Catherine Morland may not have been “born to be an heroine” (5), but the moral lessons to which she is exposed throughout Northanger Abbey provide us with a guide to life that is as relevant today as it was in Jane Austen’s time. Through the characters that Catherine gets to know, Austen gives us examples of both virtuous and dishonorable behaviors reflecting the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment. In this way, Austen both illustrates and extends Enlightenment thought in Northanger Abbey.
Jane Austen’s link to Enlightenment thought has been well documented. Peter Knox-Shaw cites Sir Zachary Cope, who notes that Austen’s letter of 7–9 October 1808 to her sister, Cassandra, mentions their brother Edward’s gift to her of Moral Tales. Cope—as well as Deirdre Le Faye (Austen, Letters 404) and Irene Collins (27–28)—interprets this book to be A Father’s Instructions: Tales, Fables, and Reflections, by Thomas Percival. Cope infers that, while Austen probably enjoyed the tales, she may have also been influenced by the preface in which Percival outlines the three purposes of the book: “Firstly, to inspire the young with a love of moral excellence; secondly, to awaken curiosity and to convey in a lively manner knowledge of the works of God; and, thirdly, to promote more early acquaintance with the use of words and ideas” (qtd. in Cope 55). The influence of the Enlightenment on Austen is also evidenced by her reference in Northanger Abbey to figures such as David Hume and William Robertson, whom Eleanor Tilney highly regards (110).
A growing body of scholarship has noted similarities between the works of Jane Austen and Adam Smith, a thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment. Karen Valihora has provided extensive analysis of the presence of Smith’s impartial spectator in Austen’s works. Elaine Bander further explores the “internal moral guide” present in Austen’s heroines (84). Both Kenneth L. Moler and Mary Beth Tegan examine the similarity of Austen’s and Smith’s views on vanity. Austen’s vain characters serve as examples of Smith’s depiction of vanity and the ways it differs from the vice of pride. Elsie B. Michie provides an analysis of how Austen and Smith add to the debate about wealth and virtue. Michie explains that while Smith argued that when we self-interestedly pursue our own wealth, we end up serving others, he was also very concerned about the effect of materialism on our virtue. Michie sees this same cautionary sentiment in Austen’s portrayal of many of her rich characters. Christel Fricke shows how Smith’s thought inspired much of Pride and Prejudice. This paper will extend the Austen–Smith literature by focusing on Northanger Abbey as an educative novel in which Austen both illustrates and extends the moral philosophy of Smith.1
The development of morality can be traced through Catherine’s experiences in Northanger Abbey. Enlightenment virtues and vices, as explained by Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, are illustrated by the characters in the novel. The Smithian virtues that lead to happiness are Prudence, Benevolence, Justice, and Self-Command. Prudence is a self-directed virtue, and Benevolence and Justice have to do with our behavior towards others. These three virtues can be developed as we practice Self-Command. The vices that lead us astray are Vanity, Pride, and Greed.
According to Smith, prudence is “the care of the health, of the fortune, of the rank and reputation of the individual.” We practice prudence because “comfort and happiness in this life” depend on good health, fortune, and reputation (TMS 213). Prudence is more than mere self-care, though; it leads to a certain degree of humility and sincerity. Prudent people genuinely want to be confident that they know what they are talking about, not, as Smith explains, to persuade others but rather to feel secure in their own knowledge. They are not interested in trying to direct the activities of others. They are never ostentatious, even about their true talents. Prudence leads us to tell the truth but not necessarily the whole truth, so that we don’t push our opinions on others. Prudent people make friends but are not exactly the life of the party; they follow to the letter the correct conduct and decorum of the times.
Prudence may not sound like much fun, but Smith explains that fear of losing our health, fortune, and reputation leads us to be careful. Specifically, he thinks that “[w]e suffer more . . . when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better” (TMS 213). Our risk aversion causes us to err on the safe side; prudent people are unlikely to become entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, Smith has high regard for prudence when it goes beyond self-care to encompass overall “wise and judicious conduct”: “It is the best head joined to the best heart” (216).
While Catherine starts out with “neither a bad heart nor a bad temper” (6), she develops a better head as she negotiates Bath society. Before she departs for Bath, her mother urges her to practice prudence: “‘I beg, Catherine, you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the Rooms at night; and I wish you would try to keep some account of the money you spend;—I will give you this little book on purpose’” (11).
