When Northanger Abbey was published in 1818, five months after Jane Austen died, there were glimpses of the fact that a suspenseful tale was hidden behind the novel. I refer to its long, complicated road to publication. This book—featuring a naïve, good-hearted heroine obsessed with gothic novels—was supposed to have come into the world fifteen years earlier, under another title. The circumstances are widely known. Some version of the novel we call Northanger Abbey was once titled Susan. The manuscript of Susan had been sold for ten pounds, without Austen’s name attached to it, to the publisher Crosby and Company. It was advertised as being in press in the summer of 1803. But then, for some mysterious reason, Crosby neglected, or refused, to bring it into print. Critics continue to speculate to this day about the possible reasons why (Mandal; Burns).
One little scrap from the title page of the manuscript of Susan survives, with just six handwritten words: Susan, a Novel in Two volumes. This tantalizing snippet, now in the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum, signals a tremendous loss.1 If only more of this manuscript had come down to us! If only it had turned up in some black and yellow japan cabinet! Had it been so, it would surely have shed light on the mystery of Austen’s development as a writer between the early 1800s and the late 1810s. As we might say in the spirit of Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Morland, the loss of the rest of the manuscript of Susan is a dreadful situation and a horrid scene (171).
In a more serious, clear-headed frame of mind, we might also declare this loss to be perfectly fitting. It mirrors the contents of the novel itself. That’s because the book we now know as Northanger Abbey is rife with things that are hidden, covered, and lost. Single words and short phrases take on profound meanings, as part of what Kathryn Sutherland calls Austen’s abilities as a “fragment artist.” Little bits stand in for larger things, from bargain muslins, to left-behind laundry lists, to country dances as emblems of marriage. Northanger Abbey may be the shortest of Austen’s full-length novels, but it has had a profound, even outsized, impact on how we have come to understand her authorship. Northanger Abbey holds some of her greatest wisdom on books, reading, and writing, brilliantly telescoped in two sections that deserve our continued scrutiny. In its afterlife, too, Northanger Abbey may be singular in that these excerpted sections, at many moments, have become better known than its characters or its plot.
This essay sets out to present a series of partial glimpses into Northanger Abbey’s single words and snippets, a subject I feel close to at the moment, because I was able to read, study, and collect Austen’s phrases and sentences for The Daily Jane Austen: A Year in Quotes. As I wrote in the introduction to that book, reducing Austen’s (or any writer’s) wisdom to mere snippets definitely has its dangers—dangers that Austen herself warns us about. Her fiction reveals deep skepticism toward those who compile or consume words in selective chunks. It is what makes the Bank of England’s now-notorious choice to quote on the ten-pound note Caroline Bingley’s words from Pride and Prejudice—“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading”—so perfectly and mistakenly fitting. Austen comes honestly by her disdain for the purveyors of word-morsels. She grew up to create full-length, original novels of genius, in an age in which books of copied, recycled extracts were fashionable. They were packaged as “elegant” (Knox) or as “flowers of literature” (Burns).
Savvy readers of Austen already know that trendy literary recycling is something she derides in Northanger Abbey, when she describes the lesser labor of “the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England” and “the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior” (31). She further complains that these tasks of little literary effort are then “eulogized by a thousand pens” (31). The comical irony of my acknowledging this—as someone who’s just published recycled extracts of Austen’s own writings—is naturally not lost on me. I’m heartened, however, by Northanger Abbey’s inviting us to puzzle over how small things may create bigger meanings, grander possibilities, and, sometimes, enormous problems. We are made to mull over the process of how little moments come to be writ large. In this novel, we are asked to consider what it means that a general could mistake a modest girl from a family of ten for an heiress, or how that same girl could mistake the general for a cold-blooded wife-murderer—and just how much might turn on one lie, one line, or one fictional formula misperceived as real life.
In that spirit of scrutinizing small things for larger meanings, I have divided this essay into sections. First, in “Running over the titles,” I consider the novel’s evolution from title to title, from Susan, to Catherine, and finally to Northanger Abbey, considering especially its newly re-emerged advertisements. Next, in “The visions of romance were over,” I turn to the terms “novel” and “romance” as they are at play in this work, including the mysterious, real-life romance that may lie behind the book’s pages, providing it with a little-known backstory. Finally, in “All so good for nothing,” I examine Catherine’s famous line about how to judge and classify history writing, in order to see the novel’s gendered nothings as really quite something, in the book itself and its later reception.
