Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818): Biographical Notice & Chs.1-8

(above: an image from the new BBC version of Northanger Abbey airing on PBS February 14th--check local listings!)

1. The “Biographical Notice” that opens the work was written by Austen’s brother, Henry, after her death. Though this “preface” does not seek to fictionalize Austen’s work, it does present a “fictional” portrayal of Austen to cater to pubic taste and sensibility. How is Henry selling Austen in this Preface, and how might this influence how we read or interpret the work itself? Cite a specific passage or two to support your reading.

2. How does the narrator (as opposed to the author) introduce and describe Catherine’s formative years? Related to this, how would you describe the narrator’s tone? Consider a passage such as this one, “…from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives” (I.17).

3. Many critics (among them the editor, Marilyn Butler) have noted that Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels written by a reader to other readers. In this sense, it can almost be read as a “fan” work that is contributing to the very genre it emulates. Where do we see these “fan” elements and what role do they play in the work itself? Consider comments the narrator makes as well as conversations between the characters themselves.

4. How does Austen characterize the society of Bath throughout the early pages of the novel? What role does dialogue, in particular, play in drawing this portrait? Related to this, what do you feel is her purpose in bringing Catherine to the relatively closed society of Bath (a resort town—people went there for the exclusive society and the healing waters).


  1. #2. Austen introduces us to Catherine with "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." With this we are set with not only a heroine, but an unlikely one at that. Her formative years are described as her being very tomboyish, liking nothing more than to roll down the hill behind her house, and not being particularly good at anything, nor having any beauty of any sort. Austen make her sarcastic and ironic voice well know early in the novel when describing Catherine in her teen years, especially when describing what Catherine enjoys doing and what "a good women" needs to be interested in.

    #3. Cathrine is a young girl facinated by books, novels mostly. This is the start of Austen's successful attempt to show the theme of reading, and novels in general, as a very important aspect of Northanger Abbey. This is where we see the several "fan" elements within the novel. Cathrine has a love for gothic novels which colors her perception of the world itself. This gives her her over active imagination which interferes with her attepts to read people.

  2. Aaron
    #2 - I could be wrong but in describing Catherine's formative years Austen seems to show a transition from innocence to experience as Catherine goes from being tomboyish and like to roll in the dirt to a voracious reader describing it as "her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery; and she grew clean as she grew smart." And the tone of the narrator's tone, though sarcastic, ironic, some might even say comical, is elevated and has an air of one who is well read which seems to become something of importance in this work. Catherine loves to read, and sometimes the things she reads have an effect on how she percieves things.

    #4 - She describes Bath as a very lofty almost privelaged society and that is what Henry uses, or rather pokes fun of, in order to break the ice between Catherine and himself. In this particular scene, and I might be wrong, but it seems that Henry speaks more like the narrator by using his wit and sarcasm to make fun of the conventions of small talk. And it is only when their conversation ends that the narrator takes back that role of irony and sarcasm.

  3. Holly Fipps

    1. Jane’s brother makes references to her past works in an attempt to build fans for this work [Northanger Abbey], as well as mention her good nature. He tries to appeal to audiences by making them feel they have a stronger connection with the author herself. Henry builds up likeness for his sister’s personality as he claims it had been pleasing, but he also states, “It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek” (Henry 5) to ensure people won’t resent her for her supposed perfection he repeatedly alludes to.
    When the reader does read Henry’s preface, as well as the first several chapters of this novel, the preface becomes unknowingly manipulative. In chapter 1, on page 16, the heroine of the story, Catherine Morland, grows from having an awkward/dull appearance to being nearly pretty. This news subconsciously relates back to Henry’s insisting his sister beautiful as well but also modest. The reader likewise views Catherine as a humble, natural beauty. Catherine and Jane slowly being to equal one another in the reader’s subconscious.
    I wasn’t fully aware of this intended connection until I viewed question #1 posted by Dr. Grasso up above. The ending lines of chapter 2 say Catherine “went to her chair in good humour with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention” (Austen 24) are in response to the character hearing a couple of men say she is pretty. In contrast with Mrs. Allen, who is materialistic and vain while not a beauty, it emphasizes our heroine’s modesty and beauty as well as Jane’s herself.

    4. Based on Mrs. Allen’s constant, annoying complaining of how she wished she had acquaintances, the reader cannot help but conclude socializing is everything to the citizens of Bath. Balls, theater, and some structure where everyone who is anyone congregates to be seen, Catherine is continually having to listen to Mrs. Allen’s whining. It’s odd that while they are often in crowded areas, she never takes the time to introduce herself to new people. Even Catherine, who had been there for only a week, meets Tinley and forms a relationship with him. The conversation between Catherine and him enforces the notion that being seen in public regularly is crucial to thrive in society there. Tinley even specifically asks if she had been attending the public events previously mentioned.
    Mrs. Allen thus far appears to have been concerned for Catherine and her sheltered youth. But, the reader can’t help but question the woman’s true motives. It is possible that Mrs. Allen’s act of kindness was nothing more than an attempt to use Catherine as: a conversation starter at parties, someone to speak to as she continues to act as a somewhat recluse at balls and speaks to no one else, or maybe even as an odd source of entertainment, knowing men will start to flock to a young woman who is single and attractive.

  4. I read both prefaces and I was wondering if there was a huge shift in societal views within the short time Austen wrote the novel and when it was actually published like she insists on. Anyone know for certain? This could completely change her intended meaning from that of what her brother insinuates in his opening. Did he write a new preface to compensate for these changing view points?

  5. @Tyler:
    I think you hit it spot-on with what you said about the Austen ideal of showing the themes of reading and their impact on the female society. I also felt the same with the fact that what she was reading tended to color her opinions and shape her thoughts in the really real concrete world. Awesome job!

    First my friend.. just a note.. I noticed in your comments the tendency to say "I might be wrong" or "I could be wrong". Aaron.. we all feel that way and usually are often times wrong! So don't worry about qualifying your opinion.. you are entitled to it and I, for one, value the strength of your words and your opinions!
    I definitely agree again with the story showing that Catherine's readings tend to color and effect her perceptions and in my paper on the close reading, likewise put that the author speaks through her narrator and that narrator is usually in close with Henry's character. Awesome job!

    @ Holly
    What you said about the preface becoming unknowingly manipulative is an interesting thought. I guess the question I am now going to puzzle on, is if it was intentionally so (kind of like we found in Otranto). I giggled at the statement "Catherine is continually having to listen to Mrs Allen's whining" because I actually said that outloud when reading! Well I quoted Interview with the Vampire by saying "Louie, louie.. still whining??"
    I hadn't really given much thought to the possibility that Catherine might have been being used to further Mrs. Allen's status.
    Granted, in British lore it is not unusual for a child to be "fostered-out" for a time--it occurred very often in the really old lore.. but now that you mention it.. I can definitely see what you are saying!

    Y'all did a fabulous job on your insights here and gave me alot to chew on regarding my own opinions on it. Thanks bunches! :)