PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.21, NO.1 (Winter 2000)

Irony and Political Education in Northanger Abbey

Melissa Schaub


Melissa Schaub (email: is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she is about to complete her dissertation on Victorian political novels.  She delivered a paper on Mansfield Park at the 1995 JASNA AGM.


jane Austen’s politics have formed one of the most persistent battlegrounds of modern criticism of her novels.  The question of whether her novels advocate conservative Toryism or a more subversive position (feminism or broader Jacobinism) is one of the main planes of cleavage along which one can divide Austen scholarship.  Northanger Abbey, as the earliest of Austen’s novels to be completed and the one that refers most overtly to its political context, is an ideal site for observing the competition of these schools.  Almost everyone agrees that Northanger Abbey’s basic function is to educate the reader.  Terry Castle provides a good summary of the “educational” or “dialectic” reading in her introduction to the novel.  She describes Austen as using Northanger Abbey as “an instrument of enlightenment” in which we as readers observe Catherine Morland’s intellectual development and grow along with her (xxv).  Catherine begins the novel as a defective reader of Gothic, and ends it as an accurate reader of something more important: human nature.  Henry Tilney teaches her to read by indirection and irony; and Austen teaches us as well, by the same method, so “that we might indeed become, male and female alike, that ideal reader for whom she writes”—one who notes every detail and can interpret life correctly (xxv).


What critics disagree on, however, is just what Catherine (or the reader) is being educated to see.  Each political school of Austen critics substitutes a different educational agenda.  Traditional Janeite conservatism sees Austen as resisting the Romantic artistic impulses of her time, inventing realism as a means of inculcating good middle-class morality into land-owning gentry.  Northanger’s parody of Gothic romantic excesses aligns quite neatly with such views.  Feminist scholars read the novel against the grain, seeing its seemingly conservative deconstruction of Gothic as ironic (after all, Catherine is correct about General Tilney’s character, even if she detects the wrong crime).  Other critical approaches are more complicated, and require more mental gymnastics on the part of the reader.  Marilyn Butler, for example, argues for a sort of “conservative feminism” approach in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, pointing out that contemporary feminism was often rationalist and anti-Jacobin, and thus the invention of realism can be both feminist and Tory.  Foucauldian critics see the novel’s politics as both complicated and sinister.  Northanger Abbey exemplifies, perhaps unconsciously, the panopticism of the industrial capitalist society that was coming into being during its period—this is how Paul Morrison describes the novel’s embodiment of the “domestic carceral.”  Thus Catherine is educated into being a good subject of the state without Austen intending it.  Even more recent critics have given up on deciding whether or not the novel intends anything; such a hyper-postmodern approach notes both the possible conservative and subversive meanings of the novel, but contends that the ironies of the text are too numerous and too reversible to allow a reader to find any stable position.


The verbs used by such critics reveal the difficulties of reconciling an agentless view of literature with the urgent political agenda they usually also espouse.  Joseph Litvak concludes his “Charming Men, Charming History” with the sweeping judgment that Henry Tilney’s dark side, and Austen’s later demotion of charming men like him to the status of villains, is the beginning of a “dreary cultural project,” the “homophobic aversion therapy of nineteenth-century fiction” (269).  But as a good Foucauldian he cannot say that Austen intends such a project, merely that it happens somehow, and so he is forced to say that “Northanger Abbey . . . intimates the logic of this revulsion” (269, emphasis added).  Edward Neill is driven back on an even more startling equivocation about meaning and agency: in his conclusion, Northanger Abbey actually “secretes” meaning, as it “appears to seek to repress” (29) knowledge that would undermine the conservative ideology Henry espouses, but fails to do so.  When disentangled from its double negations Neill’s position fits within the Austen-as-subversive school, and yet that entanglement—the sense of layers of irony endlessly reversing themselves beyond the possibility of interpretation—is essential to his article’s larger thesis.  This method of equivocation allows critics to discern a political effect without having to subscribe to any outmoded ideas about stable meaning or the educational function of literature.  In the process, they construct a new and sinister Austen, complicit with or unaware of the ideologies her novels espouse.  The act of bracketing intention or authorial political awareness works to make Austen a conservative by default.


