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Irony and Political Education in Northange

Melissa Schaub (email: is a grad
University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she is about to comple
Victorian political novels. She delivered a paper on Mansfield P

Jane Austen’s politics have formed one of the most persistent

battlegrounds of modern criticism of her novels. The question of
whether her novels advocate conservative Toryism or a more
subversive position (feminism or broader Jacobinism) is one of the
main planes of cleavage along which one can divide Austen
scholarship. Northanger Abbey, as the earliest of Austen’s novels to be
completed and the one that refers most 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 (xxv). 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

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.

The verbs used by such critics reveal the difficulties of reconciling an

agentless view of literature with the urgent political agenda they
usually also espouse. Joseph Litvak concludes his "Charming Men,
Charming History" with the sweeping judgment that Henry Tilney’s
dark side, and Austen’s later demotion of charming men like him to
the status of villains, is the beginning of a "dreary cultural project," the
"homophobic aversion therapy of nineteenth-century fiction" (269).
But as a good Foucauldian he cannot say that Austen intends such a
project, merely that it happens somehow, and so he is forced to say
that "Northanger Abbey . . . intimates the logic of this revulsion" (269,
emphasis added). Edward Neill is driven back on an even more
startling equivocation about meaning and agency: in his conclusion,
Northanger Abbey actually "secretes" meaning, as it "appears to seek
to repress" (29) knowledge that would undermine the conservative
ideology Henry espouses, but fails to do so. When disentangled from
its double negations Neill’s position fits within the Austen-as-
subversive school, and yet that entanglement—the sense of layers of
irony endlessly reversing themselves beyond the possibility of
interpretation—is essential to his article’s larger thesis. This method of
equivocation allows critics to discern a political effect without having
to subscribe to any outmoded ideas about stable meaning or the
educational function of literature. In the process, they construct a new
and sinister Austen, complicit with or unaware of the ideologies her
novels espouse. The act of bracketing intention or authorial political
awareness works to make Austen a conservative by default.

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.

Henry Tilney teaches Catherine how to be ironic, how not to see the
world only in the most straightforward way. Catherine’s evolving
attitude toward the Gothic during the course of the novel is one
example of her progress in learning irony. Only by comparing novels
with real life experiences can a reader judge either correctly and thus
learn from them. Catherine is so inexperienced that she swallows
everything she reads uncritically. Henry will help to teach her the need
for critical reading and the perception of meanings beyond the
surfaces of life, which is the essence of irony. He himself, however,
sometimes fails to maintain the rationally correct detached
perspective of irony. As soon as he descends into an uncritical
acceptance of ideology (as he does in the oft-quoted "‘Remember that
we are English’" speech), he becomes the object of the narrator’s
irony, just as Catherine was earlier because of her uncritical
acceptance of Gothic. Both Henry and Catherine must learn a second
lesson, that "real" English characters can be worse than romanticized
Gothic ones. General Tilney’s behavior after he learns that Catherine is
not wealthy is reprehensible, but not Gothic (it is mercenary but not
supernaturally one-sided). Thus the novel’s attack on the
exaggerations of romance remains in place, but the characters learn
that realism is more frightening than romance, and that ironic
perception must be applied even to the political assumptions that
seem "safe" and "realistic." Catherine’s Gothic sensibility (which
depends on an instinctive morality of sentiment) is not wrong, but
merely incomplete without the balancing intellectual perspective of

The reader of Austen’s novel must be enlightened in stages, first along

with Catherine and then along with Henry, finally surpassing both
characters (neither of whom becomes the ideal reader that the novel
strives to mold). Even after achieving the ideal balance of heart and
head, sentiment and irony, however, Austen’s reader is not equipped
to right the wrongs of the world. Northanger Abbey (and the larger
project of novelistic realism) is a survival manual, not a revolutionist’s
handbook. After all, even in the most famous passage of Northanger,
the defense of the novel, the narrator claims only that a novel
provides "the most thorough knowledge of human nature" (38).
Knowledge might make one a better navigator of the shark-infested
waters of English society, but will not transform that society for the
better. Austen unflinchingly exposes the realities of English life under
counter-revolutionary Toryism, but offers a solution only for alleviating
one’s personal experience of that life—an ironic detachment.

