PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.20, NO.1 (Summer 1999)

The Invention of Civility in Northanger Abbey

Joseph Wiesenfarth


Joseph Wiesenfarth is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has taught since 1970.  He has written extensively on British and American novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  His most recent book is Gothic Manners and the Classic English Novel (1988), which begins with a chapter on Pride and Prejudice.


Civilization hesitates to allow imagination to roam freely.

Thomas Moore

Dark Eros (79)


the words “civil” and “civility” rarely appear in Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  “Civil” indicates that one is not barbarous, but civilized and “advanced in the arts of life” (OED 8).  And “civility” is “behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilized people”; it signifies “ordinary courtesy or politeness, as opposed to rudeness of behaviour” (OED 12).  Civility suppresses individual differences in favor of social harmony.  But social harmony is impossible without individual fulfillment.  Defining civility in Northanger Abbey, therefore, requires Jane Austen to achieve a delicate balance in her novel.


Words like “civil” and “civility” have a small place, if any, in the juvenilia because these early stories are so little about life in society and so much about selfishness that rudeness is more common to them than the manners of people living an orderly life together.  Not only do characters insult and antagonize each other, their conduct is so uncivil that it is often criminal: characters marry illegally, steal money, imprison others, throw children out of windows, demolish houses, murder their rivals, and kill themselves.1  Perhaps these events are as enjoyable as they are because they are so outrageous.  The product of a teenager’s imagination, they appeal to the teenager in us all.  They make us one with Jane Austen in her wildest imaginings.


This exuberance carries over into the first chapter of Northanger Abbey.  Catherine Morland acts as a typically uncivilized girl: “she was . . . noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house” (14).  Jane Austen has to take Catherine away from the green hills and put her into the gray city to introduce her to civility.  But some conventions of civility come immediately under attack as Catherine goes through a social ritual to meet Henry Tilney.  His appearance in society smacks of the juvenilia.  He happily attacks the very conventions that allow him to meet and flirt with Catherine.


After chatting some time on such matters as naturally arose from the objects around them, he suddenly addressed her with—“I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.  I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars?  If you are I will begin directly.”


Catherine is at her leisure, and Henry begins.  When he finishes, he sums himself up as “a queer, half-witted man” who distresses Catherine with his “nonsense” (26).  His nonsense is his apparent superiority to everything around him so as to suggest that Henry is really an attenuated edition of Charles Adams from “Jack and Alice.”  I say attenuated because Henry is not as self-absorbed as Charles is and is only occasionally rude.  And unlike Charles, Henry isn’t actually the sun around whom all the planets in the social universe revolve.2  He is genuinely full of fun, asserting his individuality, not in rejecting civility, but in a critique of one of its numbing conventions.  He stands aside from this particular social practice by being bizarre, and he draws out Catherine by making her laugh.  And there is a great deal to laugh at.


The project of Northanger Abbey is to find a civility that embraces individuality without having either run amuck.  Austen therefore separates helpful conventions from unhelpful ones.  Those that are helpful allow individuals not only to live equably together but also to think and feel for themselves.  Those that are unhelpful promote a style of life that shuns thinking and feeling.  Such conventions inhibit genuine civility and are often ridiculous.  They begin in the novel with Mrs. Allen, whose conversation Henry Tilney celebrates as “a picture of intellectual poverty” (79):


Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.  She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. . . .  Dress was her passion.  She had a most harmless delight in being fine; and our heroine’s entrée into life could not take place till after three or four days had been spent in learning what was mostly worn, and her chaperon was provided with a dress of the newest fashion. (20)


What dress is to Mrs. Allen, horses and carriages are to John Thorpe.  He is completely defined by his equestrian feats, which are saddled with “the effusions of his endless conceit” (66).  His brain is equinity itself.  His sister Isabella is as focused on men as he is on horses.  She is a “‘vain coquette’” (218) masquerading as romantic heroine— “‘My attachments are always excessively strong’” (40)—in pursuit of the main chance.  Of limited intelligence, Mrs. Allen and the Thorpes are parodies of individuality.  They are no more than selfish expressions of conventions that value visible indicators of social success: dresses, carriages, and splendid marriages, respectively.  They have no personality outside these conventions.


Henry Tilney, however, is a genuinely witty character.  But Jane Austen allows him to flirt with being defined by convention too.  When he takes his sister and Catherine for a walk to Beechen Cliff above Bath, he expresses, if he does not actually hold, conventional attitudes toward women, suggesting that they have so much brain power that they seldom use half of it and showing why the narrator cautions a woman in a man’s society, “especially if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing,” to “conceal it as well as she can” (111).  Henry, whom Austen claims for her “hero” as this chapter begins (106), also affects a rudeness to his sister and a crudeness toward individual taste.  He teaches Catherine so much about the picturesque that she voluntarily rejects “the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape” (111).  Jane Austen here shows how embracing a convention like the picturesque can threaten natural good taste.  She deliberately puts Henry at risk of looking quite stereotypical when he shows Catherine how perspective changes the way one sees something.  To lose one’s sense of one’s self can be disastrous.  But the whole point of Northanger Abbey is to cultivate civility while preserving individuality.


