“Only Genius, Wit, and Taste to Recommend Them”: Metafiction and Feminine Literary Pursuits in Northanger Abbey and Atonement
Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is an Austen heroine who distinguishes herself from her counterparts with her immersion into the world of the Gothic novel, and has much to learn about the characters of her own life. The novel is sprinkled with conversations about reading between Catherine Morland and acquaintances that consider her to be naïve, gullible, and even insipid, a view that juxtaposes the narrator’s favorable opinion of novel reading. This begs the question of what Austen was trying to accomplish with the image of Catherine Morland as a reader, and how this can be understood from her storytelling techniques. Northanger Abbey is more than a mere observation of literary tradition, but a deep consideration of the literary opinion that draws attention to a gendered attitude that distinguishes between the high and low taste reader. Austen wrote Northanger Abbey as a work of metafiction in order to utilize the reading habits of Catherine Morland as a showcase of the unwarranted labeling and stigmatization of feminine literary pursuits, a method and characterization that later informed a similar conversation about the achievements of fiction and literary history in Ian McEwan’s 21st century novel Atonement.
Reading serves as an important function for all of Austen’s heroines. Describing the reading habits of her characters was a “means for her as an author to suggest character, social attitudes and status, interiority and emotion, power relationships and political affiliation” (Knights 35). The act of reading was also a catalyst of socialization for these heroines, meaning that “Books are, therefore, agents as well as the various character’s instruments” (20). By detailing the reading habits and preferred books of a particular character, Austen was able to provide her readers with a sense of that character’s internal motivations and social positioning.
Furthermore, Austen was writing about the act of reading during a time period that can be considered a crossroads of literary history. In the Regency Era, reading and publishing had become “capitalistic ventures” and a greater variety of genres became available to more people as “publishers’ innovations commercialized literary culture for diverse readers” (Benedict 1-2). This segmentation of the market enabled the novel to become a form that was written by women, for women, establishing “the gendering as feminine of novels, romances, and some lyric poems” (Pearson 19). It was also regarded as a form with low cultural capital, as “novels especially tended to be ephemeral at best, at worst immoral” (14). As the novel grew more popular, literary discourse developed “a desire to preserve male hegemony over a print culture in which female writers and readers were becoming increasingly central” (19). The novel, despite its popularity, was regarded as an intrinsically feminine literary form that was only appropriate when providing moral lessons and light entertainment for accomplished ladies.
While this literary environment provides crucial context for all of Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey is where she most purposefully explores it as a social phenomenon. This is marked by the fact that Northanger Abbey is metafiction, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a work of fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and narrative techniques” (“metafiction, n.”). Metafiction can also be described as a work that “tends to display rather than to hide the inherent contradiction in the writer’s attempt to persuade of us of both the particularity and the universality of the characters and events described” (Finney 77). This can be accomplished through employing a self-aware narrator, utilizing a fictional narrative to make an argument about conventions of genre, and using fiction as a plot device within a fictional work. Furthermore, metafiction is often employed to demand some form of social change. Metafiction is a powerful tool when making statements about the act of reading in society because “once a text establishes its interdependence on other texts, its signification proliferates” and it is not “a mode of fiction that ignores its own status as discourse” (73). Examples of metafictional tools used in Northanger Abbey include a self-conscious narrator, parody and examination of the Gothic genre, fiction created within the minds of the characters, and discursive statements about the ideal reader. Austen cleverly employs metafiction to address the feminization, and therefore degradation, of novels.
