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A Hierarchy of Feminine Readers: Educating the Quixote and “Writing” the Authentic Woman

For all that is to be found in Books, is not all built on true Foundations, nor always rightly deduc’d from the Principles it is pretended to be built on.  Such an Examen as is requisite to discover that, every Reader’s mind is not forward to make. . . . Those who have got this Faculty, one may say, have got the true Key of Books, and the clue to lead them through the mizmaze of variety of Opinions and Authors to Truth and Certainty.  (emphasis added)

—John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding, 1706 

Completed in 1799,1 Jane Austen’s earliest novel Northanger Abbey has been criticized by scholars such as Anne Ehrenpreis and Alan McKillop for the juvenile nature of its composition and its lack of overall coherence.  The focus by earlier critics on inconsistencies of character and form has been challenged, however, by more recent arguments that downplay such inconsistencies in favor of the political maturity of Austen’s early work.  The subsequent shift in the critical debate surrounding Northanger Abbey towards feminist issues lays the foundation for a careful look at the dilemmas of female education,2 which was dominated by male ideology and disallowed both “true” feminine reading and the obtainment of agency.  Robert Uphaus, for example, delineates the political representation of reading in Austen’s novels, including Northanger Abbey, illustrating Austen’s contribution to the cultural debate of women’s literacy.  As a result of this refocusing of critical intention and attention, Austen’s didactic use of the quixotic paradigm, as well as its political and social implications, has become significant.  Quixotism, depicting a hero or heroine who, through romantic reading, strays from reason and reality, is at its very foundation a paradigm concerned with education.  After all, in order to rehabilitate the female quixote, she must be educated.  The quixotic form is thus the ideal platform from which to explore the complex debate regarding female education—an epistemological move not without precedent as Charlotte Lennox, too, employs the quixotic model to create a markedly similar argument in her The Female Quixote (1752).  Further, Austen buttresses her argument for women’s education by appropriating John Locke’s ideas on the tabula rasa and on reading.

Although Austen’s novels are frequently placed within the Bildungsroman genre—by definition “denot[ing] growth, formation, or education” (Barney 174)—there exists little scholarship emphasizing her advocacy of female learning; however, through Northanger Abbey, Austen creates an argument in conversation with educational authors of the past, namely Lennox and Locke.3  During the long eighteenth century, as Margaret Ezell argues, “it would have been virtually impossible for a literate person to have been unaware of [Locke’s] theories” (141).  His ideas were engaged by female educationalists like Mary Astell, Charlotte Lennox, Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, and Austen herself.  According to Harriet Guest, during the late part of the century, “the educated woman” could signify anything from the “national superiority” of Britain to the radicalism of a failing empire (101).  In the wake of rebellion and revolution in both America and France—when Britain’s dominant discourse expressed fear of the emergent ideology of female equality—“the reading woman” was forced into a liminal space, at once a signal of progress and symbol of corruption.  Creating fictions of dissent during this era, as Austen did, was a precarious undertaking; yet, through the use of the quixotic model and Locke’s liberal principles, Austen generates an argument for a proper form of reading that debunks feminine myths and allows for true intellectual enlightenment to overcome the deficient nature of domestic education.  With Locke’s theories as a guide, Austen creates a hierarchy of feminine readers (Mrs. Allen, Isabella Thorpe, and Eleanor Tilney), using her reading characters to elucidate the inherent deficiencies of gendered reading founded in male-centric ideology.  At the hierarchy’s peak, Catherine Morland, the ideal reader, demonstrates how true learning stems from a balance of both education and experience; when this proper education is achieved, social harmony is realized and the learned woman is empowered to create a fully emergent sense of self, independent of the dominant discourse.

Contextualizing Austen’s Quixote: women’s reading and The Female Quixote 

As Katie Halsey aptly notes, “[A]n understanding of eighteenth-century anxieties over gender roles is central to an understanding of the history of education” (431).  Recognizing these sexual politics is also integral to discerning the symbiotic—and potentially subversive—relationships among gender roles, education, and reading.  Patriarchal society sought methods of regulating both the education that women received and the reading material that infiltrated the domestic sphere, increasingly relegating women to an isolated education at home that denied them access to experience (Cohen 587).  In this climate, their primary access to worldly experience—notions of British society, individualistic philosophy, exemplars of powerful women—derived, by necessity, from reading material. During the period of Austen’s maturation, there were published “a number of novels, tales, poems and educational works [that] centre[d] on full-scale critical analyses of female reading practices” (Pearson 8).  Many of these texts depicted women whose reading caused either quixotism or milder misperceptions of the world; this gendered representation of reading became “especially common from the 1790s” onward (8).  To control the flow of potentially dangerous literary information, facsimiles of literature were produced in quotation books packaged purely for “the fast and shallow acquisition of a wide variety of texts” so that women could mimic feminine accomplishment without being changed by their reading (Benedict). 