Catherine herself quickly learns to assert her individuality when it is threatened by John and Isabella Thorpe and her brother James by refusing to break an engagement with the Tilneys to satisfy them: “‘I cannot submit to this,’” she says (100).  This is the first moment that good manners—the propriety of keeping a first engagement—and individual will—Catherine wants to be with the Tilneys—converge.  Catherine insists upon being as good as her word: “‘I am engaged to Miss Tilney.  I cannot go’” elsewhere, she tells her angry brother in no uncertain terms (97-98).  This is a moment that Henry duplicates late in the novel when, in face of his father’s will to the contrary, he is as good as his word to Catherine: just as she ran after him against another’s will, he runs after her against another’s will.


The General was furious in his anger and they parted in dreadful disagreement.  Henry, in an agitation of mind which many solitary hours were required to compose, had returned almost instantly to Woodston; and on the afternoon of the following day, had begun his journey to Fullerton. (248)


Catherine’s initial act of civility to Henry is almost an isolated event early in the novel.  It anticipates what is to come, but it doesn’t guarantee that Catherine’s initiation into society is complete by any means.  When Catherine is at Northanger Abbey, for instance, her conduct is reprehensible.  She is a great deal less critical of the conventions of Gothic fiction than Henry has been critical of the conventions of the Lower Rooms at Bath.  She does not see what is ridiculous in Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction in the way that Henry sees what is ridiculous in small talk.  Consequently, Henry has to remind Catherine that much that is in Gothic fiction is ridiculous.  If the conventions of small talk do not provide an intelligent way for men and women to act, the conventions of Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction do not provide an intelligent way for men and women to act either.  Why?  Because it is the nineteenth century in England, not the twelfth century in Italy.


“Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing: where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?” (197-98)


This is the culmination of Henry’s helping Catherine achieve a sense of herself within the bounds of civility.  Since civility is conduct appropriate to a citizen, Henry reminds Catherine of her citizenship and what it implies: she is an English woman subject to the Common Law of England and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church.  That’s the positive side.  Moreover, in today’s world, she lives among nosy neighbors who read newspapers that thrive on sordid events and make them generally known through an intricate network of communication.  That’s the negative side.  But taken together, positive and negative sides promote ethical conduct, instilling, so to speak, a civil and religious conscience that cannot be flagrantly transgressed without being flagrantly obvious.  In other words, General Tilney could not have murdered his wife, as Catherine surmises he did, in the England of their day without the crime being discovered and punished.  Although Catherine later concludes that “in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (247), she is judging him, in part, on the basis of personal pique.  Obviously, to murder one’s wife is not the same as to send one packing.  General Tilney nonetheless is the commander of the uncivil forces of society.  He is vain, avaricious, cruel, and sadistic.  That he is indisputably that Catherine senses rightly and judges him harshly.


Henry’s brief speech on the present condition of English society is also the culmination of his suggestions to Catherine on how to see things differently.  It harkens back to their discussion of the picturesque and, much more importantly, to their discussion of nice distinctions that precede their argument about history, fiction, and invention when they walk to Beechen Cliff.  The mention of history recalls the juvenilia again—recalls, specifically, “The History of England. . . . By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian.”  Catherine is pretty much in the mode of the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen when she discusses history with Henry, who takes on the precarious job of refuting Austen’s earlier position on the subject.  Catherine praises “invention” and finds a lot of it in history.  Indeed, what Henry does when he finds Catherine outside his mother’s room in the abbey is give her a lesson in history.  He tells Catherine that she’s allowed her love of invention to overrun the facts of the case.  General Tilney is not a murderer; he’s a demanding father; he was a temperamental husband.  Modern England with its newspapers and spies isn’t pretty either; but, like General Tilney, it is what it is.  Catherine, who celebrated invention in The Mysteries of Udolpho, has to step back from Mrs. Radcliffe to make room for William Pitt.3  Invention, which we know from Dr. Johnson is the “essence of poetry,” must be exercised within a new set of limits (Edmundson 34).  Those limits suggest that Henry’s admonition of Catherine is no less a critique of the present state of society than it is of her—no less a critique of present circumstances than his mockery of the proprieties of the Lower Rooms is.  And just as he did then, he does now: he gives “one smirk” and is “rational again” (26).  Henry, whose sister worries that he may be “more nice than wise” (108), proves the opposite by never again mentioning to Catherine her moment of Gothic invention.


