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Northanger Abbey and Sexual Selection: Genetic Immortality

Catherine Morland, the protagonist of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is often regarded as her least appealing heroine, considered not just naïve but unintelligent and uninteresting.  Marvin Mudrick calls Catherine “impeccably ignorant,” refers to her “lightweight . . . mind,” and claims that “she is too simple and too slight” to engage readers’ sympathies (44, 40, 53).  Laura Mooneyham similarly characterizes Catherine as “not clever” and “of average—or below average—intelligence” (5, 21; see also 25).  Recently, cognitive-evolutionary literary critics have explored Catherine’s deficiencies in Theory of Mind, or the ability to infer the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others, and in metarepresentation, which involves evaluating the validity of sources for one’s knowledge of other people and the world (see MacMahon, Nelles, Lau).  Although Catherine clearly demonstrates cognitive errors, as when she trusts insincere, manipulative Isabella Thorpe and suspects General Tilney of murdering or imprisoning his wife, the idea that she is mentally obtuse and socially inept is challenged by the fact that she ends up marrying the most eligible man in the novel, a match which, as her parents recognize, was “under every pecuniary view . . . beyond [her] claims” (NA 259).  Without a large fortune, striking good looks, or impressive accomplishments, Catherine has little to attract a man of superior wealth and status.  How does she manage to end up married to clever, well-connected Henry Tilney? 

The field of evolutionary psychology provides answers to this question.  Evolutionary psychologists believe the human mind evolved via natural and sexual selection to solve problems our ancestors faced in order to ensure our survival and pass on our genes to subsequent generations.1  According to Charles Darwin (in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex), sexual selection involves two components:  male competition with other males for access to females and female choice of the most appealing males.  A number of literary critics have found the principles of sexual selection particularly relevant to Austen’s novels, with their focus on the complex dynamics of courtship, especially from the woman’s point of view.  Brian Boyd claims that “Austen focuses overwhelmingly on female choice” (“Jane, Meet Charles” 16), and David Barash and Nanelle Barash anoint Austen “the poet laureate of female choice, . . . the motive force behind sexual selection” (41).  These critics analyze Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma from an evolutionary perspective, but no one thus far has applied this approach to Northanger Abbey, as I propose to do in this essay.2  Evolutionary psychology provides a rationale for the courtship behavior depicted in Austen’s novels and enhances our appreciation of these works’ astute perception of core human drives. 

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Darwin observed that males in most species are more eager and indiscriminate and females more coy and selective in their choice of mates.  It was not until the 1970s, however, that a compelling reason was offered for these gender differences when Robert Trivers advanced the theory of parental investment.  As Trivers and subsequent evolutionary psychologists argue, females in most species, including our own, bear more responsibility for reproduction than males in that the latter need supply only sperm whereas females provide a womb and nine months of gestation for the fetus, followed by birth, lactation, and usually the preponderance of childcare.  Human children are among the most helpless in the animal kingdom and require a lengthy period of support before they are capable of surviving and reproducing on their own.  It is therefore important for a woman to wisely choose a mate who is likely to provide not just good genetic material but resources and protection that will allow her and her children to thrive and pass on their genes.  As a result, as Jane Austen knew, women are generally less eager than men to engage in casual sex, they prefer to spend more time in courtship getting to know a potential partner well, and they carefully analyze their suitors’ personalities and prospects, often in conversation with other women (see especially Buss 149, 155). 

