Northanger Abbey, French Fiction, and the Affecting History of the Duchess of C***

Article excerpt

Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. (205)

WITH THESE WORDS, towards the end of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's ironic narrator situates the heroine, Catherine Morland, firmly in the midland counties of England, unable to comment on the "extremities" of her own country, let alone the "horrors" of the Continent. Like her heroine and her narrator, Jane Austen frequently claims a restricted field for herself--the two inches of ivory on which she paints with so fine a brush is perhaps the most paraphrased and quoted line from her letters (16 December 1816). In terms of her reading, Austen famously points out that she is "a Woman, who ... knows only her Mother-tongue & has read very little in that" (11 December 1815). Careful

readers of both Austen's novels and her letters know, however, not to trust her when she is at her most self-deprecating.

In her fiction, Jane Austen does not have the geographical range of Ann Radcliffe: although Austen's juvenilia contains characters who both travel and claim the most exotic of ancestries, the six novels published during and immediately after her lifetime narrow their focus to the southern counties of England that the author was most familiar with. Her satirical "Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters," which, as Kathryn Sutherland writes, "clearly dates from the period of Austen's correspondence with James Stanier Clarke," gives short shrift to families in novels who are "no sooner settled in one Country of Europe than they are necessitated to quit it & retire to another." In life, Austen was certainly less well travelled than Maria Edgeworth: this popular novelist made two lengthy trips to both France and Switzerland in the early nineteenth century. In terms of her reading, however, Austen was like her contemporaries: she had access to, and was well aware of, European novels, including gothic novels. Austen uses this knowledge to great effect in Northanger Abbey when she depends on her reader's own familiarity with plot devices and stock characterization to achieve comic effects.

Recent monographs by Mary Waldron and Anthony Mandal have done valuable work in situating Austen's writing within the context of the publishing market of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but neither pays sustained attention to the popularity of translations in the period. In a similar vein, the editors of the recent Cambridge edition of Austen's Northanger Abbey, Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye, agree that "the parodic aspect of her text is likewise a true reflection of her readings in contemporary fiction" (xxxii), but all the examples they give are from novels in English, and indeed they claim that "Northanger Abbey belongs squarely in the tradition of the English novel established in the middle of the eighteenth century by Richardson and Fielding" (xxxiii). I want to suggest that Austen's adventures in contemporary fiction were broader than most critics have admitted and that she was responding to some themes that were imported into England from the French sentimental and gothic novel. April Alliston is one of few commentators to have argued that Austen "began her career as a novelist by expressly situating herself within a literary correspondence among French and English women authors that grew through the appropriation of both discursive and social elements of preciosite by late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English novelists" (32). …