PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.31, NO.1 (Winter 2010)

Is Catherine a Lightweight? In Defense of Austen’s “Ignorant and Uninformed” Seventeen-Year-Old Heroine

David H. Bell


Since his recent retirement from Sacramento State University, where he taught graduate seminars in Austen’s novels for nearly forty years, David Bell (email: has been working with the Sacramento Public Library on an series of programs called “How Austentatious.”  He is a life member of JASNA.


During the many years I taught graduate seminars in Jane Austen’s novels, my attitude toward Northanger Abbey was one of mild condescension.  To my students I would suggest that Northanger is a less than completely successful attempt to merge parody and social realism—the work of an apprentice writer still learning her trade.  The parodies of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest have always struck me as a bit tedious; and to confess the shocking truth, when I reread the novel I usually skip over the description of that dark and stormy night during which Catherine explores the secrets of the black cabinet.  The housemaid’s arrival to open the shutters and let in the morning sun is, indeed, a welcome relief.  But I have a more serious confession to make as well.  Leaving aside the Gothic parody, I have been guilty in years past of underestimating this early work because I have underestimated its heroine, too quickly dismissing her as a lightweight, just an ordinary seventeen-year-old girl with an “ignorant and uninformed” mind (18), much less interesting than any of the heroines who follow.  In this matter I now realize that I have sinned against Austen’s genius, and I offer the following defense of Catherine Morland as an act of contrition.


Catherine is easy to underestimate because she seems to lack many of the qualities Austen requires of a heroine.  From the Dashwood sisters to Anne Elliot, all of Austen’s later heroines, even those who make serious errors in judgment, are unusually intelligent.  Most possess other gifts as well (Marianne is a talented musician, for instance; Elinor, a talented artist). Catherine, on the other hand, “never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.”  Her music lessons are a failure.  “She learnt a year, and could not bear it;—and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off” (14).  Moreover, Catherine appears to lack penetration.  It is inconceivable that any of Austen’s other heroines would have difficulty seeing through Isabella Thorpe; her duplicity is so transparent.  The reader recognizes immediately what Isabella is about, and we watch with amused detachment as Catherine is duped.  Obviously, Catherine is not the only heroine to be taken in by duplicity, but the difference is that when Elizabeth Bennet is taken in by Wickham, or Emma by Frank Churchill, the reader is taken in as well.  In these two later novels we make the same mistakes as the heroines, and we share with them the mortification of discovering that we aren’t as perceptive as we had assumed.  Their humiliation is also our humiliation.  But to Catherine we feel superior from the start; her mistakes elicit from us a knowing chuckle rather than the uncomfortable pangs of self-awareness.


The Gothic parody also gets in the way of appreciating Catherine.  In style and tone Northanger Abbey is more closely connected to the juvenilia than to Emma or even Pride and Prejudice, and at times Austen seems less interested in developing Catherine’s character than in taking jabs at Mrs. Radcliffe’s melodramatic excesses.  But for all the youthful exuberance of its author and its heroine, Northanger Abbey introduces a theme which is central to Austen’s fiction and which she will explore again and again in her mature works:  how much influence can one person legitimately exert over the decisions of another?  In its lighthearted way Northanger Abbey makes a notable contribution to Austen’s career-long exploration of the ethics of persuasion.


All of Jane Austen’s books are about people making choices.  Her fictional world is inhabited by free agents who must deliberate and act, and, if they choose unwisely, bear the consequences of their poor judgment.  Like Milton’s, her books are a celebration of man’s free will, but also like Milton’s, they are a warning against a facile belief in our own self-sufficiency and infallibility.  If we are to act wisely, we need the help of others, and we should seek out the advice of those from whose knowledge of life we may benefit.  There is nothing wrong with either asking advice or giving it.  Indeed, there are situations when a parent or older friend is obliged to give advice, for it is an older adult’s duty to help a young person develop good judgment.


