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Jane Austins Northanger Abbey, the earliest of Austen’s novels to be completed, and the one that refers overtly to its political context, is an ideal site for observing the competition of these schools. Almost everyone agrees that Northanger Abbey’s basic function is to educate the reader. Terry Castle provides a good summary of the “educational” or “dialectic” reading in her introduction to the novel. She describes Austen as using Northanger Abbey as “an instrument of enlightenment” in which we as readers observe Catherine Morland’s intellectual development and grow along with her. Catherine begins the novel as a defective reader of Gothic, and ends it as an accurate reader of something more important: human nature. Henry Tilney teaches her to read by indirection and irony; and Austen teaches us as well, by the same method, so “that we might indeed become, male and female alike, that ideal reader for whom she writes”—one who notes every detail and can interpret life correctly.
In the 1790s, certain religions were being revived in London. Methodism and the Church of England were reaching out more to the citizens and affecting more lives. Methodism was thought to be an integral part in the social evolution of the country. It had a stabilizing effect for those involved with the church, as well as a model for the political development of the working-class people. “The church believed in equal political, economic, and social rights for all people and it also had a strict, structural organization, which encouraged stability amongst its members.” (Sheppard, London: A History p.241.)
What critics disagree on, however, is just what Catherine (or the reader) is being educated to see. Each political school of Austen critics substitutes a different educational agenda. Traditional Janeite conservatism sees Austen as resisting the Romantic artistic impulses of her time, inventing realism as a means of inculcating good middle-class morality into land-owning gentry. Northanger’s parody of Gothic romantic excesses aligns quite neatly with such views. Feminist scholars read the novel against the grain, seeing its seemingly conservative deconstruction of Gothic as ironic (after all, Catherine is correct about General Tilney’s character, even if she detects the wrong crime). Other critical approaches are more complicated, and require more mental gymnastics on the part of the reader. Marilyn Butler, for example, argues for a sort of “conservative feminism” approach in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, pointing out that contemporary feminism was often rationalist and anti-Jacobin, and thus the invention of realism can be both feminist and Tory. Foucauldian critics see the novel’s politics as both complicated and sinister. Northanger Abbey exemplifies, perhaps unconsciously, the panopticism of the industrial capitalist society that was coming into being during its period—this is how Paul Morrison describes the novel’s embodiment of the “domestic carceral.” Thus Catherine is educated into being a good subject of the state without Austen intending it. Even more recent critics have given up on deciding whether or not the novel intends anything; such a hyper-postmodern approach notes both the possible conservative and subversive meanings of the novel, but contends that the ironies of the text are too numerous and too reversible to allow a reader to find any stable position.
While the churches had a soothing effect on the citizens of London, social and political reform increased concern, awareness, and uncertainty. The organization of the government in London contributed to the discontent of its citizens. The official City of London, which was only about one square mile, had the main banking center of the metropolis and a history of independent government established through two separate governing councils, something most sections of London decidedly lacked. Their setup was similar to Parliament, in that one council represented the wealthy, and the other represented more "ordinary" people, and was therefore more prone to agitate at any given time. In 1795, that lower council became fed up with the conflict with France and the unfavorable effect it was having on the merchants they represented. They directly charged the king to end the war and restore their prosperity. The motion failing, the City's council was more conservative afterwards. However, the notion that a part of London could challenge its sovereign must have given hope to many of its citizens.
Westminster's municipal government was far from inspiring, as judges rather than representatives ruled the borough. However, this area "enjoyed a very wide parliamentary franchise, open to all resident householders." (Stevenson- Introduction to London in the Age of Reform) That many people politicizing gave rise to a radical sentiment, and the election of multiple radical Members of Parliament. It was an ideal setting for further charges to reform.
Is it really necessary to give up on the possibility of extracting clear meaning from Northanger Abbey, reinforcing the myth of the politically naive Austen in an access of postmodern indeterminacy? On the contrary, the political meaning of the novel is admirably clear, although in its pessimism it may be no more palatable to contemporary readers than any previous suggestions. We can begin explicating this meaning from the very description of the novel’s structure that has led at least one critic to assert its indeterminacy. Margaret Kirkham argues, in Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, that the novel is “a test of the literary intelligence of the hero and heroine”; Catherine responds with “a childish confusion of life and art” while Henry “shows his superiority,” but in the end the author “shows that there is a further truth which neither of them has quite seen. This modifies and corrects the schema, but at risk of confusing readers” (90). Northanger Abbey does indeed educate the reader, both in literary and political issues. In achieving this education the ideal reader would surpass not only Catherine, but also Henry (whom many readers have regarded as Austen’s mouthpiece in the novel). But so far from being confusing, or a series of endless reversals of the type envisioned by Neill, the structure of the reader’s education is a simple progression. We move from one stage to the next, in sequence, and arrive at an admirably clear final lesson: that the world is full of tyranny, and that in order to survive emotionally in such a world it is necessary to learn to be ironic. This is not morality (morality, in this novel, is never learned, but is rather instinctive), but rather a prescription for survival in a politically dark world.
Stevenson, John. Introduction to London in the Age of Reform. ed. John Stevenson. (Richard Clay, 1959). xix.
Sheppard, Francis. London: A History. (Oxford University Press, 1998), 241.
Austen, Jane, and R. Brimley Johnson. Northanger Abby: A Novel. London: Chatto & Windus, 1908. Print.