All of Jane Austen’s heroines revere reading. Marianne Dashwood quivers over Cowper; Fanny Price, the student of poetry and Chinese travelog immured in Portsmouth, subscribes to a library (MP 156); Anne Elliot, speaking from experience, recommends medicinal prose to the melancholy, rhyme-racked Captain Benwick. Books do more, however, than console the lone reader. Significantly often, Austen represents her heroines’ reading in a social context. Mr. Darcy, noble proprietor of an ancestral library at Pemberley, proposes books as a conversational topic to Elizabeth Bennet as they dance, whereas Miss Bingley, sister of the impatient Bingley who has more books than he ever reads, pulls her away from her reading to flaunt their figures in front of Mr. Darcy. Mr. Knightley identifies Emma by her failure to “read more,” while Emma in turn denigrates Mr. Martin, who reads Elegant Extracts aloud to his family, for forgetting to bring Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest to Harriet Smith (E 37, 29). Nowhere in Austen, however, are reading and its social consequences more central than Northanger Abbey.
In the late eighteenth century and the Regency, reading itself was changing as new kinds of books and new reading venues appeared.1 In place of the traditional private library that contained books owned by the reader that could be reread and mulled over at will, circulating libraries featuring new publications proliferated. These capitalistic ventures lent books by the volume for only days at a time, providing mobile audiences with a onetime reading for a quick fix.2 At the same time, booksellers were issuing books for wide consumption in forms that encouraged rapid, dip-and-skip reading: selections and collections that printed passages from texts recommended by critics and book reviewers like Samuel Johnson. Ranging from sixpenny pamphlets providing a handful of poems to mini-libraries promising the best British literature, these publishers’ innovations commercialized literary culture for diverse readers. Such books promoted a new way of reading: the fast and shallow acquisition of a wide variety of texts to allow women to mimic the “extensive reading” that Darcy endorses as a sign of feminine accomplishment.3 They thus encourage readers to memorize literary fragments to show off their fashionable sensitivity. This cheap use of literature for profit and self-display is one of Austen’s targets in Northanger Abbey.
When she comes to Bath, Catherine Morland has already been shaped by this kind of reading. Despite her natural inclination for the racing pleasures of the plot, she has begun to furnish her mind with literary excerpts, the fashionable testimony of a heroine’s sensitive impressions that is reputedly so impressive to sensitive lovers. Austen’s narrator carefully compares Catherine’s early preference for meaningless “story” with her adolescent addiction to portable quotations. Both, she implies, derive from profiteering booksellers’ practices. In describing Catherine’s maturation into a “heroine” through proper reading, she underscores that “books” serve as labels of romantic vulnerability, rather than sources of information:
provided that nothing like useful information could be gained from them, provided that they were all story and no reflection, [Catherine] had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.
From Pope, she learnt to censure those who
“bear about the mockery of woe.”
From Gray, that
“Many a flower is born to blush unseen,
“And waste its fragrance on the desert air.”
From Thompson, that
—“It is a delightful task
“To teach the young idea how to shoot.”
And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information--amongst the rest, that
—“Trifles light as air,
“Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
“As proofs of Holy Writ.”
“The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
“In corporeal sufferance feels a pang as great
“As when a giant dies.”
And that a young woman in love always looks
—“like Patience on a monument
“Smiling at Grief.” (15-16)
From these recontextualized literary snippets Catherine is intended to learn to value sentimentality, and to use books to nourish feeling. Ironically, however, she never really takes these lessons to heart. Despite such invitations to regard herself as monumentally heroic—invitations Isabella Thorpe gushingly accepts—Catherine learns nothing about herself at all from these profiteering publications.
