Persuasions #7, 1985 Pages 42-54
How might Jane Austen have revised Northanger Abbey?
I am assuming, as it seems fairly safe to do, that Northanger Abbey was the book sold to Crosby as Susan in 1803, and bought back for £10 in 1816. This gives it an interesting and unique place among Jane Austen’s novels. She wrote it, mainly, in her early creative period, in the years of high-spirited fun which produced Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. But these, later, were revised over and over. We know that to some degree the manuscript Susan was worked on during the Austen family’s three years’ residence in Sydney Place, Bath, from 1801. But after it had been accepted by Crosby it went into 13 years’ cold storage. If Crosby had turned it down, no doubt Jane Austen would have continued to work on it, as she did with her other novels. But as, for all she knew to the contrary, there were early plans for publication, she presumably put it out of her mind. There was an exchange of letters with Crosby in 1809 which left Crosby’s intentions unclear; as she was not then prepared to buy it back she turned her attention to other projects. So – apart from the juvenilia and incomplete fragments – we have, inNorthanger Abbey, the clearest example of the author’s early work.
How does it differ from the three late novels, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion?
In a number of very specific ways, in shape, technique, character, above all, in its attitude to life.
I intend, briefly, to discuss some of these points of difference, and then try to imagine how, if Jane Austen had felt equal to it when her brother Henry did finally buy back the MS from Crosby in 1816, she might have set about re-working it. As we know, she did not, by then, feel equal to it. In March 1817, the year of her death, she wrote to her niece Fanny, “Miss Catherine is put upon the shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out.” (In fact she did not come out until 1818, a year after the author’s death.)
According to Cassandra Austen, Susan was written in 1797 and 1798 – four years after Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, had enraptured the novel-reading public, and while the craze for Gothic romance was at its height. Jane Austen was plainly well-read in the genre, which had, in fact, started about thirty years earlier with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, and went on well into the nineteenth century, later practitioners being Mary Shelley, Sheridan le Fanu, and Poe.
Jane Austen’s early skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 at age fourteen, poked fun at the Gothic school whose heroines, like Emily in Udolpho, faint at every emergency, both major and minor. Sophia, one of the heroines of L & F, when dying, advises her friend Laura: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.” Over-indulgence in fainting has brought on pneumonia, which finished her off.
If we take a look at the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, we can easily see what tempted the youthful Jane Austen to poke fun at them. Almost every ingredient of the Radcliffe novels is the sort of thing Jane Austen went out of her way to avoid. Even in her teens, she must have had a very firm idea of the kind of story that suited her, that she was capable of writing; what was within her scope. “The little bit of ivory on which I work” as she later called it, was the absolute antithesis of Mrs. Radcliffe’s enormous historical canvases splashed over with forests and beetling fortresses and dark crags in the Appennines. Mrs. Radcliffe went in for immense casts of characters on a positively Shakespearian scale (she was in fact much influenced by Shakespeare for whom she had great admiration); she had stabbings and shootings, suicides and assassinations; interspersed, for comic relief, by long scenes with garrulous Shakespearian-type servants; she had immensely complicated family relationships, long-lost relatives in every possible connection, suggestions of incest, mysterious resemblances, and, besides all this, a large number of startling, apparently supernatural occurrences (which all, however, turn out in the end to be readily explicable by natural causes). Some of these happenings seem to be tossed in almost irrelevantly, just for effect – like the black veil in Udolpho; I myself was outraged when I arrived at the explanation of what is behind the black veil (an apparently mouldering corpse) because it has nothing whatever to do with the story of Emily, the heroine. Radcliffe stories are set in somewhat indefinite historical periods (Udolpho is supposed to be in the sixteenth century) but they are full of the most carefree anachronisms in regard to customs of the time, monastic rules, politics, even landscapes; such niceties did not worry the author unduly. Females in Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels are continually being abducted; the heroines, against all odds, manage to preserve their honour but others are not so lucky; and a large proportion of the characters end up in convents or monasteries repenting their misdeeds. Mrs. Radcliffe must have been a signal influence on Wilkie Collins, for he takes over the plot of Udolpho – a heroine falling into the guardianship of her venal aunt who is married to a sinister Italian – to terrific effect; Collins’s Count Fosco is plainly derived from Montoni but far transcends him and is, in fact, one of the most notable villains in fiction.
