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«trong>in Northanger Abbey: t :iL Jane Austen’s Economic View of Literary Nationalism ROBERT MERRETT Robert Merrett is a Professor of English and an ...»

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Consuming Modes

in Northanger Abbey:


:iL Jane Austen’s Economic

View of Literary



Robert Merrett is a Professor of English

and an Associate Dean of Arts at the

University of Alberta. An article in the

journal Interfaces: Image Texte Langage

(June 1998) on Englishness in the eighteenth-century French press is his most recent publication.

Fashionable consumerism prevails in the society in which Catherine Morland acquires her literary tastes. In satirizing modish consumerism, Jane Austen places Catherine’s tastes in ironical contexts.

But, while she ironically displaces some modes of consumption, Austen reinscribes others to sustain a probing criticism of middle-class aspirations. To weigh the practice by which Austen belittles and endorses consumerism is to measure her sense of how much the industrial and agrarian revolutions were shaping society and to see that her challenge to conventional moralizing stems from shrewd economic insights. When Mrs. Morland retrieves the Edinburgh periodical The Mirror to chasten Catherine’s supposed fascination with the luxurious modes of Northanger Abbey, Austen displaces the periodical with Henry Tilney’s marriage proposal. This romantic suppression of the periodical helps reveal Austen’s dissatisfaction with facile scorn of fashion, money, and hierarchy and clarifies the narrative meaning of fabrics, furniture, architecture, transportation, and finance. Her satire and promotion of consumerism confirm her view that hatred of the French Revolution could not reduce cultural exchange with the enemy, France retaining a shaping cultural influence on Britain.1 Catherine Morland is clever and thoughtful as well as inexperienced and willful, sensitive and open-minded as well as dull to social No. 20 222 PERSUASIONS signs and slow to connect economic and moral ideas. Gaps in her understanding invite us to look beyond her. She lives far from aristocrats;

no lords or baronets reside in her neighborhood (16). Yet her preference for “all story and no reflection” (15) makes her think them ubiquitous: romances causeher to expect that her trip to Bath will lead her mother to caution her against nobles because they abduct women to remote farmhouses. Mrs. Morland neither warns Catherine about lords nor generalizes their evil: in her mother’s eyes, Catherine is in no danger from aristocratic machinations (18). When General Tilney dismisses Catherine, her truisms are again disappointed; she is exposed to the hardship of solitary travel by a man whom desire for rank renders greedy and obsequious. Austen again challenges Catherine’s prejudices when she introduces Mrs. Thorpe. Far from extending the introduction to several chapters in a Gothic mode that decries aristocrats and attorneys, Austen introduces Mrs. Thorpe matter- of-factly (34).

It is appropriate that General Tilney discomfits Catherine since they both depend excessively on aristocrats. The General is a typical hanger-on who tires of Bath since his supposed old friends, the Marquis of Longtown and General Courtenay, stay away (139).

Catherine is too new to consumer modes in Bath to tire of the resort:

shopping and entertainments there even modify her literary prejudices.

Moreover, her distrust of aristocrats is more pardonable than the General’s reliance. Thwarted greed on learning from John Thorpe that Catherine is no heiress leads him to use aristocratic friends as an excuse to dismiss her from Northanger Abbey. His trumped-up visit to Lord Longtown’s house near Hereford makes his incivility more striking (224).

However, if Austen asks us to ponder why the General’s running after aristocrats removes him from aristocratic values, she invites us to see that Catherine’s reading undermines her intuitions and critical intelligence. Catherine rightly sees the General’s affront as intentional, but cannot grasp its economic motivation, despite how much she matches his consumerism, and how much Henry and Eleanor warn her about materialism. For example, Henry tells Catherine that people say they are weary of Bath because they cannot afford to stay on; they decry the place to conceal their relative poverty (78). From a belief that social ambition makes middle-ranking people behave erratically, he warns Catherine also that Isabella will be constant to her ROBERT MERRETT Consuming Modes in Northanger Abbey 223 brother James as long as a baronet does not enter the scene (206).

