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Prescriptive or Descriptive?: Redeeming the Novel in Northanger Abbey

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (Austen 72). So declares Henry Tilney, the hero of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, thus insulting many of his author’s contemporaries. Prejudice against novels was widespread in Regency England. Even novelists themselves depicted novel-reading unfavorably, “degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they themselves [were] adding,” as Austen’s indignant narrator puts it (22). In her lecture “Men Reading Badly,” Robin Henry notes that women especially were the targets of crusades against the novel. Since they supposedly had weaker minds, they were cautioned against reading novels lest they copy the imprudent actions of the characters therein (Henry). Readers of Northanger Abbey at the time of its publication saw the protagonist, Catherine Morland, as a stereotypical “bad reader,” a naïve young woman whose difficulty discriminating between fiction and reality drives her to imitate her favorite Gothic heroines (Henry).

If this is the case, it seems that Jane Austen turns hypocrite. Even as her narrator exhorts the “injured body” of novelists to stand together against fiction’s opponents, the main character of Austen’s own novel reinforces every negative assumption about fiction and its female readers (Austen 22). Is it possible to reconcile the depiction of Catherine with the “defense of the novel”? A close reading resolves this contradiction and reveals the subversive nature of Northanger Abbey. With wit and subtlety, Austen vindicates the novel as a medium in two interconnected ways. She uses her narrator to explore the main purpose of fiction as descriptive rather than prescriptive, and this purpose applied to The Mysteries of Udolpho acts as a measuring stick to differentiate “good” and “bad” novel readers. By including both a man and an intelligent woman among the “good,” Austen challenges her society’s preconceptions about fiction and its readers, redeeming the novel as a valid form of literature.

Throughout Northanger Abbey, Austen suggests that the ultimate aim of the novel is to depict human nature rather than to promote norms for behavior. This aim is most clearly defined in the “defense of the novel,” in which the (presumably female) narrator confronts the stigma against novels and the women who read them. She claims that novels exhibit “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor... to the world in the best chosen language” (23). The superlatives sprinkled throughout the passage draw attention to what the novel does best: depicting human nature with all its subtleties and foibles. Nowhere in this list of the novel’s merits does the narrator claim that novels are a fitting vehicle for moral instruction. The novel is best suited for describing how humans behave, not necessarily prescribing how they ought to.

Elsewhere in Northanger Abbey, readers can trace the concept that fiction does not prescribe. While Austen does not say outright that fiction cannot prescribe behavior, she parodies the expectation that it should by alluding to moral discourses and using her narrator to dole out tongue-in-cheek moral lessons to her readers. Northanger Abbey contains many references to other books—mostly novels, but also guides to proper conduct. Several characters read novels, including Catherine, Isabella, Henry and Eleanor Tilney, and even Catherine’s mother (22, 72-73, 26). However, when they seek moral guidance, they turn to conduct books. Catherine recalls her great aunt reading a lecture on the evils of vanity in dress (49), and her mother recommends an essay “about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance” (166). By referencing such texts in a novel so concerned with other novels, Austen contrasts the two types of books, indicating that they serve different purposes. It is self-evident that novels are not conduct books, but the distinction is significant nonetheless. Austen’s contemporaries who disapprove of novels assume that women must imitate them, so Austen discredits this assumption by drawing attention to writing that truly is meant to be emulated.

Still, Austen herself may seem to blur the lines between novels and moral discourses; her narrator breaks the fourth wall to preach to readers on at least four occasions. In each lesson, however, irony or humor exaggerates the novel’s poor ability to sermonize. The first instance of such “moralizing strains” occurs when Catherine is engaged to dance with the disagreeable John Thorpe: “she deduced this useful lesson, that to go previously engaged to a ball, does not necessarily increase either the dignity or enjoyment of a young lady” (36). Just before the next ball, the narrator treats her audience to more “grave reflections,” this time on women’s dress: “excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim...No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it.” (49). In both cases, the mismatch between the overly solemn tone and the trivial subject matter further satirizes the idea that fiction’s purpose is to present readers with valuable moral lessons. The narrator again steps forward during Catherine’s first walk with Henry and Eleanor Tilney to comment that Catherine need not be embarrassed of her ignorance: “Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant… A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can” (76). This observation is as biting as Catherine’s first “useful lesson” is flatly obvious (36). Austen includes this flippant but blunt remark to subvert expectations about moral messages in fiction, hinting that readers should not come to their novels expecting sage counsel to fill every page.

The most significant example of an ironic moral comes at the end of Northanger Abbey. Readers might expect that if the novel were to close with a moral, the narrator would reiterate Catherine’s lesson that she should not let her imagination run away with her when she reads. Instead, the narrator leaves readers to decide “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (174). Neither, of course, is a desirable outcome, and the bulk of the narrative does not concern either. This facetious message undermines the obvious “moral of the story” and mocks the notion that fiction should merely be used as an ethical guidebook. Nevertheless, it is critical to realize the complexity of what Austen does with her satirical moral lessons. Simply by including them, she implies that novelists can slip moral messages into their writing. The particular advice given by Austen’s narrator does not serve as a total denial of fiction’s capacity to teach. Rather, she employs irony to underscore a claim central to the narrative: a novel should aim to tell a story that describes the human condition, and characters are not merely meant to prescribe models for behavior.