The reading of unsavory texts—or perhaps more accurately of those that challenged the dominant culture—was, if not halted, at least reduced by cultural regulation that designated reading as potentially damning to women’s reputations.  As Raymond Williams argues, when the dominant discourse is challenged by the emerging voice, it often exerts further control over individuals’ lives in an effort to maintain its authority—so it did when confronted by the emergence of the intellectually independent woman.  When viewed in this context, the “ambivalent perception of [women’s education and reading] as a sign of progress or corruption” can best be understood as a struggle between dominant and emerging ideologies (Guest 86).  Increasingly gendered roles, regulation of information, and denial of worldly experience all work to maintain patriarchal control of women’s lives; however, Austen, following the model laid out by Lennox and embodying the ideas of Locke, “developed stylistic techniques which enabled [her] to use politically charged material” by covert means (C. Johnson xxi). 

Female authors like Austen appropriated the novel as a means to voice their discontent within a politically rigid system that frequently served to place women, as Mary Wollstonecraft asserted, “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (88).  Women writers were torn between the need to publish and sell within a misogynistic culture and the desire to create authentic female literature.  As Claudia Johnson notes, “Authorial self-styling is a sticky business for a woman publicly committed to championing female subordination” (18).  In Northanger Abbey, however, Austen utilizes Mrs. Allen, Isabella Thorpe, and Eleanor Tilney to create a hierarchy of female readers that illustrate the transformative effect of proper reading on education.  Through the seemingly disunifying gothic delusions of Catherine, which truly function as a quixotic education, Austen adds her voice to the tide of opinions of women’s learning.  By refashioning the educational model used by Lennox and also echoing Locke’s ideas of a kind of reading that furnishes the mind, Austen constructs a model of reading that combines education, experience, and contemplation to empower women to form a self that functions outside the dominant discourse. 

Published in 1752, Lennox’s The Female Quixote contributed to the burgeoning educational conversation, arguing that both a literary education and experience were necessary to produce a moral, intellectually complete, and authentic woman.4  In Quixote, Lennox’s heroine, Arabella, is closeted away by her father in a rural area of the country, denied experience.  In this state of isolation, she reads voraciously; unfortunately, Arabella takes her mother’s French romances as history, and, because of her insulated reading, comically fails to differentiate between fiction and reality.  When she enters society, Arabella’s quixotism is displayed, allowing for a multitude of foolish mistakes and for the novel’s villain to take advantage of her limited knowledge.  In the end, Arabella is (perhaps unsatisfactorily) rehabilitated by a male doctor, who is able to convince her of her folly, allowing her to happily marry Mr. Glanville.  Arabella begins the story accomplished but quixotic; Lennox argues that this state is not innate but constructed by the dominant culture.  Through Arabella’s rehabilitation, Lennox demonstrates that women, too, are rational creatures capable of reason; however, like men, they require a careful education that combines both reading and experience to become rational beings. 

The ideological imprints that Lennox leaves upon Austen’s novels begin with Austen’s avid early reading.  In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen speaks of her rereading of Lennox: 

“Alphonsine” did not do.  We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure; and we changed it for the “Female Quixote”, which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it.  Mrs. F. A., to whom it is new, enjoys it as one could wish; the other Mary, I believe, has little pleasure from that or any other book.  (7–8 January 1807) 

Here Austen establishes several points of significance:  First, she has read Quixote before, and, when she returns to its familiar plot in 1807, it still resonates with her.  Second, she categorizes her female companions according to their proclivity for reading; Mrs. Frank Austen partakes in their participatory reading “as one could wish,” while Mary Austen, James Austen’s wife, reminiscent of Lennox’s Miss Glanville, does not derive pleasure from books at all.  A similar classification of readers is perceptible throughout Northanger Abbey; the traces of Lennox’s Quixote are perhaps most clear in Austen’s delineation of Catherine’s upbringing and subsequent rehabilitation. 

Austen’s hierarchy of female readers: models of (im)proper learning 

For Catherine Morland, it is not a wise doctor who steps in and cures her quixotic misperceptions—as with Lennox’s Arabella—but the examples set by other women, both negative and positive.  These examples guide Catherine’s maturation and allow her to enact her own rehabilitation; thus, the moral character of each woman and more specifically the reading practices of each invite analysis.  From Mrs. Allen, the useful knowledge that Catherine gains is by negative example; Isabella Thorpe imparts a vital model for Catherine’s learning but is unimproved herself because she lacks reflection and judgement.  In Eleanor Tilney Catherine observes the model woman presented in conduct books of the age; this ideal woman—though moral, pleasing, accomplished, well-read, and even intelligent—still serves as a negative model because she fails to differentiate her “self” from the dominant ideologies that she embodies.  To understand the balance struck by Catherine’s emerging education, we must examine these individual influences in her literary and moral learning, the women in Austen’s hierarchy of readers. 