To us, today, Mrs. Radcliffe seems rather heavy going; to us, reared on films and TV, her scenes take far too long to get under way, her narrative plods for chapter after chapter without enough action, except the banditti riding in and out of the castle, and people indulging in mysterious bursts of song on the battlements in the middle of the night. Coincidences abound, and the chronology is uneven; either too many things are happening simultaneously, or years pass to no apparent purpose. At the end of the 18th century, when leisured readers had plenty of time to peruse three-volume novels from the circulating library, all this was acceptable, indeed most welcome; but part of Jane Austen’s genius was her impeccable sense of timing, her speed of narrative, her ability to set the whole scene in a paragraph or get the plot round a new corner by means of two lines of dialogue; all Mrs. Radcliffe’s lengthy and cumbrous and elaborate scene-setting must have amused her immensely. Her own descriptions of place are pared down to an absolute minimum, and we know this was intentional. “You describe a sweet place but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left,” she wrote to her niece Anna in a two-page catalogue of shrewd and witty literary criticism; and this was advice based on her own practice; well she knew what the average reader – such as John Thorpe – would skip.
So, in pace, size of cast, period, accuracy of detail, probability of event, Mrs. Radcliffe’s work is at every point the exact opposite of Jane Austen’s. No wonder the latter was tempted in her teens to try a Gothic pastiche.
We can guess that Susan, in its first outline, was written very much for family entertainment, addressed to a family audience, like all Jane Austen’s juvenile works, with their asides to the reader, and absurd dedications; some of the juvenilia, we know, were specifically addressed to her brothers Charles and Frank; all were designed to be circulated and read by a large network of relations.
What we see in Northanger Abbey, therefore, is the work of a young writer, bursting with ideas both creative and satirical, assured of her audience and her supportive, loving background, with readers prepared to meet her halfway and share various subterranean family jokes.
For instance: “Her father … was a very respectable man, though his name was Richard.” What was wrong with the name Richard? We don’t know – perhaps there was an Austen family feud against some Richard. And: “Catherine … loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” We imagine an actual green slope at Steventon that all the Austen children had rolled down in their time. And we get a charming hint of the Austen family in NA at the point when Catherine is sent home in disgrace from the Tilneys’: her arrival was a pleasure “quite unlooked for by all but the two youngest … who expected a brother or sister in every carriage … Her father, mother, Sarah, George and Harriet were all assembled at the door to welcome her in affectionate eagerness.”
We see the young writer happy in her world, making jokes the family will understand. Snobbery, stinginess, pushfulness, hypocrisy, even unkindness, are still not to be taken seriously; they are jokes to be laughed at in the security of the family circle.
Later, by the time of Mansfield Park and Persuasion, it would be different. By then Jane Austen had learned loneliness, and defensive tactics against a snobbish, undervaluing, uncaring society. She had learned to be a poor relation. She had acquired a certain vein of vindictiveness. No ill results punish Isabella Thorpe for her fickleness, or General Tilney for his tyranny; but Maria Bertram and Mrs. Norris and Anne Elliot’s unpleasant father and sister all receive their just deserts. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen is laughing with good nature at her wrongdoers; there is no great harm in the Thorpes, their stupidity outweighs their calculatingness; and General Tilney is a cardboard monster out of melodrama; but in the later books Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Norris and Elizabeth Elliot are real monsters, depicted with real ferocity. And Mary Crawford has a real streak of wickedness. We can see this if we compare her with Isabella Thorpe, whose disingenuous letter to Catherine is endearingly funny: “Pray send me some news of [your brother] – I am quite unhappy about him, he seemed so uncomfortable when he went away with a cold or something … I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter – it is your dear brother’s favourite colour.” We laugh at that; but Mary Crawford’s similar letter to Fanny, asking what is the probability that Tom Bertram will die and leave Edmund the heir, makes us blush and wince; it is too near the bone.
In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen addresses the reader more often, and more directly, than she will do in later books; she is still following that eighteenth-century tradition. Events are presented to us from the author’s viewpoint because she needs, at this point, to take a detached stance from her heroine so that she can poke gentle fun at her. Later, in Emma for instance, the author has switched to a different technique and shows us a great many events entirely through Emma’s own eye-view, so that we can be fooled and follow false trails along with her.
