Revisiting Northanger Abbey at Chawton

Article excerpt

JANE AUSTEN'S MOVE to Chawton Cottage two hundred years ago clearly prompted her to review her substantial collection of unpublished writing, both her juvenilia and her early novels, in order, finally, to achieve publication. That review seems to have led to her change of direction as a writer, for the novels that she later revised or composed at Chawton have very different narrative voices and heroines than does Northanger Abbey, the only pre-Chawton novel that remains essentially in its pre-Chawton form--that is, the version sold to Crosby in 1803. I propose to re-read Northanger Abbey, and particularly the character of Catherine Morland, in relation to the later novels in order to measure how Chawton changed Jane Austen and how Austen changed the English novel.

Like nearly all of Austen's writing, Northanger Abbey is about reading, rereading, and misreading, (1) but it marks a departure in how Austen approached that theme--a change that had begun even before Austen wrote Susan (her original title for Northanger Abbey) in 1798. Most of the juvenilia preceding Catharine [or Kitty], or the Bower, the final entry in Volume the Third (1795), are burlesques that implicitly criticize popular genres through parodic exaggeration and amplification. Catharine, however, is a work of realistic, domestic fiction with a third-person Johnsonian narrator who slips effortlessly into free indirect discourse. (2) Instead of burlesquing the excesses of popular literature, Catharine dramatizes characters through their realistic dialogue about popular fiction. For example, Camilla Stanley's fatuous comments about Charlotte Smith's novels mark her as hopelessly shallow. The narrator informs us: "She professed a love of Books without Reading, was Lively without Wit, and generally Good humoured without Merit" (248).

The heroine of Catharine, however, is not Camilla Stanley but, rather, the intelligent, informed, principled, perceptive, dry-witted Catharine Percival, the first recognizably Austenian heroine, whose rational judgment is contrasted to the frivolous Miss Stanley's:

   Kitty was herself a great reader, tho' perhaps not a very deep one,
   and felt therefore highly delighted to find that Miss Stanley was
   equally fond of it. Eager to know that their sentiments as to Books
   were similar, she very soon began questioning her new Acquaintance
   on the subject....

"You have read Mrs Smith's Novels, I suppose?" said she to her Companion--. "Oh! Yes, replied the other, and I am quite delighted with them--They are the sweetest things in the world--" "And which do you prefer of them?" "Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them--Emmeline is so much better than any of the others--"

"Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their Merits to me; do you think it is better written?"

"Oh! I do not know anything about that--but it is better in everything--Besides, Ethelinde is so long--" (249)

In this passage, rather than burlesquing silly novels by exaggerating their elements, as Austen did in her earlier juvenilia, she uses dialogue about novels to reveal the characters who read them--a technique she would develop in her more mature works.

Catharine Percival learns all she needs to know about Camilla Stanley during their brief discourse about Mrs. Smith's novels, but Camilla's brother, the handsome, clever, and rich Edward Stanley, manages to leave a small hole in Catharine's heart after a one-day courtship. The piece ends with Catharine both regretting her foolishness in succumbing to Edward's charm, and taking heart from Camilla's assurance that Edward really is in love with her. Clearly, this Catharine, although clear-eyed, sharp-tongued, and self-aware, has her judgment impaired not by reading but by love.

When, about five years later, Austen began to write Susan, she recycled elements from the earlier Catharine so that self-dramatizing, slang-spouting Camilla Stanley became Catherine Morland's false friend Isabella Thorpe while the dialogue in which Catharine Percival and Camilla Stanley discuss novels was reworked and expanded in Northanger Abbey. …