Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Northanger Abbey: Money in the Bank

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Northanger Abbey: Money in the Bank

Article excerpt

NORTHANGER ABBEY begins with an "ADVERTISEMENT, BY THE AUTHORESS." In this preface, Jane Austen is very particular about the exact time frame of the novel's setting: "The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes" (10). The change in books refers to the 1790s craze for gothic novels that had, by 1816, somewhat abated. Catherine Morland overindulges in the romanticism of The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, and John Thorpe mentions The Monk, published in 1796: "'I read that t'other day'" (48). In a letter to Cassandra dated 24 October 1798, Jane Austen wrote that their father was reading the circulating library's copy of The Midnight Bell, published earlier that year. The Midnight Bell also finds its way onto Isabella Thorpe's reading list, as do two other gothic novels published in 1798, Clermont and The Orphan of the Rhine (40). These references place Northanger Abbey in a specific time frame and demonstrate that the author considered the timing to be significant information for her contemporary reader "to bear in mind." Such a reader would also have known that the novel was written at the time of the 1797 Restriction Act, an event that had an economic impact upon everyone living in Britain at the time as it called into question the value of paper money, the reliability of the Bank of England, and the honesty of the British government.

In light of the Restriction Act, mendacity and breach of promise in Austen's novels assume even greater significance. Mary Poovey asserts that the three broken promises at the end of Pride and Prejudice suggest that the author was reacting to the paper money crisis of confidence "because she wanted to acknowledge the situation caused by the Restriction so that she could use her fiction to manage the anxieties it caused" (370). If Poovey is right about the Restriction Act's impact on the ending of First Impressions, which was begun as the Restriction Act was being argued in the House of Commons, debated in the press, and depicted in the popular cartoon prints of James Gillray, then what Poovey says of Pride and Prejudice should at least equally apply to Northanger Abbey, written in the year following the Restriction. By the time Northanger Abbey was penned, the economic crisis of early 1797 was generally acknowledged to have been a panic based on groundless fears (Hague 399), not entirely unlike Catherine Morland's wild surmises inspired by lurid gothic fiction.

On the front page of the March 11, 1797, issue of The Hampshire Chronicle, where the Hampshire Whig Club placed announcements of their regular meetings, is a large, eye-catching advertisement that would seem bizarre had it been printed at any other time: "WE, the undersigned, do agree to receive, as usual, the NOTES of the BANK of ENGLAND." Following a short paragraph explaining their intention to continue to accept as legal tender the banknotes used by their nation's government are the names of dozens of local landowners who felt compelled to reassure the public of their confidence in paper money. Presumably, all of the men who paid for the ad and signed their names to it were known to the Austen family. Certainly, the Austens were friends of "Win. Chute, Esq. M.P." and of Lovelace Bigg-Wither, the father of the man who would propose marriage to Jane Austen in 1802. Such an extraordinary ad could only have been written as a result of the 1797 Restriction Act, which, after a heated debate in the House of Commons and repeated reassurances from Prime Minister William Pitt, the Younger, all duly noted in the Hampshire Chronicle, had been approved by Parliament on the previous day.

The British public had always been a bit suspicious of paper money, which contained no intrinsic value of its own and only served as a promissory note, pledging to exchange itself for gold. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.