Asides to the reader are not really sophisticated writing, and so Jane Austen must later have decided; but we can be grateful for such charming examples in Northanger Abbey as: “A persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of [his] giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”
The plot of Northanger Abbey is much less complex than any of the three later novels. There is a simple chain of events: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Sub-plots are kept to a minimum. Henry and Catherine meet, grow attached, marry; nothing stands in the way of true love but the General’s misconceptions, and these are quite easily overcome. Henry Tilney is the only available hero – whereas Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion all offer alternative heroes. There are no misunderstandings between the two lovers, as in Emma, or Pride and Prejudice, no concealed actions; no crucial differences in their view of society, as in Persuasion, she does not fall for the wrong man, as in Sense and Sensibility, or he for the wrong girl, as in Mansfield Park. The storyline is much more straightforward here than it ever would be again; evidently so because, since it was intended for a pastiche, complexities of plot were not required; all the author wanted was a simple narrative, to decorate with her pieces of Gothic absurdity.
Unity of time and place were always a strict discipline with Jane Austen. Her novels seldom spread, in their time-scheme, over more than a few months; she rarely allows herself more than two, at most three, shifts of location; Emma has no shift at all. In this respect the author begins as she intends to go on: Northanger Abbey starts in Bath, (after a speedy sketch of the heroine’s origins); moves to Northanger, and then home to Wiltshire.
The view, the treatment of Bath, however, is remarkably different from that presented in a later novel, Persuasion. Youthful visits by the Austen girls to Bath, to shop and sample the delights of town and stay with Aunt Leigh Perrot, had been enjoyable excursions, and that is the feeling reflected in Northanger Abbey. But we are given a strong indication of Jane Austen’s attitude to actually living in that town from the striking episode when, on abruptly hearing that the family were to quit the home where she had lived for twenty-five years and move to Bath, she fainted dead away. It is plain that she loathed the confinement of town life, whether in spring (as so vividly described in Fanny Price’s grisly visit to Portsmouth) or in winter, as in Persuasion. Anne Elliot “persisted in a very determined disinclination for Bath; caught the first dim view of the extensive buildings, smoking in rain, without any wish of seeing them better.”
Bath, then, which had been a cheerful background, full of possibilities, of opportunities for the young, in Northanger Abbey, became a gloomy prison in Persuasion, where all the heroine could do for diversion was go and visit her friend in reduced circumstances.
There are fewer of the sharp observations on social behaviour in Northanger Abbey than there will be in the later novels; much less of the ruthless depiction that there will be of such characters as Mrs. Elton, the horrible brother and sister-in-law in Sense and Sensibility, Bingley’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice, or Dr. Grant in Mansfield Park.
It’s interesting to observe – and shows what a fully-fledged genius Jane Austen was from an early age – that she handles the hero-heroine relationship in Northanger Abbey as skilfully, as touchingly, as professionally, as any of those in the other five novels. Indeed Henry Tilney – quite one of her nicest heroes – talks to the heroine quite a bit more than any of the other male leads do. In Sense and Sensibility Edward Ferrars has little to say, and though we are told that the tastes of Marianne and Willoughby coincide, we don’t hear much of what they say to each other. In Emma, Mr. Knightley is terse and rather snubbing to Emma, and though it’s true that in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth and Darcy spar a great deal, they are almost always at cross purposes. But there is room in Northanger Abbey for Catherine and Henry to have conversations, because of the lack of sub-plot. Furthermore, we can see that, when she wrote Northanger, Jane Austen was still comfortably writing out of the confidence acquired from free and frequent communication with her brothers; she had a fund of recent experience as to how girls and young men conversed together. Later, after a possible tragic love affair and aborted engagement to Harrison Bigg Wither, after her brothers had gone off into the world and had their own families, after she had become a “perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of single blessedness” in the view of Mary Russell Mitford, she might begin to distrust her power of describing love scenes between the young. She does skimp on these: it is one other few faults. The final dialogues between Emma and Mr. Knightley, between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, are cut to a minimum; while those between Fanny and Edmund, between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, between Elinor and Edward, are evaded entirely. Even Elizabeth Bennet, usually so ready of tongue, fails us, and the author meanly falls back on reported speech at the moment of proposal. It is hard to forgive Jane Austen for that, because her proposal scenes might have been so entertaining. We are fobbed off with “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course.” (Emma) or “There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises …” (Persuasion). While in Mansfield Park, even more outrageously, the author flatly announces that she will leave it to us to decide how long it took Edmund to propose to Fanny – one of her late asides to the reader which it is particularly hard to accept. My sister Jane Aiken Hodge, in her biography of Jane Austen, suggests that the author deliberately did this in order to leave her characters their privacy; but I think it is literary malpractice to put your characters’ convenience before that of your readers.
