On Rereading Northanger Abbey in the Age of #MeToo

This has been a time of a lot of change in our family, and I don’t like change.  I find it more stressful than I should, and one proven cure for the butterflies of angst and the hamster circle mind is to reach for a Sure Thing.  In this case, it was to reread Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

I am not so much of a Janeite that I will dress up in costume to drink tea, but I do find enormous and unapologetic pleasure in rereading her books.  She is wise and biting.  Her critics will say that her novels only serve to reinforce the status quo rather than undermine it, but I am content to see how she skewers the mores of her age.  And for all its costume drama appeal, I do find a lot of what’s between the pages timeless.

One of the things that struck me about the bookish heroine Catherine Moreland this time through had to do with her voice.  When she is with the feckless John Thorpe, her voice is well nigh powerless.  He talks at her, over her and around her–almost all of it nonsense–and she is never able to respond effectively.  He only hears what he wants to hear, and that is precious little.  That he proposes marriage in such a round-about way that she does not even understand the proposal to have been made, is less a reflection on her naiveté than on his stupidity and arrogance.

When she is with Henry Tilney, though, she has her own powerful voice, and her desire is perfectly clear.  She is fully herself (flaws and all), but more than that, she is heard.  He is clearly her superior in experience and understanding, but he engages with her as an equal.  Where John Thorpe has maligned her love of gothic novels, even as he admits gobbling them up himself, Henry Tilney not only shares but deepens her appreciation of their appeal.  When they are together, there is a true exchange of views; dialogue is dialogue.  She opines and she is eloquent with Henry Tilney, where she is frustrated and thwarted with John Thorpe.  Henry Tilney is not only the most suitable object of her desire, he’s the person who makes possible the best version of herself.

Although I went to this book looking for an escape from the world, I found comfort for one of its current and pressing ailments.  In the age of #metoo, when women are opining and eloquent about sexual misconduct in the face of being talked at, around and over, this book and its plot mechanisms set the perfect tone.  The book determines that the right man for the heroine is the man who listens to her, who gives her the space to speak, who hears what she has to say, and, although he may sometimes disagree, never speaks over, around or at her.  Common sense, since the early 1800s.


2 thoughts

  1. Natalie,
    Thank you for continuing to write Plenty. I find it a wonderful resource in my everyday. I know it is not as easy as your team has decreased.
    Thank you for all of your efforts to keep it going.

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