PERSUASIONS ON-LINE

V.20, NO.1

“Of Course You Can Trust Me!”: Jane Austen’s Narrator in Northanger Abbey

  HENRY N. ROGERS III

Henry N. Rogers III (email: rustyr@mail.uca.edu) is Professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas. He has written on James and Trollope, Thackeray, Defoe, Dickens, and most recently on Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell.

When teaching Northanger Abbey in a seminar on Jane Austen recently, I asked for responses to the novel’s concluding, melodramatic section—Catherine’s sudden and inexplicable expulsion from the Abbey by General Tilney, her anguished journey home, her "rescue" by Henry Tilney, and the eventual explanation and resolution of these occurrences. A young woman answered, "It made me mad, and then it made me mad that it made me mad." That is, she was first frustrated—"made mad"—by the deflating, anticlimactic explanation for General Tilney’s "monstrous" conduct. Her "mad" was compounded by the realization that, in this of all novels, she should have been so foolish as to anticipate any fulfillment of Gothic, romantic expectations, to expect anything other than the mundane, "realistic" explanation that she received. My student’s reaction so mirrored my own that such a shared response immediately suggested it was one deliberately elicited by Jane Austen, and that to discover how and why she accomplishes this might provide insight into this elusive novel. Indeed, what emerges from such an investigation of this response—its causes, effects, and implications—is an awareness that in a novel whose action and meaning are, as Katrin Ristkok Burlin has pointed out, concerned with the "theme of fiction" and based on various fictions (89), Jane Austen has placed one more, a fiction created specifically, uniquely for the reader—in part created by the reader. It is a fiction Austen writes, but doesn’t, an action she begins, but leaves us to finish, as she knows we will, in the manner she knows we will. And it’s a setup. She knows it, we come to know it, and she makes us like it, learn from it, and so experience her fiction in a much richer way.

It is hardly surprising that Jane Austen’s narrator is central to this issue. As Alan McKillop has noted, she "interposes herself as in no other of her works" (56), and she presides over a novel that Rubinstein finds in its rhetorical complexity "quite without antecedent in British fiction" (434). From what Burlin calls her "astonishingly aggressive authorial ‘intrusion’" to defend the novel genre "to her noisy re-entrance at the end" (89), she is always, though at times less obtrusively, there—a persona adapted to various narrative functions and impressed upon the reader to guide his responses to herself and to the work she shapes.

The narrator’s roles in Northanger Abbey are varied. She is a parodist of Gothic and sentimental romance who creates and then defeats conventional fictional expectations. She is a brilliantly ironic, unfailingly witty satiric commentator on all persons and things deserving her scrutiny. She is also a "straight" narrative voice of reason and "sense" speaking directly and incisively to her audience. And if Austen’s control of her narrator is not flawless—the famous defense of the novel is at least partially supported by a soapbox—it is still masterful. The narrative voice is also one of amazing consistency. Throughout Northanger Abbey, the narrator assiduously cultivates a personal relationship with her reader; it follows that understanding that relationship is critical to our comprehension of Jane Austen’s handling of her readers—of us.

This narrator-reader relationship is begun immediately, and the first chapter illustrates a pattern typical in some important ways of the narrative method in Northanger Abbey. It begins with parody, which depends upon, in Mary Lascelles’s words, "a deliberately contrived antithesis between the worlds of actuality and illusion" (68). Austen’s brilliant sendups of Gothic and romance conventions—especially of Catherine as heroine—in the novel’s early sections are too well known to need reiterating here. But through her satire, the narrator establishes a rhetorical strategy that inevitably tends to distance her reader from Catherine, for to laugh at or through her is to perceive her with some degree of objectivity. At the same time the narrator pulls the reader into a closer relationship. She creates a sense of intimacy with her audience in the novel’s initial statement: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine" (13). She does not contemplate differences with her reader elsewhere, for her narration is pervaded by her confidence in his understanding, acquiescence to her views, and reliance upon her guidance. Such trust naturally inspires confidence in return, which is enhanced by the flattering awareness that the narrator assumes his knowledge, perception, and intelligence.

The reader, then, addressed by a narrator whose assumption of an intimate relationship creates just such a bond, responds with that narrator—always from at least a slight distance. As Lloyd Brown notes, the narrator’s views, and the reader’s, draw closer to Catherine’s, but they are never fully integrated (216). Narrator and confidant/reader always know more than Catherine, even after her most preposterous illusions are dispelled. Catherine is always good for a laugh, or smile, at least: "Such a strain of shallow artifice [Isabella’s last letter] could not impose even upon Catherine" (218). The reader is moved closer to her, cares about her—but, as John Odmark comments, can’t ever take her completely seriously (46-51).

