By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Novels were increasingly earning a bad reputation in the 18th century. Gothic novels that abound in the supernatural and the sexual were a matter of concern for the parents and the critics alike. With Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen attempted to redeem the genre by advocating a defense of novels.
The Impact of Gothic Novels
Northanger Abbey is a comic send-up of the suspense-filled works of Gothic fiction in vogue in the politically volatile 1790s. People flocked to implausible, frightening, supernatural stories at a time of daily fear and political suspense, thanks to the wars across Europe. Gothic novels became bestsellers. Some were quite good, but many, jumping on the bandwagon, were terrible.
Most of the Gothic novels of the time abound in supernatural events, visits by the dead and the devils, and sexual relationships. The racier Gothic novels gave the genre as a whole a bad name. The fashion for them among the younger generation was seen as worrisome and damaging. The heroine of Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland’s inability to tear herself away from a Gothic novel is exactly what some adults feared would happen to the young if they were given free rein to read whatever they might like.
The critics tended to look down their noses at Gothic novels as inferior literature, describing them as harmful and addictive. Gothic romances were said to be trashy books beloved by foolish girls.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Northanger Abbey and Its Literary Stance
Northanger Abbey actually makes light of both sides of the conflict. The novel’s narrator lightly ridicules trendy, addicted readers. It heavily criticizes the snobbish, fear-mongering critics. The novel also overturns the notion that these are women’s books. Smart hero Henry tells Catherine that men enjoy a good novel, too, even a good Radcliffe novel.
That’s why Northanger Abbey must be described as a novel that defends novels. It makes fun of Catherine’s inability to put down Mysteries of Udolpho, yes, but it advocates for the value of reading fiction. It asks us to think about how, why, and what we read. Mistaking novels for real life is a problem, as Catherine’s example shows. But the story also shows that there are good reasons to read novels and good outcomes from them, too.
A Chapter of the Defense of Novels?
Austen’s position on novels is made clear in chapter five of Northanger Abbey, often called the “defense of novels” section. This begins after a description of Catherine and Isabella reading novels together. The narrator’s voice breaks in, in an aside to the reader, to stand up for the two characters’ reading material.
“Yes, novels,” the defense begins, with a sort of declarative exasperation. The narrator refuses to criticize Catherine for her love of reading Ann Radcliffe. The narrator—referred to by convention as a “she”—even criticizes other novelists who create heroines who refuse to read novels.
As the narrator says, “Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.” If novels are called trash, even in the pages of other novels, and in the minds of their most admirable characters, then that’s not just hypocritical, it’s bad for the genre’s reputation and survival.
The narrator defends novels as works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”.
The Best Novels According to Jane Austen
The best novels are also advocated for over abridgments and snippets and unoriginal productions. They’re approved of over famous collections of essays with improbable circumstances and unnatural characters. The best novels don’t introduce topics of conversation that no longer concern anyone living.
The novels, the narrator says, that ought to be the most valued are those with probable circumstances, natural characters, and conversations that readers still care about. Some Gothic romances did that, but there were also excellent novels of manners with those features. The narrator mentions the titles of three of them: Cecilia, Camilla, and Belinda.
Helping the Genre
The first two titles, Cecilia and Camilla, are books by Frances Burney. Belinda is by Maria Edgeworth. They were famous novelists. Austen admired them. But neither Burney nor Edgeworth was willing to call her works of fiction a novel. Burney called one of hers a work. Edgeworth referred to Belinda as a moral tale, not wishing to acknowledge having written a novel.
So Austen is not only praising but also gently chiding both of these authors for refusing to use the label of novel. Austen’s narrator is implying that the least they can do is to call their works of prose fiction novels, in order to help the entire genre rise. The tendency of Austen’s work is to ask readers to consider which ideas about fiction, and about the world, we’ve been admitting.
Northanger Abbey encourages us to consult our own sense of the social value of the probable in literature. It is a remarkable novel because it tries to prompt readers to investigate what we’re looking for in a heroine and a plot, as well as to face head-on the positive value of reading fiction.
Common Questions on Jane Austen’s Defense of Novels as Seen in Northanger Abbey
The gothic novels of the 18th century dealt with the implausible and the supernatural; most of them were ridiculously terrible. Parents feared their children getting addicted to such harmful pieces of literature. The critics considered Gothic romances to be trashy books beloved by foolish girls. With Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen tried to reverse the effect of novels.
Jane Austen said that novels that ought to be the most valued are those with probable circumstances, natural characters, and conversations that readers still care about.
Northanger Abbey is a novel that defends novels. It advocates for the value of reading fiction. It asks us to think about how, why, and what we read. Mistaking novels for real life is a problem, as Catherine’s example shows. But the story also shows that there are good reasons to read novels and good outcomes from it, too.