The problem with Gothic novels is not necessarily a moral one, and the
ability to be ironic is not a moral skill. In fact, Catherine’s romantic
temperament, her "intuition," is right in all her basic judgments, as
many critics have pointed out. Her moral compass remains essentially
unchanged throughout the novel: just as she instinctively refuses to
renege on a promise as a matter of principle in something so trivial as
a social engagement (101), later she will unerringly divine that
General Tilney is an unsavory character. The General is not merely a
domestic autocrat, but a tyrant of the same sort as the French
revolutionaries that Gothic novels always draw on as the subtext of
their xenophobic horrors, as Shinobu Minma argues in "General Tilney
and Tyranny" (504-510). Catherine’s intuitive goodness is therefore
political as well as moral. Austen consistently portrays Catherine’s
politico-moral instincts as innate, or even genetic. At the end of the
novel her parents judge Henry Tilney in exactly the same way she has
judged people throughout the novel, with "[g]ood-will supplying the
place of experience" (249). Learning to think ironically will not make
Catherine moral. Isabella Thorpe, who is arch in every word she
speaks, and never really means what she says, is not a better person
because she can perceive irony. In fact, if Isabella truly understood the
novels she claims to read, she might be made a better person, since
Gothic novels, despite their one-sidedness, usually portray sincere
sentimentality as a heroine’s source of virtue. Radcliffe’s novels (the
most prominent Gothics in Northanger) perfectly illustrate the doctrine
of sensibility, that morality proceeds from instinctive sympathy with
others. Innate sensibility is the one trait of Gothic heroinehood that
Catherine Morland really does possess.

Unfortunately, however, instinctive goodness does not suffice to keep

one happy and sane outside the one-sided world of Gothic novels.
Henry Tilney teaches Catherine, through conversation, not to believe
everything she reads, and also how to speak ironically in everyday life.
That is the purpose of some of the most famous and most comical set-
pieces in the novel, like Henry’s comparison of dancing and marriage
(Volume I, Chapter Ten), or his caricature of a Gothic story (Volume II,
Chapters Five and Six). Catherine never completely learns to apply his
lessons. She manages, by the end of the novel, to understand all of
the discourse that surrounds her, but she is not quite able to produce
it herself. When she must write to Eleanor after her dismissal from the
Abbey, she struggles over how to express her feelings, and finally
concludes that "to be very brief was all that she could determine on
with any confidence of safety" (235-36). Henry, at first, seems to be a
more promising model for the reader. Whenever he remains witty,
Henry acts as the voice of the author, as many critics have pointed
out. But Henry himself is not capable of keeping out of the trap of
uncritical thinking, and his one major slip provides both an example to
the reader of the dangers of losing rational detachment, and also a
clear picture of Austen’s broader political view.

The English Gothic novel is excessively nationalistic in the

assumptions it makes about human nature, and in its technique of
defusing content that might otherwise be shocking by placing it in
foreign Catholic settings. The ideal reader of Gothic is one who
understands these assumptions so as to be attracted but not drawn in,
not fooled into seeing the excesses of Gothic as representative of
English life. Such xenophobia was politically charged during the 1790s,
when Austen first wrote the novel—jingoism was a foundation stone of
anti-Jacobinism—and Northanger Abbey’s parody of Gothic
undermines Tory nationalism by implication. Catherine is so defective
a reader to begin with that she does not even understand the basic
nationalism of Gothic—but the accomplished reader Henry Tilney
does. When Catherine merely believes in his trumped-up tale about
ebony cabinets, he is entertained; but when she creates her own
Gothic tale he is shocked, because she violates the conventions of the
genre by imagining that such events could really take place in a
contemporary English setting. In the crisis of Catherine’s education,
when he explains the circumstances of his mother’s death and
remonstrates with Catherine over her inability to discipline her
imagination, Henry articulates the ideology behind the Gothic:

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror
as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful
nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been
judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live.
Remember that 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 - Does our education
prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could
they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where
social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is
surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads
and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what
ideas have you been admitting?" (197-98)

Here his assumptions are clear. One can only properly appreciate the
Gothic if one understands that it is not to be taken as a delineation of
the English character, but of the depraved human nature to be found
elsewhere. English society is different (it is "a country like this" to
distinguish it from that), and superior.