Northanger Abbey is rarely thought of as a reader’s favorite Austen novel, but it ought to be understood as one of her most important. It offers not only a gripping story, terrific characters, and a characteristically pleasurable read. It also provides crucial insight into the backroads of Austen’s journey as an author, her advertising of her own circumstances in and philosophy of fiction writing, and her sense of what it might mean to read and write in a culture with deep skepticism about how to classify women’s abilities to excel.
Running over the titles
When Austen’s novel Susan was sold to Crosby and Co., it was done with the help of an agent, a man named William Seymour. He was a London lawyer who had worked on behalf of Henry Austen’s banking firm. In his dealings with Crosby and Co., Mr. Seymour apparently didn’t reveal the name of the book’s author. (More on Mr. Seymour later.) With Seymour’s help, Jane Austen’s book was purchased. Susan was advertised as in press in newspapers across England. The newspaper ads began to appear in July and August of 1803 (“Novels Just Published by Crosby & Co.” [1 August 1803]). Their evolution has rarely been considered.2
Crosby’s ads placed Susan beneath the firm’s eleven recently released novels, including tantalizing titles such as Frederic Montravers, or the Adopted Son; The Mysterious Count: or Monteville Castle, The Depraved Husband and the Philosophic Wife; Three Monks (Dedicated to Mr. Lewis); Emma, or Foundling of the Wood; Aurora, or The Mysterious Beauty; and, perhaps most interestingly, Mary-Julia Young’s Moss Cliff Abbey, which includes not only multiple attempted seductions and a secret kidnapping, but a repulsive, duplicitous housekeeper named Mrs. Norris.3
The Crosby novels in this 1803 ad might comfortably sit on a shelf with the book titles that the fictional Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe plan to read together after they finish Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine and Isabella’s seven horrid novel titles might even seem interchangeable with those that Crosby advertised. Then suddenly, inexplicably, in late August 1803, Crosby stopped advertising Susan as a forthcoming title. The revised advertisement still features the same headliner novel, Frederick Montravers, but all mention drops of Moss Cliff Abbey and Susan, which are removed from the bottom of the list. That list drops down to an even number of ten novels (“Novels Just Published By Crosby & Co. [21 August 1803]).
What prompted the change in plans for Susan’s publication? It’s possible that plans changed in August, when the ad shrunk. It’s also possible that the ad shrunk with the non-publication outcome emerging later. The most convincing and probable account, to my mind, may be found in Anthony Mandal’s Jane Austen and the Popular Novel. Mandal proposes that Susan was a casualty of Benjamin (not Richard) Crosby’s money problems—that he was “unable” rather than “unwilling” to publish it (72). Crosby & Co. had been the fourth most prolific publisher of novels in the first decade of the nineteenth century (Mandal 66–67). But an eventual falling out with one and then another publishing partner, the second partner’s likely taking with him most of the firm’s already-published novels and authors, and the resulting financial difficulties and legal wrangling, which Mandal documents, may have been to blame. These things may have led to Crosby’s decision to take a ten-pound loss with Susan, rather than move forward with a £150-pound or so expense in printing it (71). It is a plausible explanation for the non-publication mystery.4
It was Austen herself who first revealed this mystery to the public, in the story-within-a-story that opens Northanger Abbey. The Authoress, as she calls herself, wrote her own “Advertisement” for the novel. In it, she admits that she’s “never been able to learn” why a publisher would buy and advertise a novel and then refuse to bring it into print for thirteen years—an event she calls, in language most gothic, “extraordinary” (1). What we realize today is that behind this short advertisement were half-threats and half-jokes.
Austen famously wrote a letter to Crosby on April 5, 1809, inquiring about Susan’s non-publication. In that letter, she didn’t reveal her real name as the author, although she mentioned Mr. Seymour’s name as her original agent. Austen signs herself “Mrs. Ashton Dennis: MAD.—” A facsimile image of the letter reveals how obvious her graphical point was about being angry at her non-publishers. She asks them either to publish Susan or, if they fail to write back, claims her right to publish the novel herself. Crosby’s response to MAD was equally peremptory. The literary property belongs to them, Crosby says, whether they choose to print it or not. If Mrs. Ashton Dennis wants the manuscript back, then she may buy it back for the original ten pounds Crosby paid for it.