In this passage, Austen parodies the commercialization of literature not only thematically, but also structurally. The printing format reproduced by this catalogue of quotations mirrors that of current anthologies, and visually represents the atomistic morality they sell. By severing short passages from their original texts and indexing them under popular categories for quick reference, books of “beauties” repackage fashionable texts for readers, especially women, who may use them as Isabella tries to do for social advancement. Although Catherine can “read poetry, and plays, and things of that sort,” and does not “dislike travels,” she prefers narratives that provide “story.” The stories she favors, however, like this poetry, portray idealized women in sentimental attitudes. This fashionable literacy teaches Catherine to seek “beauties” or impressions; the fad for the Gothic exploits her love of “story” to teach her to seek the obvious and the horrid. The unhappy result of her fusion of the lessons learned from these two kinds of commercial literature is her invention of a Gothic mystery to explain events at Northanger, a literary invention that ignores context and probability for impression and sensation.4
Just as publishers exploit sentimentalism by marketing formulaic “beauties,” so the Gothic profits booksellers at the expense of readers.5 Indeed, despite its promotion of altruistic fantasy, the Gothic opened the way for several different kinds of profiteering. The plotting Isabella, who introduces Catherine to the Gothic for her own purposes, epitomizes the cynical use of idealistic fantasy for selfish gain, and serves to show the link between self-interest and the Gothic fad. Even if Isabella turns the Gothic to her own ends, however, nonetheless women did constitute the main clientele of circulating libraries that specialized in fiction, and Austen scarcely wishes to denigrate this taste (Erickson 132). Catherine’s preference for fiction exposes the gender bias of a literary culture that packages male sentiments—by Pope, Gray, Thompson, Shakespeare—for female consumption. Famously in this novel, Austen indicts a marketplace that segregates praise from popularity by rewarding male literature and denigrating novels and heroines. In rebuttal, she defends novels as the products of a female “literary corporation” that requires the support of women both inside and outside the fiction in order to reform the stale taste of male “Reviewers” who advocate the works of “the nine-hundredth abridger of The History of England,” Addison and Steele’s Spectator, Milton, and Prior, and collections of eighteenth century texts (37). Such anthologies reproduce the contents of such libraries as Mr. Darcy’s and Austen’s father’s.6 In attacking the reproduction of this male taste by the book trade for its own profit, Austen indeed suggests that novels can better reward publishers by teaching women a useful morality in a delightful and up-to-date form.
Reading had the important functions in Austen’s world of offering women information, escape, entertainment, camaraderie with other women, and the chance of self-improvement.7 Books were thought to have the power to direct morality, and since women had almost unfettered and unmonitored access to them through circulating libraries, they particularly represented female self-education.8 In general, this education earns Austen’s applause. In their search for fulfillment in society, all of Austen’s characters must learn to shape themselves for happiness both internally and externally. Their taste, feelings, and behavior must not only bring themselves contentment but also promise pleasure to others, whether these others be enforced or chosen companions, a Mrs. Norris, a Mrs. Jennings, a Mr. Collins, or a Mr. Darcy. Such a necessity was especially, but not exclusively, female. “‘Shall we ask [Mr. Darcy] why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?’” Elizabeth Bennet inquires of Colonel Fitzwilliam (P&P 175). The answer, of course, is that men generally had the power to demand that women mold themselves to masculine tastes. Seldom was that power reversed, as even Lady Catherine De Bough discovers. It was up to women to make themselves agreeable. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine does just this by reading what Isabella tells her to read. Here, Austen notes how the educative and communicative power of fiction can be coopted by superficial or selfish fashion. Isabella Thorpe and Catherine found their friendship on their “‘horrid’” taste; Isabella promises they will “‘read the Italian together,’” and the only gift Isabella offers anyone in the novel is the list she compiles for Catherine of Gothic mysteries (40). By this act, however, Isabella (who is hunting James Morland) does not establish female comradeship but dominance. She intends to keep Catherine addicted to fantasy, and Catherine, already preferring story to sentiment, is a willing victim. Among the fantasies of this fiction is that of disinterested friendship, the sort that Isabella professes for Catherine. In its place, Isabella uses reading to ensnare Catherine in her plot.