Extensive cross-cultural studies conducted by David M. Buss and others have revealed widespread consensus on the major qualities each gender looks for in a mate.  Chief among the traits women value in men is the possession of resources to support the woman and her children.  Women tend to prefer men who are several years older than themselves, for older men have had time to acquire resources and also are more mature and stable than young men (Buss 28).  High social status is only slightly less valuable than resources for most women, because the former usually correlates with possession of the latter.  Women also prize men who are well educated and intelligent, indicated by traits such as problem-solving ability and good judgment.  An important component of intelligence is social skills, which are crucial to “all relationships of power and status” in our highly social species (Easterlin 261).  Such skills include verbal facility, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, and the ability to communicate effectively (Buss 34-35).  Another trait that women tend to value more highly than men in a partner is humor, which as Christopher Wilbur and Lorne Campbell explain is a “fitness indicator” reflecting intelligence, warmth, and “social adroitness” as well as skill in coping with adverse life events (337, 340).  Because women in the past and present are at risk of harm from aggressive men, they appreciate mates who can protect them from other men, and one of the chief indications of male dominance is tallness.  Women also seek men who are healthy, which may be indicated by good looks and grooming habits as well as “A lively mood, high energy level, and sprightly gate” (Buss 41).  It is not enough, however, for women to identify potential mates who have resources and other desired traits.  The man also must be willing to commit to the woman and reliably share his resources with her and her children.  Behaviors that signal a man’s willingness to commit to a woman include giving up relationships with other women and being kind, dependable, “available in times of trouble and listening to the partner’s problems” (Buss 43; see also Campbell 179). 

One of the reasons women must be especially careful in choosing their mates is that men have different strategies for their reproductive success that can conflict with women’s goals.  On the one hand, men’s parental investment is high compared to males in most other species.  Their genes will not be passed on if their children do not survive to reproductive age themselves, and throughout history and across cultures, children without fathers fare worse than those who do have fathers in their lives.  It is therefore in a man’s interest to bond with a woman and contribute to raising their children.  Nonetheless, men may still benefit from fathering many children on the chance that some of these will live and reproduce.  Men therefore tend to practice two major sexual strategies:  the pursuit of long-term mates with whom they will raise children, and short-term sexual partners they will abandon. 

For long-term relationships, men seek women of reproductive age (the peak years are 15-25), younger than themselves, and possessing attractive features that indicate good health, especially regarding the ability to bear and raise children.  One of the major problems for men, especially before the advent of DNA tests, is that they can never be certain of children’s paternity.  The obsession with female chastity before marriage and faithfulness afterward that is pervasive in most cultures stems from men’s need to ensure that children their wives present them with are their own.  Otherwise, they risk investing their time and resources on the transmitter of someone else’s genes.  For long-term mates, men also value kindness, intelligence, and social position. 

Men’s standards in choosing a woman for casual sex, however, are lower than those for a wife; they may settle for a woman older, less attractive, and with fewer social advantages than they require for a long-term partner.  Moreover, instead of seeking a woman who is likely to prove faithful to one man, they look for signs of sexual promiscuity such as seductive clothing and behavior and a history of relationships with other men (Buss 78-79, 83-84, 117-21; Wright 72-74).  As a strategy for seducing women into casual sex, men may deceive women into thinking that they do have long-term interests by displaying acts of kindness and devotion, and women therefore must be skilled at detecting such men’s insincerity (Buss 105, 154-55; Campbell 179-80; Wright 61-63).  Evolution favors women who are adept at seeing through male deception, for they are likely to end up with loyal mates who can be relied upon to support them and their offspring.

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Austen’s Northanger Abbey demonstrates these impulses playing out in the courtships of two female characters, Catherine and her friend Isabella, the first of whom is successful and the second unsuccessful in the sexual strategies she employs.  Whatever her difficulties comprehending the mental states of others, especially when these involve deception and dishonesty, Catherine displays unerring good sense in her evaluation of potential mates.  Moreover, as we shall see, even her obtuseness about other people’s motives may aid her sexual strategy. 

