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Seeing and Knowing: Taste as Moral Judgment

In Northanger Abbey, there is a scene where the protagonist Catherine Morland is walking with her new friends, the Tilneys, but does not understand their discussion of landscapes and drawing. While the Tilneys observe the English landscape “with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing,” Catherine “knew nothing of drawing—nothing of taste” (124). Although the word “eyes” suggests that this difference in perception is subjective, her lack of expertise in drawing brings this subjective experience to the realm of objective knowledge. We learn that the ability to see is apparently not equal, but it requires something called “taste.” Catherine soon figures it out after an explanation from Henry Tilney—his instructions are so clear that “she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him.” Following the narrator’s satirical claim that an ignorant woman has the advantage of flattering the “vanity” of men in courtship, Henry is impressed by Catherine’s apparent “natural taste” in art (125).

At first glance, this is just a light and humorous passage typical of a comic novel, but this passage features the act of looking at and evaluating art, which relates to both aesthetic judgment and subjective experience in general. Northanger Abbey is not merely a comic spoof of Gothic novels, but it is also about a young girl who begins to see the truth—arguably, this is the case with all of Austen’s novels, where the protagonist grows to realize who is trustworthy and who is not. This moment where Catherine learns to see landscape drawing can also be compared to her learning to see the characters of people, and it introduces the problem of “taste,” an ability that appears to be both spontaneous and carefully cultivated. Austen’s use of this artistic concept reveals its complex relationship with morality, as well as its limitations in practical life.

The word “taste” is key in British culture and philosophy of the eighteenth century. When used as an aesthetic term, it is the ability to distinguish the quality of artworks, like being able to see a landscape’s “capability of being formed into pictures” (124). However, the word has also been linked to the ability to distinguish proper behavior or manners, which is why this moment in Northanger Abbey also relates to Catherine’s moral and social education over the course of the novel. Taste is necessarily tied to the senses, so a cultivated taste requires high sensitivity to one’s surroundings—as Catherine searches for signs of horror in the Tilney home, the narrator asks, “Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false?” (171, emphasis added). In his 1757 essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” the philosopher David Hume wrote that some people have a “delicacy of taste,” defined as “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them, and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition” (141).

However, the talent of “natural taste,” which Henry ascribes to Catherine, appears to contradict the ability to cultivate and improve it. Hume writes, “though there be naturally a wide difference, in point of delicacy, between one person and another,” there are ways “to increase and improve this talent” (143). Although each person senses the world through their individual body and mind, this universal potential for taste might derive from our common anatomy of the senses; Hume claims they can be “improved by practice” (147). The “natural” appearance of taste then might come from the spontaneity of the senses themselves—to have a cultivated sense of taste is to be so attuned to one’s surroundings that sensing what is right or wrong feels natural and spontaneous. Instead of immediately informing Catherine about Isabella’s character, Henry allows Catherine to discover her coquetry on her own; by allowing her to see it with her own eyes, Catherine can grow independently and train her own judgment. It is appropriate that Catherine exclaims, “I see what she has been about,” much like how she suddenly sees the landscape of Bath with new eyes (212, emphasis added).

We can also find discussions of aesthetic taste in Sense and Sensibility that show its complex relationship with moral character. Marianne worries about Elinor’s future marriage with Edward, as he seems to lack the sensitivity to understand poetry and art: “He admires [Elinor’s drawings] as a lover, not as a connoisseur,” she says to her mother, as if it is an obvious relationship deal-breaker (SS 19). Of course, Marianne is supremely sensitive and moved by art, but she is not necessarily known to be the best judge of character. She immediately dismisses Colonel Brandon, saying he “has neither genius, taste, nor spirit,” but she likes Willoughby because “[t]heir taste was strikingly alike” (53, 49). It appears that, in Marianne’s understanding of the word, “taste” means having the same level of sensitivity and passion as herself—one of her complaints about Edward is that he reads the poetry of William Cowper “with so little sensibility” (20).