In her young days Jane Austen would not have evaded the proposal. We can see that from The Visit where Lord Fitzgerald says, “And now, my amiable Sophia, condescend to marry me,” and Stanly cries “Oh! Cloe, could I but hope you would make me blessed –” and she replies “I will.”
It’s true I must acknowledge that the author does not linger over Henry Tilney’s proposal; in fact she disposes of it in two rapid sentences: “His first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen’s grounds he had done it so well that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often. She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own …”
But, to atone for this briskness, all their dialogue throughout the book has been a series of the most charming love scenes in which Henry explains to Catherine the merits of her own character. For if Henry is the most delightful hero, he is rewarded by the hand of the nicest heroine; Catherine may not have the wit of Elizabeth Bennet or the experience and unselfishness of Anne Elliot, but for company on a desert island one would choose her every time over bossy Emma, priggish Fanny, or hysterical Marianne. As the author says herself: “Mr. and Mrs. Allen were sorry to lose their young friend, whose good humour and cheerfulness made her a valuable companion.” I believe that Jane Austen, intending at the start to take a detached view of Catherine, became fonder and fonder of her as the story progressed.
Candour was a quality greatly admired by Jane Austen – it is lacked, to their detriment, by Marianne Dashwood, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill and Walter Elliot – Catherine has it to a large degree; she is totally honest and clear-sighted about herself, and trusting about other people’s behaviour, taking them always at their own valuation. Catherine’s good qualities are, in fact, one of the fictional problems which the author left unsolved; by the time Catherine reaches Northanger Abbey she is established as such a nice, sensible girl that her wrong-headed mistakes about the General are a little hard to swallow.
Henry says to Catherine, when they are discussing Isabella’s jilting of James Morland in preference for Henry’s brother: “Your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and, therefore, not accessible to the cool reasonings of family partiality or a desire of revenge.” And: “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.” Henry and Catherine are permitted, because of the lack of sub-plots, to have all these delicious conversations in which he teases her with her lurid Gothic imaginings, fed on Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest, or says to her, when she forlornly forecasts her return to the village: “Only go and call on Mrs. Allen! What a picture of intellectual poverty! However, when you sink into this abyss again … you will be able to talk of Bath and all that you did here.”
The principal difference between Northanger Abbey and the three later novels is, I think, in the picture of society that we receive.
I’m always a little startled when a critic or reader brackets all six Austen novels together, with some such remark as that of Sir Harold Nicolson who said: “The society which she depicts is mean and competitive, almost wholly uninterested in intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic values …” (Good Behaviour, 1955). This seems to show such a lack of perception, for, on a closer look, the view of society changes very profoundly in the course of the six novels. We can see this, for instance, in the behaviour of the heroines.
Catherine is a free creature; she has no reason to fear anybody or anything, except making a fool of herself. Nobody bullies her or puts her down – as they do Anne Elliot or Fanny Price; she does not have to be ashamed of her connections, as are the Bennet girls; she is not a poor relation, undervalued by her kin, as are Elinor and Marianne Dashwood; nor is she, like Emma, the target of spite from persons in a class below her own. She moves freely in society, apologizes directly and humbly but without false shame for any gaffes made through inexperience, and is equally at ease with everybody, not having even noticed that society is composed of different layers and classes. Like a child, she rambles through the minefield and emerges unscarred at the other side. And she has not that agonizing need – felt so acutely by later Austen heroines that it gives one a dreadful insight into the author’s own life – the need for privacy.
Think of Anne Elliot trying desperately, somehow, in a noisy mixed party, to convey an unspoken message to the man she is beginning to think may still love her; think of Elizabeth Bennet in the same predicament, or walking in Lady Catherine’s park because no privacy can be found in Mr. Collins’s parsonage; think of Marianne in the bedroom shared with Elinor in Mrs. Jennings’s London house, almost ill with unrequited passion, kneeling in early-morning light against the window-seat “writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her.” Think of Fanny retreating to the ice-cold Portsmouth bedroom shared with sister Susan to eat buns and read aloud books from the library. Think of Emma – to be sure, Emma was a rich young lady, she had a room of her own in which “to think and be miserable.” But, during daylight hours, she was in constant attendance on her tiresome old father and, out of doors, the target for the whole village’s stares and speculations (an arrangement of what Henry Tilney, rather out of character, called a “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies”); and, if she wanted to take the shortest walk outside the grounds of the house, the mores of the period demanded that she have a female companion – one of the first and principal reasons why she befriended the insipid Harriet Smith.
