You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
—W. H. Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron”
catherine Morland, during her visit to Northanger Abbey, reads General Tilney as though he is a character from a novel:
Catherine attempted no longer to hide from herself the nature of the feelings which, in spite of all his attentions, he had previously excited; and what had been terror and dislike before, was now absolute aversion. Yes, aversion! His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters; characters, which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary. (181)
Gothic works such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho—Catherine’s favorite—portray heroines in menacing conditions, and in Northanger Abbey Jane Austen uses the Gothic novel both as a lens through which Catherine reads her surroundings and as a device to reveal the subtle treachery of quotidian life.1 Although Catherine is not running from ghosts or violent patriarchal figures, she is intertwined in a system designed to take advantage of her, and the situations in which she finds herself—in their duplicity and insidiousness—are perhaps more dangerous. Northanger Abbey locates its Gothic threat in the mercantile foundation of courtship; that threat is conveyed through Austen’s use of economic language and Gothic conventions to describe the courtship practices Catherine navigates. In exposing this pattern, Austen reveals a different kind of horror for women. Austen’s courtship critique does not target Henry Tilney in particular, I suggest, but rather the economic structures in which Catherine is unwittingly caught. Austen employs mercantile language both to frame General Tilney as Catherine’s suitor and to illustrate his venal interest in her. In scenes of Catherine’s courtship, Austen’s Gothic conventions and financial language collaborate to suggest the mercenary motivations plaguing the foundational logic of courtship practices.
Many scholars have examined the fraught relationship to commodities that Jane Austen displays throughout Northanger Abbey. Edward Copeland recognizes that the famous defense of the novel that occurs at the end of chapter 5 includes an acknowledgment of Austen’s place in the literary market: she “reminds her readers that heroines must be ‘patronized,’ that novels are ‘productions,’ that they issue from a ‘literary corporation,’ and, unhappily, they often fall into a world intent on undervaluing the ‘labour of the novelist’” (115). He also argues that “[t]he conflict between acceptable and unacceptable consumption throws the universe of Austen’s early novels into a Manichaean dualism of consumer anxiety” (92). In this vein, Copeland and others note General Tilney’s financial interest in Catherine as a concern of Austen’s. Copeland observes that Catherine “gets squeezed between two groups of obsessed consumers, the General at the top of the scale and the Thorpes at the bottom” (92). Susan Zlotnick argues, “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” (278). These readings do not, however, take as central General Tilney’s role in arranging Catherine’s courtship. While Austen has an uneasy relationship to commerce in general, Northanger Abbey insists that General Tilney’s avaricious interest in Catherine is a danger to her.
Moreover, the politics of the courtship plot is a recurring focus of critical approaches to Northanger Abbey. These critiques often focus on the rhetorical strategies Henry uses to court Catherine: Charles Hinnant notes that Henry’s “observations often hint at a self-serving cynicism” (302-03); similarly George Justice compares Henry to a “courtly wit,” who “courts for the sake of his wit alone” (191). Austen’s language, however, constructs courtship as an institution larger than Henry and Catherine.
One word that resonates through both the Bath and the Gothic sections of Northanger Abbey is the word interesting. Patricia Meyer Spacks has explored the presence of the word and its multiple meanings in Sense and Sensibility. Spacks points out, “A glance at the history of the word interesting sheds light on Austen’s varying usages and complicates the problems involved in them” and argues that “the assignment of ‘interest’ to Willoughby tells more about the assigners than about the object of their judgment” (71). But Spacks does not mention the financial significance of interest. The term’s history exhibits the multiple meanings that act in unison to reveal the peril of Catherine’s courtship in Northanger Abbey.
The financial shades of the word interest have a long history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, interest first appeared as a noun in 1450 to mean “[t]he relation of being objectively concerned in something, by having a right or title to, a claim upon, or a share in” (“Interest, n.”). In 1610, a definition of the verb interest was “to invest (a person) with a share in or title to something” (“Interest, v.”). Twenty years later it also meant “[t]o cause (any one) to take a personal interest, share, or part in (a scheme, business, etc.)” (“Interest, v.”). Interest and its variations—interesting, interested, disinterest, and uninteresting—appear forty-one times in Northanger Abbey. Many of these appearances occur in descriptions of Bath and during scenes of courtship. Such prevalence mimics the occurrence of interest in The Mysteries of Udolpho, in which variations of the term appear 172 times—often during periods of Emily’s distress or to portend an ominous situation. This shared pattern thus situates Austen’s work within the Gothic lexicon. Interest is used in Northanger Abbey to depict marital and financial interest as two sides of the same coin and to suggest the Gothic undertones of this relationship.
