No one has ever read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey would have assumed that the novel was capable of much more than entertainment.
Before any narrative action takes place, we are warned by the author that we may find the conceit dated and the heroine unlikely. Completed in 1803 but not published until after the author’s death, the book contains a warning to the reader that “places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes” since it was written.
In the wake of the uproar surrounding the University of Greenwich’s decision to issue its undergraduate students with a trigger warning for Northanger Abbeyit is impossible not to read Austen’s own words of caution as prescient.
Students at the university have been warned against the idea that the novel contains “gender stereotyping” in addition to “toxic relationships and friendships”. While Austen would probably have been delighted to learn that her books are the subject of such strong opinion some two centuries after publication, she would have been baffled by accusations of perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Well aware of the limits Gothic fiction placed on her own gender, in Northanger Abbey Austen subverts the expectations of readers trained by genre pioneers such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe.
There is, we are assured, “nothing heroic” about our protagonist Catherine Morland. She prefers cricket to dolls, riding to reading, and would rather steal flowers than water them; “She was also loud and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing in the world so much as to roll down the green slope at the back of the house”.
Catherine exists as the carefully constructed antidote to the elegance, delicacy and sweetness of Radcliffe’s Emily St Aubert (protagonist of the seminal work The Mysteries of Udolpho), whose gorgeous femininity no doubt made Austen “feel sick and bad”.
Northanger Abbey is in many ways the most irreverent of Austen’s published novels, poking fun at the readers most likely to have selected the book from the shelves of their circulating library (domestic libraries would probably only contain what our heroine later called “better books ‘ mentioned). ‘ than gothic novels).
Catherine constantly hopes that a “horrible” adventure will befall her, but is unable to recognize moments of real danger. At various points in the novel, she is made aware of her vulnerability as a young, unmarried woman. She is subjected to a kidnapping of sorts by the loathsome John Thorpe, in an episode that implies that if, in Regency society, women’s only power is refusal, she is sometimes even robbed of it.
Throughout the novel, Catherine finds her hopes of Gothic adventures thwarted. When our heroine is finally whisked away from the pleasantries of Bath, it’s not to an alpine castle, but to a well-appointed and modernized mansion.
The lack of tapestries and sliding doors is initially compensated by the overbearing General Tilney – a true stereotype of patriarchal tyranny. Our so-called Gothic villain, it turns out, did not kill his wife, but does threaten Catherine’s safety by unceremoniously kicking her out the door at 7 a.m. to undertake a 70-mile journey with no servant or chaperone .
Ultimately, Catherine’s lesson is that as compelling as female victimization may be on paper, it’s both mundane and more pernicious in person.
The novel’s most intriguing episode for current readers—and not the faint-hearted—is an unexpectedly eroticized solo bedroom scene. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously acknowledged, bedroom scenes in Austen may be rare, but they are by no means uninteresting.
Safely ensconced in comfortable quarters in Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s curiosity is piqued by a locked cupboard. The compartments withstand the efforts of her “trembling hand” and leave her in “breathless wonder”. Catherine refuses to go to sleep ‘dissatisfied’ and is rewarded when she finally discovers a hidden manuscript. She is overcome with “indescribable” feelings – which Austen knowingly describes: “Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks turned pale”. Once observed, the physical symptoms of Catherine’s erotic arousal and rising arousal are hard to ignore.
Whether or not masturbation scenes in Austen’s novels should be accompanied by a trigger warning is a conundrum best left to the experts at the University of Greenwich. That Northanger Abbey however, its ability to surprise and shock 21st century readers is beyond question.
Dr. Anna Camilleri is Head of English at Eton College