In one [room] perhaps there may be a dagger, in another a few drops of blood, and in the third the remains of some instrument of torture; but there being nothing in all this out of the way …
in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies … (NA:2:5, 237 and 2:9, 275)
Dear friends and readers,
In an earlier posting on a plan for a course on the second half of Jane Austen’s publishing career (Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion), I mentioned the publication of a new annotated edition of Northanger Abbey by the Belnap Press (a division of Harvard University Press). Due to the kindness of the editor (a reader of this blog), I now have a copy of my own, have read it, and am happy to declare it’s more than another book in the spirit and done much in the manner and with the expertise of Patricia Meyer Spacks’s edition of Pride and Prejudice, which if the reader clicks on the link she (or he) will find I reviewed on my live-journal Under the Sign of Sylvia blog.
Similarly, its indisputable value and addition to previous editions of Northanger Abbey are its plethora of unusual pictures, all appropriately chosen, numbers of which I’d never seen before — and I am a confirmed lover of this parody-as-gothic novel as well as gothic novels, which are themselves sometimes profusely illustrated. And similarly too, if you are a student and what you are seeking is a text annotated line-by-line where the editor assumes you know very little about the 18th century and offers paraphrases as well as continual basic information, the annotated edition to buy is not this one, but rather David Shapard’s annotated Northanger Abbey for Anchor books. I link in and append a brief history of the recent editions of Northanger Abbey, which, as Wolfson demonstrates, has a more complicated publication history during Austen’s lifetime than the four novels published while she was alive.
Wolfson’s edition differs from Spacks’s edition in that she addresses herself directly and at times aggressively to arguments over how to read Northanger Abbey and its target audience is as much a scholarly and theoretical as it is a popular one. To achieve this scholar’s intervention Wolfson alludes to sophisticated perspectives. Although its first draft is early, since the text we have represents some of Austen’s most mature writing after 30 years of writing and reading as a novels; and since Northanger Abbey is a self-reflexive bookish book about books, Wolfson’s edition has even more extensive annotation than Spacks.
Wolfson’s introduction is more than twice as long as Spacks’s and divides into several parts. The first phase (MAD-Woman Jane Austen) describes the as yet small commercial world of novel publishing in which as Susan, Austen attempted to publish Northanger Abbey for the first time (1803). Wolfson reprints Austen’s letter (1809) revealing a thwarted attempt to wrest the manuscript back from a publisher who had held onto the book without publishing it for 6 years. This documented history is significant because it helps situate the book’s early versions in at least 3 eras: the 1790s when it was first drafted, 1798-99 when a full copy was achieved (according to a note by Cassandra, Austen’s sister) and 1803, after the first gothic craze was over and a time of war: Wolfson writes:
the novel is an odd repository, of strange and uneven power … it is the earliest drafted, longest gestated, last published of Austen’s completed novels (10)
The history of Austen’s life that follows is of her reading life and the literary world of the reading and writing Austens, with especial attention paid to the gothic books she imbibed (rather like Austen on Catherine Morland’s early years), especially Anne Radcliffe; and about how Austen’s family’s marriages as well as careers connected directly to the fortunes of the French revolution and Napoleonic wars, and local mutinies and riots too: Eliza de Feuillide’s French husband was guillotined: Henry was an offer at the savage punishment of a mutiny; Francis and Charles saw action at sea.
Wolfson includes an image of Anne Radcliffe I’ve never seen before: she was highly reclusive and usually all you see is one poorly drawn image — look at the somewhat withdrawn expression on her face, her withdrawn eye contact.
Byron is not forgotten as Wolfson surveys Austen’s letters, with an emphasis on their understandably jaundiced recitations of the endless pregnancies of the worn out (and sometimes dying) married women she knew. Wolfson does omit Austen’s thwarted attempts to create a community of single women for herself and Cassandra once they left Steventon.