Austen’s description of the Bath marketplace joins the search for goods with the search for men, and her use of fiscal language to describe the pursuit of men illustrates the economic incentives that propel courtship. “Every body acquainted with Bath may remember the difficulties of crossing Cheap-street at this point,” she writes: “a day never passes in which parties of ladies, however important their business, whether in quest of pastry, millinery, or even (as in the present case) of young men, are not detained on one side or other by carriages, horsemen, or carts” (44). The financial references here are obvious: Isabella and Catherine are on “Cheap-street,” they are conducting the “business” of finding men, and such men are depicted beside products for purchase.
Austen sets Isabella and Catherine’s search for men in the Bath marketplace to expose the financial infrastructure of courtship practices. Her portrayal of Bath as a Gothic labyrinth suggests the menacing motivations that haunt the episode:
at the very moment of coming opposite to Union-passage, and within view of the two gentlemen who were proceeding through the crowds, and threading the gutters of that interesting alley, they were prevented crossing by the approach of a gig, driven along on bad pavement by a most knowing-looking coachman with all the vehemence that could most fitly endanger the lives of himself, his companion, and his horse. (44, my italics)
The Gothic conventions suggest the marketplace’s imminent threat: just as Catherine is oblivious to the intentions of the threatening but “knowing-looking coachman,” she remains unaware of the dangers that occupy the courtship practices in which she and Isabella engage. The use of interest to describe the marketplace alludes to the unintelligible boundary between courtship practices and financial desires.
Austen’s use of the term interest also presages the ominous courting that is to take place between Isabella and James Morland, and Catherine and John Thorpe. Just after Isabella comments on the “‘odious gigs,’” she espies the two men (44). Austen employs financial terms to describe the encounter: “the bright eyes of Miss Thorpe were incessantly challenging [James’s] notice; and to her his devoirs were speedily paid” (45, my italics). The etymology of devoir reveals its economic roots: the term is derived from the Latin dēbēre, “to owe.” Devoir is defined as “[m]oneys due; dues; duties” (“Devoir, n.”). Austen’s language frames the flirtation between Isabella and James as a financial transaction. Both courtships are motivated by monetary interest: Isabella pursues James because of her impression that the Morlands are worth more than they are, and John courts Catherine for the same reason. (Isabella, of course, loses interest in James as soon as the truth of the Morland family’s financial situation is unveiled.) These liaisons first occur in the marketplace, in Union-passage, after Austen depicts men as commodities alongside pastry and millinery. Such placement coalesces with Austen’s mercantile language. In short, Austen creates a dangerous Gothic labyrinth of “interesting alleys” in the Bath marketplace to suggest that late eighteenth-century courtship is afflicted with treacherous motivations.
The process by which General Tilney ensnares future investments in husbands and wives of the younger generation is driven by his pecuniary interest. The General’s aims are revealed slowly as he arranges the courtship of Catherine and Henry. First (and with the acknowledgment that we must approach the statements of a duplicitous character like John Thorpe with a critical eye), John tells Catherine that the General thinks her “‘the finest girl in Bath’” (96). Later, General Tilney’s “smiling compliments” make his liking of Catherine known (175). General Tilney’s mercenary intentions—the reasons behind his interest in Catherine—become salient once the truth of the Morland family’s financial status is revealed, when he forces Catherine to leave Northanger.
Catherine’s investigation at Northanger, leading to her discovery of the washing-bills, exposes those financial incentives behind her courtship. Her Gothic lens intensifies her “fearful curiosity” as she unlocks the chest, and Austen describes her “anxious desire to penetrate this mystery” (164). Austen slips from sexual diction (“penetrate”) to economic jargon: “Her progress was not quick,” the narrator explains, “for her thoughts and her eyes were still bent on the object so well calculated to interest and alarm; and though she dared not waste a moment upon a second attempt, she could not remain many paces from the chest” (164, my italics). Here Austen uses language that has both sexual and economic connotations (“object” and “interest”) to suggest the nature of Catherine’s evaluation at Northanger. The diction that follows gestures towards her status at the novel’s close. Catherine next discovers “a white cotton counterpane, properly folded, reposing at one end of the chest in undisputed possession!” (164). This line points forward to the “undisputed possession” that characterizes Catherine’s future position as Henry’s wife.
