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“Those Quotations Which Are So Serviceable”: Decoding Context and Reading Literary Collection in Northanger Abbey

In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s protégé Harriet Smith is a collector: she collects her “most precious treasures” and she “collect[s] and transcrib[es] all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper, made up by her friend, and ornamented with cyphers and trophies” (232, 51). The narrator explains that Harriet hopes to collect more than three hundred riddles, but “in this age of literature, such collections on a very grand scale are not uncommon” (51). When Mr. Elton delivers a riddle, Emma is “quite mistress of the lines ”after a brief perusal, while Harriet “puzzl[es] over the paper in all the confusion of hope and dullness” (53). “Clever” Emma discovers the solution to the riddle (“courtship”) by interpreting its poetical hints, but also with self-supplied context for this riddle as a love token between its writer (Mr. Elton) and its recipient (erroneously assumed by Emma to be Harriet) (5). She crowns her interpretation with a quotation from William Shakespeare about “the course of true love” (55). Unlike Harriet the collector, Emma understands this riddle as part of an imaginary love narrative; however, the novel’s reader, who the novel also invites to solve the charade, enjoys comprehending the larger context of this puzzle better than the characters, even the clever Emma.

In Northanger Abbey, the narrator offers the reader a similar contextual game, constructed this time by Catherine Morland, another collector of writing. The novel opens by showing the reader Catherine’s haphazard collection of quotations, excised from their original context and truncated in ways that obscure meaning for the reader (and one assumes also for their collector). The text offers the reader a chance to either dismiss these puzzling quotations or to assign meaning to them by considering their original context and its relation to their context in this novel.1 In fact, even before the quotations are introduced, the description of Catherine that opens the first chapter of the novel offers the reader tantalizing references to other novels—a father “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters,” a mother who stubbornly “still lived on,” etc.—that encourage the reader to play the associative game of supplying context for these references (NA 5). I contend that working out the riddle of these quotations can suggest both the role of collections in this novel and the development of Catherine as a student of Gothic narratives prior to her encounter with Isabella and Miss Andrews’s list of “horrid” novels (25). Beyond their significance to the story, it will also show how this assembly of poetic and dramatic quotations creates a partner text for Austen’s “defense of the novel,” one that expands the generic and gendered claims of that famous passage.

Though Catherine’s quotation collection can be read as a poor imitation of the clichéd anthologies published for popular consumption, the significance and original context of these literary snippets are worth considering because this collection is the product of curatorial female labor (rather than professional male labor). The types of formulaic anthologies she imitates are, it would seem, of the type the narrator decries in the “defense of the novel,” resenting recognition of “the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne” (22). Catherine recreates this style of collection through her excision of well-known and easily portable quotations from works by popular and canonical male authors. However, innovative or not, her work is still the creative product of a young woman who, rather than being edified by these quotations, repurposes them for her own ends—taking ownership of them as she integrates them into her textual collection. Unlike the account book and the diary that she neglects, Catherine does contribute to this commonplace book of sorts, building on a long scholarly tradition of collecting information and insightful quotations for later use. Reproducing the collaborative construction of collections like the commonplace book, Catherine shares ownership of her collection with her creator, a female writer who freely makes use of works by male authors, carving up their texts for reuse and repositioning in a new woman-created collection within her novel. This practice could in part, be an homage to Gothic writer, Ann Radcliffe, who included numerous epigraphs in her writing and whose novels feature prominently in Northanger Abbey. In fact, Emma Woodhouse acknowledges this practice when she refers to Elton’s riddle as “a motto to the chapter” that “will be soon followed by matter-of-fact prose” in the scene discussed above (E 55). Given this historical and literary context, I contend that such quotes, haphazard and misquoted as they may seem, cannot be passed over and instead must either be unpacked by the characters (as Emma does in the opening example) or explored by the reader.

