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

Ingenious Torments, or Reading Instructive Texts in Northanger Abbey: The Mirror, The Rambler, and Conduct Books

Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS.  She is a Life Member of JASNA and at work on what characters read in Jane Austen’s novels.


Three days after the heroine of Northanger Abbey has returned “in solitude and disgrace” (241)—delivered to her home in a hack post-chaise—Mrs. Morland attempts to amend her “languor and listlessness” with an improving essay (250).  Catherine’s “silence and sadness” have resisted her mother’s “gentle reproof,” her charge that Catherine “‘now must try to be useful’” (249).  Misdiagnosing Catherine’s wretchedness as discontent with the humbleness of life at Fullerton, Mrs. Morland looks for remedy through literature:  “‘There is a very clever Essay in one of the books up stairs upon much such a subject, about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance—‘The Mirror,’ I think.  I will look it out for you some day or other, because I am sure it will do you good’” (250).  As Catherine “mov[es] in her chair . . . much oftener than she move[s] her needle,” that indefinite “some day or other” quickly becomes the present.  Mrs. Morland “hastily [leaves] the room to fetch the book in question” (250), and when she returns fifteen minutes later, she finds with “her conscious daughter” a respectful and embarrassed Henry Tilney (251).  In deference to Catherine’s “glowing cheek and brightened eye,” Mrs. Morland “lay[s] aside the first volume of the Mirror for a future hour” (251).  That future hour never comes.  Given the tell-tale compression of Austen’s pages, that very clever essay remains, at least in the fictional time presented by the novel, unread.


In Northanger Abbey, the mystery and threats of mayhem represented by the gothic are opposed by the light of reason and the promises of education.  The novel begins and ends with didactic texts.  Catherine learns moral poems like “The Beggar’s Petition” and “The Hare and Many Friends” and supplies her memory with those quotations so serviceable and soothing to a heroine, most likely from an anthology such as Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts).  At the end of the third chapter, the narrator draws our attention to a letter from The Rambler by Samuel Richardson, and at the end of the novel Mrs. Morland prescribes a “very clever Essay” from The Mirror.  These didactic texts provide a kind of ironic guidance for characters and readers; they also expose traces of the language of conduct books throughout the novel.  These read, partly read, and wholly unread texts are ghostly presences in Northanger Abbey, illuminating the plots and characters that Austen does and does not develop.  Gothic shadows invade the discourse of education in the novel, paradoxically exposing its tyrannies.



Mrs. Morland’s choice of The Mirror suggests a taste for the didactic as well as the entertaining.  Published on Tuesdays and Saturdays in Edinburgh, between 23 January 1779, and 27 May 1780, then bound and collected in three volumes, which went through eleven London editions between 1781 and 1801, The Mirror presented essays from a variety of anonymous contributors, with the aim to “afford amusement . . . , cultivate taste, and improve the heart” (1:7).  The “Author” of The Mirror, introducing himself in the first number, ascribed his rescue from “that languid inactivity which a depression of spirits never fails to produce” to friends who engaged him in study and society.  The revived habits of reflection and observation stimulated the project:


a mind . . . will often . . . be employed in endeavouring to discover the springs and motives of action which are sometimes hid from the actors themselves; to trace the progress of character through the mazes in which it is involved by education or habit; to mark those approaches to error, into which unsuspecting innocence and integrity are too apt to be led; and, in general, to investigate those passions and affections of the mind, which have the chief influence on the happiness of individuals, or of society. (1:6)


Such a perspective might indeed be thought beneficial to a young woman entering society.  R. W. Chapman identified the essay Mrs. Morland would recommend as “[d]oubtless No. XII” (292, n.241), first published on Saturday, 6 March 1779, and described in the table of contents of the collected Mirror, “Consequence to little folks of intimacy with great ones, in a letter from John Homespun.”  John Homespun’s letter, written by Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling and comptroller of taxes for Scotland, was followed by a number of others in The Mirror and The Lounger, a subsequent periodical “by the authors of The Mirror”:  three more from John Homespun himself, one from his daughter Elisabeth Homespun, and two in a less individualized voice.1


That essay fetched and then put aside by Mrs. Morland is a narrative by a disgruntled gentleman farmer whose daughters, after a visit to Lady ——, are disaffected with homespun virtues.  Their stay with Lady —— has altered not only the young ladies’ names (Betty is now Elisabeth) but also the hours they keep, their complexions, the shapes of their bodies and heads, their demeanor, their language, even their belief in the immortality of the soul.  As Chapman points out, however, the habits acquired by John Homespun’s daughters are “sufficiently unlike poor Catherine’s listlessness or her fancy for French-bread.  We may suspect that Miss Austen is amusing herself at Mrs. Morland’s expense, if not at ours” (292, n.241).


