After reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, one of her posthumously published novels, I began thinking about the difference between her finished and unfinished novels. One can really tell what Jane Austen felt was the adequate standard for a book of hers to be published.
Her criteria for publication can be identified in the space between the quality of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and her other posthumously published novels, and Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma, all of which Austen finished in her lifetime.
Jane Austen consciously and simultaneously uses, undermines, and bolsters the conventions of the gothic genre in Northanger Abbey. To witness how Austen interacts with gothic conventions one does not have to look further than the opening of the novel at the sequence in which the novel’s heroine is introduced to the reader.
The narrator barely stops short of mocking Catherine Morland for all the ways she falls short of readers’ expectations of a gothic protagonist. “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (3) Her parents do not abuse her; her mother did not die bringing her or her siblings into the world and she is generally unremarkable. (3) In this passage the narrator is in conversation with gothic conventions because they are presenting Catherine in the context of and in contrast with gothic heroines.
Austen’s occasional condemnation of Catherine’s naïve obsession with gothic literature is complicated by the fact that the novels do provide Catherine with a framework through which to see the world which is ultimately useful. Butler writes in her essay ‘The Juvenilia and Northanger Abbey’ that “the over-all strategy of the novel...is concerned first to reveal the character of the heroine, second to contrast the minds of her two sets of friends, the Thorpes and the Tilneys.” (6)
Sadaka’s interpretation of the cathedral is that “the cathedral spire inspires and bears witness to Catherine’s transition to a new stage of life and state of mind.” (408) Sadaka writes that Catherine’s expulsion from the abbey is representative of her expulsion from gothic sensationalism to realism. (408)
In this sense, Austen’s use of gothic conventions is as a framework through which to tell a story of growth and character because Catherine is, by the end of the novel, a capable and experienced young woman.
Catherine’s reading gothic literature and talking about it with the other characters is a tool with which Austen exposes the character flaws in each person. Austen singles out this aspect of gothic novels: the presentation of human nature in heightened states to present her analysis of humanity to the reader.
Northanger Abbey is, therefore, a complex exploration of a convoluted reality, gothic novels were sometimes misleading, and often useful.
Another of Austen’s posthumously published novels is Persuasion. In terms of plot, the novel is closer to Pride and Prejudice than Northanger Abbey though it also exhibits the romantic and moral framework which both those novels are concerned with. The difficulty and unavoidable importance of the decisions young women necessarily have to make; who to trust, who to marry, and in whom to place their romantic and platonic hopes.
The heroine, Anne Elliot, was swayed away from her former fiance Frederick Wentworth by her family friends' concerns about his suitability and she broke off the engagement. Despite these concerns, Frederick became a successful sailor and became Captain Wentworth.
After eight years of separation and mutual suffering, Anne and Captain Wentworth are reunited and after many uncomfortable passages of forced and unwanted socialising, the two admit their enduring feelings for each other in a vivid and stunningly suspenseful penultimate scene and are engaged again, and married.
The passage during which Anne and Frederick finally reveal their love for each other is the only passage in ‘Persuasion’ which I found to be as perfected as the entirety of Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, the plot of Northanger Abbey, when compared to Pride and Prejudice, falls very short in terms of the development of characters, the unfolding of the plot, and the general satisfaction of Austen’s constant linguistic perfection.
Edited by Vicky Muzio
Image 'Portrett av Jane Austen, teikning av søstera Cassandra.' by Marie Nedre-gotten Sorbo licensed by PDM 1.0 Deed.
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