 1790s, approximately 250,000 copies of Thomas Paine’s radical attack on hierarchy and heredity, Rights of Man, flooded the popular marketplace, leading many English elites to fear riot or even revolution (Hay and Rogers 181).

After being chastised, Catherine cautiously adopts Henry’s belief in the inherent fairness of government: the narrator reports Catherine’s thought that “in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved” (205). However, this statement is quite tenuous, considering that the majority of English women did not vote, retain their own property in marriage, or gain custody of children in the event of separation (Hay and Rogers 42-43). In an infamous court case in 1782, Judge Francis Buller allegedly deemed that a man might beat his wife so long as he used a stick no wider than his thumb (Clark 73). Catherine also attempts to convince herself that “servants were not slaves” in England (205). This statement runs counter to the General’s severe treatment of his manservant (300-301) and the fact that, when Northanger Abbey was written in the late 1790s, the English slave trade was active and legally sanctioned. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, to be followed by the abolition of slavery in 1834 (Hay and Rogers 125-126).

Henry is so focused on grand events that he neglects to see medieval abuses occurring on a familial scale. Although aware of his father’s fixation on money, Henry fails entirely to predict the scope of the General’s greed until it is undeniably demonstrated when he abruptly evicts Catherine from the abbey. By stressing the English Reformation as the point at which England became civilized, Henry neglects to consider that even this ‘glorious’ and ‘progressive’ event was propelled by an altogether less honourable familial situation ―Henry VIII’s cruel rejection of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The failure of formal history to predict modern-day abuses contributes to Austen’s broader critique of convention-bound education. One need not be versed in “Mr. Hume ... Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great” (110)—to borrow from Eleanor Tilney’s list of modern and ancient historians—to understand rightful authority. Although given free reign as a child, Catherine “had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny” (6). Throughout Northanger Abbey, there are multiple examples in which formal education merely impedes the faculty of judgement. Henry is so focused on the stylistic correctness of women’s letters and of Catherine’s use of “nice” that he does insufficient justice to women’s sentiment (20, 109). When Henry tutors Catherine in the conventions of the picturesque, Catherine’s judgement is clouded, not sharpened: “The little which she could understand however appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, that a clear blue sky was no longer proof of a fine day” (112). A simple, but accurate, measure of beauty is replaced by a standard which obscures what is right in front of Catherine. She rejects Bath “as unworthy to make part of a landscape” (113). Formal constructs cause her to misconstrue a city, which, with its neoclassical Palladian architecture, Royal Crescent, and stately squares, is by no means lacking in aesthetic appeal. Just as this scene questions the advisability of employing a complicated frame to understand an obvious truth, so too does the novel as a whole critique the short-sightedness of masculine history.

Catherine counters pompous Henry’s belief in the superiority of ‘non-fiction’ history: “real solemn history,” she tells him, “is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs ―the chief of it must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books” (110). She understands what Henry cannot: history books, like Gothic novels, are imaginative, yet they fail to encapsulate the potential for human cruelty in the modern world, nor do they cultivate natural judgement as do Gothic novels. Perhaps Eleanor is right when she deems Henry “more nice than wise” (109). In spite of his extensive education, he still has much to learn about humanity and history. By instructing Catherine to put aside her gothic trash and turn to real history, he merely advises the replacement of one fiction for another.

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1817. Ed. Barbara M. Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1995.

Hay, Douglas, and Nicholas Rogers. Eighteenth-Century English Society: Shuttles and Swords. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

O’Gorman, Frank. The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832. London: Arnold, 1997.