What is Jane Austen doing?  In his Homespun essays for The Mirror and The Lounger, Mackenzie’s gentle satire is double pronged.  The values of the fashionable world—Frenchified in dress, language, morality, social relations—are mocked through the horrified descriptions of John (and later Elisabeth) Homespun.  The Homespun family serves as a comic foil, highlighting the Morlands’ connections to “the common feelings of common life” (11).  In a 1785 letter to The Lounger, John Homespun defines his correspondence as “authentic”:  “The family of the Homespuns, though I say it who should not, were always to be trusted in a story; Truth and plain dealing was their motto, and I hope will continue so, if bad neighbours don’t spoil them” (1:156).  The Homespuns might be northern cousins of the Morlands, “plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; . . . at the utmost being contented with a pun, . . . [or] a proverb; . . . not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next” (62).  Like Mr. Morland, John Homespun is “a plain country-gentleman”—though in contrast to Mr. Morland’s “considerable independence besides two good livings” (5), he claims “a small fortune and a large family” (Mirror 1:96).  The ten Morland children, a financial problem that General Tilney, at least, recognizes, are matched by the Homespun progeny:  an unspecified number of sons, all but the youngest of whom he has “set out into the world in tolerably promising situations,” and six daughters—one married to a clergyman, one to a neighbor who also farms his own estate, and four “whom I wish to make fit wives for men of equal rank” (1:96, my italics).


That emphasis on paternal control, particularly of his daughters, is telling.  Mackenzie exposes the ideal Homespun virtues as feeble in the face of social aspiration, but even those frail virtues mask a tendency to tyranny.  John Homespun’s attempts to maintain domestic authority butt against his wife’s and daughters’ contrary opinions:  “though I would not have you think me hen-peck’d,” he acknowledges, “my wife, somehow or other, contrives to carry most points in our family” (Mirror 1:90-91).  There is desperation in his attempts to maintain his patriarchal sway.  In language rife with metaphors of disease and infection, Homespun appeals to the government for help against “the pestilential disorder” represented by Lady —— (1:94-96).2  He ends his second letter with the declaration that “I . . . shall let my wife and daughters know, that I will be master of my own house and my own expences,” but quickly adds, “Yet I confess I am always for trying gentle methods first”—and he then requests that “Mr. Mirror” add his voice in appeal to the Homespun women (1:202).  While John Homespun’s ineffective assertion of patriarchal power is played for comedy, it reminds us of what the gothic represents in more terrifying terms, and of what Austen’s novel represents more disturbingly as real.


Although John Thorpe, General Tilney, and even James Morland tyrannize over Catherine, she does not seem to be in much danger from paternal tyranny:  Mr. Morland is such a recessive character that he speaks not a word in the entire novel (though his economic power does exert an important influence on the plot).  But through the reference to the Mirror essay, Austen also suggests Mrs. Morland’s inadequacies as well, perhaps, as how much she is influenced by the didactic texts she has read.  In the manner of John Homespun, Mrs. Morland interprets Catherine’s behavior as a kind of moral illness:  she is “anxious to lose no time in attacking so dreadful a malady” (250) and leaves in search of the essay she’s remembered, not a prescription likely to be of much use.  Though Catherine “trie[s] to feel an interest in her own amendment,” Mrs. Morland’s efficacy as physician seems limited:  she returns to find a Catherine “anxious, agitated, happy, feverish” but reads “her glowing cheek and brightened eye” as a sign of health or a “heart at ease,” hardly (yet) the case (243, 251).


The wisdom of Mrs. Morland, introduced as “a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper” (5), is at best unremarkable and at worst complacent.  In the pages following Catherine’s return home, “her philosophic mother” (243) utters a succession of platitudes.  In at least one case her language is summarized by the narrator in a way that captures its tedium, as when “Mrs. Morland endeavoured to impress on her daughter’s mind the happiness of having such steady well-wishers as Mr. and Mrs. Allen, and the very little consideration which the neglect or unkindness of slight acquaintance like the Tilneys ought to have with her, while she could preserve the good opinion and affection of her earliest friends” (247).  While the narrator acknowledges that “[t]here was a great deal of good sense in all this,” she conjoins the more compelling assertion that “there are some situations of the human mind in which good sense has very little power; and Catherine’s feelings contradicted almost every position her mother advanced” (247-48).  These feelings for the Tilneys (even in preference to the Allens) are shared by the reader, for whom they are certainly not slight acquaintances.


More often, however, Mrs. Morland’s homespun philosophy is delivered through direct quotation.  Her language is populated by words like always, must, I dare say, should, but those certainties are revealed as empty.  In some cases Mrs. Morland’s assurances would magically convert desire into eventual fulfillment:

  • “Well, we must live and learn; and the next few friends you make I hope will be better worth keeping.”  (244)

  • “I dare say you will meet again some time or other. . . . It is ten to one but you are thrown together again in the course of a few years; and then what a pleasure it will be!”  (244-45)

  • “Just at present it comes hard to poor James; but that will not last forever; and I dare say he will be a discreeter man all his life, for the foolishness of his first choice.”  (245)

In other cases, she defines rules that seem either self-evident or verge on tautology:

  • “It is always good for young people to be put upon exerting themselves.” (243)

  • “[T]here is a time for every thing—a time for balls and plays, and a time for work.” (249)

  • “You should never fret about trifles.” (250)

  • “Wherever you are you should always be contented, but especially at home, because there you must spend the most of your time.” (250)

These formulations are complacent, even circular in motion.  As the narrator points out, “Mrs. Morland [is] successfully confirming her own opinions by the justness of her own representations” (248). Those representations, of course, have little persuasive influence on either her daughter or the reader.  While Mrs. Morland is too good humored to prove a tyrannical parent, she is insufficient to recognizing or understanding Catherine’s feelings.  As in her search for the Mirror, in these instructive conversations she “shut[s] out all noise but what she create[s] herself” (250).  E. Rubinstein defines the mother as sharing the mental habits of her uneducated daughter:  “No less than Catherine herself when under the influence of the Gothic lie, Mrs. Morland falls back upon received assumptions as an escape from the complexities of living” (437).


