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“Everything They Ought to Be”: Conduct Literature in Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is notable for its satirizing parody of Gothic literature, but conduct literature and the themes they dealt with also play a role in the novel’s plot and characterization. The 18th century was a time of social upheaval which created concerns about traditional social standards, especially with regards to women. Conduct literature, such as the books contained in the compilation The Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor, preached submission, obedience, and modesty to young women, and was seen as an antidote to novel reading (Waldron 18). Austen was a vehement defender of novels and was also unafraid to point out the absurdities she saw in conduct books, and cleverly ridiculed them in Northanger Abbey and her other books, such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. In Northanger Abbey Austen takes on four major themes in conduct literature: that women should have no learning, or they should conceal it, that women should not be in love before they know the man is in love with them, that a woman must accept a man’s proposal of marriage if her parents approve, and that novels were unsuitable and dangerous books for young women. The references to conduct literature in Northanger Abbey suggest that Austen saw them as misguided advice with an unrealistic understanding of human nature.

The first point about women’s education was argued by Dr. John Gregory in A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. Published in 1774, and republished in The Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor in 1790, the book is in the format of Gregory giving advice to his daughters. One such piece of advice was: “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” (Gregory 37). In Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s narrator satirically regards Catherine’s shame of being ignorant as misplaced, saying: “A woman especially, if she should have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” (106). She also hits back at the men Gregory talks about: “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 a woman than ignorance” (106). Mr. Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey, is one of those men who do not desire ignorance in a woman. Catherine is not a woman of supreme intelligence, as she “shirked her lessons” and did not have great skill in music, drawing, writing, or French (16). However, she did possess an intellectual curiosity which she never tried to conceal. Embarrassed about not knowing anything about drawing, she asked Mr. Tilney to teach her (106-107). Perhaps more important than the fact that Catherine did not conceal her intelligence (or want of intelligence) was that she did not conceal anything at all. Her character is open and honest and wins the hearts of everyone around her. Advice such as Gregory’s encouraged young ladies to conceal their true selves in order to win men. This sounds like Isabella Thorpe, one of the villains in Northanger Abbey. Isabella is insincere and manipulative at every turn in order to attract the attention of men. Though authors of conduct literature may not have had this in mind, Austen uses the example of Catherine, Mr. Tilney, and Isabella to show how misguided their advice was.

In an essay titled “Coquetry,” published in the magazine, The Rambler, in 1751, Samuel Richardson lamented the decline of virtuous courtship in recent times and argued: “That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is a heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow.” In Chapter 3 of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s narrator references this position of the “celebrated writer” and sarcastically hopes that Catherine does not dream of Mr. Tilney before “the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her” (29). By using the act of dreaming as an example, Austen shows how unreasonable this idea was. Dreams cannot be consciously controlled or regulated, much the same as love, and Richardson seems to expect the impossible of young women. Gregory was of a similar position to Richardson. While he recognized that young ladies are often in love before they are assured of the gentleman being in love with them, he said that in such cases, “every motive of prudence and delicacy should make her guard her heart against them [the first impressions of love], till such time as she has received the most convincing proofs of the attachment of a man” (113). Austen undermines this idea in Pride and Prejudice in a more serious way. In Chapter 6, Elizabeth and Charlotte discuss Jane being in love with Mr. Bingley. It is obvious to Elizabeth that her sister is in love, but Charlotte cautions against Jane being too guarded about her affections: “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him…Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on” (210-211). This logical argument undermines the Richardson and Gregory ideal, and the fact that it comes from the conforming Charlotte Lucas rather than the rebel Elizabeth Bennet shows how even the most submissive woman can recognize the foolishness of such behavior. Austen also directly refutes this idea at the end of Northanger Abbey, when she describes Mr. Tilney’s relationship with Catherine: “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” (227). Had Mr. Tilney not been aware of Catherine’s affection for him, he may not have fallen in love with her.

Austen’s mockery of Richardson’s essay in Chapter 3 of Northanger Abbey is accompanied by a footnote that identifies the author and the publication information. However, most of the time Austen was not as direct and challenged the assumptions made by authors of conduct literature, rather than the authors themselves. A common assumption made by Richardson was that once proposed to by a gentleman, a young lady was required to accept his proposal. In “Coquetry,” he describes a young lady “thus applied to” as “all resignation to her parents.” Her parents were to be asked before the man proposed, meaning that the young lady must submit to her parents’ wishes and accept his proposal. Austen’s portrayal of marriage and proposal in Northanger Abbey contrasts with Richardson’s ideal. Mr. and Mrs. Morland have almost no hand in Catherine and Mr. Tilney’s relationship. Having just arrived at Fullerton, Henry offers Catherine his hand in marriage before he asks for her parents’ permission, and while his father is expressly opposed to the marriage (227). Mr. Tilney soon asks for Mr. and Mrs. Morland’s consent in marrying Catherine, but their approval is easily given, with the only condition being that General Tilney give his consent as well (232). Parents largely take a backseat in their children’s relationships in Northanger Abbey. The exception is General Tilney, who tries to promote a marriage between Henry and Catherine when he believes that Catherine is a wealthy heiress. His shallow motives paint a negative picture of Richardson’s ideal of parental action and female submissiveness. In fact, several Austen heroines challenge this ideal. Elizabeth Bennet goes against her mother’s wishes by refusing Mr. Collins. In an argument with Mr. Knightley, Emma Woodhouse defends her actions in encouraging Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin’s proposal. She says: “it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her” (438). Emma does not exactly have the moral high ground here, as encouraging Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin turns out to be a foolish move that negatively affects Harriet and herself. But this complexity is a key feature of Austen’s writing. She differed from traditional novelists who displayed heroines with no questionable motives or choices, and radical writers, whose heroines existed solely to make political points (Waldron 41).