But Austen’s heroines frequently find themselves without the guidance of responsible adults when they most need it.  Consider the number of inadequate parents we encounter in Austen’s novels—Mrs. Dashwood, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (both irresponsible parents, though for very different reasons), Mr. Woodhouse, Sir Walter Elliot. Fanny Price’s real parents are obviously deficient, but her surrogate ones are not much better—Lady Bertram is of no use at all, Mrs. Norris is a monster, and even Sir Thomas rarely has her best interests at heart.  Two heroines have more enlightened surrogate mothers, but Miss Taylor is more Emma’s companion than her guardian, and Lady Russell is too impressed by rank and wealth to provide Anne Elliot with reliable advice.  Far too often Austen’s heroines must make their way in the world without trustworthy adults to whom they can turn for help.  Catherine Morland is no exception.


As the novel opens, the young, inexperienced girl journeys to Bath as the guest of close family friends who assume the role of guardians.  Mr. Allen, “a sensible, intelligent man” (20), is perhaps capable of fulfilling that role and does give her some good advice after the fact.  But because he spends as little time as possible in the company of his silly wife, he is never around when Catherine needs him, and Mrs. Allen’s response to Catherine’s pleas for guidance is “‘Do just as you please, my dear’” (61; cf. 86).  Later, when they are discussing with Mr. Allen the ill-advised excursion with the Thorpes, Catherine tries to make Mrs. Allen understand the nature of her responsibilities:


“Dear madam, . . . then why did not you tell me so before?  I am sure if I had known it to be improper, I would not have gone with Mr. Thorpe at all; but I always hoped you would tell me, if you thought I was doing wrong.”

“And so I should, my dear, you may depend on it; for as I told Mrs. Morland at parting, I would always do the best for you in my power.  But one must not be over particular.  Young people will be young people, as your good mother says herself.  You know I wanted you, when we first came, not to buy that sprigged muslin, but you would.  Young people do not like to be always thwarted.”

“But this was something of real consequence; and I do not think you would have found me hard to persuade.”  (104-05)


“‘I do not think you would have found me hard to persuade.’”  Catherine wants to act rightly, but she is young and often needs guidance.  This is a perilous world; there will always be people ready to offer counsel to the heroine, people trying to influence her decisions.  All of Austen’s novels—not just the last one—are about the consequences of such attempts.  One of Austen’s finest achievements as a novelist is the rigor with which she explores the ethical questions inherent in one person’s attempt to influence the conduct of another.  When does one have the right to exert such influence, and what tactics is one justified in using to pursue this goal?  Do certain combinations of tactics and circumstances transform persuasion into coercion?  Is a person ever justified in imposing his or her will on another?  Questions like these are explored with great subtlety in Austen’s mature fiction (consider, for example, the influence that Emma exerts over Harriet Smith, or that almost everyone at Mansfield—Edmund, Mrs. Norris, Mary and Henry Crawford, Sir Thomas—attempts to exert over Fanny), but such questions are also central to Northanger Abbey.  In two scenes which almost seem to foreshadow scenes that Austen will write later in her career, Catherine must confront a concerted effort by those claiming to love her to persuade her to abandon her principles.


On the afternoon that John Thorpe arrives unannounced to drive her to Bristol, Catherine has previously committed herself to walk with the Tilneys.  But it has been raining, and the Tilneys have not yet arrived.  Though tempted by the chance to visit Blaize Castle, Catherine is firm in her refusal:  “‘I cannot go, because . . . I expect Miss Tilney and her brother to call on me to take a country walk.  They promised to come at twelve, only it rained; but now as it is so fine, I dare say they will be here soon’” (85).  But Thorpe assures Catherine that he has seen the Tilneys driving out of town, adding, “‘I heard Tilney hallooing to a man who was just passing by on horseback, that they were going as far as Wick Rocks’” (86).  Thinking she has been stood up, Catherine agrees to go with the Thorpes, only to pass the Tilneys walking slowly down the street as she and Thorpe are heading out of town.  Catherine’s reaction is immediate:  “‘Stop, stop, I will get out this moment and go to them. . . . Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe.—I cannot go on.—I will not go on.—I must go back to Miss Tilney.’”  But Catherine, now a prisoner in Thorpe’s carriage, is powerless to escape, and her pleas go unheeded:  “Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on” (87).  Catherine is angry when she realizes what has happened (“‘How could you deceive me so, Mr. Thorpe?—How could you say, that you saw them driving up the Lansdown-road?’”), but since she had no reason to think that Thorpe would lie to her, she had no cause to suspect his information.  It is difficult to defend ourselves against a liar who preys on our trust.


