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A Curious Absence of Books: Education in Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey—that book about books—concludes with someone tossing a book aside. Catherine Morland has returned home full of “languor and listlessness,” and her mother, believing her discontented after the grandeurs of Northanger Abbey, goes in search of an essay she vaguely remembers “about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance” (166). When she comes downstairs again, book in hand, Henry Tilney is sitting in her drawing room; seeing Catherine’s “glowing cheek and brightened eye,” her mother harbors hopes that this visit will at least “set her heart at ease” over the events of Northanger and set her on the path towards recovery of usefulness. She therefore “lay[s] aside” the essay “for a future hour” (167).

The future hour never comes; the essay is, of course, rendered unnecessary by the diagnosis and cure of Catherine’s true malady—her love for Henry and his subsequent proposal. The extraneous essay is an amusing anecdote of Mrs. Morland’s obtuseness, but in this book about books, the neglect—and more particularly, the uselessness of the essay—is significant. It draws our attention to a curiosity about Northanger Abbey: in this novel whose heroine is definitively shaped by her reading material, what are we to make of the absence of any literary component to the heroine’s maturation? Catherine Morland, who, significantly, cannot abide history and feeds unhealthily on horror stories until they alter her perception of reality, has no subsequent, redemptive encounter with a text—neither with the non-fiction she despises nor with the fiction she has abused. Books seem to play no role in the growth of Catherine’s character or in the accomplishing of her happiness; for all we know, Catherine does not read again.

This pointed absence is not unique to Northanger Abbey. Emma Woodhouse has never, to Mr. Knightley’s chagrin, followed through on her resolution to read the impressive lists of books she keeps drawing up, and this failure is indicative of Emma’s inability to “submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding” (28); she would rather make up her own stories. But no subsequent reversal in her reading habits takes place to signal her improvement; Emma’s epiphanies and character development are thoroughly un-literary. Marianne Dashwood, whose penchant for romantic poetry has done her no service in shaping her desires and expectations, resolves near the end of Sense and Sensibility to spend hours every day in intensive reading of serious books. The performance of this promise is interrupted, however, by a romance with Col. Brandon, and Marianne’s plan of rigorous self-education comes to nothing. While we might speculate that now these heroines will read better books or will read the same books better, we never see them doing so; characters that have been so thoroughly shaped by their reading habits do not seem to be reshaped by new ones. Why does Austen portray those habits as indicative and even formative of character on the one hand and inconsequential to growth on the other? Why does Catherine’s literary life cease upon her acquaintance with Henry Tilney? Is Austen suggesting that education can end with marriage, that the cure to naivete and folly in a woman is the protection and guidance of an intelligent man rather than personal enrichment? Wouldn’t we feel more satisfied if Catherine, admonished by Henry for her flights of fancy, sat down to a course of serious reading, improved her mind, and became worthy of his intellectual respect as well as his affection?

I would suggest that there are at least two reasons Austen keeps Catherine away from books in the second half of the novel. First of all, while Catherine does indeed need to learn to read better, she needs to learn to read herself and the people around her better, to read her own “story,” not someone else’s. Secondly, I think Austen wishes to assert that Catherine (like all her heroines) does not earn or generate her happy ending through self-improvement; rather, increased self-knowledge enables her to receive it with real joy when it comes.

Catherine Morland struggles to read the people around her and the situations in which she finds herself because she has both too much and too little imagination. If Catherine’s attractive candor degenerates sometimes into naivete, it is because she lacks a certain kind of imagination in her day-to-day interactions. Catherine takes everything at face value, never reads into what she sees and hears, and therefore often struggles to draw quite reasonable conclusions from what she observes. As Henry explains, her tactic when confronted with behavior she does not understand is not to ask “[h]ow is such a one likely to be influenced? What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person’s feelings, age, situation” but rather to ask “how should I be influenced, what would be my inducement in acting so and so?” (90). Catherine cannot participate imaginatively in other peoples’ mental worlds without imposing her own mental trappings on those worlds—reading herself into them. Thus she attributes sincerity to Isabella and John Thorpe, good nature to Frederick Tilney, and generosity to General Tilney. While aware in the abstract of motivators like ambition, vanity, and greed, Catherine is unable to impute them to anyone else since they are not at work in her.

An ironic reversal happens, however, when Catherine comes under the influence of an outside narrative; her imagination kicks into full gear and she becomes less and less able to make distinctions between the fictive and the real and to bring her common sense to bear. Her imagination has an infectious and possessive quality. Entering her room on the first, stormy night at Northanger Abbey, she comforts herself that she has a fire and therefore does not “have to wait shivering in the cold till all the family are in bed, as so many poor girls have been obliged to do” (114, emphasis mind); she declares further that she could not have been so brave and cheerful if Northanger Abbey “had been like some other places” (114-5). She is referring, of course, to the characters and settings of the novels she has read, but she seems to have forgotten their origin; she talks about these “poor girls” and these “places” as if they are literal people and locations, implying either that she cannot distinguish between novels and history or that she now imagines herself to be inhabiting the world of these novels. Her habitual common sense scarcely asserts itself once she is swept up in the story and is unable to check the onslaught of her imagination; only when she receives a “disappointment” in the form of a bedspread or a laundry list instead of skeletons and confessions is she shocked back into rationality. “Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?” (118) she bemoans after once again imagining horrors lurking in her bedroom, but her embarrassment does not keep her from equally terrible speculations about General Tilney a few hours later. She is unable to read the situation rightly because she is again imposing a narrative on it, this time one curiously foreign to her own candid, straightforward habits of thoughts.