Both in the “defense of the novel” and throughout the course of action, Northanger Abbey demonstrates that fiction’s primary purpose is to describe, not to prescribe. Austen does not contradict the idea that fiction can have a prescriptive element, but she uses ironic morals to downplay fiction’s ability to preach, showing that novelists do not write conduct books and that readers should not expect them to. How does this fundamental truth about the nature of fiction illuminate the rest of Austen’s own novel? Characters in Northanger Abbey read well when they understand fiction’s aim, but they read badly when they do not. This dichotomy is seen most clearly in the different reactions of Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine unconsciously believes that fiction is prescriptive, leading her to emulate the heroines of the novels she reads. The Tilneys, however, read fiction in accordance with its true purpose of description. Austen uses Henry to challenge the assumption that men do not read novels and Eleanor to show that women can read them responsibly.

Catherine is exactly the sort of weak-minded reader censured by opponents of novels. Before she begins to read fiction regularly, Catherine takes for granted that everyone’s motives are as pure as her own. When Isabella is less than pleased with James Morland’s promised income, Catherine makes an effort “to believe that the delay of the marriage was the only source of Isabella's regret; and… endeavour[s] to forget that she had for a minute thought otherwise” (93-94). She even assumes that Captain Tilney asks Isabella to dance because he pities her for not having a partner (90). But after Catherine reads The Mysteries of Udolpho, her naiveté gives way to the heightened suspicion of “an imagination resolved on alarm” (137). She had tried to ignore the “terror and dislike” which General Tilney “had previously excited” (124). Now, Catherine plunges into the investigations and speculations of a heroine, breathlessly concluding that the General has “the air and attitude of a Montoni!” (128). Under the influence of novels, an unpleasant man becomes the heartless villain of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and she, the heroine, must expose his ghastly deeds. Reading novels has caused Catherine to confuse fiction with reality, leading her to model her own behavior after that of a Gothic heroine. She is the quintessential “bad reader,” confirming all her era’s stereotypes about women and fiction.

If the main character of Northanger Abbey is a bad reader, how can the book’s narrator hope to defend fiction against skeptics? The solution lies in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who break down anti-novel biases and show that both men and women can read well when they enjoy novels according to their purpose. Austen takes care to show that the younger Tilney siblings have good taste and education; they discuss “the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing...with all the eagerness of real taste” (75). As well as a background in art, the Tilneys have varied taste in reading. Eleanor mentions “Johnson and Blair,” indicating that she and her brother are familiar with these “authorities on the English language,” and she herself professes fondness for history (73, 73n2, 74). The siblings have not neglected fiction in their literary pursuits, either. Henry has read everything by Ann Radcliffe, and Eleanor enjoys The Mysteries of Udolpho without feeling the need to imitate its heroine (72-73). The Tilneys are not only well read, but they are also good readers, since they can appreciate novels without conflating them with reality. Austen emphasizes Henry’s taste for fiction to undermine the belief that only women like novels, and she writes Eleanor as a lover of history to deny that novels are the only books that women like. By depicting a man who likes fiction and a sensible young woman who reads without imitating, Austen destabilizes both sides of popular arguments against novel-reading. The Tilneys show that novels do not cause all women to behave foolishly and that not all men find them insipid and revolting.

Among Austen’s contemporaries were many who disparaged novels and their female readers as silly at best and dangerous at worst. Using the very medium these people despised, Austen engages her opponents’ qualms in two different ways that work in tandem. First, she uses her narrator’s voice—in the “defense of the novel” and in facetious moral lessons—to demonstrate that the purpose of the novel is to offer a description of, not a prescription for, human nature and behavior. To test this premise, she contrasts “good” and “bad” readers through three characters’ reactions to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Good readers understand the purpose of fiction and read accordingly, but bad readers do not, instead imitating everything they see in novels. As a bad reader and the main character, Catherine appears to uphold her society’s negative views of the results of combining women and fiction. Less noticeable are the good readers, Henry and Eleanor Tilney, both educated young people of excellent taste. Henry dispels the notion that only women read novels and Eleanor that novels lead women into folly.

Now only one paradox remains to be resolved. If we take it as true that fiction is not meant to be prescriptive, then why do generations of Jane Austen’s readers continue to draw truths from her writing and expound upon them in essays? Certainly Austen’s appeal would not have endured so long if her works had no prescriptive elements whatsoever. Is there a certain extent to which we can draw a “moral” from Northanger Abbey without falling into Catherine’s faults? Perhaps the secret lies in becoming not only a good reader, but a wise one. Perhaps each of us must determine which aspects of which characters we ought to emulate. But I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this essay be altogether to recommend Henry and Eleanor’s example as prescriptive—despite the novel’s main purpose—or to reward the refusal to learn from fiction.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Edited by Susan Fraiman, W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
  • Henry, Robin. “Men Reading Badly: The Representation of Male Readers in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” 2018 Annual General Meeting, Jane Austen Society of North America, 28 September 2018, Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. Breakout Session.
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