As Marianne herself professes in this scene, the “person and manners” of her ideal man “must ornament his goodness with every possible charm” (20). But taste is not merely an adornment of the person, though some people treat it that way since it holds connotations of high class and cultural distinction. Edward pretends to be ignorant of art for this very reason. He “believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and [he] is disgusted with such pretensions” (95). For some, taste can be a pretentious signal of social status, but in Austen it is also the skill or practice of knowing what is right and wrong. Elinor responds to Marianne’s concerns about Edward, stating that he “has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right” (21). Taste is not just about detecting the fineries of art, but it is linked with propriety, or “directing” oneself to behave well in public. Edward may not be as sensitive to art as Marianne, but he is generally sensible in life, according to Elinor.

In “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” Hume opposes the delicacy of taste with the delicacy of passion. While both temperaments involve a “sensibility to beauty,” to have a delicacy of passion is to be sensitive to a fault “when a person that has this sensibility of temper meets with any misfortune, his sorrow or resentment takes entire possession of him” (10). This certainly resembles Marianne’s illness following her abandonment by Willoughby. While sensitivity is an important part of taste, there are things outside our own emotions that we must consult—Hume argues that one needs “reason” and good sense to properly practice taste. Likewise, a person’s judgment can be clouded by prejudice, so one must “check its influence” (Hume 146), and this is clear with many Austen characters. The old and stuffy Colonel Brandon proves to be a kind, sensitive man; the charming and handsome Willoughby proves to be a cad. Hume notes that taste “enables us to judge of the characters of men” (11), and Marianne’s initial misjudgments of character show how high the stakes are when it comes to courtship.

When Marianne asserts that “we always know when we are acting wrong,” she is not necessarily correct. Although she does not see her own “impropriety” in being alone with Willoughby, this action distresses Elinor and her sharpened sense of propriety (69). In the case of manners, particularly in Austen’s time, there are indeed rules that govern proper behavior. Taste then is not purely subjective, but is derived from “models and principles, which have been established by the uniform consent and experience of nations and ages” (Hume 143). But how can subjective judgments of taste fit with existing standards? Why should one have to learn Henry Tilney’s “fore-grounds, distances, and second distances” to enjoy drawing (NA 125), and why should one be limited by the standards of conduct in life? Marianne’s critique of Elinor is that she is “guided wholly by the opinion of other people,” as though “our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of our neighbours” (SS 92). Indeed, the rules placed upon us can be stifling, and sometimes they go against our own internal sense of what is right—to Catherine, the principles of landscape drawing make it seem as if, somehow, “a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day” (NA 124).

Elinor responds to Marianne by stating that her way of socializing “never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour.” She does not want Marianne to “adopt [other people’s] sentiments or to conform to their judgment”—rather, Elinor is in favor of acting with “general civility” (SS 92). In his essay, Hume attempts to theorize a standard of taste after reflecting on the difficulty of making objective standards out of subjective sense. But he points out that if we can agree some pieces of art are better (that Milton is a superior poet, for example), then this implies the existence of a standard that is approved by society in general (137).

Perhaps then, there are agreed-upon rules that govern our conduct, called “general civility.” These standards are useful for resolving our subjective disagreements and for resolving the conflict between our individual impulses and our goal of social harmony. Elinor’s concept of general civility then is not about the “subjection” of one’s judgment, but simply the ability to get along with other people—moral standards are not a destruction of subjective understanding, but a creation of an intersubjective agreement to make things run smoothly. In fact, Elinor constantly consults her own judgment to detect her sister’s missteps and to remedy them; she shows that an awareness of other people is just as important as an awareness of one’s own feelings. Marianne might be sensitive to art and nature, but she is not always sensitive to other people, exhibiting a visible “coldness” toward people that she dislikes (122).

Clearly these standards of behavior have changed since Austen’s time—the differences in “the particular manners and opinions of our age and country” are a limit acknowledged by Hume (149). And, of course, when one is born into a society, they have no control over the preexisting rules of conduct. Marianne’s frustration illustrates how difficult it is to follow prudence over passion—her character is appealing because we understand this conflict between subjectivity and social life, between personal autonomy and public rules. Like Marianne, we would all like to avoid someone by simply stating, “you know I detest cards. I shall go to the piano-forté” (138). But following the strict standards of decorum is wise, particularly in Austen’s world, because one’s personal and familial reputation is constantly at stake. For the financially unstable Dashwood sisters, social opportunities are all that they really have. From this, the necessity of Elinor’s separation of public “behaviour” and private “understanding” becomes clear. Elinor does not necessarily disapprove of Marianne’s feelings for Willoughby, but “[s]he only wished that it were less openly shewn” (54). In this distinction, there is still a private part of the self that cannot be touched by the pressures of social life.