Given Isabella’s constant Gothic and sentimental posturing, Catherine is disingenuous to be shocked when Isabella courts Frederick, Henry’s brother. While Austen teaches Catherine that materialists such as the General and Isabella and John Thorpe cannot recognize the wealth they covet, her further target is to show that aristocrats are not sexually dangerous in ways upheld by literary tradition, but become powerful by the deference paid them by middle-ranking materialists.

Austen exploits this systemic greed. General Tilney’s gratication is the external cause why Catherine and Henry marry early.

When Eleanor weds an aristocrat, the General’s accession of dignity throws him into a fit of good humor, the metaphor explaining why Austen gives her fictional blessing. The General loves Eleanor most when he calls her “Your Ladyship,” since he puts status before her companionship, utility, and patience. While Austen says that the husband’s moral character is independent of peerage and wealth (251), she connects character and money by arranging that the Viscount and Viscountess influence the General to give Henry and Catherine an estate of £3,000. This middle-ranking couple gains a substantial income from aristocratic influence while confirming the patriarchy of the unrepentant father. At novel’s end, Catherine’s equation of villainy and aristocracy is displaced by reinscribed aristocratic power.

Catherine’s villains are refigured in the worthy husband, the most charming young man in the world. Austen suggests that her dénouement is a jocular formula that celebrates moral individualism, but economic motifs throughout Northanger Abbey confirm this serious aspect of the comedy.

Critics usually find Austen’s comedies to be intellectual, but her first novel stresses the economic consumption of material things.2 The architecture and furniture of Northanger Abbey displace the antiquarianism of the Gothic and sentimental genres. Prudent consumers, the Tilney family obliges Austen to limit her satire of consumerism. The most amusing fictional displacement effected by the Tilneys’ consumerism is Catherine’s disappointed discovery of manuscripts in the chest: this “collection of papers” in “coarse and modern characters” is significant in its banality. Washing bills confront her with “[s]hirts, stockings, cravats, and waistcoats,” lists of spending on “letters, hairpowder, shoe -string and breeches-ball” emphasize household budgetNo. 20 224 PERSUASIONS ing, and the cover sheet’s caption “To poultice chestnut mare” designates a farrier’s bill that Catherine cannot bring herself to read (172).

These texts invite readers to question Catherine’s resistance to domestic and market economy and to view her in economic terms. Self-correction about the false expectation of finding an ancient manuscript in a modern abbey is not Austen’s whole point. Catherine’s self-correction is


and fictional; it evades domestic finances and that relation of writing to accounts taught by her father (14).

Henry Tilney studies domestic economy from the viewpoint that we are all consumers independently of gender. He buys his own cravats and his sister’s gowns. He knows materials and bargains. He buys one gown of “‘true Indian muslin’” at Bath for “‘five shillings a yard’” (28). Catherine’s chaperon, Mrs. Allen, cannot equal his shopping, despite her obsession with finery. She pays nine shillings a yard for a muslin gown, thinking the price low. This gown soon develops a hole in the sleeve. In his teasing approach to intimacy, Henry warns Catherine that, if her muslin gown will wash badly and fray, the material will serve as a handkerchief, cap, or cloak. His advice follows his sister’s experience (29). If Henry studies the utility of cloth, Mrs. Allen is more concerned with fashion and conspicuous consumption. Smitten by Eleanor’s “‘very pretty spotted muslin,’” she does not think that Henry might have chosen it for durability (68). Supposed to shield Catherine, Mrs. Allen ventures into Bath society only when protected by “the newest fashion” (20). Her simple-minded delight in fashion dulls her to the tension between desire for uniqueness and standardized imitation. Having observed that Eleanor always wears white, she urges Catherine to do the same when visiting Milsom Street, on the basis that those who dress alike are socially equal (91). When summoning James Morland to guess the price and weigh the merits of a new muff and tippet (51), Mrs. Allen asserts consumer skills to pretend to rank and taste. But Austen invites us to deny Mrs. Allen’s disjointed sense of utility, rank, and style.