Mrs. Allen, the least fluent reader and, therefore, at the bottom of Austen’s hierarchy, represents the most fundamental problem in women’s education:  ignorance.  Through her frequent visits to Bath, she is educated in the school of social expectation, where gowns, exterior beauties, ornamental accomplishments, and pretense rank far above useful knowledge.5  In a “state of mental vacancy,” Mrs. Allen lacks both learning and, more troublingly, any desire for knowledge (McMaster 17).  Untouched by Catherine’s feverish discussions of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Mrs. Allen is one of the only characters, male or female, who does not engage in the literary discussions so prominent in the text; in fact, much like Lennox’s Miss Glanville or Austen’s sister-in-law Mary, Mrs. Allen never pays any book the slightest interest.  While Catherine loses “all worldly concerns” in her reading, Mrs. Allen frets over “the delay of an expected dress-maker” (46).  Mrs. Allen focuses her mind almost exclusively on one subject, fashion.  When confronted with an acquaintance in the pump room, for instance, “Mrs. Thorpe talked chiefly of her children, and Mrs. Allen of her gowns”; materialistic rather than intellectual concerns are central (30).  Locke argues, however that such deficiency is not innate.  In Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706), Locke notes that “[w]e are born with faculties and powers capable almost of anything, such at least as would carry us farther than can easily be imagined:  but it is only the exercise of those powers which gives us ability and skill in anything, and leads us towards perfection” (173).  Mrs. Allen, who exercises her “powers” not for moral or intellectual betterment but for corporeal concerns, is entirely dependent on the senses and—unpracticed in the conduct of understanding—is far less than perfect.  As the only female character in Northanger Abbey who does not read, she is depicted as mindless and, because of her ignorance, in complete compliance with her male-centric society. 

As Locke argues in his An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1689), to prevent acceptance of false ideologies, individuals must question social customs and analyze them against their own experiences and learning; however, Mrs. Allen, with her silly obsession with fashion and lack of reading, unquestioningly accepts knowledge from others.  She is incapable of forming her own opinions unless they are verified by Mr. Allen, the facilitator of her societal acquiescence.  For instance, when Catherine asks whether it is appropriate to break her plans with Miss Tilney and go on a carriage ride with the Thorpes and her brother, the firmest opinion Mrs. Allen can give is, “‘Well, my dear, . . . suppose you go’” (84).  But, when Mr. Allen hears of the plans for a second carriage ride, he authoritatively determines his wife’s ideas:  “‘It is not right; . . . Mrs. Allen, are not you of my way of thinking?’” (104).  Mrs. Allen, now able to confirm her opinions through the absorption of her husband’s, states, “‘Yes, very much so indeed’” (105).  Joanne Cordóón argues that “the more stereotypically ‘feminine’ the woman, the less likely she is to challenge the dominant discourse and the rhetorical strategy recommended to women” (43).  Mrs. Allen fits firmly into this feminine mold and, therefore, is like the “Nine parts of Ten” that Locke says are made “Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education” (Some Thoughts 2).  Without proper learning, Mrs. Allen is unable to differentiate her self from the views of her husband or from the fancies that society has assigned women; she accepts the dominant discourse without question.  Austen’s other female characters, who all read to some extent, can only be a step forward from Mrs. Allen’s obliging feminine example. 

At the next level of Austen’s hierarchy, Isabella Thorpe, depicted as an insincere and greedy manipulator, apparently reads extensively, demonstrating that—as Locke argues—not all reading is constructive; through Isabella, Austen makes clear that judicious reading is as much about the mind brought to a book as it is about the text itself.  After introducing Catherine to The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella exclaims that “‘when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you’” (33).  This substantial knowledge of popular literature, however, means little when reading for consumption rather than for what Locke calls “Truth and Certainty” (Conduct 193).  Barbara Benedict argues that “Isabella models the cynical use of literature as fashionable display, a commodity to be conspicuously consumed, rather than a resource to consult for self-improvement.”  While Catherine eventually discovers the truth of everyday greed through her reading of Udolpho, Isabella, who lets greed rule her actions—much like Udolpho’s Madame Cheron—learns nothing of herself or society.  As Locke notes, “Some people are assiduous in reading, but don’t advance their knowledge much by it” because they fail to “reflect . . . [and] so they are little improved (Conduct 14).  Isabella, the mindless consumer, reads for status, keeping book recommendations ready in her pocket, but learns little because she fails to compare her reading to the world. 

Isabella’s superficial reading is exemplified by her conversation about books.  When Catherine reveals that she and her mother both enjoy Sir Charles Grandison, Isabella responds in disbelief, calling one of Austen’s favorite novels “‘an amazing horrid book’”: 

Do you indeed!—you surprise me; I thought it [Sir Charles Grandison] had not been readable.  But, my dearest Catherine, have you settled what to wear on your head to-night?  I am determined at all events to be dressed exactly like you.  The men take notice of that sometimes you know.”  (35) 

Rather than conversing about Udolpho or Sir Charles Grandison and so acquiring knowledge from a dialogue with Catherine, Isabella swiftly changes the subject to clothes and men.  Employing what Benedict describes as “fast and shallow” reading for consumption, Isabella is not transformed by her reading because she does not transform her reading into useful knowledge through reflection and judgment. 