Is it really necessary to give up on the possibility of extracting clear meaning from Northanger Abbey, reinforcing the myth of the politically naive Austen in an access of postmodern indeterminacy?  On the contrary, the political meaning of the novel is admirably clear, although in its pessimism it may be no more palatable to contemporary readers than any previous suggestions.  We can begin explicating this meaning from the very description of the novel’s structure that has led at least one critic to assert its indeterminacy.  Margaret Kirkham argues, in Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, that the novel is “a test of the literary intelligence of the hero and heroine”; Catherine responds with “a childish confusion of life and art” while Henry “shows his superiority,” but in the end the author “shows that there is a further truth which neither of them has quite seen.  This modifies and corrects the schema, but at risk of confusing readers” (90).  Northanger Abbey does indeed educate the reader, both in literary and political issues.  In achieving this education the ideal reader would surpass not only Catherine, but also Henry (whom many readers have regarded as Austen’s mouthpiece in the novel).  But so far from being confusing, or a series of endless reversals of the type envisioned by Neill, the structure of the reader’s education is a simple progression.  We move from one stage to the next, in sequence, and arrive at an admirably clear final lesson: that the world is full of tyranny, and that in order to survive emotionally in such a world it is necessary to learn to be ironic.  This is not morality (morality, in this novel, is never learned, but is rather instinctive), but rather a prescription for survival in a politically dark world.


Henry Tilney teaches Catherine how to be ironic, how not to see the world only in the most straightforward way.  Catherine’s evolving attitude toward the Gothic during the course of the novel is one example of her progress in learning irony.  Only by comparing novels with real life experiences can a reader judge either correctly and thus learn from them.  Catherine is so inexperienced that she swallows everything she reads uncritically.  Henry will help to teach her the need for critical reading and the perception of meanings beyond the surfaces of life, which is the essence of irony.  He himself, however, sometimes fails to maintain the rationally correct detached perspective of irony.  As soon as he descends into an uncritical acceptance of ideology (as he does in the oft-quoted “‘Remember that we are English’” speech), he becomes the object of the narrator’s irony, just as Catherine was earlier because of her uncritical acceptance of Gothic.  Both Henry and Catherine must learn a second lesson, that “real” English characters can be worse than romanticized Gothic ones.  General Tilney’s behavior after he learns that Catherine is not wealthy is reprehensible, but not Gothic (it is mercenary but not supernaturally one-sided).  Thus the novel’s attack on the exaggerations of romance remains in place, but the characters learn that realism is more frightening than romance, and that ironic perception must be applied even to the political assumptions that seem “safe” and “realistic.”  Catherine’s Gothic sensibility (which depends on an instinctive morality of sentiment) is not wrong, but merely incomplete without the balancing intellectual perspective of irony.


The reader of Austen’s novel must be enlightened in stages, first along with Catherine and then along with Henry, finally surpassing both characters (neither of whom becomes the ideal reader that the novel strives to mold).  Even after achieving the ideal balance of heart and head, sentiment and irony, however, Austen’s reader is not equipped to right the wrongs of the world.  Northanger Abbey (and the larger project of novelistic realism) is a survival manual, not a revolutionist’s handbook.  After all, even in the most famous passage of Northanger, the defense of the novel, the narrator claims only that a novel provides “the most thorough knowledge of human nature” (38).  Knowledge might make one a better navigator of the shark-infested waters of English society, but will not transform that society for the better.  Austen unflinchingly exposes the realities of English life under counter-revolutionary Toryism, but offers a solution only for alleviating one’s personal experience of that life—an ironic detachment.