Wolfson then surveys the specific world of gothic novels, how they were disregarded, mocked, parodied, moralized at, and yet sold, were avidly read (to pieces many of them) and persisted, and that their political slant was more often sympathetic to Jacobinism than the authors could afford to admit during this repressive time. Wolfson suggests these gothic novels mirrored the violences of the time, real undercurrents picked up in one Monthly Review , which labelled them “The Terrorist System of Novel Writing.” All this is necessary because Wolfson is of the school that sees Northanger Abbey as more gothic than parody, more serious in its critique of the real injustices and tyrannies of social life (especially for women)
The 1790s was, after all, a decade of high political anxiety: the cataclysm of the French revolution just over the channel, and a reactionary alarm that by 1792 was turning Britain into a police state, with a vast network of surveillance and severe prosecutions for dissent and treason. It wasn’t just that gothic novels were haunted by political anxiety; they were prime supporters of its language and metaphors (25)
Then amid citations showing how Northanger Abbey is a text “rife” with [allusions to, discussions of] “books”), Wolfson launches into what is the basic outlook of the edition: most of Wolfson’s extensive annotations across the book (when not about the era, its landscape art and buildings, or about commercial book history), are intended to bring in arguments from elsewhere which demonstrate that Austen’s book is far more a serious gothic than it is a parody of the gothic mode. She does not neglect the Bath sections:
But the emphasis is not there. When she is not contextualizing with references to the commerce in books or landscape, it is the gothic she elaborates upon. A central reader for her is William Galperin in his Historical Austen where he argues that Austen’s narrator is not the author, and suggests the views the narrator takes do not adequately account for the gothic materials in and outside Northanger Abbey. If you then follow the trail of scholarship cited in the notes in the introduction (and later in the text too) you come upon an essay by George Levine (“Translating the Monstrous: Northanger Abbey,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 30:3 [(1975]:335-50) where he makes a persuasive case for seeing the narrator as blind to the implications of her text. This matters because Austen’s narrator may seem to dismiss the gothic, or confine its reach to places other than southern England. There has been a long tradition of disparagement and dismissal of Northanger Abbey (i.e., claims the gothic sections are inferior, the use of Catherine as a naif in a satire interferes with its realism, the two parts jar &c&c): Wolfson is having none of that.
I agree and wrote and delivered and published 2 papers to this effect, one at a conference demonstrating that the two “parts” of novel are beautifully intertwined and held in a kind of equilibrium (“The Gothic Northanger Abbey: a Re-evaluation“); the other published in Persuasions arguing for Madame de Genlis’s tale of female abuse, one of Smith’s novels about sexually transgressive woman and another (relatively unknown) part gothic parody as sources for Northanger Abbey (“People that marry can never part: an Intertextual Study of Northanger Abbey, Persuasions 31:1 ).
Wolfson goes further than this, and seeks to make Northanger Abbey into a kind of post-modern gothic text where strong feminist protests mingle with sceptical acceptances of dark metaphysical realities beyond the natural and probable world (41). Again follow the trail of citations and you find yourself reading Paul Morrison’s “Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral” (Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 33:1 :1-23) which makes the (perhaps puzzling to a non-academic reader) that we can find ourselves in a prison when there are no visible walls around us — I’d put it through social restraints and surveillance.
I recommend to common readers Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Northanger Abbey (Granada, 2007) where through small changes and additions Davies conveys just how unhappy and tyrannized over Eleanor Tilney has been, with no more “distressing” (Catherine’s word) scen than the one in which Eleanor tells Catherine she dare not attempt to keep Catherine at Northanger past the following dawn. Early on Liam Cunningham as General Tilner conveys a threat of some unspeakable sexual punishment he is prepared to wreak on Eleanor. Henry tells Catherine he is grateful to her for visiting Northanger because of his sister’s usual isolation and suffering. When Austen dismisses Eleanor to happiness at the book’s close amid the self-reflexive amusement and witty plays on romantic conventions is this unfunny sentence: the narrator knows “no one” “better prepared by habitual suffering, to receive and enjoy felicity” (II:16 , 234).
More problematic is the aligning of this text with the kinds of insights into the gothic Jack Sullivan outlines his his Elegant Nightmares: Kafkaesque experiences which point us to an unknowable perhaps malevolent-feeling universe, caught up in the romantic poetry and art of the era which Wolfson uses Coleridge, Richardson, among other texts to illustrate, ending on (as is common with deconstructive criticism) with what is not there, e.g., the window curtains in Catherine’s room which keep moving.
