Reading Mysteries at Bath and Northanger

By Bander, Elaine | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Reading Mysteries at Bath and Northanger


Bander, Elaine, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


THE FIRST SENTENCE of Northanger Abbey informs us that this will be a novel about reading novels: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine" declares the narrator (5), assuming that novel-readers like you and me, whose readerly expectations have been shaped by our previous reading of novels, are about to be confounded by Catherine. (1) Just a few pages later we learn that reading--this thing that we are doing--is also what the heroine does: "from fifteen to seventeen [Catherine] was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives" (7). If Northanger Abbey is a novel about reading novels, Catherine is its chief reader. By the fifth chapter, the heroine and her best friend have "shut themselves up, to read novels together" (30), just as we, the readers of Northanger Abbey, are doing as we read this sentence: the activity of reading is thus embedded within the novel both as a plot element and as a theme that launches the narrator into her stirring defense of the genre. Even in the final chapter, the narrator calls attention to "the tell-tale compression of the pages" to remind us that we are reading a physical artifact called a book (259). From first to last, then, Northanger Abbey is framed as a reflexive challenge to readers. (2)

That challenge becomes explicit in the "only a novel" passage:

   "And what are you reading, Miss--?'" "Oh! it is only a novel!"
   replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected
   indifference, or momentary shame.--"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla,
   or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest
   powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough
   knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its
   varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed
   to the world in the best chosen language. (31)

This is a fine call-to-arms, but, curiously, the novels praised here--Frances Burney's Cecilia and Camilla and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda--are not the novels that Catherine and Isabella are actually reading. William Galperin argues that this "paean to the novel that ... has little bearing on the specific reading habits of which it is ostensibly a defense" creates a distinction between the "probabilistic" narrator (who praises the "probable" fictions of Burney and Edgeworth) and "a protocol of reading that follows the example of readers in the novel in opposing the narrator's stricture and aims" (144-45). (3) Indeed, readers of this novel, if they are sensitive to the challenge facing them, may well question whether the narrator is defending all novels, or only some novels: whether, that is, The Mysteries of Udolpho is also a work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed. (4)

Burney and Edgeworth were generally excepted by those "Reviewers" who "talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans" (30) because they wrote serious conduct novels that told probable stories in the best chosen language. Both writers, moreover, in the tradition of Defoe and Richardson, took pains to distinguish their own serious "works" from mere "novels." Burney's "Advertisement" to her 1796 Camilla begins, "The Author of this little Work ...," while Edgeworth is even more explicit (and typical) in her "Advertisement" to her 1801 Belinda:

   The following work is offered to the public as a Moral Tale--the
   author not wishing to acknowledge a Novel. Were all novels like
   those of ... miss Burney ..., she would adopt the name of novel
   with delight: But so much folly, errour, and vice are disseminated
   in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wish
   to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are
   laudable, and not fastidious. … 

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