Isabella models the cynical use of literature as fashionable display, a commodity to be conspicuously consumed, rather than a resource to consult for self-improvement. The Regency offered women many consumable pleasures, like inexpensive jewelry, art, curiosities, and borrowable books, and these items became sites where middle-class consumers fashioned and flaunted their social identities by conditioning or condoning desire: whereas Charlotte eschews brooches in Sanditon in order to keep some “‘Money’” for the rest of her visit (MW 390), Lydia Bennet succumbs to the wares of a hat shop, buying one despite its being “ugly” so that as a result she cannot treat her returning sisters to dinner (P&P 219). Books were one of the most important of such items—and one dear to Jane Austen’s heart—partly because reading, as Colin Campbell points out, is simultaneously public and private, an act that colors the reader’s imagination yet also joins the reader with her society (40-57). Moreover, in the world of commercialized luxuries, reading can distinguish moral from mercenary values. Austen dramatizes this point briefly in The Watsons by depicting books as Emma Watson’s escape both from her society’s “hard-hearted prosperity, low-minded conceit, and wrong-headed folly” and from her own dissatisfaction (MW 361). Literature also diverts her from present pain: “when Thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past & the present, the employment of the mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, made her thankfully turn to a book.” Similarly, Fanny Price, eluding the degradations of Portsmouth, indicates her elite internality by joining a subscription library and introducing her sister Susan to books. Isabella Thorpe, however, recites horrid titles (albeit not alphabetically) as if they were listed in a circulating library catalogue. To Isabella, literature merely represents fashion and fun.
Although Austen recognizes that books can offer healthy escape, she shows that they also mold imagination. What matters is not only what is read, but how it is read. Modern critics have attacked Catherine for her lack of critical distance from her reading, seeing her immersion as the epitome of romantic reading in which experience replaces reality that Darnton has identified with Rousseau. But she is not alone. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe, even while he boasts in masculine style of his equine superiority, like Catherine Morland fails to differentiate “nature” and fiction. After scoffing at novels as “nonsense” in a terse version of the conventional complaint, he praises Tom Jones in the same breath as The Monk, linking lurid horror and adventure fiction as similar, male fantasy escape novels. Similarly, he fails to identity Radcliffe as a romance novelist when he praises her works as “worth reading” not for their romance but for their “fun and nature” (48-49). His confusion of the Gothic and the “natural” adumbrates the mistake in judgment he makes that spurs Austen’s own plot in Northanger Abbey: the assumption that Catherine will inherit Mr. Allen’s fortune. This error also symbolizes his feminized position. Like his sister Isabella, he is spouse-stalking, seeking his fortune by marriage, not work, hoping for financial rescue for his charms, not his worth.9
John Thorpe offers another model of the wrong way to read. The terms in which he denigrates Burney’s Camilla reveal that, like his sister, he reads according to fashion: “‘I took up the first volume once, and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it’” (49). Rumors of the author’s social breach have reached Thorpe’s ears, and he approaches her work only in order to confirm his prejudices. His description of his procedure further reveals the flaws in his style of reading: he explains that he discards the book because the “first volume” alone does not supply him with sufficient thrills. This detail suggests that Thorpe encountered the work in the Bath circulating library, where subscribers, charged by the volume and the time they take to read it, are encouraged to prefer quick reads and to return books quickly. This venue values books by quantity, rather than quality, but the failure to engage with a novel’s content is as much a failure of the reader as a flaw of the work or context. Isabella reports that her friend Miss Andrews “‘could not get through the first volume’” of Sir Charles Grandison, a book that Catherine’s mother, Mrs. Morland, in contrast, regularly rereads, and therefore very probably owns (42). Both the circulating library venue of fashionable Bath and the shallow reader enforce a reading that dips and skims through novels, looking for effects and sentiments, or for quick and sensational plots.
To clarify her important distinctions between kinds of authors, fictions, and readers, Austen’s narrator openly praises Burney in her famous defense of novels early in the book. The ignorant Catherine, however, has not read even Camilla. When she asks Thorpe for details, he bluffs, “‘it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man’s playing at see-saw and learning Latin’“ (49). Thorpe understands the book according to its vignettes and dialogue, not its plot or interpretation. Manifestly not “horrid” in the technical sense, like The Monk or Radcliffe’s novels, Burney’s book demands a kind of reading Thorpe cannot manage: an act of steady concentration that seeks not for sensation but for meaning. This laudable reading is not for social approval but for individual improvement, and it depends both on the author’s skill and on the reader’s attention to authorial tone and commentary. As Narelle Shaw has suggested, Austen develops this through style indirect libre, a distinctive feature of Austen’s own mature writing that may characterize the revisions of Northanger Abbey for the 1816 edition (592, 597).10 By parodying various sorts of bad reading in Thorpe, Austen advertises the new kind of novel she supplies—not Gothic, but nonetheless psychological—and hints at the way to read it.
