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Becoming Good Readers: Sympathy and Teachability in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility

Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood, the heroines of Austen’s early novels Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, share a bond as passionate readers who make drastic errors of interpretation. Catherine is preoccupied with novels and so captivated by The Mysteries of Udolpho that she introduces it into conversations throughout the book and declares to Isabella, “I should like to spend my whole life in reading it, I assure you; if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world” (24). Her enthusiasm is an echo of Marianne’s “very earnest, very eager” nature; Marianne herself is passionately devoted to works which meet her ideal of sensibility and romance (69). Yet their reading habits intertwine with their famous errors of judgment. When Catherine looks at the Tilney family and their home through the lens of The Mysteries of Udolpho, she mistakenly and embarrassingly identifies General Tilney as a murderer. Marianne, trusting that Willoughby, whose taste in reading and everything else coincides so perfectly with her own, cannot fathom that the man who “read with all the sensibility and spirit” she desires has a tarnished character (38).

It would be easy to draw the conclusion from Catherine and Marianne’s reading habits that their choices of reading material directly correlate to their errors—that Catherine’s novels and Marianne’s beloved poetry are the sources of their respective mistakes in judgment. Yet Austen’s approach to her heroines and their reading habits suggests a more complex reading which locates the emphasis not merely on reading material, but on the character of the reader; after all, the narrator of Northanger Abbey who vigorously defends novels as works in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed” is unlikely to locate the source of all errors of judgment in novels (22). The question of both Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, then, is not so much, “what literature is worth reading?” as “what makes a good reader?” Austen’s answer, according to Catherine and Marianne’s development as characters, suggests that a good reader is able to apply his or her skills of interpretation both to literature and real-world situations; to read a book and to read the world well depends upon the same qualities. In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, Austen particularly emphasizes sympathy and teachability as necessary to becoming a good reader, qualities which Catherine and Marianne engage with over the course of their narratives.

Austen’s novel contributes to the ongoing eighteenth-century discourse of the implicit connection between reading books and reading the world, as Joe Bray acknowledges in The Female Reader in the English Novel. Bray observes that in turn of the nineteenth-century novels, “the first duty of the female heroine is to be a reader, not only, or even primarily, of books, but of the world,” a convention which proves applicable to both Catherine and Marianne as heroines. Accordingly, the qualities of sympathy and teachability apply equally to the reading of books and the reading of the world, and as individual qualities reinforce one another. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, an eighteenth-century work contemporary with Jane Austen, demonstrates the correlation between sympathy, basically defined as identifying with someone else’s perspective, and effective judgment or good reading:

The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man, according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it. (I.3)

Smith then makes the connection that we can judge our own motives and behaviour by using sympathy to see our conduct from someone else’s perspective. Such an application of sympathy corresponds well with teachability, which signifies an openness to this process re-evaluating one’s conduct. These are qualities which Catherine and Marianne possess to some degree, but which they must develop further. Their notable errors in judgment are the key events demonstrating both their deficiencies and their growth as readers.

Austen immediately acquaints the reader with Catherine’s faults and virtues at the novel’s opening as she traces the character and background of her unlikely heroine, emphasizing her ordinariness. Austen outlines Catherine’s literary education in childhood moral fables as well as the poetry of Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, James Thomson, and Shakespeare, suggesting a well-balanced foundation (7), but Catherine is not extraordinarily studious, and it quickly becomes clear that her ultimate preference regarding reading material lies with novels. On her walk with Henry and Eleanor Tilney, she calls her “instruction a torment,” with particular reference to history and the learning of letters (76).

Although she strives to interpret the motives and conduct of the society around her, she is ultimately locked in her own perspective; the narrowness of her sympathetic connection to literature, limited by her nearly exclusive interest in novels, is echoed by her limited ability to sympathize with those around her. This is particularly evident in her response to Captain Tilney’s attentiveness to the engaged Isabella, which she uneasily interprets generously. Henry Tilney’s response to her analysis simultaneously highlights Catherine’s strength of character and failure to recognise the motives of others: “Your attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good nature alone, convinced me of you being superior in good nature yourself to all the rest of the world” (90). This combination of traits results in her grave error regarding General Tilney: when her largely novel-informed imagination meets her quick sympathy with Henry and Eleanor’s discomfort in their father’s presence, she forms her wild conclusion regarding his conduct.