Catherine develops prudence in Bath despite being under the care of Mrs. Allen, who is not the imprudent, vulgar, or jealous chaperone expected by novel readers (12) but is nonetheless an ineffective guardian. When James, John, and Isabella arrive unexpectedly to take Catherine for a carriage ride, Catherine silently looks to Mrs. Allen for an excuse to stay home because she is hoping to cross paths with the Tilneys that afternoon. Mrs. Allen, however, remains indifferent, so Catherine joins the excursion. She later learns that imprudently riding around in an open carriage with a young man has caused her to miss out on meeting the Tilneys with Mrs. Allen. It is not until another carriage ride causes her to break an appointment with the Tilneys that Catherine learns her lesson.
Henry and Eleanor Tilney serve as role models for Catherine, and John and Isabella Thorpe serve as bad examples. Henry sees a mercenary form of prudence in Isabella when it appears that she has left Catherine’s brother for his own richer brother, Captain Fredrick Tilney. The rumor must be true, Henry insists, ironically, because he has “‘too good an opinion of Miss Thorpe’s prudence, to suppose that she would part with one gentleman before another was secured’” (211). This form of prudence, of course, is not what Smith lauded.
While prudence has to do with self, benevolence and justice are virtues directed towards others. In the very first line of Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith tells us, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (TMS 9). Thus, as social creatures, we are other-directed and have an innate “fellow-feeling” (10). In fact, the basis for Smith’s moral philosophy is that we become moral by seeking out “mutual sympathy” with others. We are pleased when our behaviors are pleasing to others and so we develop those traits. We are vexed when we are out of sync with others, so we avoid those behaviors. Smith maintains “that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, . . . to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature” (25). Thus, we are virtuous when we put our innate fellow-feeling (benevolence) into action (beneficence).
Early on in Northanger Abbey we see acts of beneficence from the childless Allens towards Catherine. Mr. Allen is the “hero” (9) who gets thrown in her way to prevent her from languishing in her hometown. The Allens’ generous hosting of Catherine in Bath leads John Thorpe to assume that Catherine is Mr. Allen’s goddaughter and heir (59), a mistake passed on to General Tilney.
The General gives the appearance of benevolence. During the tour of Northanger Abbey, Catherine is amazed by “every modern invention to facilitate the labour of the cooks” that the General has adopted (189), and these labor saving improvements were considered to be benevolent at the time (345n). The General appears to show particular beneficence towards Catherine when he invites her to a visit to his home, but his interest in her turns out to be avaricious in nature, and he ends by unjustly turning her out.
Like benevolence, justice is an other-directed virtue; however, there is an important difference Smith marks between them. “Justice . . . is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society . . . must in a moment crumble into atoms.” Benevolence, however, “is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building” (TMS 86). We all have a duty to be just because unjust acts hurt other people, but we are not obliged to be benevolent. We tend to be benevolent towards those we know and love.
Smith’s definition of justice is connected to the concept of merit; it is just for you to have what you deserve and unjust for you to accept what you do not deserve. Closely related to justice is living up to your word. Indeed, Smith refers to promise keeping as “that most sacred rule of justice” (TMS 330). Simply put, “If I owe a man ten pounds, justice requires that I should precisely pay him ten pounds” (175).
Henry Tilney exemplifies justice in Northanger Abbey. Once he finds out that Catherine had been unjustly ousted by his father, he sets out to ask for her hand in marriage “sustained in his purpose by a conviction of its justice”: “He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland,” even though neither of them had openly declared their feelings for one another. He lives up to his promises, even when they are “tacit” (257). In this way, Henry’s actions provide a stark contrast to his brother Frederick’s behavior towards Isabella and his father’s towards Catherine.
Catherine is a good judge of character when it comes to justice. Although Henry teases her, “[i]t was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprize, but his meaning must always be just” (115). After being thrown out of Northanger Abbey by General Tilney, Catherine believes it would be unjust for Henry and Eleanor to be held accountable for their father’s actions: “She could never do justice to Henry and Eleanor’s merit; she felt it too strongly for expression; and should a dislike be taken against them, should they be thought of unfavourably, on their father’s account, it would cut her to the heart” (240).
Eleanor, much like the similarly named character in Sense and Sensibility, gives us the example of self-command, which forms the basis of the other virtues. Smith emphasizes its importance: “Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre” (TMS 241). Smith explains that we need self-command in order to practice the other virtues.