The problem with Gothic novels is not necessarily a moral one, and the ability to be ironic is not a moral skill.  In fact, Catherine’s romantic temperament, her “intuition,” is right in all her basic judgments, as many critics have pointed out.  Her moral compass remains essentially unchanged throughout the novel: just as she instinctively refuses to renege on a promise as a matter of principle in something so trivial as a social engagement (101), later she will unerringly divine that General Tilney is an unsavory character.  The General is not merely a domestic autocrat, but a tyrant of the same sort as the French revolutionaries that Gothic novels always draw on as the subtext of their xenophobic horrors, as Shinobu Minma argues in “General Tilney and Tyranny” (504-510).  Catherine’s intuitive goodness is therefore political as well as moral.  Austen consistently portrays Catherine’s politico-moral instincts as innate, or even genetic.  At the end of the novel her parents judge Henry Tilney in exactly the same way she has judged people throughout the novel, with “[g]ood-will supplying the place of experience” (249).  Learning to think ironically will not make Catherine moral.  Isabella Thorpe, who is arch in every word she speaks, and never really means what she says, is not a better person because she can perceive irony.  In fact, if Isabella truly understood the novels she claims to read, she might be made a better person, since Gothic novels, despite their one-sidedness, usually portray sincere sentimentality as a heroine’s source of virtue.  Radcliffe’s novels (the most prominent Gothics in Northanger) perfectly illustrate the doctrine of sensibility, that morality proceeds from instinctive sympathy with others.  Innate sensibility is the one trait of Gothic heroinehood that Catherine Morland really does possess.


Unfortunately, however, instinctive goodness does not suffice to keep one happy and sane outside the one-sided world of Gothic novels.  Henry Tilney teaches Catherine, through conversation, not to believe everything she reads, and also how to speak ironically in everyday life.  That is the purpose of some of the most famous and most comical set-pieces in the novel, like Henry’s comparison of dancing and marriage (Volume I, Chapter Ten), or his caricature of a Gothic story (Volume II, Chapters Five and Six).  Catherine never completely learns to apply his lessons.  She manages, by the end of the novel, to understand all of the discourse that surrounds her, but she is not quite able to produce it herself.  When she must write to Eleanor after her dismissal from the Abbey, she struggles over how to express her feelings, and finally concludes that “to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety” (235-36).  Henry, at first, seems to be a more promising model for the reader.  Whenever he remains witty, Henry acts as the voice of the author, as many critics have pointed out.  But Henry himself is not capable of keeping out of the trap of uncritical thinking, and his one major slip provides both an example to the reader of the dangers of losing rational detachment, and also a clear picture of Austen’s broader political view.


The English Gothic novel is excessively nationalistic in the assumptions it makes about human nature, and in its technique of defusing content that might otherwise be shocking by placing it in foreign Catholic settings.  The ideal reader of Gothic is one who understands these assumptions so as to be attracted but not drawn in, not fooled into seeing the excesses of Gothic as representative of English life.  Such xenophobia was politically charged during the 1790s, when Austen first wrote the novel—jingoism was a foundation stone of anti-Jacobinism—and Northanger Abbey’s parody of Gothic undermines Tory nationalism by implication.  Catherine is so defective a reader to begin with that she does not even understand the basic nationalism of Gothic—but the accomplished reader Henry Tilney does.  When Catherine merely believes in his trumped-up tale about ebony cabinets, he is entertained; but when she creates her own Gothic tale he is shocked, because she violates the conventions of the genre by imagining that such events could really take place in a contemporary English setting.  In the crisis of Catherine’s education, when he explains the circumstances of his mother’s death and remonstrates with Catherine over her inability to discipline her imagination, Henry articulates the ideology behind the Gothic:


“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?  Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (197-98)


Here his assumptions are clear.  One can only properly appreciate the Gothic if one understands that it is not to be taken as a delineation of the English character, but of the depraved human nature to be found elsewhere.  English society is different (it is “a country like this” to distinguish it from that), and superior.


Early Austen critics take Henry’s statement at face value, as a delineation of the author’s ideology (just as Henry is often taken to be her mouthpiece elsewhere in the novel).  Thus this passage is seen as consistent with the assumption that Austen was a political conservative, here a patriotic anti-Jacobin.  However, even among early critics, interpretation is not unanimous, and it has become even less so.  While Gary Kelly and Diane Hoeveler can both cite Henry’s speech as evidence of Austen’s conservative ideology as late as 1995, their view is uncommon.  Since Lionel Trilling it has been more common to emphasize dramatic irony and the inadequacy of Henry’s point of view—Catherine turns out to have assessed the General’s character correctly, perhaps despite herself (207).  It is too easy to take a “dramatic irony” reading as critical only of the General, a failure of a particular patriarch and not patriarchy or nationality itself.  Alistair Duckworth’s combination of an acknowledgment of the irony of Henry’s criticism and the view that Austen is politically conservative depends on such a move (85).  Only more recently have critics noted the explicitly political dramatic ironies of this passage and thus its subversive (Jacobin) bent.  Claudia Johnson’s view, that Catherine’s (ironically correct) collapsing of the distinction between this nation and that is “subversive” of Henry’s nationalist complacency (40), should be definitive.  Several recent critics have fleshed out her account by focusing on the way Henry portrays English citizens as “surrounded” by spies.  His description suggests imprisonment as much as it does safety from secret atrocity, and thus by implication damns as tyrannical the government that produced such spies.