Austen is as impartial to Marianne as to Catherine in evaluating her flaws alongside her positive character traits. Marianne is introduced as “sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting; she was every thing but prudent” (8). It quickly becomes clear that a penchant for sympathy is Marianne’s great asset in her own eyes. She values the capacity to connect to the passionate emotions of her favourite texts and judges others based upon their capacity to do the same. Thus, Edward’s manner of reading falls short as “spiritless” and “tame” (15), while Willoughby gains her approval in not only reading “with all sensibility and spirit” but “the same books, the same passages” (36, 38). It is evident that Marianne’s reading, like Catherine’s, lacks balance: rather than informing and adjusting her perception of the world, her reading reinforces her own perspective, as is evidenced by the fact that when Willoughby leaves, she “read nothing but what they had been used to read together” (62). Like Catherine, her sympathetic connection is limited by the narrow class of texts she chooses, and likewise reflects similarly flawed sympathetic understanding of those around her.

Yet as these character sketches suggest, Catherine and Marianne possess inherent strengths among their weaknesses which contribute to their redemption as readers. Thus, alongside her faulty sympathy and the resulting mistakes of interpretation, Catherine possesses teachability, complemented by an overarching graciousness of temper. She is equally willing to entertain new ideas and re-evaluate her judgments regarding both reading material and relationships. In key moments when Catherine’s limits as a reader are obvious, such as the walk with the Tilneys in which she appears ready to dismiss all forms of literature except novels, her genuine teachability emerges as a redeeming quality. She listens and eventually concedes to Henry’s arguments in favour of the value of literary education, and when both Tilneys admire the landscape through the perspective of picturesque sketching, she “confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared she would give anything in the world to be able to draw” (77). When Henry responds to her request with actual instruction, “her attention was so earnest” that Henry is convinced of her genuine interest (77). Yet Catherine has the capacity to avoid the extreme of teachability when she defends Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison to Isabella, who is prepared to dismiss it as “amazing horrid” because it lacks the more sensational horrors of novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine responds simply and confidently: “It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining,” (25). Thus, Catherine is prepared for a relational test of openness and graciousness when, before Catherine has met Eleanor, Henry enters the ballroom with his sister on his arm; rather than jumping to the sensational conclusion that he is married already, she is “guided only by what was simple and probable” and correctly conjectures his relationship to Eleanor (34). Catherine’s teachability, then, not only opens the door to broadening her knowledge, but gives her the capacity for gracious interpretations of the conduct of others. This quality not only accounts for the depth of her shame when she draws the unlikely, ungracious conclusion about General Tilney, but serves as a key component in her immediate resolve to never allow such a mistake to occur again.

Likewise, Marianne’s clearly outlined weaknesses are accompanied by corresponding, naturally positive capacities. For her, it is her capacity for sympathy which eventually creates the opportunity for teachability, a quality she self-consciously resists, as she demonstrates when she declares to Edward, “At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear anything to change them” (68). The change becomes most evident in her reflections following her illness. When Austen states that “Marianne could never love by halves” (268), the echo of Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey is ironic. When Isabella declares “I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not in my nature,” she is self-consciously communicating an ideal which she does not, in fact, embrace (24). Yet for Marianne this trait is so deeply ingrained that it eventually translates to passionate fidelity to Colonel Brandon despite her initial lack of interest in him (268). This, of course, is one of the results of her transformation, and it is significant that her confession to Elinor, which acknowledges her errors and resolves change, originates from a sense of breached loyalty:

I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery, —wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died, —in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister! —You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart! (245)

Marianne’s awareness of her failure to love and honour Elinor opens her eyes to her conduct toward others: “Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Every body seemed injured by me” (245). She has begun the process of acknowledging perspectives beyond her own, demonstrating teachability, when she tells Elinor, “I compare [my conduct] with that it ought to have been; I compare it with yours,” (244).

The fact that Catherine and Marianne have each made definitive resolutions regarding their future conduct testifies not only to their self-aware development of good reading qualities, but to a conviction that becoming a good reader is an ongoing process. Having clearly acknowledged the causes of their mistakes, their respective determinations reflect the intention for future discretion. By limiting her reading of novels, therefore embracing varied and balanced sources of literary knowledge, and resolving to act with “only the greatest good sense,” Catherine shows a well-grounded plan for becoming a better reader (139). Likewise, Marianne’s declaration that she will henceforth devote herself to study and loving her family reflects a clear, specific step away from her limitations which draws her toward literary and worldly reading habits which will continue to enlarge her perspective (268). Thus, Austen is not suggesting a formula for good reading habits in these novels so much as revealing that reading well is a continuing process of developing the right qualities and growing from errors. A good reader does not necessarily read the right books so much as remember that reading without a sympathetic connection is limited, reading without teachability is empty, and reading misinterpretations can be dangerous.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. The Modern Library, 1995.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Edited by Claudia Johnson, Norton Critical Edition, W. W. Norton, 2002.
  • Bray, Joe. The Female Reader in the English Novel: From Burney to Austen. Taylor and Francis, 2008.
  • Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Ch. 1. Sense and Sensibility, Johnson, pp. 273-274.
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