Early Austen critics take Henry’s statement at face value, as a

delineation of the author’s ideology (just as Henry is often taken to be
her mouthpiece elsewhere in the novel). Thus this passage is seen as
consistent with the assumption that Austen was a political
conservative, here a patriotic anti-Jacobin. However, even among early
critics, interpretation is not unanimous, and it has become even less
so. While Gary Kelly and Diane Hoeveler can both cite Henry’s speech
as evidence of Austen’s conservative ideology as late as 1995, their
view is uncommon. Since Lionel Trilling it has been more common to
emphasize dramatic irony and the inadequacy of Henry’s point of view
—Catherine turns out to have assessed the General’s character
correctly, perhaps despite herself (207). It is too easy to take a
"dramatic irony" reading as critical only of the General, a failure of a
particular patriarch and not patriarchy or nationality itself. Alistair
Duckworth’s combination of an acknowledgment of the irony of
Henry’s criticism and the view that Austen is politically conservative
depends on such a move (85). Only more recently have critics noted
the explicitly political dramatic ironies of this passage and thus its
subversive (Jacobin) bent. Claudia Johnson’s view, that Catherine’s
(ironically correct) collapsing of the distinction between this nation and
that is "subversive" of Henry’s nationalist complacency (40), should be
definitive. Several recent critics have fleshed out her account by
focusing on the way Henry portrays English citizens as "surrounded"
by spies. His description suggests imprisonment as much as it does
safety from secret atrocity, and thus by implication damns as
tyrannical the government that produced such spies.

At first this critical history may seem to prove the postmodern

contention that Austen’s irony cannot be fixed, because so many
critics have produced so many different interpretations of Henry’s
ideological narrowness. In fact, however, interpretation of this passage
has stabilized recently, and has evolved down a single consistent path:
from not seeing the dramatic irony at all, to seeing it narrowly, to
giving the irony its full political weight. The most recent interpretations
rely on historical context available to Austen’s contemporaries and to
careful reading of the passage itself, and therefore it might be said
that criticism has trained itself finally to be the ironic reader that the
novel itself was always working towards. Since critics are not always
consistent in applying the lesson, however, it is necessary still to
argue for the subversiveness of this passage as an example of
Austen’s larger method.

Careful reading of the passage demonstrates the subtlety as well as

the complete explicability of Austen’s irony. Henry has until now been
the model of an ironic reader, implying as well as inferring double
meanings in every bit of dialogue. Here, Austen’s reader faces the test
of applying Henry’s method to Henry himself as object. Throughout his
speech, Henry commits unintentional ironies, the detection of which is
necessary both to understanding Austen’s political message and to
becoming the ideal reader the novel is molding. Henry’s ironic
deconstruction begins with the first sentence of his ringing political
declamation, in which he claims that he has no words, but then finds
many of them (arranged in elegant parallels, no less). This movement
of contradiction echoes the very comic technique that Henry himself
had used in his burlesque of the Gothic. In his story he draws attention
to the contradictory illogic of Gothic plots by predicting that after "a
very short search, [Catherine] will discover a division in the tapestry
so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection" (159). He
has no words, but yet finds some; the division in the tapestry cannot
be found, yet Catherine will find it. Thus from its beginning the speech
signals its own kinship with the very language that earlier Henry
himself had so effectively criticized. Later, the irony of Henry’s direct
injunction to consult observation as a guide to judging conduct
provides the most positive evidence that he is fallible. Since her
observation of the General’s manner toward his children has caused
Catherine to be suspicious of him, and since her observation
accurately predicts his future behavior, Catherine has done exactly
what Henry told her to. Her direct observation, and ours, leads us to a
conclusion opposite to the one Henry endorses, in which England’s
society, despite its roads and newspapers, cannot be distinguished
from the foreign Gothic settings which Henry wishes to see as
fundamentally Other.

