Northanger Abbey musings (1)
My Jane Austen group is reading Northanger Abbey – again – because this year is the 200th anniversary of its publication. However, I did write about the novel when we did it in 2015, so what to do? Well, the thing is that every time I read Austen something else pops into my mind to think about – and I’d love to share a couple of them.
Now, my group often does slow reads of the novels, and we are doing Northanger Abbey in two parts: up to Chapter 19, which is just before Catherine leaves Bath; and from Chapter 20 to the end which encompasses her arrival in and departure from Northanger Abbey. My comments in this post relate to the first part.
On heroes and heroines
Northanger Abbey, as you may know, spoofs or parodies Gothic novels, which were popular at the time. One of the clues to the parody is the frequency with which Austen refers to her heroine Catherine’s likeness (or not) to “heroines”. The novel commences:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine…
And Austen goes on the describe why Catherine is not heroine material. She’s a simple country girl living in an ordinary family in which nothing dramatic happens. Her father is a “very respectable man” who is “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”. There are no lords or baronets in the vicinity to create hero intrigues … and so it goes.
However, it’s not this Gothic spoof that I want to discuss, but the whole concept of hero/heroine. It occurred to me as I was thinking about the heroine thread during this read that when I was a student writing essays I always referred to the protagonists of novels as the “hero” or “heroine”. I don’t do this so much now, preferring something like “main character”. I’m guessing this is part of our post-modern world.
But, this is not what I want to talk about either! My question to myself was where did this concept of “hero” and “heroine” come from, so I did a little digging. And here’s my disclaimer, because it was just a little digging that I did. I discovered a couple of things. One is that the poet-playwright-critic Dryden was the first to use the word “hero” in this way in 1697. The site on which I found this went on to say that “it is still commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist does nothing particularly heroic”. Yes!
Britannica.com told me that:
The appearance of heroes in literature marks a revolution in thought that occurred when poets and their audiences turned their attention away from immortal gods to mortal men, who suffer pain and death, but in defiance of this live gallantly and fully, and create, through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants. They are the first human beings in literature …
This must be what Dryden was picking up on – a move from a focus on gods to people and their agency in their own lives. Another site (whose link I didn’t capture) said that:
The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or the drama, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections. For the first time, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of the hero.
I’d argue that Austen, in presenting Catherine to us as she does, is drawing our attention to a transition from the notion of “hero” (or “heroine”) as someone who “live[s] gallantly and fully, and create[s], through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants”, like a Gothic novel hero, to more realistic stories about ordinary human beings that she wrote. This is not to say that ordinary human beings can’t be heroic, but it’s a different sort of heroism, nest-ce pas? This is simplistic, I realise, in terms of analysing the “hero” in literature, but it’s given me something to hang my thinking on to.
In a conversation with hero (!) Henry and his sister Eleanor, Catherine asks Henry “do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”
Now, if you went to school when I did, you were probably told not to use the word “nice” because it’s over-used and meaningless. Well, this is what Henry teases Catherine about. He replies (teasingly, cheekily, condescendingly, depending on your attitude to our hero), “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”
At this point sister Eleanor steps in and tells Catherine that
“He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”
“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”
“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”
“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise…”
I loved reading that this injunction we all heard in the mid-late twentieth century was “a thing” back in the very early nineteenth. “Nice” has such a fascinating semantic history that I’m not going to explore here – but I can’t resist telling Henry that he’s wrong because my Shorter Oxford Dictionary says that, back around 1500, it originally meant “silly” or “stupid”. Did Austen know that too, and is having a joke on Henry?
What fun Austen is to read …