Northanger Abbey reveals its metafictional, and ironic, endeavors in its opening line, “No one who had ever seen her in her infancy would have supposed Catherine Morland had been born to be an heroine” (Austen 5). It goes on to describe Catherine’s upbringing, with a father who “was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters” and little interest in “the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose bush” (5). This informs the reader that Northanger Abbey is an unconventional novel that makes no attempt to convey the standard ideal of a pure but victimized heroine. Because of the genre that these traditions belong to, this information also establishes that Northanger Abbey will act as a parody of the Gothic novel, which had become one England’s most popular types of novels in the latter half of the 18th century (“The Gothic”). It is a genre that “came to designate the macabre, mysterious, fantastic, supernatural, and again, the terrifying, especially the pleasurably terrifying, into literature more generally,” and was characterized by a variety of horror tropes, such as “secret passageways, screams, moans, bloody hands” (“The Gothic”). It was also a genre known for its sexually subversive messages, with themes of “cruelty, terror, and eroticism” manifested through “seduction, incestuous rape, matricide and other murders, and diabolism” (“The Gothic”). This pervading sense of immorality, coupled with the fact that it was a genre dominated by female authors such as Anne Radcliffe, made Gothic novels become considered a low-taste genre. Austen continues to play with Gothic tropes throughout Catherine’s visit to the Abbey. This opening introduction of Catherine Morland set up and sufficiently informed Austen’s original readers, familiar with the Gothic conventions, that she will self-consciously and ironically challenge these ideas and their associated femininity in this novel.
This is further established by Catherine’s own relationship with novel reading, particularly of Gothic novels. In spite of the parody of the Gothic novel, it serves as a symbol of Catherine’s independence. Catherine has little guidance from her mother, growing up in a family in which “elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves” (Austen 7). She also received limited instruction from Mrs. Allen while in Bath. This means that for Catherine, the novel is “the only means by which she comes to know herself and understand her world and the motives of those within it” (Wyett 268). A love of the novel is purposefully used to show Catherine’s attempts to develop a sense of self. Austen saw this as a necessary social function, for books “particularly represented female self-education” but also “exposes the gender bias of literary culture” (Benedict 3). However, while Catherine memorizes the lines from the male authors she is told to read, she finds more personal fulfillment in the women’s world of the Gothic novel (Austen 7). Austen draws upon the repertoire of the heroine’s reading to show from the beginning of Northanger Abbey how it is the patriarchal spirit of Regency society, rather than the Gothic novel, that is to blame for Catherine’s inability to discern the true intentions of the people around her.
This is best revealed through the development of Catherine’s relationship with Henry Tilney. Conversations about novels became a key ritual in Henry and Catherine’s courtship, for in Austen “to discuss books is to become intimate” (Knights 20). This is best demonstrated when Henry and Catherine go on their unchaperoned carriage ride, and he tells her a story of the Abbey that includes her favorite Gothic tropes (Austen 106-109). This moment serves as “a quasi (or textual) seduction” because “Henry’s pseudo-Gothic history places her totally in his power, much to his amusement” (Knights 26). Although Henry is not criticizing her taste in this moment, this story ironically enables Catherine’s imagination by providing a structure for the fiction she devises about General Tilney at the Abbey. However, Henry’s attempts to charm Catherine fall away when she tells him of her fears, and he takes on the role of the male mentor and ideal reader as he tells Catherine, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember we are English, that we are Christians . . . consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you” (Austen 136). While Henry is not attempting to force any particular morality upon Catherine, this lecture does serve as “a reminder to consider novels in their broader context, not to forgo reading them at all” (Wyett 271). Henry does not condemn Catherine’s novel reading, but encourages her to do it in as productive a manner as possible. The marriage of Catherine to Henry, a less imaginative male reader of novels, represents the creation of a discerning reader through the intersection of a gendered binary.