When Catherine ultimately discovers the washing-bills, Austen again employs the word interest. In aligning Catherine’s search for significance with the discovery of goods, Austen suggests that the meaning of the scene lies in the evidence of financial transactions Catherine finds:
An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others, penned by the same hand, marked an expenditure scarcely more interesting, in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string and breeches-ball. (172, my italics)
The presence of the word interesting in a scene filled with receipts illustrates the role of commerce in Catherine’s search. Catherine shows frustration and disappointment at the seeming futility of her discovery: “a farrier’s bill! Such was the collection of papers, (left perhaps, as she could then suppose, by the negligence of a servant in the place whence she had taken them,) which had filled her with expectation and alarm, and robbed her of half her night’s rest! She felt humbled to the dust” (172-73).
But then the narrator sounds an alarm: “Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?” (173). Catherine does find something, but it is not what she is looking for, and her misinterpretation—her obliviousness to the financial underbelly of her Northanger visit—compounds the discovery’s horror. As Zlotnick points out, “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” (277). The narrator’s revelation at the end of the novel that the servant of Eleanor’s future husband left behind the washing-bills (251) foregrounds the financial appraisal that occurs at Northanger. The receipts Catherine finds suggest the financial nature of her courtship, and the narrator’s question looks ahead to the ordeal that Catherine will endure for her lack of understanding.
Later in the novel, the language used to rationalize Catherine’s abrupt dismissal from Northanger frames General Tilney as Catherine’s suitor. Such prose bolsters Austen’s critique in suggesting that his mercenary interest lays the groundwork of Henry and Catherine’s union. Catherine’s dismissal is explained: “Under a mistaken persuasion of her possessions and claims, [General Tilney] had courted her acquaintance in Bath, solicited her company at Northanger, and designed her for his daughter in law” (244, my italics). The verb solicit means to “conduct, manage, or attend to (business, affairs, etc.)” (“Solicit, v.”). Similarly, a solicitor “conducts, negotiates, or transacts matters on behalf of another” (“Solicitor, n.”). This choice of words shows General Tilney’s role “manag[ing] . . . business” “on behalf of” his son, revealing courtship as a commercial transaction. Furthermore, solicit, in its disturbing gesture towards prostitution, suggests a sexual and economic exchange: it also means to “court or beg the favour of (a woman), esp. with immoral intention” (“Solicit, v.”). The General’s fiscal interest has propelled the courtship of Catherine by Henry, and Austen’s ironic language frames him as Catherine’s suitor. The novel suggests that courtship is the junction of sexual and financial interest.
In appropriating Gothic conventions and blending the language of courtship with the language of business, Austen conveys the duplicitous financial incentives behind Catherine’s courtship throughout the novel. The courtship is founded on practices established by General Tilney, whose interest in Catherine is avaricious. He maintains control over the visitors allowed at Northanger, a ritual to which he subjects both Eleanor’s future husband and Catherine. In the end, Henry and Catherine do not marry until the General consents. Though Northanger Abbey relies on parody to convey its message, the novel relays Austen’s serious concerns about the financial appraisal that occurs during courtship and the sinister obscurity of that appraisal’s execution.
1. See, for example, Zlotnick and Johnson.
Auden, W. H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings: 1927-1939. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1986. 167-201.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969.
Copeland, Edward. Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.
“Devoir, n.” OED Online. Oxford: OUP, 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Hinnant, Charles H. “Jane Austen’s ‘Wild Imagination’: Romance and the Courtship Plot in the Six Canonical Novels.” Narrative 14.3 (2006): 294-310.
Interest, n.” OED Online. Oxford: OUP, 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Johnson, Claudia L. Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.
Justice, George. “Northanger Abbey as Anti-Courtship Novel.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 185-95.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford: OUP, 1966.
“Solicit, v.” OED Online. OUP, 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Solicitor, n.” OED Online. OUP, 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “The Problem of the Interesting.” Persuasions 12 (1990): 71-78.
Zlotnick, Susan. “From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in Northanger Abbey.” Studies in the Novel 41.3 (2009): 277–92.