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Mere Information and True Knowledge: Jane Austen on Books

If Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey can be described as “a book about books,” then it is also arguably a “book about what books get wrong.” Indeed, Catherine Morland spends quite a bit of time in Northanger Abbey realizing that the world she has read about is not the same world that exists in front of her. Balls are hot and overcrowded instead of splendid and romantic, her supposed best friend turns out to be a malicious gossip, and the secret that General Tilney hides is one of fortune-seeking, rather than murder. Catherine’s information, which is fed by her reading, is often more than misguided. It is plain wrong.

This, however, is an overstatement. For as much as Catherine gets wrong, there is more that she gets right. Her reading causes her to make errors, but it also causes her to seek out good and honest people, and to suspect wrongdoing where there is actual wrongdoing. Austen is not arguing simply that books (or certain genres of books) cause misguided impressions of the world. Her argument is more complex. Books contain information; the reading habits of several Northanger Abbey characters prove this. But that information alone is frail until it is held up to other sources, both other kinds of books and the opinions of other people. It is the combination of these three sources— reading, reading in a wide variety of genres, and other opinions—that lead beyond mere information to true knowledge.

From the beginning of Northanger Abbey, it is clear that the protagonist, Catherine Morland, greatly desires to be a heroine, the sort that she reads about in romance books. Austen’s presentation of this is somewhat tongue-and-cheek. “Provided,” she writes, “that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she [Catherine] never had any objection to books at all” (7). Indeed, by the time she leaves for Bath, Catherine has not only devoured all the novels and romance books accessible to her, but she has also “read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with quotations” (7). In other words, Catherine has slogged through a few other notable authors just so she has a supply of “heroine-appropriate things to say” if an opportune situation comes along!

Once in Bath (and later at Northanger Abbey), Catherine puts her reading habits to good use by assuming the situations she encounters will unfold like their fictional counterpoints. This worldview is further affirmed when she meets Isabella Thorpe, who introduces her to Ann Radcliffe’s simultaneously “delightful” and “horrid” (25) Mysteries of Udolpho and other similar gothic horror stories. As Catherine and Isabella charge into life together, between their two viewpoints they manage to misinterpret or entirely miss the following circumstances: social dynamics, male interest, the characters of all three members of the Tilney family, and even Isabella’s brother John’s romantic interest in Catherine. In one scene, John proposes to Catherine, and she is so clueless as to what non-fictional proposals look like that she manages to both blow him off and leave him “with her explicit encouragement” (92) at the same time, a feat which a more aware character probably couldn’t have managed if he or she had tried. But the real misconception of Northanger Abbey comes at the end, when Catherine—fresh off Mysteries of Udolpho—interprets General Tilney’s behavior as proof that he has murdered his wife. She says as much to his son, and then is set straight and “most grievously . . . humbled” (146).

Yet despite this sequence of bumbles, a close reader will note that most of Catherine’s errors have some truth behind them. Her understanding of the world—shaped as it is by romance novels—helps her interpret several situations correctly. She knows, for example, that John Thorpe is someone to avoid if possible; his swearing and obtuseness make him more likely to be a villain than a hero. Catherine likes that Henry Tilney has a “sort of mysteriousness, which is always so becoming in a hero,” (22) and she is attracted to his well-spoken manner and kind heart. And she is right about the General’s character. He is cruel to his children, particularly to Eleanor, and he commits a severe wrong when he kicks Catherine out of his house and forces her to travel, alone with no money, on a two-day journey back to her home. As critic John Dussinger argues, there is even some indication in the text that the General is sexually interested in Catherine. At the very least, she “ha[s] good reason to suspect General Tilney’s capacity for doing away with his wife and maybe posing a threat to herself” (173). He may not commit a murder, but in the pages of Northanger Abbey alone, the General does act in ways that are verbally abusive, manipulative, and controlling. Primed by her internalization of novel-morality, Catherine intuitively understands this. She gets his character correct even as she mistakes the crime.

