“How were people, at that rate, to be understood?”: Duplicity in Northanger Abbey

When I was a senior in high school, I took a class called Great Books. We spent the entire semester reading whatever we wanted. All we had to do was make a plan for ourselves, present it to the teacher for him to sign off on, and then we were let loose. I spent much of the hours in class French braiding my Slovak friend’s hair and making trips to the bathroom as an excuse to visit another friend who had lunch. But guess what? I passed with flying colors, and I think it had everything to do with my chosen topic: Jane Austen. I was an ambitious teenager and came up with this detailed plan to read all of her juvenilia and then books in chronological order, writing an essay after each one. At the end, my final essay would discuss how her writing style matured over the years. Of course, I bit off more than I could chew and never did do that final essay. It was extra anyway so no harm, no foul. And here I am *insert a much larger than desirable number here* years later doing almost the same thing, but perhaps with more insight, or rather, not so much infatuation with the romantic elements of Austen’s novels.

Let me just say this regarding the romance. I love Henry Tilney, our charming hero of Northanger Abbey. Maybe my favorite Austen hero for whatever reason, but my inclination is it’s because he’s playful. Not brooding. Not too serious. Not bitter. Not quiet. Playful. I like playful. (It might also be helpful that JJ Feild played him in the 2007 ITV version, endearing him [and the character] to me even more.)

I mentioned in an earlier post that Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothic novels at the time, most especially Ann Radcliffe’s. While that is an important aspect and should be considered in its own right, I’d rather focus on the duplicity of characters, the naïveté of others, and the delight-to-instruct of one in particular. Naïveté belongs solely to Catherine Morland, the heroine, whose instructor, Henry Tilney, takes great pleasure in better shaping her view of society. Such instruction leads her to see the duplicity in the other characters, making her remark toward the end of the novel, “How were people, at that rate, to be understood?” after learning that Mr. Tilney’s father said one thing but meant another. To her, the whole act of saying one thing while meaning another is “unaccountable.” So it should be as she wears her heart on her sleeve and believes the best of everyone and cannot possibly think that they could do any wrong.

But they can, and they did. The whole novel is spent contrasting the real world with the fantastical world of Gothic novels, whether outright or indirectly. Catherine starts off believing that kidnappings and locking wives in attics or cellars are thrilling, even going so far as to assume that Henry’s father somehow caused Mrs. Tilney’s death. It is in that moment that she is the most vulnerable. The line between the stories she reads in novels and reality has blurred, and she finds herself inviting the Gothic into the real world. Not for long, though. Henry Tilney pops up at that instant and sets her right with quite the lecture about England and religion. The last line of his: “. . .Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” forces her to take a step back from the cliff and clear her head of the fantasies she entertained, “and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.” With that cleared up, she can now focus on learning the more nuanced mannerisms of people.

The biggest blow to her belief in people comes when her brother James informs her that his engagement with her dearest friend Isabella is off because of her behavior, her duplicity. She was engaged to him and flirted with another. Once again her reaction is not what one would expect. It is sadness for her brother, of course, but it is surprise and shock, and perhaps even horror. She says to Henry and Eleanor, “Could you have believed there had been such inconstancy and fickleness, and every thing that is bad in the world?” They can believe it. I can believe it. You can believe it. And now Catherine can believe it. Although “shallow artifice could not impose” upon her anymore, she is by no means jaded. She still has faith in people and continues to let her feelings “[travel] from her heart almost to the tip of her tongue],” but she is no longer as easily deceived. She needed to grow up, and Henry helped her do so.

I could go on for ages talking about this, but I think you get the point. Northanger Abbey may be Austen’s least successful novel as writing style goes, but it is more than a Gothic-novel parody. Austen uses Henry to teach her readers lessons about society, but he is not without his faults. He has embarrassments, mainly in his father, but in his flaws is his humanity. Austen was a great critic of society, an acute and accurate observer, and Northanger Abbey, one of her least-read novels, is no exception. But I believe we could all learn from Catherine Morland and speak what we mean because otherwise how will anyone understand us?

 

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2 thoughts on ““How were people, at that rate, to be understood?”: Duplicity in Northanger Abbey

    1. It was definitely one of my favorite classes, and not just because I got to practice my French braiding. Let’s be honest though. When I had to meet with my teacher after each assignment, I was terrified. It didn’t help that the firs thing he did was say, “Well, Maya. What grade do you think you deserve?” Crickets followed. I didn’t know how to respond to that so I’d say, “I think the topic was interesting, but I probably could have done something more with it.” See how I couch compliments to myself in negativity? I’m an expert at it.

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