If Thorpe reads for portable, boastable beauties, Catherine, newly initiated by Isabella into reading for pleasure, abandons this method for the opposite extreme. She apparently loses her sense of reality, social placement, even duty in her reading. After a day’s planning, “Catherine was then left to the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho, lost from all worldly concerns of dressing and dinner, incapable of soothing Mrs. Allen’s fears on the delay of an expected dressmaker ” (51). While the narrator’s description may seem to recapitulate trite exhortations against reading as idleness, Austen finds something touching, even admirable, in Catherine’s single-minded reading. Catherine’s immersion in fiction contrasts sharply with the Thorpes’ immersion in finance. Whereas Catherine is “lost” in an ideal world of virtuous characters and high-flown motives, the Thorpes never lose sight for a moment of their golden goal. While both the General and the Thorpes “read” Mr. Allen’s friendship to the Morlands as wrongly as Catherine reads their friendship with her, Catherine’s imaginative engagement has virtues unknown to the Thorpes. She sees only disinterest; they see only interest.
Catherine’s reading differs from the Thorpes’ in a still more significant way. Not only does she construe high instead of low motives, but she engages the Gothic in the service of friendship. Her childish absorption is orchestrated by Isabella. When “the two friends” meet at the Pump Room one morning, Isabella asks her whether she has “‘gone on with Udolpho?’” After Catherine replies, “‘Yes, I have been reading [The Mysteries of Udolpho] ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil,’” Isabella prompts her curiosity: “‘Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?’” (39). Obediently, Catherine does become as “wild to know” as her timidity permits, and, furthermore, wild to know only in the way her friend directs: by means of the experience of reading, not by conversation:
“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be?—But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.” (39-40)
Catherine’s affectionate gratitude—the very charm that wins Henry Tilney—makes her an easy victim of Isabella’s manipulation. Here, as repeatedly in her social dilemmas throughout the novel, her loyalty and friendship conquer her desire to indulge private pleasures. It is as much its power to please Isabella as its own artistry that make the book wonderful to her. Despite her inability to see the skeleton behind the black veil, Isabella’s real face beneath her friendly mask, Catherine’s reading remains a (gendered) form of socialization.
The conflict between impressionistic and sequential reading culminates at the novel’s end. Austen’s narrator denies the reader a sensational ending by omitting the reunion of Henry and Catherine, as well as the conversion of the General. In this she glosses the practice of Frances Burney, who repudiates the suggestion that she change the ending of Cecilia by claiming that if she did, “the last page in any novel in Mr. Noble’s circulating library may serve for the last page of mine, since a marriage, a reconciliation, and some hidden expedient for great riches concludes them all alike.”11 Austen supplies all this, but she is content to clear up the mystery of the General’s behavior by a rapid summary of his reliance on Thorpe’s fantasies and his belated disillusionment. The pleasure of understanding the ironic reversal is left to the careful and astute reader who notices that the General, “terrified&” by disappointed greed, has been a victim of hope-gilded romance—and is therefore, as much as the novel-reading John Thorpe and Catherine herself, deluded by false reading (246).
Austen prods her reader to manufacture her or his own ending in accordance with probability. In place of scenes of melodramatic confession or ironic epiphany, Austen outlines the complex methods by which her heroine learns the truth.
I leave it to my reader’s sagacity to determine how much of all this it was possible for Henry to communicate at this time to Catherine, how much of it he could have learnt from his father, in what points his own conjectures might assist him, and what portion must yet remain to be told in a letter from James. I have united for their ease what they must divide for mine. (247)
Austen underscores here that in realistic fiction, as in life, right reading requires concentration over time and the judicious weighing of many sources and kinds of information, not a quick fix. Catherine, however, still lacks this capacity. While recanting her designation of General Tilney as a Gothic tyrant, she secretly returns to a categorical moral impressionism: “Catherine . . . heard enough to feel, that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty“ (247). Her evaluation of character remains valid, but her method of reading returns to the incident-glutted sensationalism of romance—itself, as Claudia L. Johnson points out, an ironic commentary on society (48). It is left for Austen’s own reader to take the long view fostered by her own method narrative realism.