Mrs. Allen is so voluble about fashion that when she tries to convey what it can signify for Catherine’s benefit, she succeeds only in turning her ward away from social codes. In gossiping with Mrs.

Hughes, a former schoolfellow, Mrs. Allen learns that the Tilneys are rich because the General’s wife had a marriage settlement of £20,000 and because her wedding outfit was produced in a warehouse at a cost ROBERT MERRETT Consuming Modes in Northanger Abbey 225 of £500 (68). The bride received a beautiful set of pearls on her wedding day, a set inherited by Eleanor. If Catherine rightly says that Mrs. Allen has “no real intelligence to give” about the Tilneys, she is wrong not to interpret what the gossip says about the Tilneys’ economic and social standing.

Catherine is wilfully abstract about material reality. When Henry says teasingly that her journal entries likely focus on her “‘sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings’” (26), she sensibly denies being obsessed with clothes; in not keeping a journal, she resists being typed. But she embraces as well as resists being gendered by literary stances. She embodies female concern for dress. Her arrival at Northanger during a shower takes her attention from the modernity of the architecture and puts “all her thoughts on the welfare of her new straw bonnet” (161). Amusingly, reflexive concern for her hat impedes her Gothic stance. She notes the Abbey’s interior features and furnishings with some precision, but disappointment with “the profusion and elegance of modern taste” means that her account of the house is partial and fragmentary. She discounts modern industry and domestic efficiency; she had hoped for a fireplace with “the ample width and ponderous carving of former times,” but it is merely “a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china” (162). This complaint leads Austen to assert that the fire conserves heat and does not smoke. On seeing the Abbey’s modernized Gothic windows, Catherine does not grasp that Gothic form may be functional; she is merely disappointed that the casement panes are large, clear, and light rather than small, painted, and dirty (162). She notes that the walls in her apartment are papered, that its floor is carpeted, and that its furniture is comfortable, if not in the latest mode, but she will not read social and economic signs in the domestic setting (163). Her reaction to the dining room manifests a dullness to form: the room “is fitted up in a style of luxury and expense which was almost lost on the unpractised eye of Catherine, who saw little more than its spaciousness and the number of their attendants” (166). She treats domestic design clumsily. When she praises the breakfast set chosen by the General, his overreaction to her approval blinds her to the signs that first bring the set to her notice. To his false modesty, the set is simple and neat, bought to “encourage the manufacture of his country,” tea being “as well No. 20 226 PERSUASIONS flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden or Sève.” The General, having seen new sets in town, knows that the manufacture has improved and anticipates buying a new set for someone. Far from questioning the General’s economic nationalism, Catherine is the only one present not to see that he is thinking of her as the recipient of a future wedding gift (175).

Catherine’s reaction to the General’s economic and modish improvements of Northanger Abbey is not acute or thoughtful. She cannot take in his enclosed grounds: the walls seem countless, the hot houses contain the whole village (178). She makes little of the drawing room: her “indiscriminating eye scarcely discerned the colour of the satin” (182). Her antique tastes resist costly and elegant products: she likes “no furniture of a more modern date than the fifteenth century” (182). She despises “mere domestic economy” for displacing the old aesthetic modes (184). Inventions that facilitate the labor of cooks make her almost rave against the “spacious theatre” of the General’s kitchen (183). Guest rooms fitted up with everything money and taste could do to make them comfortable and elegant do not please Catherine (185).

Her stealthy exploration of the late Mrs. Tilney’s room shocks her into realizing that it is of a piece with the house: “a large, well-proportioned apartment” with “an handsome dimity bed, arranged as unoccupied with an housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes and neatly-painted chairs”; it is accessible to the sun (193). Her dullness to the conformity of external site and internal space, of architectural style and function, matches her ignorance of the social meaning of landscape aesthetics.

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