Furthermore, while it is true that Catherine’s lack of discernment contributed to her imaginings of a Gothic horror occurring at Northanger Abbey, it is also important to note that other characters for their poor reading also create fictions with harmful implications. Isabella Thorpe introduces Catherine to the Gothic novel in order to establish a friendship with her and position her brother Johnathan as Catherine’s storied hero. However, her knowledge is potentially just second-hand from her friend Miss Andrews, and is as false as her manipulation of Catherine. She uses her supposed knowledge of novels to put herself in position of power over Catherine, such as refusing to give spoilers while reading The Mysteries of Udolpho (Austen 24). Even though Catherine has read many Gothic novels, the fiction that she creates is less harmful in the long term and she maintains the moral high ground over Isabella Thorpe. This dynamic demonstrates that “young female readers are not uniform blanks upon which upon the novel will inscribe scandal and folly; they are diverse in their intelligence and sensitivity” (Knights 23). Austen argues that a woman’s morality and the reliability of her imagination is not actually related to whether she reads lurid, subversive, feminine novels.
Isabella’s brother John Thorpe’s bad reading is reflected in his pursuit of Catherine, when he says “I never read novels, I have something else to do” but then reveals his ignorance by confusing the plots of similar novels, misattributing the authorship of Anne Radcliffe, and finally concluding that the sentimental novel Camilla is “the horridest nonsense you can imagine” (Austen 31-32). John reads novels “only to confirm his own prejudices” (Benedict 5). His disgust for novels mirrors his indignation when he realizes that Catherine is not an heiress. Even the General, a severe man who reads only pamphlets, is positioned as the victim of Catherine’s fiction that paints him as a violent murderer; however, he blindly believes John Thorpe’s fiction about Catherine’s wealth, and reacts by sending her away from Northanger Abbey. Though Catherine is shamed and admonished for her imagination, the boorish John Thorpe and the cruel General receive little censure from the other characters in the novel. The dangers inflicted by fiction are not the result of Catherine’s imagination; it can be said that “she is humiliated and rejected because she is a victim of misrepresentation, not because she misrepresents” (Knights 25). This indicates that novels are not to blame for the shaming that Catherine receives, but that she is chastised simply for being a woman and reading a feminine genre.
The arguments about the validity of the novel can be best be summarized by the self-conscious narrator’s defense of novels. The narrator begins with a criticism of how novels are treated within novels, stating “that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances to which they themselves are adding” (Austen 22). She is also indignant that the heroines are never shown reading novels, and asks “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” (22). In this statement, Austen argues that the degradation of the novel is perpetuated within novels themselves. The language in this passage is also distinctly gendered, always referring to the reader as “Miss” and citing the examples of “Cecilia, Camilla, and Belinda” (22-23). Once again, Austen underscores the feminine association of novel-reading. She says that novels have “only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them” and that in them “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 humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” (22-23). Novels, therefore, do not deserve the harsh criticism that they receive in the public sphere. This passage serves not only to defend the novel, but to praise it. The novel does not merely provide the impressionable female reader with cheap thrills and sensational romance and horrors; on the contrary, Austen considers the novel to be a multi-faceted, abstruse, refined form of literature.
Over the span of centuries, public opinion became more closely aligned with Austen’s views of the novel, and the gender bias about novel reading became less polarizing. However, the dialogue that Austen begins in Northanger Abbey is echoed in Atonement, a novel written by Ian McEwan nearly 200 years later. McEwan has openly referred to Atonement as “my Jane Austen novel” and said that he was attempting to “devise a hero or heroine who could echo that process in Catherine Morland” (Giles; Noakes 20). These similarities are immediately made known with the novels epigraph, which is Henry’s famous “Dear Miss Morland” lecture (McEwan 1). This epigraph “serves as both a warning and a guide to how the reader should view this narrative,” meaning that the realist narrative voice should not be taken at face value (Finney 70). The discerning reader of Austen and McEwan will see that Atonement must concern itself with questions regarding the context in which we read literature. Another direct reference to Northanger Abbey is in the renaming of the central family’s home to “Tilney’s Hotel,” reestablishing a connection to the epigraph again at the end of the novel (McEwan 342). The similarities are further established in the heroine Briony Tallis, and the consequences of her imagined fiction, in which she accuses her sister’s lover of a rape that he did not commit. Northanger Abbey and Atonement both deal with the gruesome sensationalism seen in 18th century novels and similar concerns about the broader implications of fiction.