Catherine, who has praised invention in stories, realizes that there is just too much invention in Mrs. Radcliffe to carry over into life itself.  Henry tried to show her that when he drove her from Bath to Northanger by inventing a Gothic tale on the spot.  Catherine, however, turned his story into history, mistaking invention for fact.  But Catherine’s fate, as Jane Austen makes known early in the novel, is not to be a “true quality heroine” (24)—not to be an Emily St. Aubert playing romantic heroine to Henry’s Valancourt: “she fell miserably short of the true heroic height” (16). Catherine’s fate is to be a heroine of “common feelings of common life,” rather than one of “refined susceptibilities” (19).  To emphasize this, Jane Austen allows Catherine the embarrassment of playing a true quality heroine, of being discovered doing so, and thereby finding out about herself.  That reverses the plot line of her story.  When we think about this moment for a moment, we see that what Jane Austen has done is use the attempt to live a Gothic romance to bring about the discovery and reversal of comedy.


The visions of romance were over.  Catherine was completely awakened.  Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done.  Most grievously was she humbled. (199)


In other words, Catherine Morland is not a romantic heroine out of a Gothic tale—a Gothic tale so utterly conventional that Henry Tilney can take its constant elements and fashion them into a plot while he drives Catherine to his Gloucestershire home.  Catherine Morland has learned that she can really, appropriately, only be herself—the Catherine whose mind, as Henry acutely observes, is “warped by an innate principle of general integrity” (219).


This is all part of Jane Austen’s larger project of inventing civility in Northanger Abbey.  For the reader of the novel is taught by Catherine’s errors what Jane Austen’s kind of novel—the novel of common life—is about.  Jane Austen, like every novelist, must create her audience.  She does that in Northanger Abbey by relentlessly pressing forward a metafictional motif.  Here, for example, Austen explains Henry’s love for Catherine to the reader:


I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of 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. (243)


Jane Austen goes on to speak about novelists, novels, their readers and their critics, and the world as the novelist presents it as well as the language a novel uses to do so.  All of these things are fundamental to the reader’s education, as they are to Catherine’s.  After Catherine learns how to read Mrs. Radcliffe, for instance, she learns how to read Isabella.  To put it in other terms, after she learns how to read fiction, she learns how to read life.  When Isabella finds herself jilted by Captain Tilney, she tries to secure James Morland again; she reinvents herself as a heroine of sensibility and tries to get Catherine to believe in this highly conventional fiction.  But Catherine doesn’t: “Such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine” (218).  She has learned that Isabella has nothing to do with common life except exploit those who do.  Isabella, like General Tilney at the end of Northanger Abbey, writes “a page full of empty professions” (252).  Catherine, from whose eyes “the eight parts of speech shone out expressively” (120), doesn’t believe a word of it.


Jane Austen presents Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey as someone who “‘cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible’” (133).  She presents General Tilney along with Isabella and John Thorpe as the opposite.  They wish to be taken for what they are not.  For what they are has an affinity with Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction: they send chills up and down the spine because their selfishness makes them wicked.  Catherine has to learn that such wickedness is more likely to appear in common life than in Gothic fiction.  In her juvenilia Jane Austen emphasized wickedness at the expense of civility: “rudeness of behaviour” is everywhere in evidence.  In Northanger Abbey “behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilized people”—civility itself—is to the fore.  The worst people want to be judged civil to be thought the best people.  One lesson that Catherine learns is how to see such intentions for what they are.  Henry Tilney helps her to do that by helping her to distinguish what people say from what they do.  That gives her a perspective from which to judge everything from Mrs. Radcliffe’s fabricated horrors to General Tilney’s actual cruelty.  From their very first meeting, Henry shows Catherine that some social forms are ridiculous.  At the end of the novel, Henry and Catherine disregard similar forms—forms, incidentally, codified by the fate of Richardson’s Clarissa4—by secretly corresponding with each other.


Civility, Jane Austen suggests, makes it possible for people to live together in society.  But civility is more than just doing what everyone else does all the time—either in life or in fiction.  Civility at its best enables people to find a path to individual happiness within the landscape of social harmony.  Jane Austen’s invention of civility in Northanger Abbey shows her both imagining that possibility and mapping it in a new genre—one of her own invention—the novel of common life.





1. Laura and Edward marry illegally in “Love and Freindship”; Augustus steals money from his father in the same story; the Duchess of F. imprisons Eliza; Eliza throws her children out the window, telling them to land safely, in “Henry and Eliza”; she subsequently raises an army and destroys the Duchess’s property; Sukey poisons Lucy in “Jack and Alice”; Charlotte kills herself in “Fredric and Elfrida.”


2. Charles appears at the Johnsons’ masquerade ball as the Sun; then, we are gradually brought to realize that he is not wearing a costume—that Charles Adams is the Sun.


3. On “voluntary spies” as they relate to William Pitt’s government, see Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Cambridge: CUP, 1995) 70.


4. I have discussed the relationship of the ending of Northanger Abbey to Clarissa in The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen’s Art (New York: Fordham UP, 1967) 168-69, n. 13.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Edmundson, Mark.  Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida.  Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

Moore, Thomas.  Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism.  2nd rev. ed.  Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1994.


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