A more sophisticated version of this scene occurs in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth is taken in by Wickham’s lies about Darcy.  Wickham is a much more accomplished liar than Thorpe (Wickham tells the truth, but not the whole truth) addressing a much more discerning listener.  Elizabeth has reason to be suspicious—as Wickham himself acknowledges, he has no right to speak with her on this subject—but he exploits her weaknesses (her curiosity, her prejudice against Darcy, and her pride in her own powers of observation) with such charm and apparent sincerity that Elizabeth is completely taken in.  “‘I can much more easily believe Mr. Bingley’s being imposed on,’” she tells Jane afterwards, “‘than that Mr. Wickham should invent such a history of himself as he gave me last night; names, facts, every thing mentioned without ceremony. . . . Besides, there was truth in his looks’” (85-86).


An outright lie like Thorpe’s to Catherine is effective only when the speaker is trusted, and only under circumstances where facts can be made up or distorted.  Catherine is subjected to a far more dangerous kind of persuasion when the Clifton scheme is revived and “her agreement [is] demanded” (97)—this time by her dear friend Isabella.  When Catherine explains that she has a prior commitment to the Tilneys, Isabella becomes insistent, “calling on her in the most affectionate manner; addressing her by the most endearing names. . . . She knew her beloved Catherine to have so feeling a heart, so sweet a temper, to be so easily persuaded by those she loved.”  Catherine remains firm and Isabella takes another tack:  “She reproached her with having more affection for Miss Tilney, though she had known her so little a while, than for her best and oldest friends; with being so cold and indifferent, in short, toward herself” (98).  When this too fails to move Catherine, Isabella increases the psychological pressure yet again:  “‘Very well, then there is an end of the party.  If Catherine does not go, I cannot.  I cannot be the only woman.  I would not, upon any account in the world, do so improper a thing.’”  Now Catherine’s brother enters the act.  “‘Catherine, you must go,’” he says, and a little later adds, “‘I did not think you had been so obstinate, Catherine. . . . [Y]ou were not used to be so hard to persuade; you once were the kindest, best-tempered of my sisters’” (99-100).


While this conversation is going on, Thorpe, who knows that he cannot get away with another lie to Catherine, decides instead to lie to the Tilneys.  He tells them that Catherine has “‘just recollected a prior engagement of going to Clifton’” and asks them to switch the day of their walk.  When Catherine learns what Thorpe has done, she is outraged:  “‘This will not do. . . . I cannot submit to this.  I must run after Miss Tilney directly and set her right.’”  Persuasion having failed, the Thorpes resort to physical force:  “Isabella . . . caught hold of one hand; Thorpe of the other” (100).  But Catherine sees things clearly now—and the knowledge gives her strength:  “‘Let me go, Mr. Thorpe; Isabella, do not hold me. . . . If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it.’  And with these words she broke away and hurried off” (101).


This is perhaps Catherine’s finest moment and one of the most dramatic scenes in the book.  It also looks forward to a scene in a later novel when the heroine must resist ever-increasing psychological pressure from another supposed friend—indeed, almost a parent—far more formidable than Isabella Thorpe or James Morland.  Like Catherine, Fanny Price is inexperienced in the ways of the world, guided only by her good principles and her loyalty to the man she loves.  When Sir Thomas learns that she has refused Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage, he responds to her “in a voice of calm displeasure”:  “‘There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach.  Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with every thing to recommend him; not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to every body’” (315-16).  Sir Thomas now begins to increase the pressure, suggesting that Fanny’s refusal is an act of ingratitude:  “‘His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother [helping to secure William’s promotion], which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other’” (316).