What we might now surmise from this distance is that Austen was likely prompted to become MAD in April 1809 because she, or someone, had seen advertised another forthcoming novel called Susan, beginning late in 1808. The ad revealed no author’s name. A longer advertisement on 28 February made it clear that this Susan: A Novel was not Austen’s Susan: A Novel. The 1809 Susan’s story is described as set in a remote isle of Scotland, with a plot that’s reminiscent of Elizabeth the Exile of Siberia, by French author Sophie Cottin. In the ad, this Susan’s publisher, John Booth, takes great pains to assure wavering readers that his romances and novels are “divested” of the “licentiousness and mental poison” associated with the worst of prose fiction (“Shortly Will Be Published: Susan: A Novel”).5
Publisher Booth’s Susan: A Novel met with mixed reviews. The harshest of them, from Anna Letitia Barbauld, writing anonymously in the Monthly Review, declares that Susan belongs “among the blue-winged ephemera” of the year. Barbauld lauds Susan for its modest language, but she decries its “prodigious number of fevers, together with several faintings, two duels, and one or two deaths” (319). Booth’s publication of his own novel-Susan changed the fate of Austen’s Susan. Whatever might happen next to her unpublished manuscript, her original title of Susan would have to go. Not only had it been used. It had been used by an author whose book had been panned in one of the leading review periodicals.
The next title Austen’s book seems to have taken on was Catherine.6 On 13 March 1817, in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, Austen refers to a novel, “Miss Catherine,” as having been set aside or put on a shelf. The rights to Susan, now Catherine, were said to have been purchased back, after which, the story goes, Henry Austen took great pleasure in informing Crosby that all along he’d been sitting on a manuscript by the author of Pride and Prejudice (Austen-Leigh 106). Then Jane Austen died, in July 1817. We have no proof that the eventually chosen title, Northanger Abbey, is one Austen intended for it, as critics have long noted. It could have been chosen by her, but it may have been the work of the publisher or her surviving family members.
Why would she, they, or anyone name the novel after a fictional abbey? And why Northanger? There are some clues, especially for the choice of the title word “Abbey.” It was frequently used in the era’s prose fiction, especially the gothic. The dissolution of the monasteries itself may be called a gothic act, as critics have noted (Doody; Moore).7 It is also the case that in the years 1800–1820, “Castle” as a title word was twice as popular as “Abbey,” at forty titles to twenty (Garside et al.).8 Such titles may then have been seen as important, too, because they quickly signaled gothic content. There were books with both real and pretend place-name titles, including Lussington Abbey (1804), Rashleigh Abbey (1805), Eversfield Abbey (1806), and Newminster Abbey (1808). Some critics have suggested, as a possible reason for Susan’s non-publication, that the gothic subgenre went out of style after the 1790s. But novels with place-based title words, including Abbey, Castle, Monastery, and Priory, were consistently being published across the first decades of the nineteenth century, serving to advertise gothic content.
What of the word Northanger, as a title word? The word “North” may be easier to parse. Directional words were also popular in titles of the period. Half the time, the words seem to be featured in books called “tales,” signaling an affiliation with historical fiction. But in the case of books labeled romance, the use of “North” points a story not set in far-away, long-ago southern Europe, as much gothic fiction was, but closer to home in northern England or Scotland, with its many heroic stories and difficult histories of British divisions. Books then were published with the titles The Unknown, or, The Northern Gallery: A Romance (1808), and Strathmay; or Scenes in the North, Illustrative of Scottish Manners & C. A Tale (1813). Directional titles, too, advertised a certain kind of closer-to-home, gothic-inflected book.
