Some of the major historical events shaping Europe and England during Jane Austen's lifetime (1775-1817): Conventions of ritual -- social, religious, political
Biography of Jane Austen
Much of the primary material about Jane Austen was destroyed by her family, especially a large portion of her letters to Cassandra,
her only sister in whom she supposedly confided everything.
Her family, as Henry Austen's memoir suggests, was the most important thing to Jane Austen.
Her father George Austen was a minister and teacher, who died in 1805; her mother Cassandra survived Jane Austen.
They had eight children: (Rev.) James (1765-1819), George (invalid, 1766-1838), Edward (Knight after 1812) - 1767-1852,
(Rev.) Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Cassandra (1773-1845), (Admiral Sir) Francis William 1774-1865, Jane 1775-1817, (Admiral) Charles 1779-1852.
We have various accounts of Jane Austen the person (See Henry Austen's account of the Author pp. 190-7). What discrepancies do you find? What picture of Jane Austen the person emerges?
What about Jane Austen the author?
What does Henry Austen's account tell us about Jane? What does it tell us about Henry? What does it leave out?
Discuss: “A life of usefulness, literature, and religion, was not by any means a life of event” (191). What does Henry mean by “event”?
How is Austen’s life devoid of “event”?
Evaluate his description of her “personal attractions” on p. 192.
What do we know about Jane's attitude toward her art? How do you understand the comment on “manly, vigorous sketches” vs.
her “little bit of ivory, two inches wide” (195).
We will resume class discussion on Northanger Abbey in Week 3.
To establish another critical context, please read the brief introduction to the Norton edition (or whatever edition you are reading).
I also recommend reading the 1821 review by Richard Whatley (in NCE pp 248-253) and the Biographical Notice, written by Henry Austen,
and prefacing the original publication of Northanger Abbey with Persuasion in 1818. It can be found in the Norton edition pages 190-196.
In keeping with our focus on narrative form, structure and style, the first of the three scholarly themes for current research, we will
look into the complex publication history of NA (xii-xiv in Norton). There is debate over the extent to which Austen edited this novel
during her lifetime. Some scholars see this as clearly on the formal continuum with her parodic juvenilia, such as Love and Freindship.
Others make a case for stylistic cues from mature Austen writing. There is evidence that she revised some in 1803, 1805, and perhaps 1816.
How does the publication history of this work affect its meaning?
A key element in the critical debate is the role of free indirect discourse. Given the important role this formal term plays in Austen
criticism, we should attend to it from the start. The digital project Austen Said
from University of Nebraska Lincoln offers a useful
explanation of the narrative practice as well as Austen's role in the history of free indirect discourse:
Coding direct speech can tell us a lot about Austen's technique. However, much of the novels are rendered in indirect
speech and free indirect discourse [FID]. In FID, the narrator renders not merely the point of view of a given
character (focalization) but gives the flavor of a character's speech or thought. In the most direct form of FID,
the narrator ventriloquizes for the character; in other words, the reader senses that by changing third person pronouns
to first person ones, one would have a rendering of the character's direct speech or thought. For instance,
when Colonel Brandon first calls on Elinor and Marianne in London, Elinor's question to him in FID can readily
be turned into direct dialogue: ". . . she asked if he had been in London ever since she had seen him last" becomes
(inferentially) "she asked," 'if you have been in London ever since I saw you last.'"
Is there evidence of FID in Northanger Abbey? If so, how is it being used? In particular, pay attention to the depiction
of General Tilney.
Outside of direct dialogue, free indirect discourse is the most common, economical, and sophisticated way novels
(and other texts) relay information about thoughts and speech. For instance, early in Pride and Prejudice we
learn what Mr. Bingley thought of the Meryton assembly at which he meets the Bennet family: "Bingley had never met
with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; every body had been most kind and attentive to him, there
had been no formality, no stiffness, he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could
not conceive an angel more beautiful" (Ch. 4). The narrator is speaking, but the language is really Bingley's,
including his use of cliches and hyperbole (e.g., "an angel more beautiful"). One cannot account for diction in
Austen's novels without paying attention to indirect speech, especially FID. Bingley needs to have credit for saying
"an angel more beautiful," not merely because it is his language but also because it is plainly not the language the
narrator would choose for herself. Because FID always blends the speech of the narrator with that of a character,
it creates opportunities for tremendous narrative flexibility, as narrators can vary how closely they mimic the language
of their characters, and can make ironic points at the character’s expense even as they seem to let their characters
speak or think for themselves. FID's use in the eighteenth-century novel (British, German, French, etc.) was rudimentary - one
finds some employment of FID in Goethe, for instance, and in Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, but no sustained or
complex use. As many scholars have noted, it took Jane Austen, writing six novels between 1811 and 1817, to discover
and exploit the full potential of FID, including FID's capacity to display complex ironies. Austen's discovery
of what FID could do was comparable in the history of the novel to the discovery of the atomic bomb in the history of
warfare; thereafter, things were never the same, and FID became a basic feature of the novel as genre.
Austen Said, Background
Gothic and sentimental novels
How do we know that Catherine is not a sentimental heroine? Why is this important?
According to Whatley's review, what sort of critical climate existed for novels when Austen began writing? In chapter five, the narrator
launches a dramatic defense of novels. How seriously are we to take this? What are the implications for novels? For women authors? For
women readers? For Austen herself?
What type of reader is Catherine Moreland? How does she compare with Isabella? With Henry and Eleanor Tilney? Pay particular attention to
chapter 14, the Beechen Cliff episode. Why is reading important? What does it reveal about character? Does Catherine change as a reader over
the course of the novel?
Gothic novels were immensely popular in the 1790s when this narrative was first drafted. The decade also witnessed the terrors of the French
Revolution and the beginning of an extended war between France and England. According to the Marquis de Sade, "For anyone familiar
with the full range of misfortunes wherewith evildoers can beset mankind, the novel became as difficult to write as monotonous to read.
There was not a man alive who had not experienced in the short span of four or five years more misfortunes than the most celebrated
novelist could portray in a century" (from "Reflections on the Novel  in 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, ed.
and trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (New york: Grove, 1966) page 109.
What characterizes a Gothic novel? How does the plot of Northanger Abbey challenge the Gothic genre? Pay particular attention to Henry's lecture
to Catherine at the abbey at the end of Vol II Chapter 9 or chapter 24. Compare this with change of course in Vol II chapter 13 or chapter 28.
According to Austen's novel, what is the real source of danger for young, innocent heroines like Catherine?
Irony and narrative intrusion
Note throughout when the narrator uses the first person or directly addresses the reader. See for example the opening lines. Compare these with
the narrator's description of Catherine's return to Fullerton in chapter 29 or Volume II chapter 14. What is the effect of this narrative
Evaluate your affective response to the narration. Did you trust the narrator? Were you amused by the narrator? Did the narrator surprise or dupe
you? Did you feel in league with the narrator at different times of the novel?
How does Austen create irony in this narrative? (If you are not sure what irony is, please look for an acceptable working definition to answer
Does the plot operate on an ironic level? If so, how, and what is the effect?
Do characters deploy irony? Does the narrative use irony to tell the story? What kind?
Evaluate the closing lines of the novel. Is the tendency of this work, as she writes, to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial
disobedience? Are there other options?
General questions to pursue through the term
Evaluate the heroine. How closely does the narration follow the heroine? What effect does this have?
Evaluate the romantic male characters. How effective / important is the characterization of the male lead(s)?
Evaluate marriage as represented in the novel.
Is this a good novel? How do you know?
Back to Top of Page