Thus, in his relationship with the narrator and her story, the reader becomes confident, secure—even smug. Up to a certain point this complacency appears justified—but there’s the rub. Jane Austen takes him beyond that point. Blessed with "good natural parts," having been schooled by parody, satire, and Catherine’s own education, the reader nonetheless falls into the trap triggered by General Tilney’s violent expulsion of Catherine from Northanger Abbey. Yet he doesn’t suddenly yearn for Gothic fulfillment because of obtuseness or stupidity—just the contrary. Austen counts on those very qualities of perception, imagination, and reason that should apparently prevent such a lapse. If the reader is stupid, it won’t work—her narrative strategy is defeated, her intentions imperfectly realized. So that response is artfully prepared for and evoked, and the intimate personal relationship with the narrator proves essential to the process.

There are several means by which the reader is "set up," conditioned to respond as he does. Gothic and romance possibilities are repeatedly being raised and seemingly laughed out of existence, a process that simultaneously "cures" the reader of any predilection toward such illusions and leads him on. To even suggest such potentialities is imaginatively to render them part of reality—that is, as possibilities. And these suggested patterns of action and behavior are often completed, though not within the conventions of romance. Catherine, in fact, fills almost all the roles for which she is initially found unsuited. She does have adventures in strange places, she does find a lover, she is carried off in a carriage—not once but twice—she does, at last, become a heroine—and always, Gothic and romance conventions are displaced, exposed as illusory. If such displacement has significance for one of the novel’s major themes—the ambiguous, perhaps finally indeterminate boundary between illusion and reality—it also continues to suggest, however tentatively, the possibility of Gothic consummation. Indeed, even after most overt satire of fictional delusion is over, the narrator herself imagines potentially romantic situations not even conceived of by a girl steeped in Radcliffian lore. This becomes suggestive of another purpose besides the satiric—to keep the reader cognizant of Gothic convention and by implication its potential reality. And Henry Tilney’s extravagant sendup of Catherine and Eleanor’s confusion about "horrors from London" offers more specific evidence that the improbable may be actual. As Burlin indicates, Henry’s comments, which are specific references to the Gordon Riots (100), demonstrate concretely that what appears wildly imaginative and implausible may in fact be reality.

Thus the narrator manipulates the elements of her story—including her audience—to convince that audience that her fiction and real life are governed by the dictates of reason and probability. At the same time she conditions the reader to respond as though just the opposite were true—when she chooses he shall. The crucial feature in the conditioning process is of course General Tilney. The narrator takes great care that he remains the only Gothic element that is not undercut or explained away until late in the novel, and his moodiness, domestic tyranny, and oppressive presence are not inconsistent with Gothic convention. Catherine’s final Gothic throes at the Abbey do not lead to full illumination; while Henry’s chastisement so mortifies her that "Catherine was completely awakened" (199), it leaves his father essentially unrevealed. The grounds for the reader’s continued speculation are intact—amplified, in fact.

Following Catherine’s "awakening," "The anxieties of common life began soon to succeed to the alarms of romance" (201). But what succeeds a fantasy murder is a very real seduction—Frederick Tilney runs away with Isabella, James Morland’s fiancée, and Catherine’s grief over her brother’s loss is real, not the product of self-delusion. The timing is exquisite; the line separating "common life" and "romance" grows more, not less, indefinite, and more suspicions concerning General Tilney are insinuated. Catherine’s naive remarks at times generate suggestive reactions from Henry and Eleanor: "‘Your father is so very liberal! He told me… he valued only money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children.’ The brother and sister looked at each other" (205). Such ironic restraint implies things beneath the surface, and the narrator is in this regard conspicuously silent. She seems to withhold nothing, but only General Tilney is deliberately kept so long ambiguous that the reader will, when the moment comes, create around the General a fiction as illusory as those he has learned to ridicule.

That moment comes, obviously, when General Tilney suddenly expels Catherine from Northanger Abbey. From then until Henry’s final explanation, events appear to fall perfectly into the patterns of Gothic romance. Catherine’s long night of genuine anguish, her solitary journey home, her days of suffering there, even her rescue by the noble Henry all fit comfortably into the conventional forms of fiction. All are real, not delusions, and the reader’s eagerness to make them the stuff of romance is heightened by melodramatic trappings. Catherine’s bed chamber "was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers," and this time "Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability" (227). Of course the reader succumbs. The narrator’s ironic perspective is suspended only during this climactic sequence, and that is more than sufficient to spring the trap. Even within a fictional context clearly governed by reason and plausibility, the reader leaps to misinterpret General Tilney as soon as such conclusions seem, like Catherine’s suffering, grounded in probability. Those actions that now unfold match the new romantic fiction the reader is creating—only the final revelation of the General’s surely Gothic villainy is still to come. What Henry reveals, of course, is not an enigmatic figure of evil, but a petty, utterly selfish man motivated solely by very unromantic greed. His conduct is consistent with the role of Gothic villain the reader has constructed for him, but it is also consistent with who he is. The General deserves some credit—his intentions are bad. He tries to be a Machiavelli, a Montoni, but he cannot; he can only be a "trivial" villain marked by the fatal flaw of being perfectly understandable.