Yet, this interpretation of Catherine’s reading habits raises a question: if romance books and novels were the source of at least some correct information, where did Catherine go wrong? Although Austen does not give us a direct narrative comment on this question (as she does on the question of the validity of the novel), she does give us an example of a character who both reads and arrives at true knowledge in Henry Tilney. From his first conversation with Catherine when he teases her about keeping a journal (15) as conventional heroines do, it is clear that he is a great reader. Later, it is revealed that he enjoys histories, and unlike many of the young men of his time, also reads novels and has decided opinions about them—“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (77). As a member of the clergy he has also been exposed to religious texts. Although all of this reading occasionally leads him to err on the side of mansplaining (especially when he talks to Catherine), his understanding of a wide variety of topics outstrips that of every other character in Northanger Abbey. Furthermore, he discusses the things he reads with other people. While walking, he and his sister Eleanor engage in a lively debate about The Mysteries of Udolpho, which she wins. Henry swallows this without a hint of sulkiness. Here is an example of what Catherine is missing. She reads and over the course of Northanger Abbey she shows a willingness to engage in conversation about books. But the restriction of her reading to her a single genre causes her a lot of problems. It is only after her mistake with the General when she determines to stop depending so fully on Ann Radcliffe and become a more “sensible” (147) reader, that her interpretation of the world becomes more reliable.

In Northanger Abbey, furthermore, there is a strong correlation between what and how characters read and the ways they behave. Henry and Catherine are not the only people whose reading habits inform their morality. Eleanor, who reads histories and novels and anything that has “speech[es] well drawn up” (79), is wise and dignified. In contrast Isabella, who reads only gothic horror novels, mistakenly believes that the real world is as easily manipulated as her fictional ones. General Tilney reads “pamphlets” and books on “the good of the nation” (138) and might have benefited from the sort of empathetic and humanizing effect that novels can have. And John Thorpe calls novels (and seemingly books in general) “the stupidest thing in creation” and “always ha[s] something else to do” (52). Like the General, his refusal to engage with books that contain a different point of view have a negative affect on how he treats others, and might be part of the reason he assumes it’s all right to drag a protesting girl into a vehicle she has adamantly stated she does not wish to enter.

Northanger Abbey is not the only novel where Austen shows the limitations of narrow reading habits. In Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood devotes herself entirely too much to Romantic poetry, which causes her to choose a fickle and silver-tongued lover over a constant and kind one. Her expectations of such a lover were always very specific; early on in the novel she remarks to her mother that “[I] could not be happy with a man whose tastes did not coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books . . . must charm us both” (14). These turn out to be rather high requirements, and Marianne stubbornly refuses a potential suitor who does not appear to meet them—and is prepared to continue doing so—until a lucky twisted ankle brings Mr. Willoughby into her life.

Here, finally, is a man with whom all of Marianne’s interests overlap. They read the same things; they love and hate all the same poets. This is determined within the first fifteen minutes of their acquaintance. “For one morning,” remarks her sister after Willoughby’s initial visit, “I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained [his] opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott…you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper” (36). The teasing tone of the statement belies its truth: Marianne digs no deeper into Willoughby’s character than is necessary to deem that he fits her idea of a proper Romantic hero. She misses his past, and she misses his character flaws. The fact that he bought her a horse named “Queen Mab” (45) is enough to earn her devotion.

Or, at least, it is enough until the things Marianne never bothered to learn about Willoughby return to haunt her. Confronted with his indiscretions and true character, she is forced to reevaluate not only her feelings, but also their origins: her reading habits and the overactive imagination they have fed. In the end, she finds a man less poetry-perfect but more kind, one who “has been abroad; has read and has a thinking mind” and one who is “capable of giving information on a variety of subjects . . . and answer[s] inquiries with a readiness of…good nature” (39). Like Catherine, it is with this sort of person – one who reads widely and discusses what he reads – and not her original Byronic hero, that Marianne is ultimately happy.

