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Northanger Abbey and antisocial pleasure

By Rob Horning

Though published last, Northanger Abbey was probably among the first novels Jane Austen wrote, sometime around 1799. While it’s not regarded as straight-up juvenilia, it’s sometimes dismissed as a slight and occasionally awkward mix of parody with the  ”free indirect speech” approach she later perfected, a satire of Gothic novels that can seem obvious and unnecessary. Austen has some fun lovingly mocking the books of Ann Radcliffe and her ilk, while issuing a gentle warning not to mistake the intensity of Gothic novels’ narrative suspense for truth. Readers must not go Quixote with them and start interpreting everyday life in their terms.

But there is more going on Northanger Abbey than that. It’s not merely a novel about reading novels and the dangers such reading can present to an “innocent” girl like Catherine Morland, the book’s main character. That was certainly a popular 18th century theme among moralists, who saw something inherently suspicious in women finding solitary pleasure in books. Austen was too much of a reader herself to buy into that entirely, but an ambivalence about books comes through in the novel as a larger concern with consumer goods in general, which were just beginning to veil social relations. That is, Northanger Abbey is not just about novels; it’s about novelty as an emerging value and how that affects other social obligations. It’s uneasy with its own conservatism, but nonetheless critiques emerging consumerism on the grounds of protecting traditions and preserving social order, lamenting increased consumption as a kind of social threat.

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