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Northanger Abbey musings (1)

February 22, 2017
Northerner Abbey illus br Brock

Ch 9, illus. by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain,

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! 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.

On “nice”

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 …

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2017 22:07

    How lovely to return to one of the nicest books in the world! I’m looking forward to rereading Northanger Abbey later this year for the anniversary. That’s a great idea to read slowly with your book group. I’ll have to go back and look at what you wrote when you read the novel in 2015.

    • February 22, 2017 22:10

      Thanks Sarah. I’m so glad you said that! Most of my group likes the book, a couple of us love it, but a couple don’t like it at all. Beats me!! (My previous post was not a traditional review either. I tend not to “review” Austens as I’ve read them so often.

      • February 22, 2017 22:27

        I can’t really imagine not liking NA, but I expect that means your book club discussions are interesting. (Ah, “interesting” — just as bad as “nice.” I should find a better word to describe what I mean there. Nice books and interesting discussions. Pretty soon I’ll think of a third word that’s very dull indeed.)

  2. February 23, 2017 00:50

    Austen is fun to read. Henry’s ridicule of Catherine’s use of the word “nice” reminds me of how exasperated my parents got in 1972 when I used the word “neat” a lot. They gave me a speech that, while I know it was not a direct imitation of Henry, ended up being a lot like the speech you quote here.

  3. February 23, 2017 01:07

    Isn’t that an excellent insult – you are more nice than wise. I too was struck by who long the war against ‘nice’ had been going on.

  4. February 23, 2017 05:08

    I was slow to get to enjoy NA. It wasnt until I had to read it slowly (for a university module) that I started appreciating just how darn clever Austen was in constructing a novel with so many different levels of meaning.
    Talking of ‘hero’, have you ever read The Hero with a Thousand Faces – I’ve been on the search for a reasonably priced copy for a few years to no avail.

    • February 23, 2017 08:20

      Oh, I’m so glad you discovered the joys of NA. It may not be her best love story or her most subtle book, but it is so cheeky It makes me laugh every time I read it.

      And, not only have I never read that book, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it! Care to tell me more?

      • February 24, 2017 07:52

        Sure, it takes the idea of the hero in mythology and finds common elements in the ‘journeys’ they undertake. So for example they always start in the ordinary world but then get a calling which takes them into the world of fantasy. Its a book credited with influencing many in the art world including George Lucas (star wars film). You can even see it playing out in Harry Potter. Wikipedia has a good article on it

        • February 24, 2017 08:03

          Thanks Karen. I’ll read that Wikipedia article. I really don’t think I’ve ever heard of the book. You learn something new etc etc… 😀

  5. February 23, 2017 06:06

    i just finished “A Portrait of Jane Austen” by David Cecil… there’s not much known about her life but what there is, is neatly and nicely encapsulated in this 200 page book; he mainly emphasizes and discusses her sense of humor which was ubiquitous and subtle, leading me to thing that she knew exactly what she wanted to do in the above quote… i recommend the book; i’m one who knew very little about JA and now i’m much more interested, in the nicest way, of course…

    • February 23, 2017 08:25

      Oh yes, mudpuddle, that was the first book of her I ever bought, way back in my twenties. There are many, and it’s interesting to see the different approaches. My Jane Austen group once had a meeting where we all had to read one and share our responses. Claire Tomalin’s is probably the best regarded for its thoroughness but one I enjoyed – it’s shorter and you might like it too – is by Carol Shields who looked at Austen, and particularly the things we don’t know about her, from a writer’s point of view.

      I must read Cecil again.

      Glad you enjoyed it.

    • February 23, 2017 08:26

      Haha, nicest way! Love it… BTW

  6. February 23, 2017 10:24

    sometimes my sneaky side comes out…

  7. February 24, 2017 07:18

    So nice to read such a nicely written post about a really nice book 🙂 When I was in school we were told not to use nice because it was vague and imprecise. I look forward to our further thoughts on the book as you go along. One of the fun things about rereading something you have read a number of times is the pleasure of being able to pay attention to different things in it.

    • February 24, 2017 08:02

      Nicely said Stefanie 🤣

      Yes, exactly, re rereading. I’ve called this post (1) so I hope I find something new to say when we read the second half, though I think I have one idea to develop.

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