Catherine identifies Henry Tilney as an appealing partner upon their first meeting, when he is described as “a very gentlemanlike young man” of about “four or five and twenty” who “was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.  His address was good”; “[h]e talked with fluency and spirit—and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her” (17).  This account, which reflects Catherine’s perception of Henry, identifies him as belonging to a respectable social class with good manners (“gentlemanlike”), several years older than herself, tall and acceptably good-looking, animated (indicating good health), and intelligent, with especially good verbal facility.  Even his ironic manner (his “archness and pleasantry”), which Catherine does not fully understand, “interested” her as an indication of his intelligence and sophistication with language.  It also signals that he has a good sense of humor.  Although Catherine is concerned “that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others” (21), suggesting that he may be critical of those he considers inferior, his interest in and kindness to women is conveyed by his knowledge of dress fabrics and declaration that “‘my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown,’” causing Mrs. Allen to remark, “‘You must be a great comfort to your sister, sir’” (20).  Henry’s devotion to his sister is later reinforced when Catherine meets Eleanor Tilney and learns how much she cares for her brother and considers him a valuable companion. 

The more Catherine knows of Henry the more she learns of his positive traits.  When she finds out that Mrs. Allen has heard “‘a great deal about the family’” from Eleanor Tilney’s companion, Mrs. Hughes, Catherine pumps her guardian for information, asking such questions as “‘what part of Gloucestershire they come from’” and whether “‘Mr. Tilney, my [dance] partner, [is] the only son,’” a significant issue as it would determine whether or not Henry will inherit the family estate (65).  Although Mrs. Allen has not retained much information, Catherine does eventually learn that the Tilneys are a wealthy family, superior to her own in social class, and when she first sees General Tilney she is struck by how “‘handsome’” they all are (78).  Henry continues to impress Catherine with his intelligence as he discourses on aesthetic principles and politics during their walk on Beechen Cliff, and he displays a lively imagination and playful sense of humor when he invents a clever, parodic gothic narrative on their trip to Northanger Abbey.  Henry’s adeptness at reading the minds of others is further evidence of his social skills, for he pays close attention to what others communicate by their words and nonverbal signs and responds appropriately, as when he deduces that the letter Catherine receives from her brother James announces his break-up with Isabella, a perception that prompts Catherine to exclaim, “‘How quick you are!’” (210). 

Moreover, despite his satirical bent, Henry proves to be kind and forgiving of Catherine’s missteps, especially when he exposes her misguided conjecture that General Tilney murdered his wife, after the manner of a gothic villain.  Catherine is mortified and fears the loss of Henry’s regard, but instead she is met with “astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct” on his part, as he never afterward alludes to the incident and instead treats her with “soothing politeness” and “rather more attention than usual,” so that “her spirits [soon] became absolutely comfortable” (206, 204).  Instead of teasing and humiliating Catherine about her blunder, he reassures her of his continuing affection and concern for her happiness.  Most significantly, when General Tilney forbids Henry to marry Catherine, after he learns she will not inherit Mr. Allen’s fortune, Henry boldly defies his father, for he “felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland,” and no insistence on his father’s part “could shake his fidelity” (257).  He proves that he will remain faithful to Catherine even in times of adversity, when doing so does not serve his self-interest. 

If Catherine is adept at identifying a suitor who is likely to prove a valuable long-term mate, she is equally perceptive at recognizing less eligible men.  She quickly concludes that she dislikes the company of John Thorpe, who comes from a family of precarious status, with few resources.  Thorpe also has many personality traits unlikely to appeal to discriminating women.  He bores Catherine by talking on subjects of no interest to her and boasting of his own skills and accomplishments.  His dishonesty and lack of intelligence are conveyed by the blatant exaggerations and contradictions in his statements, causing even the naïve Catherine to suspect that he cannot be telling the truth.  More seriously, Thorpe reveals his brutality when he refuses to heed Catherine’s pleas to stop the carriage after she sees Eleanor and Henry Tilney and instead “only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, . . . and drove on” (NA 86), an action that Jeffrey Herrle interprets as abduction and “figurative rape” (240). 