However, Austen’s novel demonstrates again and again that readers cannot rely on Catherine to decode her collection any more than we can rely on her to properly interpret her other experiences. Catherine demonstrates her inability as an interpreter of collections most forcefully during her visit to the novel’s most avaricious collector: General Tilney. As the proprietor of Northanger Abbey, he embodies the gentleman-collector of Austen’s text, modeled on other eighteenth-century collectors like Horace Walpole, whose seminal Gothic story, The Castle of Otranto (1764), is stuffed with awe-inspiring objects. However, the General’s collections do not have the power to awe or influence Catherine in the ways that a collector like Walpole might expect. The examination of General Tilney’s collection is a chore rather than a delight for Catherine. Though titillated by being in a possibly-haunted abbey, Catherine grows “heartily weary of seeing and wondering” at every “well-known ornament,” furniture, improvements and collections of books (123, 125). Austen makes clear that the General’s collection and acquisitiveness, unlike earlier cabinets of curiosity, is meant only for public view and as a symbol of social position. As such, its meaning intrudes on the viewer, just as “the elegance of the breakfast set force[s] itself on Catherine’s notice” (119). Similarly, the General refers to the 100 pineapples produced in his pinery to emphasize the tremendous, even wasteful, output of his estate, but Catherine does not respond with an appropriate sign of appreciation or understanding (122). General Tilney’s attempt to treat curiosity as a predictable result of investment in commodity, even as a commodity itself, seems to align with eighteenth-century discourses on conspicuous consumption and taste, but instead becomes a form of tyranny. Despite his attempts to enforce attention and response, Catherine resists his patriarchal attempts to shape her reading of the Abbey at the same time as she demonstrates her inability to “properly” interpret a collection’s larger meaning or context. Predictably, the collection that does excite Catherine at the Abbey is the “collection of washing bills,” which she also misinterprets as a medieval manuscript that might appear in a Gothic novel (118, emphasis mine). Given her incapacity, the text leaves it up to the reader to contextualize and create meaning from Catherine’s literary collection.

Her comical commonplace book of quotations presents a literary challenge, engaging the canny reader in the project of building an interpretation of their implications in Austen’s text. I suggest that the quotations’ first role in the novel is remind the reader of the connection between their texts of origin, written by celebrated British authors, and the Gothic novel. Turning first to the poetry fragments in the collection, the quotation from James Thomson’s “Spring” (1728), from his popular The Seasons, refers back to a poem that positions lush landscape description against violent and disturbing imagery of nature and humans at work in the natural world. This poem’s dual view of nature as a source of revelatory beauty and an ungovernable force has clear resonances with the Gothic novel’s reliance on descriptions of landscape and weather to create an immersive novelistic setting and to evoke sublime terror. Even more striking is the connection between Gothic imagery and the quotation from Alexander Pope’s poem “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717), an unusual sentimental poem that opens with the speaker wondering “What beck'ning ghost, along the moon-light shade / Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?” (1-2). The horror of the encounter increases as the speaker asks, “but why that bleeding bosom gor'd, / Why dimly gleams the visionary sword?” (Pope 3-4). Pope’s beckoning, bloody ghost and gleaming spectral sword could be comfortably dropped into Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and many later Gothic texts. The poem reveals that this unfortunate lady was driven to commit suicide because of familial disapproval of her chosen partner, but the poem does not reveal her identity, inviting the reader into yet another a guessing game. The quotation from Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) is also firmly connected to the Gothic tradition through his friendship with Horace Walpole, his own work as an innovator of the Gothic, and the poem’s status as a part of the graveyard school, a genre tied to the Gothic by its gloomy but imaginative subject matter. By selecting quotations that refer the reader back to source texts by popular and respected poets, Austen reminds the reader of not only of the Gothic novel’s genesis from and connection to this British literary tradition, but also by extension its connection to admired classical forms such as the elegy, pastoral and georgic—associations that push against the Gothic’s low-brow status and association with foreignness, superstition and sensation.

The quotations also include references that remind the reader of the Gothic’s debt to works by England’s great dramatist, William Shakespeare. The first quotation from Othello’s (1603) manipulative villain, Iago, reminds the reader of the Gothic novel’s appropriation of the gruesome violence, psycho-sexual tension, ominous prophecies, and supernatural apparitions in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The second quotation from Measure for Measure (1604) links even more directly to the recurring character dynamics and plots of the Gothic. Much like a Gothic heroine, this play’s young, beautiful and pious heroine, Isabella, becomes subject the sexual machinations of a powerful man, Lord Angelo, who threatens to “draw out” her imprisoned brother’s execution “to ling’ring sufferance,” if she does not comply with his sexual propositions and yield “up [her] body to [his] will” (2.4.178-81). Anticipating the miraculous coincidences of the Gothic novel, Isabella is saved by a Duke disguised as a friar, who intervenes on her behalf via a complex maze of disguises, accidents and substitutions. The vulnerable and distressed heroine, the powerful and sexually-menacing male villain, and the web of misrecognitions, deceptions and illusions on which the plot depends, all connect this play to the tropes of the Gothic. Provided she has read these works, this choice of quotations suggests that Catherine’s predilection for Gothic novels finds its source in this earlier reading “of such works as heroines must read” (7). Beyond offering a literary origin for Catherine’s reading, these quotations, read in the context of Austen’s novel about novels, also link these revered British texts with the Gothic novel. By reminding the reader of the Gothic novel’s derivation from other forms of writing, they position “the trash with which the press now groans” in closer proximity to genres positioned higher in the eighteenth-century literary hierarchy, such as Pope’s or Thomson’s poetry and Shakespearean drama (22).

