Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen’s Defense of Novels

The Better World 2017 Reading Challenge is even more fun than I expected.

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey from an edition published in 1833.

On January 18th I blogged about the challenge here, and then I promptly got down to business.  First I chose and finished Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Scroll down to the bottom of last Wednesday’s post to hear my thoughts about that one. Next I decided I wanted to read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, as my “book over 100 years old.”

I’ll confess I came to Jane Austen late. I wasn’t a literature major in college, in fact I only took one American Literature class to fulfill an American Studies requirement. In the intervening years I’ve read several, beginning with Pride and Prejudice, and eagerly watched most of the PBS specials and the movies made from her work. But I was unfamiliar with this novel and wanted to remedy that.

Right now I’m slogging. My characters still haven’t made their way to Northanger Abbey, itself, but I am praying these good folks leave Bath and immerse them in something more fun than Upper and Lower Rooms and rides in an open carriage. I’m assuming they will move on at some point? I do know enough to realize this is a satire on gothic novels, which was probably much funnier in its day, when all the references were well known to readers. I also know that was Austen’s first novel to be completed for publication, but then held and not published until after her death.

I’m thrilled this wasn’t the first Austen I read, or there might not have been others. (Of course I can also say this about Mansfield Park.) But whether I love this novel or not,  I recognize Austen’s genius. And I particularly recognize it in the following excerpt about women and novels.

In this excerpt Catherine–pictured above from Wikipedia–and her new friend Isabella are reading novels together. Austen leaves them to happily read while she proclaims her right, even her duty, to have her characters do just that and then lectures the reader about novelists who don’t allow female characters to read novels inside their stories because, as reviewers make sure to point out time and time again–and still do–novels are trash and not to be recommended.

But I’ll let Jane Austen say this better. The excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey. (I have divided it into paragraphs in a way my copy did not.)

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.

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. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

“I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work 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.

Well, does this sound familiar? Are we surprised that a trend that still flourishes was alive and well in 1803? Do we feel a keen sense of sisterhood with the author who felt she had to directly address her reader and point out how absurd it is to ban characters in a novel from reading novels because reviewers and others only value dry, academic tomes?

Did you miss this description and vindication of a novel? Here it is again:  “. . . only some work 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.”

You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? Aren’t you delighted that in the early 19th century, no less a person and novelist than Jane Austen, sprang to your defense and made it clear to anyone paying attention, that your desire to read novels says only the best about you.

When I’ve finished this category of the Better World Challenge, Northanger Abbey will have been worth my time for this passage. This is one bonus of reading and finishing books outside our comfort zone.

I hope you’ll join me in one of the two challenges. Remember, you can comment on any blog and let me know if you’re going to join this challenge, or the 50 books in 2017 challenge. Then comment from time to time on how you’re doing. We’ll have a drawing at the end of the year from everyone who participated to win one of five autographed novels.

But alas, the novels (“in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed”) will be mine, not Jane’s.


  1. Kate on February 1, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    I am always surprised by people who brag that they only read nonfiction. They are missing so much of the world.
    My understanding of other times and other cultures has been enriched by reading novels.
    Not Jane Austen, but today I read: “She wore a lemon-yellow dress that, over her full, round body, made her look like an oversized Peep.”
    Only in a novel can an author paint me that kind of picture.

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