What impresses us most forcibly about the power of society in Jane Austen’s later novels is its inescapability; the constant pressure of people, always close at hand, in the room, whether loving, hostile, inquisitive, scornful, or just boring that there was literally no place to retreat to, indoors or outdoors. There’s another terrible picture of Marianne Dashwood who “had been brought by degrees so much into the habit of going out (to some party) every day that it had become a matter of indifference to her whether she went or not: and she prepared quietly and mechanically for every evening’s engagement, though without expecting the smallest amusement from any, and very often without knowing till the last moment where it was to take her.”
In Northanger Abbey there is none of this horror about society; to be sure the Thorpes are insincere and pushy, General Tilney is a tyrannical old snob, but meeting them was just bad luck; the reader shares Catherine’s expectation, her unspoken view that the world is sure to be full of delightful people, all of whom one will presently meet; and, sure enough, Catherine does meet Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who are perfectly delightful and agreeably confirm her view.
The exceptional, almost unheard-of luck of finding really congenial society has been accepted in the later novels, and is stated explicitly in Persuasion where, as Jane Austen so often does, she puts an intelligent, sympathetic remark into the mouth of an anti-hero. Anne says, “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation …” “You are mistaken,” he said gently, “that is not good company, that is the best.”
By the time of Persuasion we know that, among the “three or four families in a country village” that Jane Austen recommended to her niece Anna as “the very thing to work on,” suitable material for fiction – one family at least will be snobs and two will be bores. Marianne was perfectly correct in not expecting any amusement from her evening’s engagements, for, at the average dinner-party, such as the Coles’ in Highbury “a few clever things [would be] said, a few downright silly, but by much the larger proportion neither the one nor the other – nothing worse than every day remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes.” Our hearts would sink at the prospect of an evening with Aunt Phillips at Meryton, or one spent “listening to the busy arrangement of Elizabeth and Mrs. Clay” in Bath, or one of those mixed adults-and-children parties at the Musgroves, or the family circle at Mansfield, listening to Sir Thomas; of dinner at the Middletons who, though a disparate couple, resembled one another in “that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments … within a very narrow compass. Sir John … delighted in collecting about him more young people than his house would hold, and the noisier they were, the better was he pleased.”
What a picture of intellectual poverty! as Henry Tilney would have said.
This, then, I feel, is the final contrast between Jane Austen’s early work and her late: the social background to her comedy has become black. Anne Elliot is disgusted and ashamed of her father and sister’s toad-eating ways, Emma is bored by Miss Bates and revolted by the Eltons; Fanny is brow-beaten by her cousins and ignored by everybody else. The heroines are no longer secure of a place in society; in fact they are going to have to fight tooth and nail – or the author will fight on their behalf – for any kind of recognition at all.
So these, it seems to me, are the principal points distancing Northanger Abbey from Jane Austen’s later work: that it was written out of a secure, happy background, that it had a simple plotline without sub-plots or a great deal of social nuances, that the end was arrived at smoothly and not avoided or skimped, that the denouement was not abruptly contrived by a sudden improbable pairing-off of two disparate characters – as is the case with Wickham and Lydia, with Robert Ferrars and Lucy Steele, with Crawford and Maria Bertram, with Walter Elliot and Mrs. Clay – that the view of society, and the heroine’s place in it, is altogether brighter, the author had not yet been fatigued and bruised by life, as later she would be. And that the relationship of hero and heroine is particularly strong and good.
So: taking all this into account, we have to ask ourselves, how would Jane Austen have revised the book, how would she have rewritten it, if she had done so in the mood of, say Mansfield Park? Or Persuasion? Or Emma?