The outlier here is “anger.” The suffix “-anger” was a very rare one in the era’s novel titles, except as part of the words “danger” or “stranger.” Previous critics have connected the “anger” of “Northanger” to Austen’s letter signed “MAD.” The title word “Northanger” also emphasizes the ruling emotion of the volatile General Tilney. In fact, uses of the word “anger” in the novel either refer to the General himself or to the people around him responding to his unjust actions, although John Thorpe does get two “angrily”s and Catherine herself many descriptions of being “angry” (De Rose, 1: 42–43)
But what if “anger” isn’t the primary association here at all? There is yet another clue in this title puzzle: Cassandra Austen’s memorandum of the approximate dates of composition of her sister’s novels, now also in the Morgan Library. That memo renders the title of the novel as “North-hanger Abby.” It says the novel “was written | about the years 98 & 99.”9 Cassandra renders the title as “North-hanger.” Perhaps we should all be saying North-hanger (Burke; Southam 53).
In any case, “hanger” is a very interesting early nineteenth-century word. It could mean the woods on a side of a hill (Doody 256–60). It could mean a loop that served as a hilt for a sword. It could mean a person who puts someone to death by hanging. It could also be a hanger-on—a follower or a dependent. The term “cliffhanger” didn’t exist yet to describe the suspense built at the end of a story. That’s a twentieth-century word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But Johnson’s Dictionary from the mid-eighteenth century described hanging as “foreboding death by the halter.” Regardless of who chose Northanger as the leading title word, the novel’s title would have packed then, and still packs now, a very foreboding punch. With its new title, it would sit even more comfortably alongside the eleven novels that Crosby did actually publish, back in 1803.
The visions of romance were over
Each of the books that Austen published during her lifetime featured exactly the same subtitle: “A Novel.” The unpublished Susan was also labeled “A Novel,” as we have seen. But Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were eventually published without subtitles.—It is interesting, because Northanger Abbey attaches itself so strongly and indelibly to the word “novel.” I chose to quote at length in the Daily Jane Austen the section commonly called her defense of the novel, in chapter five. Some of the language in that section has ended up on t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags. Its sentences are sharp, pithy, and seemingly stand-alone. There Austen’s narrator calls out those who would dismiss prose fiction and mocks readers of fiction who deny the value of novels. The narrator’s “Yes, novels” section is meant to refute detractors of the genre as well as to shake up those who would describe prose fiction out of both sides of their mouths.
The transitional, narrator-delivered “Oh! it is only a novel” line prompts readers to recognize how ridiculous it is to disparage a genre you love to read—or in the case of the era’s most celebrated authors of prose fiction, that you excel in writing (31). The books that Austen seemingly flatters here and that she seems to cast her own work in league with—Cecilia, Camilla, and Belinda—were, in fact, published without the subtitle “A Novel,” as critics have noted for years. Frances Burney referred to Camilla: or, A Picture of Youth (1796) as “a little work.” Maria Edgeworth asserted her right to give Belinda (1801) any appellation she’d like. She chose a “Moral Tale,” because “not wishing to acknowledge a Novel” (n.p.).
In Northanger Abbey, Austen seems to be both praising and prodding Burney and Edgeworth. Austen re-labels Cecilia, Camilla, and Belinda as novels, in effect daring their authors to acknowledge them as such. Austen declares novels to be works “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” (31). With that definition of a novel, who would not want to acknowledge having written one? We might notice here how much better a novel called Susan or Catherine would sit on a shelf alongside the titles Cecilia, Camilla, and Belinda.
Examples of eighteenth-century critics finding novels to be worthless and dangerous abound, but the earlier emerging genre of romance often came in for even greater reproach. Indeed, some authors and readers tried to claim the word “novel” in order to distance these books from other kinds of prose fiction, especially romances and their fashionable subgenre, gothic romances. Romances had become a popular genre in the seventeenth century, especially in France. They featured far-away places and times and told improbable, melodramatic stories of aristocratic characters, along with storms, shipwrecks, and fortunes lost and regained.
Some in the late eighteenth century saw the vogue for gothic novels as merely a way of giving old romances a modern sheen with the addition of supernatural elements into the mix. One 1797 critic, calling himself “Anti-Ghost,” declares the modern romance genre
. . . nothing more
Than an old castle, and a creaking door;
A distant hovel,
Clanking of chains, a gallery, a light,
Old armour, and a phantom all in white—
And there’s a novel. (233)
Of course, what is notably missing in this scoffing verse are courtship, love, marriage, and an economically happy ending, elements shared by both romances and novels.