At first this critical history may seem to prove the postmodern contention that Austen’s irony cannot be fixed, because so many critics have produced so many different interpretations of Henry’s ideological narrowness.  In fact, however, interpretation of this passage has stabilized recently, and has evolved down a single consistent path: from not seeing the dramatic irony at all, to seeing it narrowly, to giving the irony its full political weight.  The most recent interpretations rely on historical context available to Austen’s contemporaries and to careful reading of the passage itself, and therefore it might be said that criticism has trained itself finally to be the ironic reader that the novel itself was always working towards.  Since critics are not always consistent in applying the lesson, however, it is necessary still to argue for the subversiveness of this passage as an example of Austen’s larger method.


Careful reading of the passage demonstrates the subtlety as well as the complete explicability of Austen’s irony.  Henry has until now been the model of an ironic reader, implying as well as inferring double meanings in every bit of dialogue.  Here, Austen’s reader faces the test of applying Henry’s method to Henry himself as object.  Throughout his speech, Henry commits unintentional ironies, the detection of which is necessary both to understanding Austen’s political message and to becoming the ideal reader the novel is molding.  Henry’s ironic deconstruction begins with the first sentence of his ringing political declamation, in which he claims that he has no words, but then finds many of them (arranged in elegant parallels, no less).  This movement of contradiction echoes the very comic technique that Henry himself had used in his burlesque of the Gothic.  In his story he draws attention to the contradictory illogic of Gothic plots by predicting that after “a very short search, [Catherine] will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection” (159).  He has no words, but yet finds some; the division in the tapestry cannot be found, yet Catherine will find it.  Thus from its beginning the speech signals its own kinship with the very language that earlier Henry himself had so effectively criticized.  Later, the irony of Henry’s direct injunction to consult observation as a guide to judging conduct provides the most positive evidence that he is fallible.  Since her observation of the General’s manner toward his children has caused Catherine to be suspicious of him, and since her observation accurately predicts his future behavior, Catherine has done exactly what Henry told her to.  Her direct observation, and ours, leads us to a conclusion opposite to the one Henry endorses, in which England’s society, despite its roads and newspapers, cannot be distinguished from the foreign Gothic settings which Henry wishes to see as fundamentally Other.


Henry Tilney, like Catherine, must learn this further lesson, that nationalism is just as unrealistic as romance.  Neither of them understands that English human nature might contain some of the same impulses as those found in the Alps.  The goal of the novel according to Austen is to teach the ability to deal with the people one encounters in everyday life, and thus both Henry and Catherine need a lesson in realistic pessimism.  The discovery of the General’s mercenary nature provides the dash of cold water they need.  Henry is just as disillusioned and humiliated by his father’s behavior at the end of the novel as Catherine was earlier by his reproof of her—“Henry, in having such things to relate of his father, was almost as pitiable as in their first avowal to himself.  He blushed for the narrow-minded counsel which he was obliged to expose” (247).  Henry learns that he ought to have taken into account commonplace English behavior founded on greed or misplaced pride before dismissing all villainy as foreign.  Surely the thought of his own earlier confidence in his supremely English family contributes to Henry’s embarrassment.