In all three of the latter novels one, at least, of the main characters has to go off on a false trail before finally selecting the right partner. In Emma the plot convolutions are fantastically elaborate: Emma has to make six different mistakes before she gets it right: about Harriet and Elton, about Harriet and Knightley, about Jane Fairfax and Dixon, about Frank Churchill and Emma herself, about Harriet and Frank Churchill, about Knightley and Jane Fairfax. What a mazelike dance! But can we imagine Catherine Morland making such a series of blunders – even if deluded by over-indulgence in Gothic romance? No, we cannot. Catherine is, in fact, far more sensible than Emma; as well as being one of Jane Austen’s nicest, she is also one of her more sagacious heroines. Whenever Henry Tilney makes her stop and think, she arrives without prompting at the right solution.
He says, after Isabella has jilted Catherine’s brother James:
“You feel you have no longer any friend to whom you can speak with unreserve; … whose counsel, in any difficulty, you could rely on? You feel all this?”
“No,” said Catherine, after a few minutes’ reflection, “I do not! ought I? … To say the truth, I do not feel so very, very much afflicted as one would have thought.”
And we love her for her straightforward, simple honesty.
I’m sure that Jane Austen loved her too. I have a feeling that Catherine was one of those characters, familiar to most writers, who refuse to be imprisoned inside the frame that the author has allotted to them, but grow up out of it, take on extra dimensions; and sometimes play hob with the plot. I think that is one of the reasons why Jane Austen felt unequal to the task of rethinking Northanger Abbey in 1817; she had begun it as a Gothic pastiche, and then found she had two real live characters on her hands, Catherine and Henry, who didn’t somehow quite fit into the neat satirical pattern that she had laid out. They didn’t belong in the same cast with eighteenth-century stock figures such as the flirtatious Isabella, the loutish John Thorpe, or the tyrannical General. By the time the story had moved on its way, and she had taken them to Northanger, the final solution can’t have seemed so easy as it did at the start.
We have to wonder, therefore, whether, given the vigour and reality of her two main characters, the writer would have decided to change them, to make them conform to her original plan, or would she rather have reduced the Gothic background and trappings?
By 1816 the first great popular passion for Gothic romances had passed its peak – in her Advertisement for Northanger Abbey, written at a later date, the writer says “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable change.”
They were not so much changed, in fact, that Gothics were forgotten; in 1814 Eaton Stannard Barret produced a highly successful skit called The Heroine, in which the heroine runs away and establishes herself in a ruined castle; Jane Austen herself read it and said it was “a delightful burlesque, particularly of the Radcliffe style.” If such a successful pastiche could be appreciated by the public, then the Gothic originals themselves must still have been in circulation. And in 1818 Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein – so the market for melodrama was still alive and healthy.
Jane Austen might, therefore, have decided to retain the Gothic framework, but use it in a different way. Perhaps she might have added a secondary heroine, who would be the one to make all the silly mistakes and fall into needless terrors; after all, three of the novels have minor heroines: Jane Bennet, Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood; Catherine could very easily have been accompanied into the world by a bird-witted younger sister, a kind of Lydia.
This sister, whether Sarah or Harriet Morland, could, instead of Catherine, have done the tiptoeing about and peering into cabinets and speculating about the dreadful end of Mrs. Tilney, while Catherine tried in vain to check her and was mortified by her impetuosity.
Catherine herself, straightforward, honest, trusting Catherine might, on a larger, more complicated canvas, have become a kind of female Candide, moving innocently through all the machinations and strategies of Isabella, John Thorpe, and the General.
It seems certain that, in a revision, Jane Austen must have put in a great deal more work and thought on General Tilney. He is a lopsided, unsatisfactory character at present. His fussiness and self-satisfaction and snobbery are very well as far as they go, but these qualities do not at all prepare us for what is to come. Objections to oiled butter and a patched-on bow still do not add up to out-and-out heartlessness. As a villain he is below standard. Masculine villains, it must be acknowledged, were not Jane Austen’s strong point, they tend to be more charming than villainous; but she might, perhaps, have created a kind of male Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And she must, surely, in any revision of Northanger Abbey, have chosen to tackle the scene that she has cravenly evaded, that crucial interview in which the General turns Catherine out of his house. The scene where Elizabeth Bennet defies Lady Catherine is so full of spirit that one feels the author must have been encouraged by that to go on and attempt something of the same nature here, a direct confrontation between Catherine and the General.