With this mention of fiction writing and courtship, a brief digression is in order. Few recognize that an unlikely romantic backstory sits behind the history of the publication of Northanger Abbey. Biographers and critics have most often looked for, and found, stories of Austen’s own love life lurking within or behind the pages of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. But Northanger Abbey might, in fact, hold its own among them for churning up that sort of speculative romantic gossip. That’s because the agent that Henry Austen empowered to sell Susan to Crosby, the aforementioned Mr. Seymour, may once have been a suitor of Jane’s. Austen family lore had it that solicitor Seymour once let some member or members of the author’s family know that he was considering proposing to Jane Austen. What we have not previously established is that this prospective proposal must have been after he was widowed in 1811—after Austen had begun to publish fiction.
In her essay, “Jane Austen’s Laggard Suitor,” Deirdre Le Faye lays out the facts and the rumors of this Northanger Abbey-associated romantic gossip, describing a previously undiscussed 1928 letter from Austen family descendant R. A. Austen-Leigh to scholar-editor R. W. Chapman. It appears that Austen-Leigh was answering Chapman’s editorial queries, as he sought to better annotate the surviving letters. About Seymour, Austen-Leigh added, “Incidentally, as I expect you know, [Seymour] is supposed to have proposed marriage to Jane” (Le Faye 301).10 Austen-Leigh refined his account of the rumor four years later, sharing further thirdhand information. It was in a memo dated 1910, in the handwriting of another collateral descendant, William Austen-Leigh, who was R. A. Austen-Leigh’s uncle. That scrap records this anecdote, from an unnamed source:
As I told my Mother-in-law of my very pleasant hours at Chawton, she recalled an old Solicitor named Seymour telling her how he had escorted your illustrious Great-aunt from London to Chawton in a postchaise, considering all the way whether he should ask her to become his wife! He refrained, however, and afterwards married twice. (qtd. in Le Faye 302)
The extended story was not, then, included in print. Le Faye suspects that because Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters was likely already in proof, he included only this tantalizing line: “It is believed that Mr. S. had at some time proposed marriage.”
Le Faye’s article speculatively reconstructs when Mr. Seymour might have known of Austen’s authorship in relation to his possible interest in marrying her, and when he might have chaperoned her in a post chaise and ultimately neglected to propose, as well as whether he might have discussed marrying her with any members of her family. (It is surprising that writers of Austenesque fiction have not done more with this hearsay.) Le Faye acknowledges that “[t]he two other unknown quantities in the reported anecdote are the identity of the lady to whom Mr. Seymour confided his past admiration for Jane Austen, and that of her son-in-law who transmitted the tale to William Austen-Leigh decades later” (303). Le Faye considers possible answers. What is known for certain, as Le Faye documents, is that Seymour was married twice, although she notes in 2000 that “when or whom he did eventually marry is unknown” (303).11
We are now in a better position to know it. In the decade after Jane Austen died, William Seymour, Esq. (1769–1855) left London lawyering and his work on behalf of banking concerns. He became a noted magistrate of the Brighton Bench, praised for his lifelong work with houses of correction and lunatic asylums. His obituary noted that he was a widower who had been “a staunch friend to education, and to the progress of literature, arts, and the sciences” (“Death” 5). He had three (some sources say four) sons by his first wife, Tryphena Letitia née Foulston (d. 1811) (Austen, Letters 571). The eldest son, Sir William (d. 1829), became a judge in Bombay. One (or two) sons died unmarried. The only one who survived him was Dr. Edward Seymour, a London physician (“Death” 5). Seymour’s second wife was Elizabeth (d. 1850), about whom further information remains to be discovered (“Obituary” 338).
Seymour seems to have been or to have become a powerful, benevolent patriarch. He was beloved by many in Brighton, described as a man “always ready to give advice,” whose “one great object seemed to be to advance in society those who were in a class below him” (“Testimonial” 6). A marble bust of his likeness had been paid for by public subscription and placed in the vestibule of the Royal Pavilion in 1851, while he was still alive (Bishop 213). Into the twentieth century, it stood on a pedestal of black marble, in recess in a long corridor of the Entrance Hall (Stranger’s 32). That means that Seymour—the agent of the non-published Susan—got his own public monument many decades before Austen did.