John Thorpe is perhaps easy to identify as a poor choice for a husband—he lacks resources, intelligence, social skills, and kindness to women—but Catherine is also adept at noting the shortcomings of the more impressive Captain Tilney.  When she sees him for the first time, she evaluates him as “a very fashionable-looking, handsome young man.”  She

even supposed it possible, that some people might think him handsomer than his brother, though, in her eyes, his air was more assuming, and his countenance less prepossessing.  His taste and manners were beyond a doubt decidedly inferior; for, within her hearing, he not only protested against every thought of dancing himself, but even laughed openly at Henry for finding it possible. (133) 

Catherine accurately perceives that although Captain Tilney is better looking than his brother and, as the eldest son, will be wealthier, he is haughty and aloof, and his Darcy-like refusal to dance in the Bath ballroom reflects his belief that the women there are beneath his notice, as a result of their inferior class status.  Catherine recognizes that the younger Tilney son, who probably compensated for his lesser physical attractiveness, status, and wealth by cultivating both his mental abilities and devotion to women, is a better prospect for marriage than his brother. 

Isabella, supposedly more experienced and savvy in her dealings with the opposite sex (she “could discover a flirtation between any gentleman and lady who only smiled on each other; and point out a quiz through the thickness of a crowd” [26]), is much less effective than Catherine at identifying men who are good candidates for husbands.  Isabella throws off devoted, dependable James Morland for the more dashing and socially eligible Captain Tilney, who initially follows her like her “‘shadow’” and declares he wishes her “‘heart were independent,’” presumably so that she would bestow it on him (223, 149).  Isabella does not realize that Captain Tilney is only pretending to love her as a strategy for seducing her into a short-term affair.  Isabella can secure the wealthy, handsome Captain Tilney for this type of relationship, but, as Eleanor and Henry tell Catherine, their brother is not likely to marry a woman without “connexions and fortune.”  Moreover, Eleanor astutely notes that it would be strange for her brother to propose marriage to “‘A girl who, before his eyes, is violating an engagement voluntarily entered into with another man!’” (211).  The privileged Captain Tilney will not choose for a long-term mate a woman who is openly demonstrating her lack of fidelity, but the ease with which she transfers her attentions from one man to another makes her an appropriate target for a short-term relationship.  When Captain Tilney abandons her, Isabella complains in a letter to Catherine that “‘it is very difficult to know whom to trust’” (223).  Catherine, however, does know which man to trust, because she has been alert to signs that indicate loyalty and a willingness to share resources rather than merely the possession of resources and good genes. 

Isabella’s flirtation with Captain Tilney is more confusing to Catherine than any other incident in the novel.  The day Isabella meets Captain Tilney, she has declared to Catherine that she will not dance while her fiancé, James, is away.  When Captain Tilney appears at the rooms and asks Henry to inquire of Isabella’s friend if the lady would “have any objection to dancing,” Catherine “without hesitation, replied, that she was very sure Miss Thorpe did not mean to dance at all” (134).  Catherine is therefore “astonish[ed]” when shortly after this conversation she sees Isabella dancing with Captain Tilney, and she expresses to Henry her difficulty understanding both her friend’s and his brother’s behavior (136).  Over the next several days Catherine is further perplexed and distressed as she witnesses Isabella “in public, admitting Captain Tilney’s attentions as readily as they were offered, and allowing him almost an equal share with James in her notice and smiles,” an example of “unsteady conduct” that “was beyond her comprehension” (152). 

In this case, Catherine’s apparent naiveté and poor mindreading skills may actually aid her sexual strategy.  Catherine’s inability to comprehend what Isabella’s and Captain Tilney’s feelings and motives are, and assertions to Henry such as “‘A woman in love with one man cannot flirt with another’” (154), make clear that infidelity is not a concept she can grasp.  She thereby conveys to her suitor that she is incapable of engaging in duplicity and disloyalty herself.  By in a sense “playing dumb,” Catherine convinces Henry that she is faithful and trustworthy, which are among the qualities men value most highly in a long-term mate. 