In addition to disrupting generic literary hierarchies, these quotations also point out and push against barriers to authorship, especially those encountered by women. For example, Gray’s slightly misquoted lines lament the possibility of unrecognized and neglected talent, regretting that “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air” (55-56). A few lines later, the poetic speaker suggests that “some mute inglorious Milton [in this churchyard] may rest,” a statement that recognizes how literary talent may meet with the lack of recognition and support the poem regrets (Gray 59). The Shakespearean fragments in Catherine’s collection narrow Gray’s meditation on overlooked writers to focus on a particular type of unacknowledged literary genius—the female rhetorician. Despite her victimization (and perhaps in common with the identically named character in Austen’s novel), Measure for Measure’s Isabella has a reputation for her ability with language and rhetoric. Her brother tells his friend, Lucio, that “she hath a prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade” (Shakespeare 1.3.182-4). Not surprisingly, she is able to match wits with powerful, rhetorically-savvy male characters and she is the source of many of the play’s most portable and memorable lines. Complementing the rhetorical skill of her sister heroine, Twelfth Night’s (1602) Viola unleashes her persuasive and creative skill with language and storytelling while disguised as a male page. Catherine’s chosen quote catches Viola telling a story about a young woman who cannot communicate her thoughts verbally and lets “concealment, like a worm i' the bud, /Feed on her damask cheek” until she “pin[es] in thought” “like patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (Shakespeare 4.2.109-10, 112-3). Viola’s disguise and her story about frustrated female expression seems especially significant to the lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century woman writers, like Austen, who often published anonymously or using a pseudonym. Like them, Viola is gifted with intelligence and narrative skill but is only able to achieve recognition and attention when disguised as a man or when unrecognizable as a woman. Though Catherine Morland “cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible,” her creator highlights literature that acknowledges the rhetorical and literary prowess of women, positioning it as parallel to men’s abilities in this novel (91). These quotations then, when read collectively and in context, build an argument that challenges barriers to recognition rooted in both genre and gender.

The acknowledgment of the Gothic genre’s ancestry and of forceful female authorship inherent in this collection of quotations works in partnership with Northanger Abbey’s “defense of the novel.” Like a speech by Shakespeare’s skilled heroines, this famous address to the reader is strikingly direct and conversational—rhetorically appealing to the reader using humor, rhetorical questions, logic, examples, first-person plural pronouns (“we”), and its position in a novel to garner support. Like the game of applying context to Catherine’s quotations, this passage depends upon the reader’s knowledge of the many texts that it references to supply context and give weight to its claims. The “defense” pits women writers like Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney against male abridgers of history and anthologizers of established male writers. Notably, the defense does not critique Pope, Milton or even writers of history, its target is the indiscriminate and profit-motivated anthology curator, editor and publication industry that profits from these creative authors. The “defense” strikes out against a profit-motivated system intent upon “decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them,” especially those by women (22). Coupled with the recognition of the Gothic novel as descendant of a respected British and classical literary tradition as well as the commentary on unrecognized or unsupported female genius constructed by the literary fragments in Catherine’s collection, Austen’s “defense of the novel” becomes an even more forceful and inclusive statement about writing, literature and publication.

With its focus on lampooning the Gothic but also defending the novel, Austen’s narrative manages to put pressure on long-standing literary hierarchies connected to authorship and literary form. Hidden in plain sight, the novel’s quotation collection balances the book’s parody of Gothic clichés and, by referencing the quotations’ origin works by Thomson, Pope, Gray and Shakepeare, reasserts the Gothic genre’s desire to claim affiliation with Britain’s imaginative literary history. Read in partnership with the “defense of the novel,” these quotations also show that the case for recognizing female writers is supported not only by the defense’s arguments and examples but also in works by authors revered by eighteenth-century readers. To discover this significance, Northanger Abbey’s quotation collection invites the reader into an interactive project of identifying original context in order to build meaning from these literary fragments. Significantly, this is a type of participation with the novel that is open to any reader who cares to play the game of decoding the riddle of this women-produced collection. Interacting with this well-read author’s text reminds the reader that part of the enjoyment of reading is the interplay between readerly creativity and the information on the page, what the text offers the reader and what the reader can offer the text.


1Unlike many modern editions, the first 1818 edition of the novel does not supply footnotes or other commentary that explains the specific source works or contexts for these quotations.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by George Justice, 4th ed, W.W. Norton & Co, 2012.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Edited by Susan Fraiman, W.W. Norton, 2004.
  • Gray, Thomas. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, Ninth Edition, W.W. Norton, 2012, p. 3051.
  • Pope, Alexander. “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady.” The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. In Verse and Prose, vol. II, Nichols and Son, 1812, pp. 41–45.
  • Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon and Schuster, 2009.
  • _____. Twelfth Night. Edited by Dr. Barbara A Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 2015.
  • Thomson, James. The Seasons. Edited by James Sambrook, Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1981.
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