What might be even more interesting to us, from this distance, is to consider that if Seymour were ever romantically interested in Jane Austen, then he may have been her only suitor who knew full well that she was, or was on the road to becoming, a novelist. He must have been her admirer later in life, after he lost his first wife in 1811. He may have ridden in a post chaise with her after her authorship had become an open secret, in the early 1810s. He may even have known or, in true gothic form, suspected that she was the author of Susan, as far back as 1803. That’s fascinating speculation in itself, whether or not it has an impact on how we read Northanger Abbey.
It could most certainly inform how we read a line from Austen’s letters that mentions Seymour. While Jane was staying with brother Henry in London, he took ill and couldn’t join Jane and his “man of business” Mr. Seymour at the dinner table. That left Jane dining with Seymour tête à tête, which she describes to her sister Cassandra in a 17 October 1815 letter as a “comical consequence.” Critics have read this description as Austen’s knowledge of Seymour’s one-time romantic interest in her. If Seymour did once have an interest in courting Jane Austen—and that’s a big, speculative “if”—then that means that the non-publication of the novel we know today as Northanger Abbey was also wrapped up in a non-proposal of marriage to its author. It is yet another tantalizing and mysterious story behind the story of the novel.
To return once again to the realm of fact: What we know for certain is that in 1818, after Austen’s death, the subtitle-less, now-more-gothic-sounding Northanger Abbey and Persuasion came at last into being. When it did, it brought with it a new set of confusions. At least one periodical editor seems to have worried that Austen’s two books in one might be mistaken for one novel in four volumes, with a four-word title. Northanger-Abbey-and-Persuasion. We can see this anxiety implied with the index’s addition of the words “two novels,” and a comma between them, in what appears an attempt to clear up any potential confusion over how many and what kind of books these were (“Index” 603).
Adding to the confusion, too, was the fact that not everyone was sure about what kind of book Northanger Abbey was. Northanger Abbey was, at first, billed by its publisher as a romance. John Murray advertised these volumes at least five times in the Morning Chronicle as Northanger Abbey: A Romance and Persuasion: A Novel (“Northanger”).12 None of Austen’s other works had been subtitled “A Romance.” Murray, in this ad, made Northanger Abbey an outlier among her writings in terms of its classification. It is mysterious, too. Was this a mistake born out of the preconception that any book with the word Abbey in the title was assumed to belong to the subcategory of gothic romance? It is impossible to know from this distance. What it all adds up to is this further, strange fact of literary history: the only one of Austen’s books billed as “a romance” is the very one that directly and rousingly defends novels. It is the book that includes the narrator’s climactic line about its imaginative heroine, “The visions of romance were over” (204). Murray’s advertisement is, in its own small way, both perfectly comical and amazing horrid.
All so good for nothing
After its oft-quoted defense of the novel, Northanger Abbey’s second best-known section is the one recording a conversation on men, women, reading, writing, and history. The line “‘men all so good for nothing’” appears in chapter 14, when Catherine Morland complains to Eleanor Tilney about her dislike of reading history. This section, too, gets selected out and quoted as a stand-alone piece with some frequency. (I gave it plenty of space in The Daily Jane Austen, so I am not exempting myself.) But certain problems arise when we select words to quote out of context from this chapter of the novel.
We often forget that Eleanor admits to being fond of reading history. It is Catherine alone who complains, “‘I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome’” (110). Janeites hardly need to be told how popular this quotation has become as a stand-alone statement. It is also a section with a long, fascinating feminist history.
During the 1970s and 80s, Catherine’s concerns about history became a rallying cry for second-wave feminists. Her words were quoted straightforwardly in works that sought to restore neglected women of the past to historical accounts. We can see this effort in action in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, Lillian S. Robinson’s Sex, Class and Culture, and Susan Groag Bell and Karen Offen’s Women, the Family, and Freedom, three high-profile and important works of their day. In some instances, these quoted lines were attributed to “Jane Austen” herself, rather than to her naïve heroine. It’s the sort of use of Catherine’s words that continues. We see it, for instance, in the just-published book, A History of the World with the Women Put Back In, which begins with Catherine’s lines but attributes them to “Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey.”