If the essay Mrs. Morland prescribes is inappropriate, she might have considered others from The Mirror.  More apt to Catherine Morland’s adventures is Elisabeth Homespun’s account of her own experience, “at least . . . as true,” she claims, as her father’s account (Mirror 2:146).  Surprised by an invitation to visit her cousins in Edinburgh, Elisabeth discovers that the sentimental friendship she has enjoyed with Lady —— in the country, where they’ve corresponded as Leonora and Hortensia, gives way before Lady ——’s friends of higher status.  Though Austen’s emphasis is certainly different from Mackenzie’s, Elisabeth’s discoveries point to Catherine’s exploitation by Isabella and even Eleanor’s enforced excuse that Catherine must leave Northanger because the Tilneys are expected at Lord Longtown’s.  Mrs. Morland’s philosophic “‘we must live and learn; and the next new friends you make I hope will be better worth keeping’” (243, 244) is a temperate version of the Homepsun philosophy, though inadequate to Catherine’s experience.  The Mirror’s satire on the values of the fashionable world concludes with Elisabeth’s chastened return home, as her father writes in The Lounger, “so quiet and so reasonable a girl, that her mother and I had not once occasion to chide her for a twelvemonth.”  In Austen’s witty parody, Catherine’s quietness is due to “loss of spirits” (249) at the apparent loss of Henry Tilney rather than to submission to the law of either father or mother.  The result, however, may be indistinguishable:  For Elisabeth Homespun, a proposal from “a plain, virtuous, thriving young man” with “nothing of finery or fashion about him” follows at the end of that year from her return home (1:157).  Catherine’s plot concludes with greater celerity:  “the bells rang and every body smiled . . . within a twelvemonth from the first day of their meeting” (261).  Austen rewards her heroine with restored friendship and marriage, leaving open “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (261).


The essay from The Mirror is displaced by the hero’s arrival, and in our pleasure at his arrival we may lose sight of its applications and irrelevancies.  The didactic text Mrs. Morland would prescribe—of women succumbing to fashionable vices—is not the instructive text that Austen’s heroine or her readers need.  It does, however, point to the often desperate assertions of patriarchal tyranny in worlds analogous to Fullerton.  It also points up the inadequacies of Morland common sense in dealing with the threats from such tyranny, and the insufficiency of that homespun philosophy in confronting feeling and loss.



It’s appropriate that the climax of Catherine and Henry’s courtship is punctuated by an unread instructive text since the chapter that introduces them also ends with a reference to a didactic essay, this one suggested by the narrator.  Chapter 3, during which Henry plays with conventions of fashionable conversation and behavior while Catherine wonders whether “he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others” (21), asks the question whether Catherine dreams of Henry Tilney:  “for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared,* it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her” (22).  At the termination of the if-clause, an asterisk signals a footnote:  “Vide a letter from Mr. Richardson, No. 97. vol. ii. Rambler.”  Turning to that essay we find the following rule for conduct:  “That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is an heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow” (280).


For a 1787 collection entitled The Beauties of the Rambler, Adventurer, Connoisseur, World, and Idler, this essay is titled “Coquetry.”  The essay’s portentousness is announced by its epigraph from Horace on adultery spreading its pollution through the nation.  Richardson, identified as one “who has enlarged the knowledge of human nature, and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue” (277), marks a change in the manners of women between the days of The Spectator (1711-12, 1714) and the present (19 February 1751).  Most of the essay is devoted to courtship in the more virtuous past.  Begun in church, the one place of resort for single women, love was generated in the man by the spectacle of the “kneeling beauty” (279); “the young lady had not made herself cheap at publick places” (280).3  The distance between them created “fears, uncertainties” that “increased his love.”  Though perhaps not “an absolute stranger to the passion of the young gentleman,” perhaps even feeling “regard” and “favour,” the young lady was “all resignation to her parents” (280).  In due time, “[t]heir two families . . . made one, are the world to the young couple” (281).  Now, however, women are to be found everywhere, Richardson charges—neglecting “domestick business” for “idle amusements, and . . . wicked rackets, without any settled view at all but of squandering time” (278).  Because ladies display themselves in public walks and assemblies, men are now not only “frighted at wedlock” but “can be spectators of all that passes, and, if they please, more than spectators, at the expence of others” (282).  And in an axiom that Henry Tilney will contradict in his comparison between a country-dance and marriage, Richardson proclaims:  “The companion of an evening, and the companion for life, require very different qualifications” (282).


