Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in Northanger Abbey

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in Northanger Abbey

Article excerpt

When Catherine Morland, the naive heroine of Northanger Abbey, discovers a washing-bill buried inside the black cabinet at Northanger Abbey, the incident is generally read as a moment of comic deflation, in which the heroine's Gothic expectations are undone by the sheer weight of the banality of daily life at the Abbey. However, while Austen parodies the Gothic in Northanger Abbey, she also employs its narrative strategies, so that this moment of banality is also one of sublimity. The washing-bill is both a joke and a genuine uncanny artifact, indexing what Catherine continually represses: the economic motivations that haunt her courtship plot. In this way, Northanger Abbey participates in what Edward Copeland identifies as the imperative of 1790s Gothic novels, texts that are "inevitably economic" and that feature heroines who are "victim[s] of an unforgiving economy" (Women 7). The pleasures and pains of living in a market economy consume the characters in Austen's novel, and Catherine Morland is hardly immune to the appeal of shopping.

Indeed, Catherine arrives at the private humiliation of the washing-bill incident through her own participation in the literary marketplace, as a reader of Gothic bestsellers. Catherine's reading practices as much as her spending habits align Northanger Abbey with other novels produced during the period, for as Jacqueline Pearson notes, by the 1790s a novel-reading heroine had become a literary cliche:

 Between 1752, when Charlotte Lennox wrote The Female Quixote, and
 1824 when Sarah Green wrote Scotch Novel Reading, a number of
 novels, tales, poems and educational works centre on full-scale
 critical analyses of female reading practices, becoming especially
 common from the 1790s.... It seems there was hardly any crime, sin
 or personal catastrophe that injudicious reading was not held to
 cause directly or indirectly. (8)

Austen's habitual realism transforms the dangers ensuing from "injudicious reading" into amusing embarrassment, and this transformation usefully reminds us that Austen alms at multiple targets in Northanger Abbey: the novel's parody of the Gothic is, as Natalie Neill notes, part and parcel of its "parody of the female Quixote plot" (165). Of course, in both cases the novel's tactics are recuperative, and as numerous critics have convincingly argued, Northanger Abbey ultimately defends female reading from accusations that it inevitably led to "murder, suicide, rape ... prostitution, adultery, and divorce" (Pearson 8) by offering an alternative vision, in which wise and judicious female reading emerges as a possible antidote to female victimization. (1)

Austen's simultaneous revision of the economic Gothic and the female Quixote plot point to the fact that shopping and reading are the novel's two major preoccupations. There have been many excellent and useful studies of the relationship between the eighteenth-century novel and the rise to dominance of the capitalist marketplace, and this essay draws on these works to address how the intimate connection between the literary and the economic plays out in Northanger Abbey, an intimacy signaled by the washing-bill itself, which efficiently connects the two. (2) The "collection of washing-bills" (186), as Austen's narrative finally denominates the various scraps of paper Catherine finds hidden in the black cabinet, captures the essence of human interactions in the novel: the financial dealings recorded in the washing-bills between the gentleman visitor to the Abbey (Eleanor's future husband) and a laundress not only call attention to the cash-nexus at the heart of the novel's romantic entanglements but also to the asymmetrical relations of power between men and women in the economy. The privileged women in the novel do not literally serve or service men like General Tilney but they figuratively serve to further the men's economic interests. (3) Indeed, one might be inclined to read the bills as a distillation of the novel itself. …

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