It might go without saying: any work implying that these words are taken right out of Austen’s own mouth is not giving us the complete picture. Austen herself clearly didn’t avoid reading history, or read it only a little, whether as a duty or not. She wrote a mock history, The History of England, that reveals what her brother claimed to be true: that she was well read in history. Furthermore, anyone who leaves Northanger Abbey thinking that she or he should take suggestions for further reading from Catherine Morland obviously has not read the book very carefully. That said, Catherine’s comments on real, solemn history offer us one of those signature Northanger Abbey bite-sized statements in which its unformed heroine once again says something more clever or wise than she means to.
As long ago as 1901, in his book Heroines of Fiction, literary critic William Dean Howells gave Catherine extended attention, calling her “a goose, but a very engaging goose, and a goose you must respect for her sincerity, her high principles, her generous trust of others, and her patience under trials that would be great for much stronger heads” (58). Catherine shows mere glimpses of having a stronger head. But these glimpses serve a larger purpose, in that they make her statement on history’s overwhelming and off-putting maleness seem naively un-strident and therefore less threatening to readers, male or female.
Whatever you think of Catherine, as a goose looking at ganders, you have to recognize that the novel’s “men all so good for nothing” section features just as prominently a far better reader: Eleanor Tilney. Eleanor gently corrects Catherine, convincing her friend to give history reading another try. Indeed, the larger point of this section seems to be as much about genre as it is about gender. The section establishes that eighteenth-century historians are also imaginative writers—making up speeches in the form of dialogues that they never could have heard with their own ears. The section also implies, through Eleanor and Catherine both, that many histories might do better at imagining the world more fully and with greater gender inclusivity, just as many great men themselves ought to do, whether writers, speakers, or neither.
Intelligent people may certainly disagree over the level of feminist backstory that sits behind Catherine and Eleanor’s conversational lines. What is indisputable is that this imaginative dialogue has long been taken up by women who study and celebrate women’s history. One of the earliest was American writer and biographer Sarah Josepha Hale. Her book Woman’s Record, from 1853, makes Austen one of its “distinguished women.” Interestingly, the only selections of Austen’s writings that are featured in Hale’s massive book are four excerpts from Northanger Abbey. Included prominently is the novel’s “men all so good for nothing” section (184).
Hale was not alone in her choice to feature that section. Northanger Abbey’s most quotable sections continued to be selected out as important texts for working out the details of Austen’s feminism, well after the word itself came into the language as a political term, in the later nineteenth century. One of the first uses—if not the first use—of the word “feminism” in an edition of Austen’s novels is found in an introduction to Northanger Abbey: Rebecca West’s for the St. Giles Library edition of 1932, reissued in 1940. In that introductory essay, West calls Austen’s feminism in Northanger Abbey not only “marked” but “quite conscious” and even “drastic” (viii).
Northanger Abbey may be singular among Austen’s novels, in that its oft-selected words of wisdom have, at many moments of its afterlife, become better known than its characters or its plot. These sections have repeatedly been used to argue for—to advertise, if you will—the cultural value of the book as a whole or Austen herself. So where might these bits, quips, and bon mots, nice as they are (as Catherine might say), lead us next? It is hard to predict what the future holds for better understanding Northanger Abbey’s ads, backstories, and classifications, much less for unraveling its own fraught mysteries or its possible attractions to a changing readership of Austen. For better or for worse, Northanger Abbey continues to be among the least often adapted of the author’s novels, for stage or screen. It got rather a late start in the process, something that may not bode well for its fate going forward (Cox, Holme). There are, however, more propitious signs, too.
One is the little-known fact that beyond the pages of the novel—and part of its intriguing afterlife—is the fictional backstory of heroine Catherine Morland. In the 1970s, she became a gothic novelist! Morland’s first effort as an author was appropriately titled Castle Black (1971), which uses as its tagline, “Was her own unanswered past a part of their tragic family history—or was she just a pawn in their deadly game?” That book joined a late twentieth-century vogue for gothic fiction in mass market paperbacks. As one scholar remarked of this era’s gothic revival: it “promised [women readers] that the suburban castle, with its mistress in compassionate control, really could transform and rule the land” (Paige 22). Catherine Morland turned author a second time, in 1976, with The Legacy of Winterwyck, described as “A gothic novel of suspense.” Its cover features this question and answer: “Was her brother-in-law’s death an accident . . . ? The terrible secret is revealed in . . .”