There is a second point that Jane Austen has failed to cope with in the relationship between Catherine and the General: the fact that, although his turning her out seems, at first, like injustice, in a way it is not, because she has, after all, been entertaining those appalling suspicions of him, and believing that he murdered his wife. Suppose that the General, instead of kind, understanding Henry, had found Catherine poking about in his dead wife’s bedroom? And that, terrified, startled out of propriety, she had gulped out some intimation of her suspicions? Then he would have had a first-class reason for turning her out. (It is also true that the final solution would then have been quite a problem!) But still, something of this kind ought to have been thought of, ought to have been attempted; General Tilney slips off the scene much too easily.
In a revision, the author would certainly have felt the need to insert more in the way of sub-plots. The last three novels are rich in these: the Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill complications in Emma, the Crawford complications in Mansfield Park, Louisa and Captain Benwick, or Elliot and Mrs. Clay, in Persuasion.
What, of a similar kind, could she have done in Northanger? For a start, she needed a few more characters; as well as to take greater advantage of those already there. One example of such a character is Henry’s brother, Captain Tilney. He is used simply as a prop, to beguile flighty Isabella Thorpe away from Catherine’s brother James. Most improbably, although a “fashionable, handsome young man” Frederick Tilney is never introduced to Catherine (which seems decidedly odd and uncivil of Henry); indeed he never speaks to Catherine at all, and it seems both uneconomic and unskilful of the writer to bring him into play as little as she does.
About another character she is equally remiss, but at least acknowledges the fact herself, charmingly, on the last page, where she admits (“aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable”) that “the most charming young man in the world” the titled gentleman whose marriage to Elinor Tilney solves the plot by putting the General back into good humour, had been the one who had left in the closet a bundle of washing bills which Catherine had taken for somebody’s dying confession.
It would have been the easiest thing in the world to introduce this charming young peer at an early stage of the story. Of course he would have followed Eleanor to Bath; of course Isabella Thorpe would have set her cap at him; of course Eleanor would have spent some time kindly comforting and reassuring Catherine’s brother James in his dismay at Isabella’s defection – and thus upset and misled her own aristocratic suitor; and of course meanwhile Catherine’s young sister Harriet – or Sarah – would have somehow become involved with the awful John Thorpe or the unreliable Captain Tilney. There would, as in Emma, have been opportunities for all kinds of criss-cross complications.
Yet somehow I find it hard to see Catherine and Henry becoming enmeshed in these; that pair are too innately good and sensible. Though it is true that Henry was cross with Catherine when the Thorpes had tricked her into breaking her promise to walk with him and his sister. She had to plead with him, “But, Mr. Tilney, why were you less generous than your sister? If she felt such confidence in my good intentions … why should you be so ready to take offence?” Of course he took offence because he was falling in love with her. So perhaps, in a revised version, he might become worried and jealous – like Captain Wentworth, when at last he realizes that he loves Anne, and she is being courted by her cousin. Which character would be courting Catherine? Or seem to be courting her? The most charming young man in the world, of course – Eleanor’s beau, taking her for a walk round Beechen Cliff in order to ask what she thinks his chances might be with Eleanor. Henry wholly mistakes the situation and gets into a state; and Catherine, being a nice well-brought-up girl, is not certain at first that his state is caused by jealousy; and then, if it is, prevented by the proprieties of the situation from enlightening him as to her true sentiments. Until assisted by some crisis …
What other complications might we hypothesize?
Awful John Thorpe, having been thoroughly snubbed by Catherine, might decide to elope with her younger sister Harriet – or Sarah; who, at the last minute, confides the plan to her elder sister, as Georgiana confided her elopement with Wickham to her brother Darcy.
John Thorpe, frustrated because James Morland won’t lend him money and Catherine won’t go driving with him, spins even more of a pack of lies to General Tilney, about the Morland clan and their low, even criminal connections This would provide John and the General with meatier and more credible explanations for their behaviour.
There is a logistic problem here, which Jane Austen avoided and failed to solve in Northanger Abbey. Her principles of unity and literary integrity won’t allow her to have a scene between two minor characters, or two males alone together, without the heroine participating. So how is this interview between John Thorpe and the General to be conveyed? She cheats disgracefully in <Northanger Abbey by saying “I leave it to my reader’s sagacity to determine how much of all this it was possible for Henry to communicate at this time to Catherine …” but we will not allow her to do such a thing in a mature revision. So somebody will have to overhear the scene and report it to Catherine – as, in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings reports the terrific scene when the odious Steele sisters are exposed and turned out of doors by Mrs. John Dashwood.