The more loathsome consequence of uneducated reading, however, is the lack of “self” that Isabella continually demonstrates.  Much like Mrs. Allen’s, Isabella’s discourse is saturated with meaningless and insincere chatter; rather than molding her identity to fit a husband's ideology, Isabella shapes herself into the image of the sentimental heroine, one who speaks to please.  For instance, after arriving home from the aborted trip to Blaise with the Morlands and her brother, Isabella demonstrates her embodiment of the sentimental “love and marriage” plot, in which the heroine adopts the hero as her center: 

[T]he astonishment of Isabella was hardly to be expressed, on finding that it was too late in the day for them to attend her friend into the house:—“Past three o’clock!” it was inconceivable, incredible, impossible! and she would neither believe her own watch, nor her brother’s, nor the servant’s; she would believe no assurance of it founded on reason or reality, till Morland produced his watch, and ascertained the fact; to have doubted a moment longer then, would have been equally inconceivable, incredible, and impossible.  (63–64) 

Isabella’s sentimental language and complete lack of “reason or reality” both embody a “masculine” depiction of women.  The incapable Isabella—reading without examination, judgment, or attention—falls into the male-centric trap set for women; she has read the gothic without seeing the truth Radcliffe represents and, consequently, adopts artifice over authenticity.  Like Mrs. Allen, Isabella accepts the word of the man whom she aims to please.  From her Gothic reading she has primarily learned sentimental tropes.  Throughout the novel, Isabella molds herself into whatever sentimental form is needed to advance her goals:  doting friend, guide to Catherine, adoring fiancée, and, when the time comes, heroine pursued by a man of fortune.  Isabella uses deceit and her own bad reading as inspiration for her machinations.  In her characterization of Isabella, Austen illustrates that reading without a mind for truth leaves women with a false sense of the world and will lead to failure; however, a more significant result of this reading is an inability to educate one’s mind to create an authentic self.  Isabella, as Cordóón makes plain, “is a creature of her culture, [whose] every word follows the socially sanctioned script for women” (48). 

On the third tier of Austen’s literary hierarchy, the intelligent Eleanor Tilney seems initially to remedy the educational problems characteristic of women like Isabella Thorpe and Mrs. Allen; however, Eleanor is representative of the ideal woman and, thus, by definition she must both adhere to and perpetuate society’s feminine constructs.  From her entrance into the novel, the narrator marks Eleanor as the patriarchally constructed, prototypical British woman, the standard against which Catherine is compared: 

Miss Tilney had a good figure, a pretty face, and a very agreeable countenance; and her air, though it had not all the decided pretension, the resolute stylishness of Miss Thorpe's, had more real elegance.  Her manners shewed good sense and good breeding; they were neither shy nor affectedly open; and she seemed capable of being young, attractive, and at a ball, without wanting to fix the attention of every man near her, and without exaggerated feelings of extatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every little trifling occurrence.  (51) 

Eleanor’s person, character, and moral virtue are in perfect balance; she is neither too weak of mind and consequently silly, like Miss Glanville or Isabella Thorpe, nor too strong of mind and so unsexed, like “radical” women such as Mary Wollstonecraft.  But this patriarchally compelled equilibrium nullifies Eleanor’s self and has important implications for Austen’s educational argument.  According to Ellen Jordan, despite the surge in female educationalists who advocated for more equitable female learning, it was accepted well into the nineteenth century that the end product of female education was “good wives and mothers” (439).  Here, Austen recognizes that by engendering women like Eleanor Tilney, the dominant culture solidifies its power because as mothers, such women will morally instruct their children while also submitting to and perpetuating their constrained roles. 

Austen’s social commentary on the educational shortcomings of such women as Eleanor is perhaps most apparent in her choice of reading material; by exploring the male-dominated histories, which contain few examples of self-determining or educated women, Eleanor alienates herself and, consequently, cannot transform her learning into self-realization.  Eleanor is “the best-educated woman in the novel, with the clearest grasp on the real position of women in English Society” (Zlotnick 285).  In wit, understanding, and experience, Eleanor is far superior to the naive Catherine; Eleanor’s literary learning, on the other hand, pales in comparison to Catherine’s subversive and transformative reading.  Although Catherine has less of “the materials of knowledge” than Eleanor, Eleanor’s contemplation of her reading is incomplete and, as a result, she gains “little true benefit [from] history” (Locke, Conduct 188). 

In her article on female agency in Northanger Abbey, Susan Zlotnick argues that Eleanor’s “commitment to the ‘non-fictional’ narratives of male historians offers her no models of women as historical actors” (280).  As Catherine herself points out, in history, “the men [are] all so good for nothing, and [there are] hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome” (110).  Eleanor, “contented to take the false with the true” in history, does not question this lack of female historical actors and then, to her detriment, applies this female insignificance and lack of action to her own life.  As she tells Catherine while at Northanger Abbey, “‘[Y]ou must have been long enough in this house to see that I am but a nominal mistress of it, that my real power is nothing’” (232).  Of all of the women in Northanger Abbey, Eleanor is the most aware of the patriarchal status quo, perhaps because she lives under the thumb of General Tilney, the novelistic stand-in for dominant culture. 