What appears to be an inconsistency—rabid imagination in some instances, no imagination whatsoever in others, is due to a lack of self-knowledge: Catherine imposes interpretations—sometimes wildly uncharitable, sometimes far too kind—on the people and situations around her because she is not yet able to interrogate herself, to observe her thinking as if from the outside, and therefore bring certain aspects of her mind to bear on other aspects of it. Catherine possesses a strong mind: her judgments, if slow in coming, are apt; she rebels heartily against doing what she believes is wrong and occasionally manifests surprising independence of thought, refusing to tell a falsehood, break a promise, admit what she does not think, even under pressure. She also possesses good instincts and good taste in the long-term: an appreciation for the Tilneys, for example, that she cannot maintain for the Thorpes. But, as she admits to John Thorpe, “[t]here are not many things that [she] know[s] [her] own mind about” (86). She lacks the self-consciousness to question, critique, affirm, or justify her own impressions or judgments—or even to be certain what those impressions or judgments are. She therefore cannot stand in judgment over her own “readings.”

In his attempt to help Catherine “read” better, Henry Tilney puts Catherine’s imagination and her common sense into conversation, and he does so not by correcting her opinions but by asking her questions that enable her to discover and acknowledge what she already knows. When he learns the “ideas [she] [has] been admitting” (136) about his family, he admonishes, but he does not so much express his own surprise and disappointment as compel her to feel these things herself. Rather than telling her the world does not work as she has been imagining, he asks her a series of questions; he tells her to “consider,” to “remember” and to “[c]onsult [her] own understanding, [her] own sense of the probable, [her] own observation” (136). Henry forces Catherine to look at her own ideas, to listen to her own words, to stand in judgment over her own imagination—and to herself determine where they are lacking. Later, when Catherine bemoans the loss of Isabella’s friendship, Henry does not endeavor to change her mind about her friend; instead, he exposes to Catherine how she really feels as opposed to how she assumes she must be feeling. After describing a life drained of all joy and pleasure without Isabella’s company, he asks her “You feel all this?” and Catherine, “after a few moments’ reflection” replies, “I do not—ought I?” By forcing her to reflect, Henry makes her acquainted with her own heart. Henry declares, “Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves” (142), echoing Socrates’ famous maxim, and Henry’s “education” of Catherine has, in fact, been a Socratic one—one that enables her to educate herself. In response to Henry’s demand that she investigate her own thoughts, Catherine is able to give a fierce, unflattering, startlingly perceptive reading of herself: “it had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion,” by “an imagination resolved on alarm,” and “every thing forced to bend to one purpose by a mind . . . craving to be frightened” (137). Catherine achieves almost a narrative objectivity in her withering self-critique.

And yet, at times Henry Tilney’s efforts to toughen up Catherine Morland’s mind seem almost half-hearted. His criticisms of her are often tongue-in-cheek, and his jokes at her expense regularly devolve into admiration, as when he declares after gently mocking her for a while, “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature (142). Catherine’s innocence is so intense that it has a richness to it; her guilelessness, her inability to tell a lie, or even to disguise what she feels, the earnestness of her affection for him—these qualities, in both senses of the word, consistently command his surprised respect. While he obviously loves to talk circles around her, he also seems to love the fundamental integrity and sincerity that such conversations always unearth. Nor is his affectionate respect compromised by Catherine’s foolish suspicions and his own rebuke of them. Catherine concludes that “he must despise her forever” (137), and the reader might expect his affections to cool, compelling Catherine to take on a course of self-improvement—involving, among other things, the reading of history—so as to re-ignite his love. What actually happens, of course, is that Catherine “ma[kes] herself as miserable as possible for about half an hour,” “[goes] downstairs with a broken heart” and finds that the “only difference in Henry’s behaviour to her” is “that he [pays] her rather more attention than usual,” seemingly “aware” that she has “never wanted comfort more” (137). Henry’s affection, and therefore her own happy prospects, are undiminished by his discovery of her faults, and the tenderness of his address suggests even an increase: “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained,” and then “Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (136). The intimacy of the language belies the severity of the rebuke; one could almost argue that his affection for her, or his consciousness of it, or at the very least his willingness to express it, are increasing with his increasing awareness of her folly.

This affection is an affection that Henry shares with his author; hence, I think, the modesty of Catherine’s “improvement” over the course of the novel. Had Catherine undertaken a course of rigorous reading, developed a penchant for history, and impressed Henry Tilney with her intellectual leaps and bounds, I think readers would feel not only that violence had been done to Catherine’s character but also that a deeper violence had been done to the core of Austenian narrative. While Austen’s heroines do grow and change over the course of her novels, their growth neither achieves their happiness nor wins them the love of the heroes; the happiness is already on its way, and the love is, whether they know it or not, the grounding of their growth rather than the reward of it. Mr. Knightley’s awareness of Emma’s failings, literary and otherwise, in no way compromise his regard for her; his love for her is waiting for her to discover it. Unlike Marianne’s disapproving older sister, Col. Brandon treasures Marianne’s romantic notions as part of the sweetness of her character and his attachment to her grows the more markedly and foolishly she rejects him for another man. Catherine’s character is perhaps, even at the end of the novel, still equal parts what is silly and what is admirable; but in Austen’s world happiness is unearned. The happiness available to imperfect people on the grounds of authorial affection rather than good behavior is perhaps the best bit of realism Austen can produce.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Norton Critical Editions, W. W. Norton and Co., 2012.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. Norton Critical Editions, W. W. Norton and Co., 2004.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Norton Critical Editions, W. W. Norton and Co., 2002.
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