Henry Tilney, like Catherine, must learn this further lesson, that
nationalism is just as unrealistic as romance. Neither of them
understands that English human nature might contain some of the
same impulses as those found in the Alps. The goal of the novel
according to Austen is to teach the ability to deal with the people one
encounters in everyday life, and thus both Henry and Catherine need
a lesson in realistic pessimism.The discovery of the General’s
mercenary nature provides the dash of cold water they need. Henry is
just as disillusioned and humiliated by his father’s behavior at the end
of the novel as Catherine was earlier by his reproof of her—"Henry, in
having such things to relate of his father, was almost as pitiable as in
their first avowal to himself. He blushed for the narrow-minded
counsel which he was obliged to expose" (247). Henry learns that he
ought to have taken into account commonplace English behavior
founded on greed or misplaced pride before dismissing all villainy as
foreign. Surely the thought of his own earlier confidence in his
supremely English family contributes to Henry’s embarrassment.

Most critics today acknowledge that Henry’s smug nationalism is not

meant as the author’s position. This new understanding has
introduced a new problem. Critics now only rarely under-read the irony
of Henry’s "‘Remember that we are English’" speech; instead the
pendulum has swung the other way, and critics over-read the irony of
the novel as a whole, abdicating interpretation altogether. Edward
Neill claims that "Northanger Abbey . . . is the sort of text whose
emotional and political direction is on a knife-edge. It seems at once to
be preternaturally sure of where it’s going, yet its reversible ironies at
key points momentarily eclipse a sense of intention, of just which
reading is ‘against the grain’" (14). This kind of reading is consistent
with poststructuralist privileging of irony—it recalls Paul de Man’s
description of the sort of infinite regress that all true irony produces,
as one endlessly perceives the irony of one’s just previous perception
of irony ("The Rhetoric of Temporality" 215, 220). De Man’s theory is
especially tempting for Austen critics, since he goes on to assert that
the transition from an eighteenth-century novel based on irony to
nineteenth-century realism is a "regression" (222). In this light an
infinitely ironic Austen is the last bastion of the Enlightenment, rather
than the inventor of Litvak’s "dreary cultural project" (269) of realism.

Perhaps critical emphasis on the politically unfixed quality of Austen’s

irony is meant as a service to the author, but if so, it is a chimerical
defense. There is never more than one layer of irony at any moment in
Northanger Abbey. During the scene that Neill finds most "reversible,"
Henry’s mocking translation between Eleanor and Catherine over the
shocking new thing coming out in London (Volume I, Chapter
Fourteen), Henry is merely bantering. He always means just the
opposite of what he says, but intends to draw attention to his actual
meaning by expressing it in opposing language. Perhaps this
conversational technique (still common today) would be more
apparent if the novel were read aloud. Nevertheless, Eleanor’s desire
to have Henry explain himself to Catherine indicates that she
understands his joking and that it is commonplace, not meant to be
difficult to understand for anyone more experienced than Catherine.

The irony of commentary provided by the narrator on political

questions is of just the same kind. Henry’s nationalist speech is a
different kind of irony (dramatic), but it is still unitary in purpose. He
merely descends from being an ironist to being the object of the
novel’s irony. But there is no moment in the novel that requires more
than one level of ironic reversal. The consistency with which one is
required to supply ironic perception (on almost every page) is the
primary means by which Northanger Abbey carries out its educational
function. When one does act as the ideal reader of the novel, one not
only is able to understand its overt political message (tyranny is as
common in England as in Gothic novels), but also to cope with it in the
only way possible—by making mock of it. This might be cold comfort,
but it is certainly consistent. Austen does not claim to be able to
change people’s principles or their material conditions, just to help
them to a truer knowledge of human nature and thus a more
personally palatable existence. One could take this compensatory
irony too far (as Mr. Bennet will later illustrate), but as it is the mode
of all her novels, surely Austen can be reasonably said to be
recommending it for general use.

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