This reliance on Northanger Abbey to convey the themes of the novel is one reason why Atonement is also a work of metafiction. McEwan depends upon another work of fiction in order for his novel to convey an argument about the function of literature in society. There also several other instances of intertextual reliance throughout the novel, including several references to the modern novel, the forbidden genre of his pre-WWII British setting. One such example is when Robbie, the falsely accused, associates his torrid love affair with Briony’s sister with “a memory of reading the Orioli edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover” (McEwan 87). This intertextuality “acts as a continuous reminder that the entire book is the final literary artifact of Briony, a professional author” (Finney 74). By naming the novels with which his characters would be intimately familiar, McEwan is using their reading experience to make a point to his own readers about fiction, just as Austen does by naming specific Gothic and Sentimental novels in Northanger Abbey.
Atonement is also a novel that is aware of its own fictionality. While Briony serves as a reflection of Catherine Morland, she also becomes the self-aware, third-person narrator of the story, only to reveal at the end of Atonement that she is an author recounting this story in her own novel (McEwan 349). In these final pages, Briony is able to explain her own process of creating fiction, including her false accusations, in “a contemporary voice, one that is acutely self-conscious and aware of its own act of narration” (Finney 74). Briony’s tribute to Catherine Morland, her conception of and dependence on fiction, and the creation of a novel within the novel can all be classified as metafictional techniques. Atonement borrows from Northanger Abbey in order to clearly correlate the themes and story elements of the two novels.
Furthermore, Northanger Abbey and Atonement make similar statements about feminine literary enterprise. One way is through the use of Briony as the narrator and central figure in the narrative. McEwan demands that readers accept the authority of Briony’s authorship to commit to the story. It is “a male-authored novel written in the voice of a woman writer” that attempts to answer looming questions about what the novel has inherited and how to responsibly use fiction, thereby granting women writers a level of respect and prestige (Wells 108). McEwan further validates the literary pursuit of women writers by citing Austen herself as his inspiration. Since Austen is a female author with a pop culture following rooted in a romanticized view of tradition and marriage, it can be argued that “McEwan rescues Austen from the all-too common assumption that she is merely a writer of light comedies from a feminine perspective and restores her, in the popular imagination, to her position as a central author of the English literary canon” (Well 108). It has also been postulated that McEwan himself may one day be held in a similar respect as Austen, for providing moral insight in novels that appeal to both a popular and scholarly audience (Wells 109). In Atonement, McEwan both praises and androgenizes feminine literature by crossing gender divisions to demonstrate the literary authority of women writers.
In Northanger Abbey and Atonement, metafiction is used to create a discourse about the importance of the novel, the dangers of fiction, and the gender bias inherent to these issues. When Austen penned Northanger Abbey, to label a work of literature as “feminine” was to label it as sensationalized, vapid, sometimes immoral, and always inferior. She calls this gendered dynamic into question by examining the wit, or lack thereof, of both male and female readers and writers, and parodying the gender roles in Gothic novels. For Austen, gender distinctions in novel reading are, above all else, a societal stigma without a foundation in truth. In Northanger Abbey, Austen demands that these gender associations be taken more seriously. She accomplishes this through the realistic voice of the self-conscious narrator. For Austen, realism, the dominant tone of all her novels, is the way for the novel to finally be taken seriously; similarly, for McEwan, the novel must undergo a thorough examination of those works which came before now, especially of giants such as Austen, regardless of their gendered popular associations. Austen and McEwan both make powerful arguments for the value of novels written by women, for women, and about women, those works which have “only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them”.
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Noakes, Jonathan, and Margaret Reynolds. Ian McEwan: The Child in Time, Enduring Love, Atonement. London, Vintage, 2002.
Pearson, Jacqueline. Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1830: A Dangerous Recreation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
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