In her book Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self, Patricia Meyer Spacks observes that “internalized rules of decorum” are Elinor’s way of both maintaining propriety and protecting her privacy (88). In fact, this sense of “internalized” rules can be compared to “natural” effortless taste—a polite person knows how to make difficult social interactions appear easy. However, Spacks notes that the personal cost of courtesy is a “suppression” of the self (113). This situation can actually be found in the scene from Northanger Abbey. When Catherine adopts Henry’s principles of landscape, she begins “to see beauty in everything admired by him” (NA 125). It is as if she conforms herself to another person’s perception, like her own sense of sight is replaced by his. To be earn the label of “natural taste,” Catherine seemingly has to suppress her own ideas of beauty and adopt someone else’s—this seems to go against Hume’s own philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of using one’s own experience and senses to come to a conclusion.

Of course, Catherine takes Henry’s artistic principles to absurd levels, “reject[ing] the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape” (125). However, this satirical moment also reveals Henry’s own folly, as he is “delighted” by her rejection of Bath, not long after the narrator ironically observes that “imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms” (125). Catherine’s eagerness to learn from Henry is apparently rewarded by his romantic interest in her. But is it imbecility that she displays, or is it the ability to understand someone else’s perspective? One could also compare Catherine’s persuadable nature to sociable qualities like agreeability and sympathy—as Spacks points out, the difference between sociability and personal repression is often unclear. This comical scene shows that, in fact, there can be a social advantage to a “subjection of understanding,” especially in courtship. In spite of her small dowry, Catherine is able to gain a marriage proposal by the end of the novel. This social mobility is something she has in common with the Dashwood sisters; it is not an accident that all of these characters struggle with expressing their personal autonomy around other people.

Even Elinor, whose sense of judgment tends to be the strongest, cannot help being affected by her circumstances. It is actually a bit inaccurate for her to say at the beginning of the novel that Edward’s judgment “in general direct[s] him perfectly right,” as it is soon revealed that he has hidden his engagement throughout his romance with Elinor. The first obvious sign of Edward’s carelessness is his ring with a lock of hair belonging to Lucy, his fiancée. Upon seeing it, Elinor is rightfully confused at the identity of the hair, since it “must have been procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself”—that is, if she is to believe that Edward’s affection toward herself is real. In spite of how strange and absurd it would be for Edward to steal her hair, she manages to convince herself into believing this premise: “she internally resolved henceforward to catch every opportunity of eyeing the hair and of satisfying herself, beyond all doubt, that it was exactly the shade of her own” (96). In this scene, Elinor’s typically sound judgment fails to lead her to the truth, perhaps because it is easier and less painful to believe that an advantageous marriage is on the horizon. Again, it appears that one’s judgment is shaped by social necessity. By the end of the novel, Elinor acknowledges that Edward’s “behaviour was certainly very wrong,” but she marries him anyway (342).

Hume’s essay attempts to resolve the problems of taste, but Austen’s own works lays bare the many complications of judgment when it is actually practiced in social life. As a result, we learn that we should be skeptical “natural taste”; its natural appearance makes us forget that it is actually a carefully cultivated skill that often requires personal sacrifices and can sometimes even fail us. Even Catherine’s own mentor in art appreciation fails at properly exercising judgment—Henry Tilney proves to be “under the influence of prejudice” (Hume 147) when he admonishes Catherine for her accusation against the General, insisting to “[r]emember that we are English” (195). His biased understanding of both his father and his country blurs his view of the world, and we wonder if “the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing” can sometimes fail to see the world as it really is.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Broadview Press, 2004.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Penguin Classics, 2014.
  • Hume, David. “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion.” Selected Essays. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • _____. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Selected Essays. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
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