Such a discovery creates the final stage in what Brown calls Austen’s "strategy of ironic anticlimax" (217). Now, however, implications are altered. Conventional forms are again parodied, and this time the reader no longer merely observes, but participates, for he created the fiction that was not. His response is new, for his judgment, not Catherine’s, has been at fault. That it has been so is doubly frustrating, since novel and narrator have seemed to work unceasingly to prevent such delusion. Thus the reader himself experiences a disappointment, a letdown, rather than simply watching and perhaps laughing at it—he is "mad" both because he is let down and because he allowed himself to be so. And his perplexity is complicated because the nature and causes of his "error" remain difficult to determine. We have seen, I think, all these things—the responses, their sources, the controlling hand of the narrator. We can also see that their essential effect is to add another dimension to the reader’s inclusive experience of Northanger Abbey and so to its meanings as well.

Certainly the reader’s particular experience as would-be author of conventional unrealistic fiction illustrates that the dichotomy of what Brown calls "the worlds of actuality and illusion" is far from absolute (199). That relationship between illusion and reality is tenuous, sometimes uncertain, and it may change with each individual’s shifting balance of reason and imagination. Still, there is no doubt that it must be determined as nearly as possible. The underlying principles of the narrator’s perspective are stated explicitly in Henry’s admonition to Catherine: "‘Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you’" (197). But if reason should rule, imagination itself is not an illusion, it too is a part of reality. "Raised" imagination must be controlled and directed by reason and experience, but—Catherine’s mother is a prime example—no imagination is not good. As Henry states, then, maturity, knowledge, and self-awareness can lead toward a balance of reason and imagination with which one may best encounter the world. There are no final answers—as Rubinstein notes, all "tidy formulations" of human experience are inadequate (440). Indeed, Susan Morgan locates the subject of Austen’s fiction in "the problem of perception"(7), "the relation between the mind and its object"(5). In Northanger Abbey, the reader’s own would-be fiction exemplifies that problem. He, shaped by the narrator, is reasonable, perceptive, experienced—yet he does what he laughs at Catherine for doing. And that changes the nature of laughter in the novel, for to laugh at her is by implication to laugh at oneself, at the realization that, no more than Catherine, can the reader always judge aright, always know a constant truth in what Richard Patteson calls the "least epistemologically determinate of all Austen’s novels" (467). Such thematic issues, then, are given additional resonance and meaning by the reader’s creative—and created—misadventures in fiction.

But the narrator who arranged those matters makes certain that they—and all things in Northanger Abbey—retain the perspective she has chosen. Her presence is quieter and less intrusive during much of the story’s latter portions, but as soon as Catherine starts homeward from the Abbey, she again parodies romance convention, and her wit and humor become flashier, warning that the reader’s Gothic expectations will be disappointed. There develops a new element in the narrator-reader relationship now. As Claudia Johnson points out, "Austen draws attention to the artificiality... of her conclusion"(48). For the first time, she emphasizes that her story is a fiction—a more realistic, better kind of fiction than those she parodies, but a fiction nonetheless. Catherine may be a plausible rather than a romantic heroine, but she too comes from "the pen of the contriver." Tara Ghoshal Wallace believes that "Austen in the last pages of Northanger Abbey issues an open invitation to the reader to resist her authorial control"(273), but Austen calls attention to the blatant artifice of her conclusion only after she has manipulated the reader into apparently taking over that control and creating a fiction that won’t work, that doesn’t in fact exist in the world of the novel. The ending’s artificiality actually reinforces the narrator’s dominance—in Frank Kearful’s view, making her "Prospero-like" (526), playfully controlling the illusion she has created. She refers to her narrative as "my fable"; her story has meaning, but it is not real, and those characters and events it contains should not be taken too seriously: "Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled" (252).

Thus as the narrator self-consciously reveals awareness of her creative role, she further distances herself and the reader not only, as before, from Catherine and the events of the story, but even from their actuality. And for the first time she emphasizes her own limitations as storyteller and guide. She cannot create reality or even make Catherine a different kind of heroine; indeed, she must call upon the reader for aid: "I leave it to my reader’s sagacity" (247). Emphatically—and now ironically—she stresses the perception, judgment, even the creative power of the readers she has just deceived, readers "who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity" (250).

