I had planned to take a break from this topic, but then a recent article inspired me to press on, and not in the direction I had planned. Instead of delving into Mansfield Park, as predicted in my last post, I’m turning my attention to Northanger Abbey. It is one of only two Austen novels that open with a description of the heroine (the other is Emma). Most do not provide physical descriptions of the heroine until her character is very well-established, several chapter into the book. Her tendency to withhold such vital information is, perhaps, her most radical means of attacking the prevailing reliance of novelists on physiognomy (the practice of determining a person’s personality through examination of their physical form). Look at it in the context of contemporary literary conventions. Conveniently, the three novels Austen references in Northanger’s defense of the novel (Vol. 1, ch. 5) are perfect examples. Cecilia, Camilla (both by Frances Burney), and Belinda (Maria Edgeworth) all provide precise physical descriptions of the heroines within a few sentences of each book’s opening. This encourages readers to utilize physiognomical assumptions to create sympathy and admiration for the novel’s heroine. By denying her readers such information, Austen forces them to judge her heroines based upon their actions.
But not in Northanger Abbey. In this, her first full-length novel, Austen is not so subtle in her rejection of the literary devices regularly employed by her fellow novelists, including physiognomical assumptions. She declares her intentions in the opening line of the novel, and the entire first chapter is devoted to describing Catherine’s physical and mental development from a scraggily “tomboy” (perhaps the first description of one, a good half century before Loiusa May Alcott and Victor Hugo created Jo March and Eponine Thernadier) into “a young lady [who] is to be a heroine.” Here is the first paragraph of the book in its entirety:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features — so much for her person; — and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief — at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. — Such were her propensities — her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition;” and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid, — by no means; she learnt the fable of “The Hare and many Friends,” as quickly as any girl in England. Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; — and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another. — Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange, unaccountable character! — for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
The genius of Austen is that she not only establishes Catherine in contrast to every expected heroic quality, but that we find her utterly charming, regardless. The length of her description is also innovative. Unlike the few words deemed sufficient to develop the characters of the heroines in those famous novels mentioned above, Austen gives us an in-depth account of a fully materialized Catherine. Many have conjectured that the description is somewhat autobiographical, pointing out similarities to what we know of Austen’s childhood. If so, it is perhaps her fondness for herself as a child that comes through in the text, enveloping her readers in a cozy, memory-laden fog of their own lost youths.
I began my last post by asking you to imagine you knew nothing of Pride and Prejudice and lamented my own difficulty in recalling my first impressions of Austen. Ironically, the only one of her novels I can clearly remember reading the first time is Northanger Abbey. It was my first Austen novel, and I bought it in a train station along the Northeast Corridor when I was eleven or twelve years old. I didn’t have much time and picked the book up randomly, opening to the first page and scanning it quickly to see if I would like it. I don’t think I had ever even heard of Jane Austen before. I read it quickly, without much reflection, but I completely sympathized with Catherine and adored Henry Tilney. His introduction is more propitious than his lady’s, but Austen’s succinct description continues to defy the literary conventions of the time: “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; — his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck.” The contemporary physiognomers could rest assured that here was no Signor Montoni, from The Mysteries of Udolpho, destined to make Catherine’s life a misery. Nor is he a vapid Valencourt, destined to bore you to death, as his conversation instantly proves. Austen manages to give us one of her most delightful heroes without relying on any of the prevailing tropes, just as she defies convention in the creation of Catherine. That opening line of the book, while it might seem cute and humorous to the modern audience, had to be shocking to Austen’s contemporaries. A perfectly normal girl elevated to the position of heroine … it shouldn’t have been a revolutionary notion, but it was. It is yet another of the endless examples I continue to discover of Austen’s literary prescience. I never cease to be awed by how groundbreaking her writing is, so often providing the foundation of what became entire genres of literature, from detective stories to 20th century experimentalism. It’s a subject I wrote about in an article for Pride & Possibilities a few years back, and I won’t reiterate that argument now. Honestly, I barely had time to write this post. It would have been far easier to throw together an ode to summer vacation as I had planned (today is FINALLY my daughter’s last day of school), but circumstances required I come to my muse’s defense.