Austen’s hero and heroine, from the very beginning of their relationship, flout Richardson’s grave expostulations.  The narrator’s citation of this essay follows a scene in which, at their first meeting, Henry and Catherine have already begun to interest each other.  In contrast to the distant reverence Richardson describes, they dance and rather quickly initiate a courtship.  Using wit to circumvent the strictures of propriety, Henry compliments Catherine’s looks (she “‘appeared to much advantage’”), noting even the details of her clothing (her “‘sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes’”); he teases her; he provides a serious opinion on the division between the sexes; he twice expresses a hope, once ventriloquizing her voice and once in his own, that they will “‘advance[ ]’” in “‘intimacy’” (19-22).


Austen’s undermining of Richardson’s orthodoxies is evident even in her sportive narrative introduction of the essay.  “Whether she thought of him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was not more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most” (22).  The physicality of this speculative train of thought is startling.  Warm wine and water and preparations for bed set up the more problematic issue of her likelihood to “dream of him when there.”  And then the narrator disclaims authority, or at least certainty.  Did Catherine dream of him when in bed? It “cannot be ascertained.”  But the possibility is quickly, comically, followed by a voice conscious of Richardson’s reproofs:  “I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most” (my italics).  The tentative verb, from this previously self-assured narrator, and the return to her heroine’s sleeping body—the physical detail here conscientiously lightened—undercut her allegiance to the authority she’s about to cite.4  Following these playfully ironic speculations, the chapter ends on a practical note.  After paraphrasing Richardson’s rule, the narrator shifts attention from the possibly dreaming and strongly inclining Catherine to “[h]ow proper Mr. Tilney might be as a dreamer or a lover”—and then summarily disposes of the question.  Two facts, however, have been established by Mr. Allen:  Henry Tilney is “a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire” (22).  We can feel authorized to think—or dream—of Mr. Tilney as we choose.



Richardson might be said to provide a genealogy of the readership for the didactic essay.  With some prescience, he imagines readers who—if the “precepts and observations [of the Rambler] be carried down to posterity”—will read his essay to understand the follies of their mothers, and look back to the Spectator to understand those of their grandmothers, so that “from both they may draw instruction and warning” (277-78).  In his Sermons to Young Women, James Fordyce seems to agree.  Rather than novels, which he describes as “an infernal brook of futility and lewdness” (1:149), Fordyce, in a ghostly intimation of Austen’s “only a novel” peroration, recommends the Spectator as one of


those admirable productions of the present century, which turn principally on the two great hinges of sentiment and character; joining description to precept, and presenting in particular the most animated sketches of modern manners, where the likeness is caught warm from life; while the powers of fancy, wit, and judgment, combine to expose vice and folly, to enforce reformation, and in short but spirited essays to convey the rules of domestic wisdom and daily conduct.  (1:279-80)


For Fordyce, as for Richardson, instructive texts of the past “delight and improve at the same moment.”


While enabling this kind of instructive genealogy, Austen’s narrator also disrupts it.  After defining, in defiance of the young lady’s apology, the virtues of the novel—“only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusion of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”—she poses a different picture:


Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator . . . how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or the manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation, which no longer concern any one living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.  (31)


This sentence provides an uncomfortable ending to a chapter defining the progress of a friendship.  The rhythms of the “only a novel” passage lift the reader and narrator together in a celebration of genre through triumphant style:  the frequency with which these words are quoted testifies to their effect.  But in the sentence that follows, Austen’s ironic imitation targets the style and seriousness of her subject.  The accumulation of the charges against the Spectator begins to bog down:  clauses are piled upon further clauses, and the diction becomes increasingly hyperbolic.  The chapter ends on the note of comic rant, disposing of the didactic essay and of those who would elevate it above the novel.



Jane Austen thus constructs a novelistic frame out of these two didactic essays, a frame that simultaneously evokes instructive texts and calls into question their utility and their truth—to say nothing of their knowledge of human nature or their delineation of its varieties.  The influence of this kind of literature might be particularly relevant to a novel that focuses on a heroine with a mind “about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is” and who “never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught; and sometimes not even then” (10, 6).  Though Catherine prefers books with “all story and no reflection,” she has been well enough instructed by her reading and by the advice that “must of course flow from her [mother’s] wise lips” to fall into her own “moralizing strain” (7, 10, 50).  And she’s not the only one.  Isabella and John Thorpe, Henry Tilney and the General, even the narrator—all adopt the language of conduct books.