As the conversation continues and Sir Thomas comes to realize that Fanny will not change her mind, he delivers a speech as rhetorically brutal as any to be found in Austen’s fiction:


“I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct—that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. . . . I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence.”


The verbal attack climaxes with a relentless onslaught of repeated words and phrases, the slow cadence of Sir Thomas’s delivery adding to the cruelty of his syntax:


“But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you—without even asking their advice.  You have shewn yourself very, very different from any thing that I had imagined.  The advantage or disadvantage of your family—of your parents—your brothers and sisters—never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion.  How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you—is nothing to you.  You think only of yourself.”  (318)


Sir Thomas serves in loco parentis; he has an obligation to advise Fanny, but a responsible guardian, like a good parent, will take pains to acquaint himself with the character of his charge and the circumstances of the case at hand.  Sir Thomas has done neither.  But even if he had, does his own conviction of the rightness of his advice license such merciless verbal punishment?  This is intimidation, not persuasion.  In this scene, as in so many others, Jane Austen demonstrates that there are limits to the ethical use of rhetoric.  A true friend will advise gently and with tact; like Knightley in his dealings with Emma, he will always respect the limits, even when his advice is ignored.


Choosing a marriage partner is a far more important decision than choosing between a country walk and a drive to Clifton, yet in both instances a young woman is being pressed to abandon her principles with specious appeals to her sense of duty.  It is at times like this that a person’s integrity is tested.  What defines a heroine in Austen’s fictional world is not her intellect or talent but the strength of her character.  One of the most unforgettable moments in Austen’s novels occurs on Box Hill after Miss Bates’s good-humored acknowledgment that as soon as she opens her mouth she is sure to say “‘[t]hree things very dull indeed’” (370).  When this temptation to ridicule presents itself, “Emma could not resist” (370).  As Austen makes clear with those four chilling words, resisting temptation is Emma’s social and moral obligation.  Emma is weak when she should have been strong, giddy when she should have been sober, unwilling to exercise the good judgment required of her.


Catherine knows she is inexperienced and actively seeks answers to questions that puzzle her.  Not even her infatuation with Henry deters her from her quest for understanding.  Attempting to make things up with the Tilneys after their first plans to walk are thwarted by Thorpe’s lies, Catherine asks, “‘But, Mr. Tilney, why were you less generous than your sister?  If she felt such confidence in my good intentions, and could suppose it only to be a mistake, why should you be so ready to take offence?’” (94).  Later she questions Henry intently about his brother’s motives in flirting with Isabella, “eagerly” continuing even after Henry tries to change the subject (150).  But as naïve and inexperienced as Catherine is, she demonstrates a strength of character that Emma lacks.  Despite pressure even from a brother she loves, Catherine holds firm:  “‘If I am wrong, I am doing what I believe to be right,’” she tells James, adding later as the Thorpes try to restrain her, “‘If I had thought it right to put [the walk] off, I could have spoken to Miss Tilney myself.  This is only doing it in a ruder way’” (100-01).


Unsophisticated, good-natured, open-hearted, Catherine Morland is a far less complex character, leading a far less complicated life, than any of Austen’s other heroines.  She is not burdened with responsibility like Elinor Dashwood, oppressed like Fanny Price, overly indulged like Emma Woodhouse, or emotionally unfulfilled like Anne Elliot.  As the novel opens she has everything to learn and nothing to regret, “looking forward to pleasures untasted and unalloyed, and free from the apprehension of evil as from the knowledge of it” (237).  She is sometimes teased by both the author and the hero.  But accompanying her girlish ingenuousness, which Henry finds so appealing, is an inquiring mind and a well-developed conscience.  When her principles are put to the test by the unscrupulous Thorpes, we readers discover a young woman of substance, worthy of our respect as well as our affection.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  London: Oxford UP, 1932-34.


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