Jane Austen’s use of dialogue to advance the plot is one of her great strengths; in her later novels the voices of the characters are of almost equal importance with the voice of the author. Think of that subtle point in Emma where Miss Bates reveals the secret about Mr. Perry’s carriage that Jane Fairfax ought never to have passed on to Frank Churchill. Somebody’s voice, somebody’s artless narrative, ought to have recorded the scene between John Thorpe and the General.
Who could have done it? Isabella, perhaps, or one of her younger sisters Anne and Maria (another under-used pair who could have been brought in to better account). One of those would have any scruple in listening to such a conversation and then, rather maliciously, retailing it to Catherine, knowing that it would quite cut up her hopes of securing Henry Tilney.
Or the scene could have been overheard by lethargic Mrs. Allen – another under-employed character – who could have been an auditor in some circulating library, or the Pump Room, and would then relate it with an exasperating lack of concern, sympathy, and understanding, breaking off at the most exciting point to describe the frightful great rent in her best Mechlin.
Another logistical problem is going to confront the author towards the end of the story. Having enlarged the cast of characters to include Eleanor’s young lord, Captain Frederick Tilney, and some sisters of Isabella and Catherine, it is going to be necessary to transport all or some of these to Northanger Abbey when the scene shifts there; for you can’t abandon half your characters in mid-book. But how can this be done? The General plainly isn’t going to invite those vulgar Thorpes to his residence, though Frederick and Eleanor’s peer will of course be eligible.
The problem might be solved by Mrs. Thorpe’s having a brother, a respectable attorney, in the market town halfway between Northanger and Henry Tilney’s parsonage at Woodston. Isabella, anxious not to loose her grasp on Captain Tilney, could persuade her mother to get her uncle to invite them; and then they could all come calling at Northanger – as Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners did at Pernberley – and precipitate some fearful éclaircissement.
Having conceived such a dislike of Bath as she did in later life, Jane Austen, I am sure, would, in a revision, have reduced the proportion of the story laid there. The move to Northanger would probably have happened much earlier.
What else? The bad characters would have become more unpleasant; the social stresses and tensions would have increased.
My expert audience will, long ago, have realized that I have laid down for Jane Austen a series of wholly conflicting and incompatible aims. If she had expanded her cast and introduced several sub-plots, it would be almost impossible to maintain the Gothic pastiche element, for an essential aspect of Gothic melodrama is that the heroine must be all alone and unfriended in the midst of mysterious perils.
If the society around her were blacker and more corrupt, the heroine, unless she were an absolute simpleton, must be aware of this. And she is no simpleton.
If there were to be a confrontation between Catherine and the General, then the ending of the book would lose its surprise. Also, once she had verbally set herself up against him, the conflict between them would be almost impossible to resolve, except by his death of apoplexy, and such a death seems wildly outside the author’s usual range; it is true that she has Mrs. Churchill die, and so resolve the problems of Frank and Jane Fairfax, but as she has never appeared onstage the reader’s sensibilities are not jolted.
If all the other characters were allowed to impinge on the hero and heroine, then we would lose the freshness and spontaneity of the relation between Catherine and Henry.
How would the author have solved such intractable problems? Who was Jane Austen writing for, anyway? In the early days, as I said, I am sure that she was writing for the entertainment of her family circle. Later on – though of course she continued to show her manuscripts to Cassandra and brother Henry, and in due course to the rest of the relations, I think that, basically, she was writing for herself, for her own critical ear. As a worker in the same medium, I feel that, very strongly. The revision that she made at the end of Persuasion, cancelling one chapter and writing in two more, shows us how acute and precise, even during severe ill-health, that ear remained. She could not tolerate sloppy workmanship.
I think she realized the irreconcilable problems that a revision of Northanger Abbey would present; she could see, all too clearly, that if she began reshaping its framework, the story would lose its fun and engagingness and early sparkle.
What it would have gained, who can say? But we can only salute the integrity that decided her to leave it alone, not to try and improve on it. (Or maybe, of course, like many writers, she had grown impatient with editorial messing-about, and wanted to get on with the next work, with Sanditon.)
Whatever the reason, she has left us an exuberant, faulty masterpiece, and that is a great deal better than no masterpiece at all.