The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not alone enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty. (237)
Self-command, then, enables us to temper our passions enough to practice the virtues.
While it seems similar to self-control, self-command entails much more. When we practice self-command, we do more than merely control or suppress our passions and feelings. Rather, we govern them. Bohanon and Vachris use the example of a sailor and his ship: the sailor cannot control the wind, but he can use his sail to govern the winds to get him where he wants to go (44). Likewise, when we encounter adversity, our self-command helps us to focus instead on the good things that come our way. For example, when Catherine is disappointed at not seeing Henry Tilney out and about in Bath, she soon becomes occupied with her budding friendship with Isabella and the pleasure of reading The Mysteries of Udolpho. She is trying to learn self-command.
Self-command also involves the ability to forego instant gratification for future benefits. Catherine has trouble with this aspect of self-command during her visit to Northanger Abbey. Her imagination, fueled by her reading of Udolpho, makes her unable to resist opening the mysterious chest in her room and later the black and yellow cabinet. Her curiosity results in a fretful night, but once she sees the mundane contents, she begins to understand the importance of self-command and thinks back to her disappointment of the evening before: “She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?” (177).
Later, this not fully developed self-command causes her to sneak into the “mysterious apartments” (195) that were off-limits in the Abbey. Henry catches her there, and he learns how her imagination has led her to conclude that dreadful circumstances surrounded his mother’s death. That Catherine experiences “tears of shame” (203) from Henry’s admonishment is evidence that she realizes her imagination has gotten the better of her.
Upon learning of the swift end to her visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine tries to show some self-command: “In Eleanor’s presence friendship and pride had equally restrained her tears, but no sooner was she gone than they burst forth in torrents” (233). The next morning, however, she is not quite able to compose herself. As she is leaving, she wants to ask Eleanor to send her regards to Henry but she does not have the strength to actually utter his name: “But with this approach to his name ended all possibility of restraining her feelings; and, hiding her face as well as she could with her handkerchief, she darted across the hall, jumped into the chaise, and in a moment was driven from the door” (237). During the journey home, she was “too wretched to be fearful” (238), and once home she wallows in her distress until Henry arrives with his offer of marriage. Catherine “remain[s] at Fullerton to cry” (259) when the General withholds his approbation of the match.
In contrast to Catherine, Eleanor shows a great deal of self-command throughout the novel. She is described as having “a very agreeable countenance” and an “air” of “real elegance” (51). Miss Tilney is patient with her brother’s teasing and her father’s demands. She even handles her grief over her deceased mother well. When Eleanor tries to show Mrs. Tilney’s old room to Catherine, “Eleanor’s countenance was dejected, yet sedate; and its composure spoke her enured to all the gloomy objects to which they were advancing” (196). Of course, Eleanor knows that there are no “gloomy objects” ahead; rather, these are the product of Catherine’s gothic expectations. Nonetheless, Eleanor’s composure with regard to her mother is admirable. After they are caught by the General, Eleanor excuses his behavior “with a command of countenance which did honour to her concern for his character” (197). She is visibly upset when she has to break the news to Catherine that the General is sending her home abruptly, but Eleanor finds the strength to be practical by helping her friend pack and providing her with a sum of money for the trip.
A direct contrast between Catherine and Eleanor can be found in their reactions to being denied a wedding blessing from General Tilney. While Eleanor accommodates herself to the General’s will, “Catherine remained at Fullerton to cry” (259). In the end, then, Catherine never seems to fully develop self-command, so Austen’s point may be to educate the reader by the contrasting examples of Eleanor and Catherine. Austen accomplishes this more fully in her contrast of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. In that novel, the younger sister does develop self-command over her passions by the end. For Catherine, then, perhaps her only hope is to mature under the influence of Henry. As Mrs. Morland points out about her housekeeping skills, there is “nothing like practice” (258).
Eleanor and Henry Tilney and the Allens bring to life the virtues of prudence, benevolence, and justice rooted in self-command that Adam Smith believed to be the key to a flourishing life. Austen also provides us with illustrations of the vices described by Smith: vanity, pride, and greed. While vanity and pride are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between them. On this point, Austen and Smith agree completely. As Mary Bennet declares in Pride and Prejudice, “‘Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonimously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us’” (21). Similarly, according to Smith, “We call it pride or vanity; two words, of which the latter always, and the former for the most part, involve in their meaning a considerable degree of blame. Those two vices, however, though resembling, in some respects, as being both modifications of excessive self-estimation, are yet, in many respects, very different from one another. He further explains that “[t]he proud man is sincere, and . . . is convinced of his own superiority” while “[t]he vain man is not sincere, and . . . is very seldom convinced of that superiority which he wishes you to ascribe to him” (TMS 255).
