Your Sunday Austen Meditation


Church of Austenology This week’s lesson is taken from Northanger Abbey, Volume I, Chapter XIV.

They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”

“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprized.

“Oh! no, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho.’ But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; — I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.”

“Yes,” added Miss Tilney, “and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage-walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it.”

“Thank you, Eleanor; — a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion.”

“I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly.”

“It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do — for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you as far behind me as — what shall I say? — l want an appropriate simile. — as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!”

It would be well to remember that it is not only young girls who read novels. Here endeth the lesson.

P.S. Here is an interesting (for certain values of interesting) essay in Persuasions On-Line about Henry Tilney, reading, and gender. Don’t jump to conclusions from the title–read the whole thing. But we were disappointed that the author passed on the common misapprehension that after Henry Tilney found Catherine Morland outside her mother’s room, she cried as she ran because he was mean to her. She cried because he had made her examine her conscience, and she was ashamed of herself. It’s right there in the book, you know. “They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.”

3 thoughts on “Your Sunday Austen Meditation

  1. LynnS

    Mags, did you not in the past post an article about that conversation between Henry and Catherine that explained that Henry was acting essentially as a clergyman? I know I read it and have have done several searches for it and can’t find it.


    • Lynn, it’s an article by Irene Collins in Persuasions 20. It’s called “The Rev. Henry Tilney, Rector of Woodston.” Disclaimer: Irene Collins’ writing has very much shaped my opinions on Henry Tilney. She writes a lot about how Austen’s writing reflects her religious views. Her book Jane Austen and the Clergy also has a lot of good info about, well, Jane Austen and the clergy.

      In the essay referenced above, Prof. Collins talks about how Henry’s words to Catherine outside his mother’s room are intended to help her examine her conscience. Since Anglicans don’t confess their sins to a priest as Roman Catholics do, they must examine their conscience in private and confess their sins to God. Catherine knew she had “sinned” by thinking the General capable of murder as soon as she saw Mrs. Tilney’s clean, comfortable, well-cared-for bedroom, BUT she wanted to “hide” her sin within her own conscience. Henry reminds her that to be forgiven, she must admit what she did, acknowledge it was wrong, and promise to not do it again. Catherine does those three things it the next chapter, and Henry knows this, which is why he never refers to it again. Her “sin” has been wiped clean. It’s a very interesting essay and makes a lot of sense. And all the movies get it wrong (except Wishbone, though one can’t help but think that’s more because they don’t want the kids to see Wishbone as Henry being mean to Catherine).


Comments are closed.