Such knowledge does not grant power but instead renders Eleanor frozen by the sheer weight of her awareness:  male-centric reading teaches women acceptance of the dominant discourse.  Mrs. Allen is too uninformed to recognize her predicament; Isabella sees the possibility of forward mobility in the flawed sentimental depictions of women; Catherine is in the process of learning the ways of society.  Only Eleanor Tilney, a reader of male-centric histories, comprehends the true nature of women’s dependency and subsequent inability to construct a feminine self and is paralyzed by that recognition. Catherine Morland eventually breaks this restraint. 

The reading of Catherine Morland: perfecting Lennox’s quixotic education 

Placed within the quixotic tradition, Northanger Abbey becomes a text about woman’s educational growth.  Austen improves upon other quixotic texts like The Female Quixote to grant—by modern standards, at least—a more satisfactory end for her heroine.  Rather than depicting an intelligent woman like Arabella, whose misperceptions are ridiculous, Austen fashions a heroine who progressively learns and develops through an intentional, harmonious blend of reading and experience.  As Catherine’s education advances, Austen, in place of a heroine who is quickly rehabilitated by a man’s influence, deliberately molds a heroine capable of implementing her own rehabilitation.  Thus, by carefully reading the women around her as well as gothic fiction, Catherine synthesizes the three models of female learning presented by Mrs. Allen, Isabella, and Eleanor Tilney to construct her own authentic and emerging understanding of the world. 

Before the edifying growth of Catherine, Austen’s most capable reader, can be demonstrated, she must first be established as an anti-heroine, a character who destabilizes masculine stereotypes.  Juxtaposing Catherine to both Emily St. Aubert of Udolpho and Arabella of Quixote reveals the subversive nature of Austen’s “heroine.” Unlike most sentimental heroines, Catherine does not successfully participate in the “elegant arts” of music, drawing, or any other feminine pastime (Radcliffe 5).  Compare Radcliffe’s description of Emily in the first chapter of Udolpho

Adjoining the eastern side of the green-house . . . was a room, which Emily called hers, and which contained her books, her drawings, her musical instruments; with some favorite birds and plants.  Here she usually exercised herself in elegant arts, cultivated only because they were congenial to her taste, and in which native genius . . . made her an early proficient.  (5) 

Like Arabella’s unparalleled wit and virtue,6 there is something inherently prodigious about Emily.  Through her sentimental pursuits, Emily fully subscribes to the male-centric idea of what an accomplished young woman should be.  Radcliffe’s definition of the heroine is grounded firmly in socially constructed stereotypes, and, therefore, any political truths in her gothic fiction are veiled by the patriarchal language it employs.  Claudia Johnson argues that during this time “effectual dissent on the subject of sexual difference . . . was difficult, not to say downright dangerous”; consequently, this artificially gendered approach was not uncommon (19). 

Austen, on the other hand, undermines male-centric ideas of femininity by placing what Hélène Cixous would call her “self” (875) into Northanger Abbey and the character of Catherine Morland.  In other words, rather than relying on patriarchally centered depictions of femininity, Austen writes an authentic, alternative model of woman in Catherine.  Austen’s first description of Catherine is an overt contrast to the prototypical heroine: 

She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.  Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief.  (5–6) 

Here, Austen markedly delineates the difference between her novel and the tradition against which she argues.  Where Radcliffe composes a heroine who is well-versed in the feminine arts, Austen opposes and subverts this tradition.  Immediately Austen informs the reader that Catherine will not fit within the sentimental mold; she will be something that only the educated reader will understand. 

This departure from more traditional constructions of femininity is equally apparent when we compare Catherine’s “natural” disposition against those of both Arabella and the ideal woman.  Where Arabella boasts a highborn father, a dead mother, and a rich country estate, Catherine is one of ten children in a “very plain” family—“as plain as any”—that does not take particularly close care of their education (5).  Despite the perceived inferiority of the Morland family, the narrator does note (with what seems a purposeful comparison to The Female Quixote) that Catherine’s father, thankfully, “was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters” (5).  Catherine is presented in opposition not only to romantic heroines—who too often, intentionally or not, embody the dominant discourse—but also to the cultural ideal of “woman.”  As Rousseau so elegantly attests, “Nothing in this world is more disgusting than an unclean woman” (395).  Kathy Justice Gentile argues that Catherine Morland’s love of dirt classifies her as subversive, just as Elizabeth Bennet’s tromp through the mud signifies her independence.  With the models of Emily, Arabella, and the ideal woman looming in the background, Catherine’s femininity sets aside restrictive notions of the ideal woman, instead depicting something truly natural to woman. 