The wisdom of the Thorpes and General Tilney is predictable, interest masquerading as morality.  John Thorpe, indeed, can transform his own aspirations into principles without benefit of book learning or the truth of experience:  “‘it is one of my maxims always to buy a good horse when I meet with one’” (73); “‘Let me only have the girl I like, say I, with a comfortable house over my head, and what care I for all the rest?  Fortune is nothing’” (126).  General Tilney’s notion that “‘it [is] expedient to give every young man some employment.  The money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing’” (180) similarly turns his own instincts into moral law—though his reference to his son Frederick’s profession might suggest an acquaintance with Thomas Gisborne’s An Enquiry Into the Duties of Men.  (Gisborne recommends careful guarding of the eldest son “from those idle and vicious customs into which he may easily be betrayed by having no immediate employment” [2:459]).  Isabella uses whatever notions of propriety she’s gleaned from conduct books as a tool for flirtation:  dancing a second set with James would be “‘a most improper thing, and entirely against the rules’” (53), she protests, only until her refusal puts him to entreaty.  Then she must accede:  “‘[W]hen you men have a point to carry, you never stick at any thing’” (53).  Her division of the world into “the men” or “you men”—depending upon to whom she is speaking—and “us” is compatible with the gendered divisions of conduct literature, and she has adopted Dr. Fordyce’s controlling metaphor of virtue as female adornment (drawn from Paul’s letter to Timothy) merely to suggest the ease with which it might be put on or taken off:  “‘Modesty, and all that, is very well in its way, but really a little common honesty is sometimes quite as becoming’” (53).


Muslin, of course, is one of the concerns of the novel.  Mrs. Allen and Isabella, for example, are judged partly by the nature of their attention to clothing.  Lest we become too judgmental, the narrator parodies moralistic discourse on the vanity of dress—the kind that Catherine has already heard.  In his Sermons to Young Women, James Fordyce recommends a “Plain dress” as “often . . . extremely pleasing,” kin to the virtue Sobriety, “a sort of spiritual vesture entirely void of show; substantial, home-spun, and hardy” (1:123).  But he also suggests the importance of attending to dress:  “women may avail themselves of every decent attraction, that can lead to a state for which they were manifestly formed [i.e., marriage]” (1:6).  And in the kind of circular reasoning that outrages Mary Wollstonecraft (28), in A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters Dr. John Gregory claims, “The love of dress is natural to you, and therefore it is proper and reasonable” (23).  When Catherine’s gown and head-dress for the cotillion ball at which she will see Henry Tilney become “her chief concern,” the narrator rebukes her, reminding us of already read instructive texts—texts it seems that have had little effect.


Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.  Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin. . . . It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet.  (71)


Austen undercuts the solemnity of “these grave reflections” (71) not only through the abstract pomposities of the moralizing but also by the practicality of advice (given the insensibility of man to fashion), the comically limited scope (ten minutes before sleeping) of Catherine’s “excessive solicitude,” and the tender specificity and precise rhythms of “the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet.”  Here, again, the conduct literature is mocked, as much for its self importance as for its failures to account for either male or female psychology.


The differences between men and women, as well as the relationship between them, provide a major focus of didactic literature.  As Austen charts the courtship of Catherine and Henry, and Catherine’s simultaneous education, she consistently invokes the language and ideas of conduct books.  When Catherine is finally able to fulfill her engagement with the Tilneys—the importance of doing so being one of the lessons she takes with her from Bath (231)—she stumbles upon yet another limit of her education, her lack of knowledge of drawing, of taste, of the picturesque.  The narrator comments:


She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.  (112)


Austen’s irony announces itself in the definition of a sensible person as one who will certainly desire to administer to the vanity of others, then increases the stakes by defining any knowledge as misfortune for a woman.  Dr. Gregory, however, gives his daughters similar advice, irony carefully excluded:


Be even cautious of displaying your good sense.  It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company.  But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.  (13)


Gregory defines the exception to his rule—“A man of real genius and candour is far superior to this meanness”—but adds a note of practical caution:  “such a one will seldom fall in your way; and if by accident he should, do not be anxious to shew the full extent of your knowledge” (13).  Catherine seems in little danger of testing this rule.


Austen surely wants us to detect Gregory’s voice in this scene, one of the many in which Henry Tilney’s sophistication is set against Catherine’s naiveté and need for instruction.  There’s a reference to the development of this rule by “a sister author”—usually identified by editors as Frances Burney—but then the echo of Gregory resumes.


I will only add in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in woman than ignorance.  (112)


Given the standard defined by Gregory, Henry Tilney is a gem, but the narrator’s irony conditions his attraction to Catherine.  It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that “a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward” (112).  However little known to Catherine “her own advantages” (112), Austen’s narrator suggests that they are well known to the readers of conduct books as well as to the novelists affected by their strictures.


The definition of women is at issue in the conduct literature, and Austen picks up this struggle in her quixotic parody. Fordyce, for example, sees in women of sense “an uncommon penetration in what relates to characters, . . . a race of fancy, and a fund of what may be strictly termed Sentiment.”  These qualities offset other deficiencies:  “It should seem that Nature, by her liberality to the female mind in these respects, has seen fit to compensate what has been judged a defect in point of depth and force” (1:282).  There’s a larger plan, of course:  “If estimated with a due regard to the design and formation of the sex, it ought to be considered as no defect at all.”  Henry Tilney’s intervention in the confused conversation between Catherine and Eleanor about the “‘something very shocking indeed, [that] will soon come out in London’” (113) professes essentialist definitions similar to Fordyce’s:  “‘I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. . . . Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute—neither vigorous nor keen.  Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit’” (114).  His sister chooses to read this language as irony, but he is “‘not in a sober mood’” (115) and never actually recants.