Likewise, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet also ends up with a man who is widely read, and who admires her own reading habits in turn. The narration makes this clear through a key scene in the Netherfield library where Elizabeth chooses to amuse herself with a book rather than human company and Mr. Darcy gets teased about buying more books for his already extensive collection (27). They discuss the importance of reading to “the improvement of [the] mind” (29), and they spar about what kinds of knowledge makes a woman “accomplished” (28). Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are the same sort of readers as Henry Tilney: they read widely, and they talk about their reading with others. But Austen goes a step further than obvert dialogue to make this point. By introducing foils, or characters who have lesser reading habits, she highlights their ability to come at true knowledge. In Elizabeth’s case, this character is her sister Mary.

Of the Bennet sisters, Mary is known as the “bookish” one. She is, as described by her father, “a young lady of deep reflection…and reads great books and makes extracts” (4). This is a kind way to say that Mary only reads things she considers morally elevating and delights in dropping little found nuggets of “wisdom” into her conversations whenever possible. The habit makes her irrelevant and condescending, since she often misunderstands the meaning or context of her chosen phrases. As Felicia Bonaparte argues, “the opinions Austen gives Mary, [garnered from books], are almost always generalizations that would have been [proven] from experience…But this is the very thing that Mary seems unable to comprehend. For Mary, these are eternal verities to be accepted without question…” (147). Mary’s limited reading and her utter dependence on it make her short-sighted in ways that are not just unfortunate, but on several occasions, deeply embarrassing. Although Elizabeth claims not to be a “great reader” (27), what she does read she reads with what her father calls “quickness” (2) or discernment, a virtue her sister, for all her forays into complex texts, has not mastered.

Similarly, Mr. Collins, a pompous clergyman, is shown to have poor taste in books. Like Mary, he prefers sermons and utterly rejects fiction, protesting “that he never read[s] novels” (51). Here, again, Austen attaches hatred of a genre to her most buffoonish characters; Mr. Collins may read sermons, but when the time comes to embody Christian virtues, he fails to enact the very subject he claims to study. In comparison to these genre-limited characters, Elizabeth and Darcy are shown to be wiser. Their grasp of knowledge, although still occasionally flawed, allows them to be kinder and better people than either Mary or Mr. Collins.

Given her penchant for allowing characters who cultivate good reading habits to arrive at true knowledge, it should not be surprising that Jane Austen herself pursued a wide variety of books. In her surviving letters, she mentions over sixty authors by name, and they range in genre from the poetry of Milton and Byron to the sermons of Edward Cooper, to the popular fiction of her day to titles like Robert Henry’s The History of Great Britain, from the invasion of it by the Romans under Julius Caesar etc . . . (Le Faye, 625-627). And these are just the titles from the surviving correspondence; Jane’s sister Cassandra burned a large portion of her letters after Jane’s death. What remains shows that Austen’s interest in these titles expanded past reading them into discussing them. “Ought I to be much pleased with [Sir Walter Scott’s] Marmion?” she asks Cassandra in a letter from June 20, 1808. “So far, I am not” (136). Like Henry Tilney, Colonel Brandon and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen read, read widely, and discussed her opinions. There is no hypocrisy in her writing; Austen’s characters gained understanding the same way she did.

Perhaps because of this lack of artifice, after re-reading the Austen canon this fall, I was struck by the continued wisdom of this stance on reading. I often encounter people who do not understand (and have not always understood myself) that books shape our impression of the world. Perhaps most readers are not as bad as Isabella or Marianne, but I seldom meet a Colonel Brandon either. Good reading habits are rare. Our society is overwhelmed with places to go for mere information, unable to sort out which news sources are accurate and how to engage books and search engines at the same time. Sifting through this problem requires more than just reading: it requires holding the things we’re reading up against each other, and it requires discussion with minds outside our own. Without this we are doomed. Like Catherine, we will put murders where they don’t belong, and our trust in only half-right places. Frail information is not enough. Austen understood that correctly interpreting the world requires more; it requires unconventional heroines and heroes. It requires us to seek out true knowledge.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, 2008.

_____. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford UP, 2008.

_____. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford UP, 2008.

Austen Jane, and Deirdre Le Faye, editor. Jane Austen’s Letters. Oxford UP, 2011.

Bonaparte, Felicia. “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 37, no. 2, 2005, pp. 141–61.

Dussinger, John A. “Parents against Children: General Tilney as Gothic Monster.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 165–74.

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