This previously unacknowledged sense of the narrator’s fallibility affects her relationship to the reader in several ways. Rather than inviting him to resist her control, it enables him to more fully understand the nature of the fictional enterprise they are both involved in. Her assumed narrative limitations tend to bind them more intimately than ever, placing them on a more even footing. It also lightens the seriousness of the reader’s imaginative folly, for if the guide upon whom he has depended is imperfect, so much less blamable are the errors of the guided. She is deliberately imperfect, of course, providing herself an "out" for having perfectly led the reader into that folly. Her powers are limited, too. If the reader errs, it isn’t her fault. It is, but it can’t be proven, she can’t be pinned down. And the inference is clear: all are in the same boat—narrator, reader, the characters in the story—attempting to balance reason and imagination, distinguish reality from illusion, and all are fallible. The narrator also makes evident that while such meanings are significant, they are not to become too important. Her story is only that after all, a fiction, an illusion created in part for instruction, but primarily for fun. It may be learned from, but it must be laughed at. If the reader is led into becoming a part of the fiction instead of simply its observer, he can learn from and laugh at that, too. If a part of the narrator’s fun has been playing the reader for a bit of a fool, that is a small price to pay. Give credit where it is due. It is no easy task to make one an ass, and be thanked for it.… by the ass.

Thus to understand that initial response to the conclusion of Northanger Abbey—being made mad, and then being mad because of being made mad—is to more fully discover the narrative intentions and artistry that created it. At first glance the narrator’s reversion to her earlier intrusive persona may appear awkward and inappropriate. Yet the brilliant artifice of the ending and its implications support Fleishman’s contention that it should not be judged by the "expectations of a consistent realist style" (35). Austen knew it would be; that becomes part of her point. She counts upon it, since she has created an essentially realistic fiction while she has satirically played upon the expected conventions of romance. She at last calls into question the limitations of that fiction and the values of reason and understanding it advocates. They are better, even best, but they are neither absolute nor fully attainable. The mastery of the narrator makes this a truth the reader knows, not because he has been told or seen it dramatized, but because he has experienced it.

That experiencing, being made a participant in the novel—an unwitting composer of part of it—is finally of most importance. The reader’s larger response to the novel is inevitably different because he has been seduced into active involvement with the work—not so much with its characters and events as with their creation. His response is therefore more complex and personal. The narrator-reader relationship cannot end as it began—the reader’s former complacency is impossible—but what has passed between them makes it richer and more resonant. They end nearer in experience and, therefore, in understanding.

Obviously, discerning more about the nature and achievement of Jane Austen’s narrative art does not resolve all critical questions about Northanger Abbey. It does reveal a consistency, a coherency of vision and intention that informs the narrative purpose, and it elicits sheer appreciation of such a narrator. Park Honan derogatorily calls her "a lithe and slithery eel of great energy," who "often lacks an appropriate tone" (141). He makes the point even as he misses it. Only by being bound to and maneuvered by the "lithe and slithery eel" can a reader hope to discover what an "appropriate tone" might be within complex worlds of illusion and reality, imagination and reason, whether they are fictional or real—or both. And in regard to such matters, joined with that narrator in a final ironic but confident grasp of what she has been about, the reader can say, in the words of the eel, "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern" (252).

Thus Northanger Abbey is, much in the narrative tradition of Fielding, Sterne, and later Thackeray, the work of a great artist at serious play, one whose narrator places the reader—places us—both in and out of the game, involving us in her world in ways that bring awareness of our own—as creators of a fiction that does not exist, as subjects of the fiction that does.

 

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969. Brown, Lloyd. W. Bits of Ivory. Baton Rouge: LSUP, 1973.
Burlin, Katrin Ristkok. ‘"The Pen of the Contriver’: The Four Fictions of Northanger Abbey." Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. Ed. John Halperin. Cambridge: CUP, 1975. 89-111. Fleishman, Avrom. Fiction and the Ways of Knowing. Austin: UTP, 1978.
Hardy, Barbara. A Reading of Jane Austen. New York: NYUP, 1976. Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: Fawcett, 1987.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel . Chicago: UCP, 1988. Kearful, Frank J. "Satire and the Form of the Novel: The Problem of Aesthetic Unity in Northanger Abbey." ELH 32 (1965): 511-27.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford UP, 1939. McKillop, Alan D. "Critical Realism in Northanger Abbey." Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Ian Wat. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1963. 52-62.
Morgan, Susan. In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction.   Chicago: UCP, 1980. Odmark, John. An Understanding of Jane Austen’s Novels. Oxford: Basil, 1981.
Patteson, Richard F. "Truth, Certitude, and Stability in Jane Austen’s Fiction." Philological Quarterly Fall (1981): 455-69. Rubinstein, E. Northanger Abbey: The Elder Morland and ‘John Homespun.’" Papers on Language and Literature 5 Fall (1969): 434-40.
Wallace, Tara Ghoshal. "Northanger Abbey and the Limits of Parody." Studies in the Novel  Fall (1988): 262-73. Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel." Los Angeles: CUP, 1965.

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