Perhaps Austen’s greatest refutation of conduct literature comes in her “defense of the novel” in Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey. Authors of conduct literature thought the female mind was easily misled and should be protected against “sentiments that might perplex [them]” (Gregory 63). Many of them condemned novels as being improper reading for young ladies. James Fordyce, in Sermons to Young Women, published in 1766, says novels are “in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute” (75). Austen declares in Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey that unlike other novelists, she will not join “their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works” (36). She calls on other novelists: “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” and gives us a scenario of a young lady who says that she is “only” reading a novel, such as “Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda” (36). Austen goes on to defend them as:

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 effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language (36-37).

Isabella Thorpe is the one who introduces Catherine to Gothic novels. Isabella is self-absorbed and frivolous, which at first seems to play into the stereotypes of women who read novels. However, Catherine never becomes like her, and Mr. Tilney soon comes along to present an alternate picture of novel-reading, one which is honest and educated. Austen shows us that novel-reading is not inherently good or bad, rather, people define their own novel-reading experience based on their personalities. Isabella is already a selfish and manipulative character and uses novels as a way to make Catherine her protégé. Catherine is adventurous and naïve, and reads novels for the thrill, eventually projecting their version of reality onto her surroundings. Henry Tilney is educated and observant, and reads them for pleasure and discernment.

Austen does use certain characters to portray a positive image of novels. She once again sets Mr. Tilney apart from the typical male breed as an outspoken champion of novels. Catherine assumes that Mr. Tilney does not read novels because “gentlemen read better books” (102). Instead, she finds that Mr. Tilney is a voracious reader who declares: “The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (102). In Northanger Abbey, the two most likeable and admirable characters profess the value of novels.

In the same defense of the novel, Austen criticizes those who declare: “I am no novel reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels” (36). At Catherine’s inquiry, Mr. Thorpe says: “I never read novels” (47), an immediate degradation in his character. He mixes up the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho and declares Camilla to be a “stupid book” (47). Austen’s critique of Mr. Thorpe’s critique is evident in her sarcastic remark:

This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe’s lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son. (48)

Mr. Thorpe has been established as a detestable character, and his insult to novels is therefore an underhanded compliment. Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is a similarly odious character, whose pronouncements on literature can be taken in the opposite way. In Chapter 14, after being asked to read to the Bennet sisters, he “protested that he never read novels,” and chooses Fordyce’s Sermons instead (236). Mr. Collins’s choice taints the book’s reputation as well as his own. Though Austen’s “defense of the novel” contains biting criticism and a spirited argument, her characters’ actions speak for themselves in breaking down the stigma of novel-reading.

In addition to these specific rebuttals, Austen’s thoughts on conduct literature as a whole can be seen through the character of Mrs. Morland. We are told that Catherine’s mother “wished to see her children everything they ought to be” (17), a vague platitude that lacks any insight, much like all of Mrs. Morland’s advice. In many ways, Mrs. Morland is a representation of conduct literature. She has good intentions, but often misunderstands the situation. After Catherine returns from Northanger Abbey in disgrace, her mother mistakenly assumes that her melancholy is caused by her exposure to the grandeur of Northanger Abbey, leading to a disappointment with her home (225). In reality, Catherine is lovesick for Mr. Tilney, but Mrs. Morland does not understand her daughter well enough to see this. She mentions an essay about “young girls who have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance” and goes to fetch it when Catherine’s spirits do not improve (225). The work she refers to is “Consequence to little folks of intimacy with great ones, in a letter from John Homespun,” which was published in the magazine, The Mirror, in 1779. Mrs. Morland lacks the time and will to engage with her daughter and turns to what she believes is a piece of instructional literature as a remedy. Austen describes the book as a “volume from which so much was hoped” (225), showing the unreasonable expectations that were placed on conduct literature as a cure-all.

Austen was not an active reformer who directly challenged the authors of conduct literature. Her primary concern was creating characters and plots that were realistic and relatable. She showed a profound understanding of what society was really like, as well as the assumptions about women that were made in conduct literature. She integrates and then undermines these assumptions in her novels, with either a remark by a character or by the narrator herself. Her tone never becomes didactic or overbearing like the authors of the conduct books that she ridiculed. Ultimately, in Northanger Abbey Austen rebuffs some of the sexist claims made by conduct literature in a way that fits with the novel’s light and humorous tone.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Fall River Press, 2012.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. 1818. Penguin Books, 1995.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Fall River Press, 2012.
  • Fordyce, James. Sermons to Young Women. 1766. Google Books, 2011.
  • Gregory, John. A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. 1774. Project Gutenberg, 2015.
  • Richardson, Samuel. “Coquetry.” The Rambler, vol. 2, no. 97, 1751. Andromeda, andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/rambler97.html. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
  • Waldron, Mary. Jane Austen and The Fiction of Her Time. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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