Vain people obsess about what other think of them but are not too concerned about actually earning admiration. John Thorpe can be seen as Austen’s depiction of vanity in Northanger Abbey. During a carriage ride with Thorpe, Catherine does not know what to make of his inconsistent chatter because “she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead” (62). Thorpe’s vanity leads him to mislead General Tilney about Catherine’s wealth. He wants to impress someone as important as the General, so he leads him to believe that he is on good terms with a rich young lady: “his vanity induced him to represent the family as yet more wealthy than his vanity and avarice had made him believe them” (254). The General, too, shows some vanity. He certainly seems to care about what Catherine thinks of him and his riches as he gives her the tour of the Abbey. Like vain people, titles are very important to him, as evidenced by his joy in being able to call Eleanor “‘Your Ladyship’” (260).
Proud people do not care what others think of them; they are secure in their superiority. This definition of pride describes Frederick Tilney perfectly. At first meeting Captain Tilney, Isabella recognizes him to be “‘[a]mazingly conceited’” (137). He certainly does not seem to care what others think of his dancing with a woman who is spoken for. Frederick’s sister describes him as someone “‘who always wore his heart so proudly! who found no woman good enough to be loved!’” (211). General Tilney also shows pride. When the General learns he had been deceived by Thorpe about Catherine’s wealth, he “had had nothing to accuse her of, nothing to lay to her charge, but her being the involuntary, unconscious object of a deception which his pride could not pardon, and which a better pride would have been ashamed to own. She was guilty only of being less rich than he had supposed her to be” (253).
Here Austen introduces the concept of a “better pride” also found in Smith. Smith tells us that we can only be truly happy when we deserve approval from others regardless of whether we actually get that approval: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely. . . . He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness” (TMS 113–14). Austen refers to the deserved pride over the Tilneys’ extensive library “on which an humble man might have looked with pride” (188). Mr. and Mrs. Morland enjoy “the happy agitation of gratified pride” (258) upon learning of Henry’s wish to marry Catherine. While at first extremely surprised to learn of the attachment between Henry and Catherine, they soon realize that “nothing, after all, could be more natural than Catherine’s being beloved” (258). This match is deserving of pride.
Unlike their father and brother, Henry and Eleanor Tilney are not depicted as proud. As Catherine observes, “It was wonderful that her friends should seem so little elated by the possession of such a home; that the consciousness of it should be so meekly born. The power of early habit only could account for it. A distinction to which they had been born gave no pride. Their superiority of abode was no more to them than their superiority of person” (144).
While Henry and Eleanor are both happily married by the novel’s end, the vain and proud characters end up alone. As Mary Beth Tegan concludes, “ill-managed vanity in Austen’s errant heroes seldom promotes their enduring happiness” (179). And that would be no surprise to Smith: “The proud and the vain man, on the contrary, are constantly dissatisfied. The one is tormented with indignation at the unjust superiority, as he thinks it, of other people. The other is in continual dread of the shame which, he foresees, would attend upon the detection of his groundless pretensions” (TMS 261).
Austen and Smith teach us that vanity and pride lead to unhappiness, and so does greed. On greed, Smith is often misunderstood. His most famous opinion from The Wealth of Nations—“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (26–27)—is often misinterpreted as meaning “greed is good.” While Smith here asserts that self-interest leads us to serve others, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he explains that greed actually makes us worse off. The greedy characters in Northanger Abbey illustrate the consequences of avarice outlined by Smith.2
John and Isabella Thorpe are fortune hunters who pretend that money means nothing to them. John tells Catherine, “‘Let me only have the girl I like, say I, with a comfortable house over my head, and what care I for all the rest? Fortune is nothing. I am sure of a good income of my own; and if she had not a penny, why, so much the better’” (126). As mentioned earlier, John’s “vanity induced him to represent the [Morland] family as yet more wealthy” to General Tilney, but John’s “vanity and avarice had made him believe” them to be wealthy (254). Greed distorts his view. The same can be said of Isabella. When talking about her hope to marry James, she assures Catherine that her “‘wishes are so moderate, that the smallest income in nature would be enough’” (122). Meanwhile she imagines all the riches that are sure to come her way once married. When the Thorpes learn of the Morlands’ true financial situation, Isabella turns her attention to Captain Tilney, and John depicts Catherine as poorer than she really is to General Tilney.