This pivotal scene at Beechen Cliff is remarkable for yet another citation of conduct books. The question of what young women should read is central to the didactic purpose of these texts.  Novels, of course, are seen as dangerous.  Although Hester Chapone, in Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, allows for some novel reading, she warns against too much:  “The expectation of extraordinary adventures—which seldom ever happen to the sober and prudent part of mankind—and the admiration of extravagant passions and absurd conduct, are some of the usual fruits of this kind of reading—which, when a young woman makes it her chief amusement, generally renders her ridiculous in conversation, and miserably wrong-headed in her persuits and behaviour” (204-05).  Instead, though a “distaste for it . . . is too common in young ladies, who have been indulged in reading only works of mere amusement,” she recommends history, which will “entertain and improve at the same time” as it “is so likely to form and strengthen your judgment—and by giving you a liberal and comprehensive view of human nature, in some measure to supply the defect of that experience, which is usually attained too late to be of much service to us” (251, 192-93).  Fordyce, too, recommends the reading of history, though his description of real solemn history might perhaps account for Catherine Morland’s lack of interest:


History . . . ought to employ a considerable share of your leisure.  Those pictures which it exhibits, of the passions operating in real life and genuine characters; of virtues to be imitated, and of vices to be shunned; of the effects of both on society and individuals; of the mutability of human affairs; of the conduct of divine providence; of the great consequences that often arise from little events; of the weakness of power, and the wanderings of prudence, in mortal men; with the sudden, unexpected, and frequently unaccountable revolutions, that dash triumphant wickedness, or disappoint presumptuous hope;—the pictures, I say, which History exhibits of all these, have been ever reckoned by the best judges among the richest sources of instruction and entertainment.  (1:274-75)


Catherine’s objection to history’s emphasis on the “quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all” (110) seems perfectly reasonable, given such a description.  Fordyce’s highly moralized picture contrasts to Miss Tilney’s interest in, even fondness for, “‘former histories and records’” with “‘embellishments’” that can be read “‘with pleasure’” (110), suggesting that again the inflationary emphasis on the instructive misses the real pleasures available.



The discussion of history leads to the central topic of education.  Catherine wonders at the “many instances” of people who do not dislike history “within [her] small circle of friends” and remarks on a growth in her understanding:


“At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. . . . [T]o be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate.”  (110)


As Henry Tilney points out, with an emphasis that, following his lecture on propriety of diction, might appear condescending, “‘to torment’” and “‘to instruct’” in Catherine’s usage are “‘admitted as synonimous’” (111).  In fact, Henry Tilney picks up her word torment four times, and then Catherine uses it twice more for a total of seven times in the space of a page and a half.  That accent, particularly in a scene so indebted to the concerns and language of didactic literature, might point us to another text that, although not specifically mentioned, seems to reverberate through Northanger Abbey:  Jane Collier’s 1753 An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, a satiric anti-conduct book that advises readers how to manipulate relationships and wield power at home and in society.


Collier’s book, in Betty Rizzo’s words “the locus classicus of the discussion of domestic tyranny” (45), enjoyed a flurry of reprintings between 1795 and 1811.5  A satire on instructive texts as well as an instructive satire, the essay is divided in two sections, the first part devoted to those who “have an exterior power from visible authority, such as is vested, by law or custom, in masters over their servants; parents over their children; husbands over their wives; and many others,” and the second “to those, who have an interior power, arising from the affection of the person on whom they are to work; as in the case of the wife, the friend, &c.” (Collier 13).


Collier, as the frontispiece of the 1753 and 1757 editions suggests, ironically celebrates the torment in domestic relationships.6  During this walk around Beechen Cliff, Catherine Morland points to the torment at the heart of domestic education—a torment both the “‘poor little children’” and her “‘poor mother,’” experience “‘almost every day of my life at home’” (111).  Even Henry—though asking her to “‘acknowledge that it is very well worth while to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life’” (111)—must admit Catherine’s synonym.


While family relationships occupy most of Collier’s attention, she also pays some attention to the possibilities of torment for friends and for lovers.  In Northanger Abbey, in line with its courtship plot, references to torment and teasing cluster around these relationships.  As conduct books often provide advice on friendship, Collier advises finding someone with “a real capacity” for friendship, a “dupe” to “make good sport with” (60, 61).  Female friendship, Collier suggests, because of its “more intimate connection,” provides “more frequent opportunities of practising the subtle strokes of teasing, than amongst the men” (64).  Isabella’s friendship with Catherine applies Collier’s model.  Collier suggests that once certain “that you are really become the object of her warmest friendly affection, . . . grow very melancholy and peevish to everyone around . . . except to this friend” (64); once entangled, she can be treated badly.  One method is to “[t]ell your friend all sorts of spiteful stories, that you have heard concerning her” (65), a strategy to which Isabella’s early declaration of loyalty to Catherine looks forward:  “‘Now, if I were to hear any body speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment:—but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with the men’” (34).