The turn here — Wolfson is too clever to go explicitly this far — could take us to guilt, persecutions, torments (which are found in Genlis and Smith’s texts) and metaphysical contemplations (see Sabine Rewald’s Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th century, a text accompanying and explicating an exhibit of pictures seeking peace from such intimations). Instead for the last phase of her introduction, she returns to the text she has put before us, and explains aspects of her freshly-edited text where she returns to a Chapman emendation that captures how the “malicious fun” in some of the scenes in Bath where characters are not “just objects of ridicule,” but become participants in the sport” (49).
There is a problem in all this: Wolfson occasionally over-presses her text, she over-reads and she will puzzle many college-educated readers (say someone who did not go on to graduate school after the 1990s). Who is this book for? As I looked at it I had myself no doubt that had my parents bought me such a book when I was 14-15 and falling in love with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park (see First Encounters), adoration might have been the result. I might not have waited 40 years to get to Bath so that from the top of Beecham Hill I too could reject the scene as unworthy to make part of a picturesque landscape. How I would have been charmed by reproductions of David Cox’s lithographs
Wolfson is deft at intertextual citation, and in the modern academic way of talking about commercialism, weaves pop and arch language into her stories (Austen’s narrator is said “to go rogue,” 226n1). It seems churlish to complain that the way Austen is discussed as a professional author in a networked career marketplace is anachronistic (e.g., 7 where Murray is described as “savvy,” “massaging his network” when he asked Scott to review Emma), but in the service of accuracy and my own vision of her I’d say she had a serious vocation which she followed with a genuinely sincerely-held set of ethical beliefs. And these went counter to much that was popular as well as much of what passed for salon talk among the elite — plus of course she was very much fringe gentry, had lived a life on the margins and edge in Bath for years. Her time out in the “world” apart from her family as she would have mocked it was limited and what it offered had rightly shown her for books her father’s library was preferable:
She had to begin by self-publishing even though this is a period where the small number of distributed copies and needs of publishers made them hungry for books from women trying to add to the family income or fulfilling some spirit within them.She lived all her life inside her family group who she remained dependent upon financially; Wolfson points out sadly how little money she made in her lifetime. Nonetheless, she had to be pressured to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent.
This is an edition which offers the beginner in Austen novels plenty of pictures and conversations and hard information too in the form of a coffee table book. It also offers beginning and more serious students readings of the novel that enable us to ask new questions of it. Of course amid all this apparatus, the novel that can delight the heart with comedy is still there and make us bond with the heroine and hero (see my blog on the 3 Northanger Films for “Jane Austen’s World” where I single out Felicity Jones and J. J. Feild for jell as a pair of characters whose mutual kindness, intelligence, and integrity of heart emerges gradually as very precious indeed against the novel and film’s ‘crimes of heart’). The crowded ball room, the real experience of frustration and desolation upon finding oneself a wallflower (unjust as Catherine should have had a partner — showing the dangers of pre-engagement), real anxiety when supposed friends pressure us to do that which we know will hurt us with real friends (and rightly). All the ink spilt in recent essays attempting to persuade me that Henry Tilney is a bully and pedant faze me not: I know such an intelligent, generous-hearted, tactful man is excellent husband material, especially when he comes equipped with a competency and house with lovely sitting rooms such as Catherine is shown on her visit. We do learn to distinguish real evils in life as we learn to feel for the now dead Mrs Tilney (married for her money), why accepting lying can do such harm.
So now we have yet another version of the text Austen left her brother and sister to publish — and perhaps name. I’ll end on a personal preference: I wish these Belknap Press book editors had not made the decision to have these details from nineteeth-century reproductions of upper class young woman as uniformly the cover for the set. We really should have had a modernized abbey. But no matter, Wolfson does provides several illustrations, including this modern photo of Stoneleigh Abbey, a huge pile which Jane Austen visited with her mother when a distant cousin thought he had a chance of inheriting it merely by coming to live there, as a kind of grab.