This is not to say that Catherine is consciously shaping her behavior to achieve her goal of marrying Henry.  As Buss emphasizes, the sexual strategies in which all people engage do not involve “conscious planning or awareness” and in fact succeed better when they are “carried out without the awareness of the actor” (6).  Robert Wright even cites research that indicates self-deception may aid survival and reproductive success, as it allows us to pursue our self-interest without the conflict that would result from a deliberate ruse—we genuinely believe we are as innocent of calculation as we present ourselves to others.  In Wright’s words, “we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better” (264; see also 9-10, 36-37).

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Viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, Catherine Morland is a more astute and capable heroine than she is usually regarded in literary criticism.  Unlike Isabella, she is effective in identifying a man who is a good prospect for a husband and in convincing him that she will make a good wife.  Even her seeming inability to perceive the hypocrisy and duplicity of others may aid in her courtship with Henry, for her cognitive lapses make her appear incapable of calculation and deception herself.  Catherine succeeds in choosing and winning a mate who will help her achieve biological immortality by transmitting her genes to future generations.


1Good introductions to evolutionary psychology that outline its history, explain its premises, and respond to its critics are available in Wright, Campbell, Buss, Boyd (On the Origin), and Easterlin (especially chapters 1 and 5).  In this and following paragraphs, I summarize points common to those who write on sexual selection.  I shall reserve documentation for particular points made by individual authors.

2Boyd analyzes female choice in Mansfield Park.  Barash and Barash treat Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.  Stasio and Duncan as well as Joseph Carroll analyze Pride and Prejudice from an evolutionary perspective.  Peter Graham’s Jane Austen and Charles Darwin is a study of affinities between the methods, interests, and habits of mind of Austen and the founder of evolutionary theory, but it does not treat the topic of sexual selection.
Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Ed. Barbara M. Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye, Cambridge: CUP, 2006. 
  • Barash, David P., and Nanelle R. Barash.  Madam Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature. New York: Bantam, 2006.
  • Boyd, Brian.  “Jane, Meet Charles: Literature, Evolution, and Human Nature.”  Philosophy and Literature 22.1 (1998): 1–30. 
  • _____.  On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009.
  • Buss, David M.  The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating.  Rev. ed.  New York: Basic, 2003.
  • Campbell, Anne.  A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women.  Oxford: OUP, 2002.
  • Carroll, Joseph.  “Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice.”  The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative.  Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson.  Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2005.  76–106. 
  • Easterlin, Nancy.  A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.
  • Graham, Peter W.  Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. 
  • Herrle, Jeffrey.  “The Idiolects of the Idiots: The Language and Conversation of Jane Austen’s Less-Than-Savoury Suitors.”  The Talk in Jane Austen.  Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.  Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002.  237–51.
  • Lau, Beth.  “Catherine’s Education in Mindreading in Northanger Abbey.”  Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind.  Ed. Beth Lau.  New York: Routledge, 2018.  37–57.
  • MacMahon, Barbara.  “Metarepresentation and Decoupling in Northanger Abbey: Part 1.”  English Studies 90.5 (2009): 518–44.
  • _____.  “Metarepresentation and Decoupling in Northanger Abbey: Part 2.”  English Studies, 90.6 (2009): 673–94.
  • Mooneyham, Laura G.  Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels.  New York: Macmillan, 1988.
  • Mudrick, Marvin.  Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
  • Nelles, William.  “Jane’s Brains: Austen and Cognitive Theory.”  ILS: Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 16.1 (2014): 6–29.
  • Stasio, Michael J., and Kathryn Duncan.  “An Evolutionary Approach to Jane Austen: Prehistoric Preferences in Pride and Prejudice.”  Studies in the Novel 39.2 (2007): 133–46. 
  • Trivers, Robert.  “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection.”  Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871-1971.  Ed. Bernard Campbell.  Chicago: Aldine, 1972.  136–79.
  • Wilbur, Christopher J., and Lorne Campbell.  “Swept off Their Feet? Females’ Strategic Mating Behavior as a Means of Supplying the Broom.”  Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women.  Ed. Maryanne L. Fisher, Justin R. Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol Chang.  Oxford: OUP, 2013.  330–44.
  • Wright, Robert.  The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life.  New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
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