From our vantage point, we might say that it seems almost fitting that a worthy, inadvertently wise heroine, once named Susan, and renamed Catherine—a heroine who didn’t get her name on a title page in 1818—would end up with her name on mass-market book covers in the 1970s. That seeming fit is what makes me almost sorry to reveal that, when the veil is lifted from these books, Catherine Morland turns out to be the pen name of John D. Schubert—a man writing gothic fiction as a woman. I admit that I, for one, could wish the mystery had turned out otherwise.13
Whether you join me in that opinion or not, perhaps we can all agree that no one who saw Catherine Morland in her infancy, on the pages of Austen’s original novel, would ever have supposed her born to be a male writer’s female pseudonym. In the spirit of Austen, Northanger Abbey, and its delicious mysteries, we ought happily to leave the lessons of the novel’s gender-bending afterlife to be settled by whomsoever they may concern. In the meantime, we might just keep up with our rereading, reconsidering, and repeating the words of Austen—daily, when possible.
1This manuscript is reproduced on the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website: https://janeausten.ac.uk/facsimile/susan-title/1.html. It is also reproduced in Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford: OUP, 2018, Volume 4.
2Some critics have attended to advertisements of various kinds, including Mandal, whose work on the website British Fiction 1800–1829 paved the way for his arguments in the fine book Jane Austen and the Popular Novel, and Burns, who published an essay speculating on the meaning of a third advertisement for Susan, published in the back matter of a Crosby book.
Frederick Montravers, or the Adopted Son
Mysterious Count, or Monteville Castle
The Depraved Husband and the Philosophic Wife, being an Antidote to Delphine
Farmer’s Boy by Miss Gunning
Aurora, or the Mysterious Beauty
The Strolling Player, by Mr. Lucas
Three Monks, Dedicated to Mr. Lewis
Emma, or Foundling of the Wood, by Mrs. Brooke
Lindorf and Caroline, or Danger of Credulity
Kinsman of Naples, by Miss Young
Moss Cliff Abbey, by Ditto.
4Another theory, advanced by Burns, is that Crosby stood to make money on his books of recycled snippets, in the edited literary compilations he was then publishing, and therefore had to think of those editors’ possible wishes and his own bottom line in preventing Austen’s chapter five from ever seeing the light of day. This would mean that the publishers or editors cared enough to read with care an anonymous novel, Susan, purchased for ten pounds, when it was at the bottom of a list of a dozen such books published that year. The theory also suggests that someone saw such a problem in Susan’s one brief chapter—whatever state chapter five may then have been in—that they thought it likely to harm powerful editors’ literary interests. I am skeptical of both possibilities. It was, after all, only a novel.
Shortly will be published, SUSAN, a NOVEL. In 2 vols. 8 s. The Exclusion of the heroine of this work into a remote isle of Scotland, will, although very much dissimilar in result, immediately remind the reader of Elizabeth the Exile of Siberia, from their unity of interest, and elegant simplicity. Sold by John Booth, Duke-street, Portland-place, London, and by every Bookseller or Library in the kingdom; where also may be had, the following Works, in which the true character of the Romance or Novel, will be found, but divested of Licentiousness and Mental Poison. The Castle of Roviego; wrote on the plan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Italian. 4 vols. 1l. 1s. Mandeville Castle; an English Legendary Tale, by the Author of Characters at Brighton & c. 2 vols. 7 s. Louisa, the Orphan of Lenox Abbey, 3 vols., by the Author of Mandeville Castle, 10 s. 6d. (“Shortly”)
7Margaret Doody suggests that Austen, in her literary use of abbeys, may have been following in the footsteps of novelist Charlotte Smith (259). Roger Moore’s work connects both Austen and gothic fiction to religious history, particularly the sixteenth-century Reformation.
9Henry Burke brought this to our attention as long ago as 1985 in his note “Pronunciation of ‘Northanger.’” The original memo is in the Morgan Library, MA 2911 Misc. English. For the record, I am still planning to stay with the conventional pronunciation of the word as “anger,” not “hanger.”
13Schubert’s name is listed on the copyright page of The Legacy of Winterwyck, although Morland’s is on the cover and title page. Schubert also wrote novels under his own name, including The Devil at Castelnero.