It is not only Catherine’s language, unfeminine pursuits, and upbringing that differentiate her from traditional heroines but also the singular nature of her education, which expressly uses Locke’s notion of ideas to reinvent the feminine heroine—especially in juxtaposition to Lennox’s Arabella.  While Arabella has a talent for every pursuit she undertakes,7 Catherine “never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught” (6).  Catherine’s attainments are initially described in terms of absence, whereas Arabella is defined by presence; to rephrase, while Lennox describes the naturally talented disposition of Arabella, her many intellectual and material accomplishments, Austen emphasizes the traits that her heroine lacks.  She cannot draw, sing, play music, read, or speak French well (6).  As Juliet McMaster points out, Austen’s heroine is “described largely in negatives,” which style her as a void waiting to be filled.  McMaster argues that in Northanger Abbey, “we have the metaphors of the brain as a closet or a suitcase, which may be well stocked with ideas, or bulging with junk, or disappointingly lightweight, devastatingly empty” (19).  Though McMaster doesn’t mention Locke’s categorization of the mind as a “vast store,” the connection leads to an interesting Lockean argument:  If Catherine is indeed a blank page, an empty store, then, even more so than Lennox’s Arabella, she is the prototypical Lockean model.  Through her literary and experiential development, she gradually obtains, evaluates, and judges knowledge as she experiences society; in this way, Austen’s subversive heroine emerges from the Lockean conception of the mind and ideas. 

Catherine Morland, however, initially reads as a sentimental heroine does—poorly and without self-reflection.  Before her societal education has begun, Catherine’s reading abilities subscribe to the tenets of “the fast and shallow acquisition of a wide variety of texts,” which were packaged by men for female consumption (Benedict).  In chapter 1, the narrator, without context, summarizes Catherine’s education through quotations from, in quick succession, Shakespeare, Pope, Gray, and Thompson—all of whom are, uncoincidentally, quoted in Radcliffe’s Udolpho and could have been picked up in eighteenth-century quotation books (Benedict).  Catherine has not learned these quotations by reflective reading that would inform her mind; she knows them only as “serviceable” for heroines (NA 7).  Benedict argues that “[f]rom these recontextualized literary snippets Catherine is intended to learn to value sentimentality and to use books to nourish feeling.”  This education reveals the constricting force of dominant culture in Catherine’s home.  Catherine’s early, male-centric reading, however, is the foundation of her learning process, and it introduces (with subtle allusions to Radcliffe) Austen’s satire of the gothic, an indispensable tool for Catherine’s eventual discovery of societal truth. 

Though Catherine’s ability to read both situations and texts improves with her exposure to the world of Bath and Udolpho, her intelligence is not yet worthy of an authentic “feminine” heroine.  Unlike the other female characters, Catherine is capable of learning a new way to read and, consequently, can educate herself.  Joanne Cordóón states, “Having escaped the traditional pursuits for girls, Catherine has not been warped into an artificial social female” (44). Unlike Emily St. Aubert, other female readers of Northanger, or even Arabella, Catherine is, therefore, able to mold herself into a “solid young woman” (44).  Moving past the surface level reading chapter 1 describes, in Bath Catherine is completely engrossed by Udolpho:  “Catherine was then left to the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho, lost from all worldly concerns of dressing and dinner, incapable of soothing Mrs. Allen’s fears on the delay of an expected dress-maker” (46).  Where before Catherine enjoyed books only if “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection” (7), now she is intellectually absorbed in her reading.  Through this literary immersion, Catherine both loses the meaningless pleasantries of society in the pursuit of proper reading and furthers her ability to read in a proper Lockean way.  “Dressing,” “dinner,” and “dress-maker,” the stereotypical distractions of a well-possessed woman, are unimportant when compared to the lessons of Udolpho.  Here, her consuming and thoughtful reading begins to resemble Arabella’s; however, Catherine’s simultaneous access to both reading and experience allows a more moderate yet self-driven education than Arabella’s, which, as Austen demonstrates, is more authentic. 

Significantly, Catherine’s newfound ability to read deeply corresponds with her improved reading of society’s flaws, a clear signal of her improving feminine education and an embodiment of Lockean reading.  Even before Catherine has reached Northanger and is engulfed in gothic delusion, she “gradually begins to see people as they are, not as they are officially classified in society” (Mathison 143).  This emerging consciousness is especially visible in Catherine’s changing perception of Isabella Thorpe.  Where upon their meeting, Isabella invoked a powerful admiration in Catherine, who was “grateful . . . for the chance which had procured her such a friend” (26), as her time in Bath draws to a close, Catherine questions Isabella’s motives and integrity.  As Catherine’s literary and experiential education continues, she can, unlike Arabella, perceive the difference between sentimental speech and contradictory actions.  Though the lessons of Udolpho are grounded in masculine constructions of femininity, a careful reading of the text can and does demonstrate the deception of society, a deception to which Catherine is awakening.  At the commencement of volume 2, Isabella says, “‘It is not on my own account I wish for more [money]; but I cannot bear to be the means of injuring my dear Morland’” (138); notably, Catherine’s “uncomfortable feelings” warn her otherwise (139).  These feelings of uncertainty, though eventually eased by Isabella’s reassurances, mark the results of Catherine’s literary education and consequent maturation.  At this point, Catherine does not yet see Isabella’s real character or even understand what she feels, but she is made uncomfortable by the contradictions in speech and actions she perceives; these feelings are later transferred to General Tilney as Catherine’s gothic delusions move her further toward the discovery of “truth.”  By carefully reading and observing, Catherine has both surpassed Arabella in readerly understanding and ventured towards Locke’s “true Key” of reading. 

At Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s quixotic delusions, or experiments, emerge; despite the disunity many critics have perceived in consequence of these gothic imaginings, Austen utilizes the gothic to teach Catherine the truth of fiction.  The eventual improvement in Catherine’s reading leads directly to an understanding of societal truth, and comprehending the constructs of society is the only means to create a sense of self that functions outside said constructs; thus, Catherine’s growth as a reader, through the gothic, is vital to Austen’s creation of her educational argument.  This contention that Austen’s gothic novel holds radical and educational potential is not held by all critics.  Benedict, for example, sees Catherine’s gothic illusion as “a literary invention that ignores context and probability for impression and sensation.”  Though valid, this interpretation ignores the lessons Catherine gains from her slip into fantasy and, consequently, the literary freedom that Catherine has gained.  Northanger Abbey, if nothing else, is a tale of learning, and learning necessitates mistakes to gain knowledge, as Locke’s Some Thoughts outlines clearly.  

In volume 2, the primary source of Catherine’s experiential education is the repressive force of General Tilney, who is himself “gothic” in his ability to stifle the potential of women.  At first, Catherine cannot understand the relief she feels when out of the General’s presence:  “He turned away; and Catherine was shocked to find how much her spirits were relieved by the separation.  The shock however being less real than the relief, offered it no injury; and she began to talk with easy gaiety” (184).  As her gothic visions build on her discomfort and her subversive ideas emerge, Catherine’s relief is transformed into outright suspicion.  Udolpho has taught Catherine the repressive effect that greedy men—like Signor Montoni or Lennox’s Sir George—can legally have upon a dependent woman; at this point, Catherine is not yet intellectually ready to admit the social reality of greed and, therefore, confronts it within the medium she understands, the gothic.  Rather than recognizing the very real “moral and physical coercion” that Mrs. Tilney must have experienced at the hands of General Tilney, Catherine pulls the gothic into “the daytime world of drawing room manners, where it can be shown,” eventually, “for the everyday occurrence it is” (C. Johnson 37).8

Catherine’s growth, compelled by both her reading of the gothic and her expanding experience, is perhaps best demonstrated through her confrontation with Henry Tilney.  During their early acquaintance, Catherine, like Isabella and Mrs. Allen, takes all that he says as law:  “It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong” (115).  As Catherine arrives at Northanger Abbey and gains experience of society, however, this wholesale acceptance evolves into the aforementioned suspicion of General Tilney and, eventually, into her refutation of Henry Tilney’s notion of English society, signaling her educational maturation.  When Catherine finally dares to investigate her misgivings of General Tilney, she applies, with varying degrees of success, her gothic learning to the English world of manners.  Determining that Mrs. Tilney’s room—which Eleanor avoids—may hold answers, Catherine sets out to find the truth, even wondering if the last book that Mrs. Tilney read may “whisper” what no one else could, the inner turmoil of its owner (199).  After finding nothing of note, Catherine is caught in her invasion by Henry who implores her to abandon her gothic-driven suspicions and to think critically.  In so doing he famously says, “‘Remember that we are English. . . . Consult your own understanding. . . . Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?’” (203).  Though Henry’s traditional, masculine education would indeed contradict Catherine’s belief that General Tilney could kill his own wife and escape punishment, Catherine’s gothic learning has taught her otherwise; the gothic consistently paints the systematic greed and cruelty of patriarchal men, and, though she does not yet know the truth of her suspicions, Catherine senses these same avaricious impulses in General Tilney. 

Though Catherine has progressed as a reader, before she can reach her full potential, she must transcend the appearance of societal truth that Henry espouses in order to accept the reality that fiction presents, thus completing her literary education.  When Catherine first realizes that the mystery she concocts around Mrs. Tilney’s death is false, she is utterly abashed, and the narrator states, “The visions of romance were over.  Catherine was completely awakened” (204).  Here, Catherine has temporarily abandoned her true “illusions”; however, the doublespeak of the narrator foreshadows her eventual realizations.  General Tilney is only kind to Catherine because he desires the fortune he imagines her to have.  As soon as the folly of his assumption is revealed, General Tilney’s greed comes to light. 