Books of beauties, circulating libraries, and the use of literature for fashionable display all stimulated not merely the commercialization of literature, but a new way of reading: textual skimming. Austen’s resistance to Gothic conventions of female literacy indicates that it was not only readers who were shaped by this pressure to read for a quick fix. Authors, too, dependent on circulating libraries and on readers accustomed to their wares, felt the pressure to make fiction fast and easy. If this were true of all fiction writers, it was especially true of women whose work found a profitable market in the circulating library. However, in Northanger Abbey Jane Austen aims to define a way of reading in contrast to the Thorpes’ consumerism and to Catherine’s shallow addiction to plot. She uses Radcliffe’s Gothic fictions in their fashionable commercial context to symbolize texts that prompt shallow reading that sees and seeks only the self in the mirror of the world. This superficiality of perspective characterizes Emily St. Aubert’s “reading” in The Mysteries of Udolpho when she peers behind the black veil and, seeing a representation of death, a wax statue, interprets it as a corpse.12 She is mistaking a memento mori for death itself, seeing not the eternal meaning but the transient manifestation. In contrast to such sensationalistic impressionism, Austen advocates a moral model of reading in which the reader penetrates the intricate causal connections of characters and events. This reading discovers in novels “the Art of Life” that Fielding recommends in Amelia (17). Northanger Abbey dramatizes the difference between these ways of reading through contrasting the narrative perspective with the characters’ delusions, and offers the reader in the end the right way to read—and the right book: Northanger Abbey itself.
1. See Darnton’s argument that new readers read for moral experience (226-28). See also Raven’s analysis of the commercialization of novels.
2. See Hamlyn 218-21 and Stewart-Murphy 11. Erickson claims that novels were and remain transient pleasures, but the establishment of a critical industry around fiction, the high reputation it now enjoys, and the regular reprinting of thousands of novels suggest the contrary: only in the limited historical moment of the zenith of the circulating library were novels produced to be consumed and “forgotten” (132).
3. DeMaria suggests that the explosion of printed information enforced this new kind of reading. Also see Benedict, “Pictures of Conformity,” 317-18.
4. Whether one interprets Catherine as totally deluded by the fantasies of fiction, or metaphorically quite right in reading the General as a murderer, or whether one reads Austen as contrasting England and Italy or comparing them as networks of “voluntary spies,” Catherine still confuses her modern context with that of fiction.
5. Ford notes the tension between economics and romance in Sanditon, with its central icon of the circulating library (178-79).
6. See Doody 350-51, and Austen’s Letters 23-24 September 1813; 10-11 January 1819; and others; see also Benedict, Making the Modern Reader: 210-12.
7. I explore in more depth the uses of reading and especially of circulating libraries for women in “Jane Austen and the Culture of Circulating Libraries: The Construction of Female Literacy,” forthcoming in Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century “Women’s Fiction” and Social Engagement, ed. Paula R. Backscheider (Baltimore: JHU, 1999). 220-92.
8. See Fritzer and Devlin.
9. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility has a similar dilemma, emasculated and made useless by his snobbish and domineering mother who refuses to permit him to work, except in unsuitable capacities.
10. See Fergus for anextended discussion of Austen’s adjustments to literary fashion.
11. Stewart-Murphy 53; Letter to Dr. Crisp, 6 April 1782, qtd. in Hamlyn 204.
12. Austen mocks this pictorial approach, a peculiar characteristic of Radcliffe’s own style, in Northanger Abbey, not only through Catherine, but also by her mundane physical descriptions of the Abbey and the desk containing the laundry list. See Benedict, “Pictures of Continuity”: 364.
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_____. Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1979.
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_____. “Pictures of Conformity: Sentiment and Structure in Ann Radcliffe’s Style.” Philological Quarterly 68 (1990): 363-77.
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