It is implied that General Tilney early on might have been a fortune hunter like the Thorpes. Mrs. Tilney “‘had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding-clothes’” (65). Like the Thorpes, the General professes not to care about riches, telling Catherine that “‘he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children’” (211). Henry and Eleanor seem to know the General’s true colors: after Catherine relates that sentiment, “[t]he brother and sister looked at each other” (211). The General is obviously greedy in his pursuit of Catherine as a match for Henry. He is only interested in that match as long as he believes Catherine to be wealthy.
How does greed hurt us? According to Smith, “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches” (TMS 149). Certainly the Thorpes and the General over-rate the Morlands’ wealth and the happiness they think it will bring. Smith further explains that a greedy person “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires” (TMS 149). Both the Thorpes and the General fit this description. John and Isabella disturb Catherine’s peace by causing her to miss out on her promised walk with the Tilneys. Isabella causes severe grief to James by her infidelity and loses Catherine’s friendship as a result. John’s greed causes him first to pursue Catherine and then to overstate her wealth to the General. John’s greed backfires as the General’s misperception leads him to take Catherine away from Bath for an extended stay at Northanger Abbey. When John leads the General to believe that the Morlands are poor, the General disrupts Catherine’s peace by abruptly sending her home. Finally, the General’s greed prevents Eleanor from marrying for most of the novel, until his greed is momentarily sated when her beloved becomes a Viscount.
The moral lessons we can learn from Northanger Abbey are to practice the virtues of prudence, benevolence, justice, and self-command, and to avoid the vices of vanity, pride, and greed. Both Smith and Austen employ the concept of an “impartial spectator” that helps us develop these virtues and avoid these vices. As mentioned earlier, Smith’s moral philosophy depends on our wishing to seek out “mutual sympathy” with others. Smith’s concept of the “desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments” and the feedback mechanism from interacting with others is described by James R. Otteson, who explains that we modify our behavior to match social norms so that we can be praised and praiseworthy, as well as loved and lovely. Catherine’s education is described by Avrom Fleishman: Catherine “learns to make her way in the world by acquiring the cultural forms under which its members order their own thought and conduct” (649). Others judge the appropriateness of our behavior as we judge others. Over time, we learn to internalize this assessment, and we judge ourselves according to what an “impartial spectator” would approve.
Peter Knox-Shaw makes the link between Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator and the world that Henry describes to Catherine upon learning of her suspicions about Mrs. Tilney’s death (111). Henry urges Catherine,
“Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?” (203)
Henry notes that since their world is full of impartial spectators, the General could not have gotten away with such “atrocities.”
Henry’s admonition can also put him in the role of serving as Catherine’s impartial spectator; his feedback helps her to be more prudent and to show self-command with regard to her imagination. Henry certainly seems to think he understands Catherine better than she does herself. When Captain Tilney asks Henry to inquire as to whether Isabella would like to dance with him, Catherine insists that Isabella will not be dancing since she is engaged to James. To Catherine, the motives of Captain Tilney are above suspicion because she herself would try to include someone who was left out. Henry knows otherwise and tries to caution Catherine about assuming too well of others, but she does not understand Henry’s meaning. He replies, “‘Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well’” (135). Catherine begins to internalize Henry’s discernment when she realizes “the absurdity of her recent fancies” about the ebony cabinet in her guest room at Northanger Abbey. Once she sees the mundane nature of its contents, she exclaims, “‘Heaven forbid that Henry Tilney should ever know her folly!’” (177).
The impartial spectator is an important figure in Enlightenment thought because it provides us with a path to morality that is developed organically in civil society. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen lights up this path for us through the moral development of our heroine, Catherine Morland. Through Catherine’s experiences with Henry and Eleanor Tilney and the Allens, we learn to be prudent, to practice benevolence and justice, and we learn the importance of self-command. Austen cautions us against the vices of vanity, pride, and greed through the examples of General Tilney and the Thorpes.
1We explore how Jane Austen illustrates and extends Smithian thought generally in Pride and Profit: The Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith. This paper extends that analysis to a more detailed examination of Northanger Abbey.