Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Northanger Abbey, Desmond, and History

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Northanger Abbey, Desmond, and History

Article excerpt

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine confesses to her future husband that she believes her future father-in-law has murdered his wife. In the annals of bad manners, this must surely rank at the top of a faux pas list for guests. And yet, Henry's "astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct, in never [afterwards] alluding in the slightest way to what had passed," leaves Catherine with "nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever," while still conceding that "an occasional memento of past folly, however painful, might not be without use" (174, 175). Northanger Abbey invites one to think seriously about such an "occasional memento," especially those that recall matrimonial catastrophe. The memories she offers, which are both "revealed and re-veiled" (91), to adopt a conundrum offered by Jean-Luc Nancy that will prove useful in understanding Austen's tactics, prevent a direct encounter with any single disaster; such a process keeps memories of history alive, if not immediately at hand. Austen helps readers remember at a distance in two ways: first, she deploys echoes of Charlotte Smith's Desmond, a much grimmer novel, to provide an almost tragic undertow to her comic novel; second, in a fleeting though potent reference to rhubarb, she raises a question about how things heal and hurt and about who can be trusted with medicines that might also be poisons. The rich layering of these two with her own more witty treatment of domestic tyranny and the interplay of the domestic and the exotic offer a combination that summons readers--almost simultaneously--to forget and remember catastrophe; in doing so, they render forgetting pleasant while offering a delicate kind of recollection that reminds them to remember not to forget: a recipe providing one condition for happiness.

Charlotte Smith's Desmond was published in 1792. Northanger was written in 1798-99, revised for publication, and sold to Crosby & Co. in 1803, where it sat in a state of remembered forgetting until its posthumous publication in 1818. In 1792, Jane Austen revealed she had read Charlotte Smith's novels, praising them in her unfinished story, "Catharine; or, The Bower." Scholars have noted the connections between these two author's works: Rachel Brownstein observes that Austen "surely learned from reading Charlotte Smith, especially The Old Manor House" (138); Austen's novels, says Gary Kelly, not only "build on Smith's, have much in common with them, [but] also depart from them" (208); for William H. Magee, the earlier novelist "guided" Austen in the tradition of "courtship and marriage" (3); and Frank Bradbrook sees Smith's fiction as having "only [...] negative use to Jane Austen in providing burlesque material for Northanger Abbey" (105).

This essay first notes the links between Desmond and Northanger Abbey and second sees the earlier novel as embedded in the later, working simultaneously with it, entrenching in Austen's work the lurking presence of nuptial ruin. While Rachel Brownstein wonders if Austen knew, when she praised Smith in "Catharine; or the Bower" in 1792, that "many of Charlotte Smith's readers had turned against her because of the radical politics that Desmond could be interpreted as condoning" (137), it is certain that Austen would have known this history by 1798. In delivering a baseline for harm against which to measure the events in North anger Abbey, the "quotations" from Desmond work dually to remind the reader of suffering as well as to assure one that if things have apparently improved since 1792, it is only because one has forgotten to remember. Austen performs a feat in which these memories seem both dead and alive--rather like Louisa Bernini, imprisoned in the Southern part of the Mazzini Castle in Sicilian Romance. Many who read Northanger have of course not read Desmond; and in focusing on Smith's novel, this essay does not discount the role the gothic plays in the novel as a reminder of tyranny. As Claudia L. …

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