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Jane Austen on reading novels

January 26, 2014

Jane Austen’s defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey is famous. Not only does the hero, Henry Tilney, tell the heroine Catherine, that:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid …

but Austen, in an authorial comment early in the book, says

… 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.

This is Austen, though, and while she was passionate about the value of reading fiction, she also saw the other side. Not all novels, perhaps, are equal! And so, Catherine, a fan of the Gothic novel, is shown to be a rather silly novel reader, letting her imagination run too far and getting herself into trouble as a result. She does learn, though …

Northanger Abbey was published posthumously in 1817*. However, Austen wrote it in 1798/99, and revised it in 1803, when it was the first of hers to be sold to a publisher – Crosby & Co. They decided not to publish it, and it was bought back in 1816. Austen did further work on it before her death in 1817. My point though relates to the fact that the bulk of it was written in 1798/99. This is interesting, when you compare the excerpt above to this from her letter (no. 14) to her sister written on 18 December 1798:

I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January, & my name, or rather Yours is accordingly given. My Mother finds the Money. …  As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of Literature, & c. & c-She might have spared this pretension to our family; who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so; – but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.

Those comments “great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so” and “The self-consequence of half her Subscribers” tell us very clearly that novel-reading in the late 1700s to early 1800s was seen by many as a frivolous activity. No wonder she, a beginning novelist, felt the need to defend her craft!

* Published in December 1817, but the imprint date is 1818.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2014 20:09

    As I shall never write one, I need not fear the kind of scorn Jane refers to. However, I read ’em like anything! My favourite novelist is Peter Temple, followed closely by Rose Tremain and Hilary Mantel. But of the last two, only their historical novels; for, interestingly, I positively dislike their contemporary works.
    There! – and you hadn’t even asked for this kind of Comment! 😉

    • January 26, 2014 20:22

      Haha, MR, I ask for any sort of comment. I love to know what commenters like to read. I’ve read two Temples – The broken shore and Truth – and liked them, though I don’t make a practice of reading crime. I have still to read Tremain, but I’ve loved Mantel’s two Cromwell novels.

      BTW, I’ll never write a novel either – but nor would I write a memoir. One of the things I though to comment on yours was your admission of gaps in memory. I loved the fact that you mentioned some things in childhood and said you couldn’t remember the detail, but you remembered enough for the story you wanted to tell.

      • January 27, 2014 05:20

        Barbara Brooks, my lecturer in Nonfiction Writing in my postgrad Cert. at UTS, told us that this was an OK thing to do. So I done. 😀

        • January 27, 2014 08:36

          She gave good advice, I reckon, MR! A good teacher/mentor is to be treasured.

  2. January 28, 2014 00:22

    Oh this is wonderful! I remember those bits from Northanger since I just reread the book not long ago, but how wonderful to have that letter too! We don’t have to be so defensive about reading novels today thank goodness! But there is still pressure, isn’t there? Genres get sneered at and people are judged by the nebulous “literariness” of their reading choices.

    • January 28, 2014 08:13

      Thought you’d like the letter Stefanie. Yes, I think you’re right … And there’s also bit of a gender thing I think whereby males, very generally speaking, can feel that reading nonfiction is ok, but fiction is somehow frivolous.

  3. January 31, 2014 14:22

    Wouldn’t it just be the loveliest for her to know how widely her words, and reading her words, are beloved today?

    • January 31, 2014 14:56

      Oh, it sure would, Hannah. It’s sad, really, how many artists never knew in their lifetimes the admiration and love with which they are held.

  4. January 31, 2014 22:05

    Agreed! To try and imagine how she was and how these words were written. Truly fascinating stuff. Makes me wonder where ours views of words/novels will be in two hundred years from now.

    • January 31, 2014 22:20

      While I don’t want to live forever, I’d love to see things like that, Catherine. And I want to be there to say “I told you so” when people are found still reading novels!

      • January 31, 2014 22:48

        Yes! I’m having a hard enough time convincing my youngest.. Although my eldest enjoyed Tall Man which I ordered after your recommendation so thank you!

        • January 31, 2014 22:54

          Oh thanks, Catherine. It’s always nice to hear back when a book you review is taken up by someone and enjoyed. I’m glad your son enjoyed it.

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