Another of Collier’s methods for tormenting is to demand the kind of absolute fidelity Isabella requires of Catherine.  Collier advises, “If this friend, or property of yours, should happen to have any other connections, you must endeavour to embarrass her as much as possible:  for, if she tells you that she is to do such a thing to serve one person, such a thing to oblige another, be sure to make some direct opposite request; so that she shall be certain of disobliging either you, or somebody else” (72).  Isabella’s attempt to persuade Catherine to go to Clifton after she has already re-engaged herself to the Tilneys exemplifies Collier’s strategies:  she “call[s] on her in the most affectionate manner; address[es] her by the most endearing names,” and, when Catherine does not succumb,


reproache[s] 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 grown cold and indifferent, in short, towards herself.  “I cannot help being jealous, Catherine, when I see myself slighted for strangers, I, who love you so excessively!  When once my affections are placed, it is not in the power of any thing to change them.  But I believe my feelings are stronger than any body’s; I am sure they are too strong for my own peace; and to see myself supplanted in your friendship by strangers, does cut me to the quick, I own.  These Tilneys seem to swallow up every thing else.”  (98)


According to Collier, the “principal qualification” for such a friend (male or female) is “having a soft place in his heart” (rather than in his head).  In an indication that Catherine does not really understand the art of ingeniously tormenting, her awakening to Isabella focuses on her mental capacities:  “‘She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so’” (224).  Her disposal of Isabella as a “‘vain coquette’” reinforces the connection of their friendship to the conduct literature.


Finally, as Collier’s analysis suggests, tormenting and teasing define courtship.  In Northanger Abbey when, towards the end of their first meeting, Catherine refuses to tell Henry Tilney what she is thinking of, he thanks her:  “‘for now we shall soon be acquainted, as I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much’” (22).  After their engagement “the torments of absence” may or may not be “softened by a clandestine correspondence” (259).  Teasing and tormenting are so foundational to courtship that the chapter addressed “To Lovers” is the shortest in The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting:  for, as Collier asks, “does anyone want directions in what he is already perfect?” (48).  Both male and female are implicated:  “Teasing and Tormenting is the sustenance, the breath, the very life, of most young women who are sure of the affections of their lovers.  Nor are the men less expert at the practice of Teasing, when they know themselves to be the objects of a woman’s love” (48).  For Isabella, teasing is integral to flirtation and courtship:  she recalls telling Captain Hunt that “‘if he was to tease me all night, I would not dance with him, unless he would allow Miss Andrews to be as beautiful as an angel’” (34); “‘How can you be so teasing?” she asks James, when he asks her to dance a second set (53); after Catherine resists John Thorpe’s indirect proposal of marriage, Isabella says, “‘I am sure I shall not tease you any further’” (148); and, she describes Frederick Tilney as “‘amazingly disposed to follow and tease me’” (223).


The rhetoric of flirtation involving Frederick Tilney and Isabella provokes the stronger word, torment.  “‘If we have not hearts, we have eyes,’” he says in a low voice to Isabella, “‘and they give us torment enough’” (149).  She coquettishly picks up his word, as she turns her back on him:  “‘I hope your eyes are not tormented now’” (150).  And when Catherine expresses her concern for the “‘pain’” James must be suffering, Henry Tilney uses the word again as, in the manner of instructive texts, he articulates a rule for Catherine’s guidance:  “‘No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment.’”  Just as earlier Henry has picked up Catherine’s use of the word, now she picks it up from him though hesitating in its application:  “‘Isabella is wrong.  But I am sure she cannot mean to torment, for she is very much attached to my brother’” (154).  To comfort her, he provides another rule using the softer word:  “‘Their hearts are open to each other, as neither heart can be to you; they know exactly what is required and what can be borne; and you may be certain, that one will never tease the other beyond what is known to be pleasant’” (156).  Catherine is “carried . . . captive” by Henry’s formulations:  “Henry Tilney must know best” (156).  Henry’s tutelage is powerful.  When faced with Isabella’s disquieting behavior on her last evening in Bath, Catherine “remember[s] Henry’s instructions, and placed it all to judicious affection” (156).  These judicious instructions, of course, no less than Mrs. Morland’s homespun wisdom, prove insufficient.



The instructive formulations of texts and characters are consistently proved inadequate as guides to conduct or even to understanding behavior.  As Austen, like Collier, reveals tormenting and teasing as dominant modes of relationship in courtship and within the family (as the Morlands’ educational efforts suggest), the didactic discourse of the text poses the same question as its gothic narrative:  whether the General might have tormented Mrs. Tilney.  Henry’s tortured diction cannot quite describe their marriage, and his description picks up his earlier formulation of lovers who “‘know exactly what is required and what can be borne’”:  “‘I will not pretend to say that while she lived, she might not often have had much to bear’” (203), he tells Catherine.  That final infinitive verb, evoking the shorter-lived torments of Isabella’s tyranny over James, reinforces the darker vision that instructive and enlightening texts would elide.