This is the scary truth of the gothic, a truth that transcends the form in which it is presented, a truth that Catherine discovers.  Gothic fiction pulls from the legal realities women faced and depicts a world where, despite what Henry claims, “a father can be a British subject, a Christian, a respectable citizen, and a ruthless and mean-spirited tyrant” who “in some legitimate sense of the term can ‘kill’” a woman slowly through socially accepted repression, disallowing any sense of identity (C. Johnson 40).  Yes, when General Tilney places Catherine in that carriage without warning or explanation, “romance” is gone and she is “awakened”; however, it is not to her own folly that she is awakened; instead, she has become aware of the fictitious nature of societal constructs, and, as a result, comes to accept the realities of the gothic.  Through Catherine’s juxtaposition of experience and reading, she observes, reflects, and judges what she reads against the fabric of life; in so doing, she gains the “true key of books, and the clue to lead [her] through the mizmaze of variety of opinions and authors to truth and certainty” (Locke, Conduct 193).  In comparison to Arabella, whose rehabilitation is sudden and primarily external, this gradual self-sufficient maturation is more fulfilling both for Catherine and for readers, rendering a feasible rather than ideal model of woman. 

At the conclusion of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is educated in reading literature effectively and, by extension, in reading the unpleasant truths of English society.  When she leaves home, she is as “free from the apprehension of evil as from the knowledge of it,” but she arrives back wondering how “three months ago had seen her all this; and now, how altered a being did she return!” (246).  Catherine’s education has allowed not only the realization of truth but also a creation of a feminine self.  In a powerful expression of emerging ideology, Austen grants her heroine the power of choice, reversing the traditional role of women as not “initiators of their own choices, but rather . . . receivers of men’s” (C. Johnson 36).  Henry’s attachment to Catherine, the narrator tells us, is dependent upon her partiality for him: 

[T]hough Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, 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.  (252–53) 

Catherine, unlike the sentimental heroines of her time, is granted the power of choice and, therefore, does not conform to the will of a man.  Much like the marriage Locke promotes and that Arabella herself achieves, Catherine’s marriage is entered into gradually and willingly on both sides, a biproduct of choice not necessity.  In calling attention to her subversive ending, Austen simultaneously grants Catherine the power to create a self and solidifies the influence of a “true” proper education.  Through its study of feminine reading and the political consequences, Northanger Abbey truly does become something “new.” 

Viewing the two volumes of Northanger Abbey as an argument on the importance of female education unifies the text and creates a cohesion traditionally seen as lacking.  Through Austen’s hierarchy, ineffective feminine readers—like Mrs. Allen, Isabella, and Eleanor—illustrate how a deficiency of reading corresponds to inadequate education and ultimately results in the adoption of society’s feminine constructs.  Because Catherine rejects feminine tropes and does not lose her identity in the absorption of a male-centric ideal, her literacy grows.  The knowledge of the sexual politics of female subordination that Catherine gains ultimately allows her to choose her husband and rupture the “feminine” roles that bind her.  As the epitome of the judicious feminine reader in Northanger Abbey, Catherine demonstrates how an authentic feminine education enables women to construct a self that functions outside of the dominant culture’s false consciousness, making Austen’s earliest novel a critically significant instance of true feminist writing. 

Creating a feminine education that functions outside the dominant ideology is not simple, yet Catherine demonstrates its possibilities through her accusations against General Tilney.  Claudia Johnson argues that Catherine can make these revelations because she is “unencumbered by the elaborate properties that tie the hands of gothic heroines, is free to make blunt declarations and to ask embarrassing questions that expose the duplicity and the deficiency of those on whom innocence such as her own ought to rely” (47).  In essence, the authentic language that differentiates Catherine from other heroines is also what allows for Catherine’s self-education.  Her unapologetic questioning of authoritative figures signifies her unwillingness, as Locke provokes in his readers, to accept social custom on faith alone:  Catherine’s social consciousness is emerging.



1According to Claire Tomalin, Northanger Abbey was written between 1798 and 1799.  Once completed, Austen periodically revisited it until she submitted it for publication in 1803; however, the publisher failed to follow through with printing and, consequently, it was not officially published until 1818, after her death (120–21, 182, and 273). 

2As defined by Samuel Johnson, education is learning with the intent “to make our natural faculty of reason both the better and the sooner to judge rightly between truth and error, good and evil” (677). 

3Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote is centered on the education of her heroine; her periodical Lady’s Museum was also geared towards educating women. 

4See Anna K. Sagal and Sharon Smith Palo on Lennox’s educational arguments. 

5Here I use useful knowledge broadly to mean studies that enlarge the mind.  This phrase is also used by Charlotte Lennox to differentiate between the types of knowledge obtained by her heroine. 

6Arabella is described as having an “uncommon Quickness of Apprehension, and an Understanding capable of great Improvements” (6).  Further, her advantages are often depicted as “native charms” (7). 

7Arabella is a master of French and Italian, dress, Art, Dancing, and “it is not to be doubted, but she would have made a great Proficiency in all useful Knowledge, had not her whole Time been taken up” by the reading of Romance (7). 

8Both Janine Barchas and Claire Tomalin make different yet compelling cases for Austen’s awareness of real life and contemporary atrocities that resembled gothic fiction.  Further, Barchas argues that Northanger Abbey revolves around a very specific location and family with scandalous histories.

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