Most critics today acknowledge that Henry’s smug nationalism is not meant as the author’s position.  This new understanding has introduced a new problem.  Critics now only rarely under-read the irony of Henry’s “‘Remember that we are English’” speech; instead the pendulum has swung the other way, and critics over-read the irony of the novel as a whole, abdicating interpretation altogether.  Edward Neill claims that “Northanger Abbey . . . is the sort of text whose emotional and political direction is on a knife-edge.  It seems at once to be preternaturally sure of where it’s going, yet its reversible ironies at key points momentarily eclipse a sense of intention, of just which reading is ‘against the grain’” (14).  This kind of reading is consistent with poststructuralist privileging of irony—it recalls Paul de Man’s description of the sort of infinite regress that all true irony produces, as one endlessly perceives the irony of one’s just previous perception of irony (“The Rhetoric of Temporality” 215, 220).  De Man’s theory is especially tempting for Austen critics, since he goes on to assert that the transition from an eighteenth-century novel based on irony to nineteenth-century realism is a “regression” (222).  In this light an infinitely ironic Austen is the last bastion of the Enlightenment, rather than the inventor of Litvak’s “dreary cultural project” (269) of realism.


Perhaps critical emphasis on the politically unfixed quality of Austen’s irony is meant as a service to the author, but if so, it is a chimerical defense.  There is never more than one layer of irony at any moment in Northanger Abbey.  During the scene that Neill finds most “reversible,” Henry’s mocking translation between Eleanor and Catherine over the shocking new thing coming out in London (Volume I, Chapter Fourteen), Henry is merely bantering.  He always means just the opposite of what he says, but intends to draw attention to his actual meaning by expressing it in opposing language.  Perhaps this conversational technique (still common today) would be more apparent if the novel were read aloud.  Nevertheless, Eleanor’s desire to have Henry explain himself to Catherine indicates that she understands his joking and that it is commonplace, not meant to be difficult to understand for anyone more experienced than Catherine.


The irony of commentary provided by the narrator on political questions is of just the same kind.  Henry’s nationalist speech is a different kind of irony (dramatic), but it is still unitary in purpose.  He merely descends from being an ironist to being the object of the novel’s irony.  But there is no moment in the novel that requires more than one level of ironic reversal.  The consistency with which one is required to supply ironic perception (on almost every page) is the primary means by which Northanger Abbey carries out its educational function.  When one does act as the ideal reader of the novel, one not only is able to understand its overt political message (tyranny is as common in England as in Gothic novels), but also to cope with it in the only way possible—by making mock of it.  This might be cold comfort, but it is certainly consistent.  Austen does not claim to be able to change people’s principles or their material conditions, just to help them to a truer knowledge of human nature and thus a more personally palatable existence.  One could take this compensatory irony too far (as Mr. Bennet will later illustrate), but as it is the mode of all her novels, surely Austen can be reasonably said to be recommending it for general use.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Brownstein, Rachel M.  “Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.  32-57.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Castle, Terry.  Introduction. Northanger Abbey.  By Jane Austen.  Oxford: World’s Classics/OUP, 1990.  vii-xxxii.

de Man, Paul.  “The Rhetoric of Temporality.”  Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism.  2nd ed.  Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1983.  187-228.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels.  1971.  Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Hoeveler, Diane.  “Vindicating Northanger Abbey: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gothic Feminism.”  Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  London: Macmillan, 1995. 117-35.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1988.

Kelly, Gary.  “Jane Austen, Romantic Feminism, and Civil Society.”  Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  London: Macmillan, 1995. 19-34.

Kirkham, Margaret.  Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction.  Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1983.

Litvak, Joseph.  “Charming Men, Charming History.”  On Your Left: Historical Materialism in the 1990s.  Ed. Ann Kibbey et al.  New York: NYU Press, 1996.  248-74.

Litz, A. Walton.  Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development.  New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Minma, Shinobu.  “General Tilney and Tyranny: Northanger Abbey.”  Eighteenth-Century Fiction 8 (1996): 503-18.

Morrison, Paul.  “Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral.”  Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33:1 (1991): 1-23.

Neill, Edward.  “The Secret of Northanger Abbey.”  Essays in Criticism 47 (1997): 13-32.

Rothstein, Eric.  “The Lessons of Northanger Abbey.”  University of Toronto Quarterly 44 (1974): 14-30.

Schmitt, Cannon.  Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality.  Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1997.

Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  London: Macmillan, 1986.

Thompson, E. P.  The Making of the English Working Class.  1963.  London: Penguin, 1991.

Trilling, Lionel.  The Opposing Self.  New York: Viking Press, 1955.


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