In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen plays a sophisticated game with a variety of languages—the novelistic, the gothic, the didactic.  Mocking the language and concerns of the instructive texts she incorporates into her novel, Austen not only suggests the limits of their formulations in the face of the complexities of her characters’ lives, she also exposes the imprisoning nature of their gendered orthodoxies, their inadequacies to the ingenious torments of friendship, courtship, and family life.  But given our fallen natures—and our sense of the frailties of others—the didactic impulse retains its appeal.  Among Austen’s earliest readers, the reviewer from The British Critic attempted to weigh the instructive against the pleasures of fiction:  “a good novel, such, for example, as that present before us, is, perhaps, among the most fascinating productions of modern literature, though we cannot say, that it is quite so improving as others” (89).  The hesitations of that sentence suggest the resistance to fascination, to the delights of plot, character, language, in readers bent on improvement.  Surely it is significant that Austen’s defense of her art rises to its fulfillment with an assertion of the pleasures of the text:  “the liveliest effusions of wit and humour . . . conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” (31).





1. In addition to No. 12, see also in The Mirror No. 25 (20 April 1779), “Description of the visit of a great lady to the house of a man of small fortune, in a second letter from Mr. Homespun”; No. 30 (8 May 1779), “Of female manners.  Change of those of Scotland considered”; No. 53 (26 July 1779), “Behaviour of great ladies in town, to their country-acquaintance; in a letter from Elisabeth Homespun”; and in The Lounger, No. 17 (28 May 1785), “Influence of the neighbourhood of a rich Asiatic, in a letter from John Homespun”; No. 30 (27 August 1785), “Letter from a Member of the Mirror-Club, relating some particulars of that Society”; and No. 98 (16 December 1786), “Visit of John Homespun at a great house in the country.”


2. E. Rubinstein describes Homespun’s language as “very nearly lunatic,” suggesting that “readers of gothic fiction were not the only victims of gratuitous emotionalism” (439-40).


3. Fordyce describes Richardson as “an author, to whom your sex are under singular obligations for his uncommon attention to their best interests; but particularly for presenting, in a character sustained throughout with inexpressible pathos and delicacy, the most exalted standard of female excellence that was ever held up to their imitation. . . . [W]e find in her character a beauty, a sweetness, an artlessness—what shall I say more?—a sanctity of sentiment and manner, which, I own for my part, I have never seen equaled in any book of that sort; yet such, at the same time, as appears no way impracticable for any woman who is ambitious of excelling” (1:147-48).


4. Dr. John Gregory in A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters also affirms Richardson’s rule:  “Though a woman has no reason to be ashamed of an attachment to a man of merit, yet Nature, whose authority is superior to philosophy, has annexed a sense of shame to it.  It is even long before a woman of delicacy dares avow to her own heart that she loves; and when all the subterfuges of ingenuity to conceal it from herself fail, she feels a violence done both to her pride and to her modesty.  This, I should imagine, must always be the case where she is not sure of a return to her attachment” (27).


5. After the first edition of An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting in 1753, a second edition was issued in 1757.  Then, perhaps in initial response to the popularity of conduct literature in the 1790s, editions appeared in 1795, 1804, 1805, 1806, 1808, 1809, and 1811.


6. Framed in an oval is the image of a cat toying with a mouse while a human figure watches from the door of a house.  Inscribed around the frame are the words “celebrare domestica facta,” or, to celebrate domestic affairs.  Below the frame, on a kind of architectural base is the rhyme “The Cat doth play / And after slay.”



Works Cited


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

Chapman, R. W., ed.  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Chapone, Hester.  Letters on the Improvement of the Mind.  2 vols.  Dublin, 1773.  Vol. 2 of Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment.  Ed. Janet Todd.  London: Pickering, 1996.

Collier, Jane.  An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting.  Ed. Katharine A. Craik.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Fordyce, James.  Sermons to Young Women, in Two Volumes.  3rd ed., corrected.  London, 1766.  Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment.  Intro. Janet Todd.  London: Pickering, 1996.  Vol. 1.;

Gisborne, Thomas.  An Enquiry into the Duties of Men.  7th ed.  2 vols.  London, 1824.

Gregory, John.  A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters.  1774.  The Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor.  Intro. Viven Jones.  Bristol: Thoemmes P, 1995.

The Lounger: A Periodical Paper, Published at Edinburgh in the Years 1785 and 1786.  3rd ed.  3 vols.  London and Edinburgh, 1787.

The Mirror: A Periodical Paper, Published at Edinburgh in the Years 1779 and 1780.  3 vols.  Edinburgh, 1781.

Rev. of Northanger Abbey. The British Critic n.s. 9 (March 1818): 293-301.  Rpt. in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage.  Vol. 1.  Ed. B. C. Southam.  1968.  London: Routledge, 1979.  89-93.

Richardson, Samuel.  “Coquetry.”  The Beauties of the Rambler, Adventurer, Connoisseur, World, and Idler.  2 vols.  London: Kearsley, 1787.  1:277-84.  Rpt. of The Rambler 97 (19 Feb. 1751).

Rizzo, Betty.  Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  2nd ed.  Ed. Carol H. Poston.  New York: Norton, 1988.


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