No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine (1). Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition (2), were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man (3), though his name was Richard (4)—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings (6)—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters (7). Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper (8), and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself (9). A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure (10), a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features;—so much for her person (11);—and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind (12). She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket (13) not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse (14), feeding a canary-bird (15), or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief (16)—at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take.—Such were her propensities—her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught (17); and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition” (18); and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid,—by no means; she learnt the fable of “The Hare and many Friends,” as quickly as any girl in England (19). Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should (20) like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet (21); so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it;—and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste (22), allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life (23). Her taste for drawing was not superior (24); though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother, or seize upon any other odd piece of paper (25), she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens (26), all very much like one another.—Writing and accounts she was taught by her father (27); French by her mother (28): her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange, unaccountable character!—for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls (29); her complexion improved, her features were softened by plumpness (30) and colour, her eyes gained more animation, and her figure more consequence (31). Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement. “Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl,—she is almost pretty to-day,” were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.
Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children every thing they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in (32) and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful (33) that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball (34), riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books—or at least books of information—for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives. (35)
From Pope, she learnt to censure those who
“bear about the mockery of woe.” (36)
From Gray, that
“Many a flower is born to blush unseen,
“And waste its fragrance on the desert air.” (37)
From Thompson, that
——“It is a delightful task
“To teach the young idea how to shoot.” (38)
And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information (39)—amongst the rest, that
——“Trifles light as air,
“Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
“As proofs of Holy Writ.” (40)
“The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
“In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
“As when a giant dies.” (41)
And that a young woman in love always looks
——“like Patience on a monument
“Smiling at Grief.” (42)
So far her improvement was sufficient—and in many other points she came on exceedingly well; for though she could not write sonnets, she brought herself to read them; and though there seemed no chance of her throwing a whole party into raptures by a prelude on the pianoforte (43), of her own composition (44), she could listen to other people’s performance with very little fatigue. Her greatest deficiency was in the pencil (45)—she had no notion of drawing—not enough even to attempt a sketch of her lover’s profile, that she might be detected in the design (46). There she fell miserably short of the true heroic height. At present she did not know her own poverty, for she had no lover to portray. She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable (47) youth who could call forth her sensibility (48); without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet (49). There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door (50)—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward (51), and the squire of the parish no children. (52)
But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.
Mr. Allen, who owned the chief (53) of the property about Fullerton, the village in Wiltshire where the Morlands lived (54), was ordered to Bath for the benefit of a gouty constitution; (55)—and his lady, a good-humoured woman, fond of Miss Morland, and probably aware that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad (56), invited her to go with them. Mr. and Mrs. Morland were all compliance, and Catherine all happiness (57).
(1) [Image] A portrait of two girls. [From The Masterpieces of Lawrence (London, 1913), p49]
By “heroine” the author means specifically the heroine of a typical novel of the day. Northanger Abbey, which is the earliest of Jane Austen’s com- pleted novels (versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were written prior to it, but both were revised, probably substantially, before they were published), is the only one that is in part a literary parody. As such it harkens back to the sketches and short stories Austen composed while an adolescent, many of which ridicule contemporary novels through absurd exaggerations.
Both there and in Northanger Abbey she directs much of her satire at the sentimental novel, the most popular type in the last few decades of the eighteenth century. Later in this work she also targets the Gothic novel, which developed out of the sentimental novel and became prominent in the 1790s (for more on that genre, see p. 79, note 6). Sentimental novels involve plac- ing main characters in situations of acute distress. This gives ample opportu- nity to depict a variety of extreme emotions and to arouse them in the reader. A strong capacity for such emotions, often called sensibility, was celebrated by many in Austen’s time (and this cult of sensibility forms the object of her satire in Sense and Sensibility). The principal characters in these novels are frequently heroines, for one important development of the late eighteenth century, in contrast to earlier years, was that many of the leading novelists were female—as were many of their readers.
: general mental character; the term had a broader meaning than it does today. Here it is paired with “person,” referring to physical character.
(3) It is usual for the distress under which the main characters in sentimental novels labor to begin in childhood. Common misfortunes could include being born into a family that had been misused, reduced to poverty, or deprived of its social respectability.
(4) Jane Austen expresses a dislike of the name “Richard” in a letter, saying that “Mr. Richard Harvey’s match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes” (Sept. 15, 1796). The reasons for her dislike—she never uses the name for a speaking character in her novels—is unknown. It may have been an inside joke among her family, or at least with her sister (the recipient of the letter), though that cannot fully explain why she should include the joke in a work intended for publication. One commentator speculates that the popularity during this period of Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose title character is a monster of iniquity, may have created a general animosity toward the name (F. B. Pinion, A Jane Austen Companion
: sum of money providing financial independence. Here it refers to Mr. Morland’s sources of wealth separate from the income from his clerical employment.
(6) A “living” was the position as clergyman for a parish; a good one provided its holder with a comfortable income. Many clergymen held more than one living and received the salary for both; sometimes they hired an assistant to perform the duties of one, or if the parishes were close to each other, as was often the case, they performed dual duties.
(7) Another common type of fictional childhood suffering was parental tyranny. This made a particularly ripe target for parody, since in actuality the trend during the eighteenth century was for increasingly lenient parenting; Austen’s novels rarely show parents imposing strict discipline on their children, and there is never a suggestion of physical force or punishment.
: disposition, temperament.
(9) Loss of one or more parents was another frequent hardship of heroines, though it was not such an easy target of satire, since in fact death rates were fairly high in this period, especially for women during childbirth and for infants. This would make the Morland family unusually healthy, though not an extreme rarity. Jane Austen’s mother lived to a ripe old age and had eight children, all of whom lived well into adulthood.
(10) At this time the ideal of beauty was a median between fat and thin, so thinness could be seen as a drawback to a person’s appearance. Later a vain young woman will lament, “I am grown wretchedly thin” (p. 248).
(11) Splendid physical beauty was a fundamental attribute of almost any heroine of the time, even in those novels admired by Jane Austen and mentioned later in this work. Austen’s novels break somewhat with this custom, though even she always makes her heroines at least pretty—as Catherine will be shown to be by the time she enters young adulthood.
: inner character. The word then often referred to emotional as well as intellectual qualities, and, like “disposition,” could also be paired with “person” in order to provide a comprehensive description of someone.
(13) [Image] A game of cricket.
[From Randall Davies, English Society of the Eighteenth Century in Contemporary Art
(London, 1907, p72)
: a popular outdoor game in Britain (and now throughout the British Commonwealth). It is similar to baseball in that a member of one team hits a ball with a bat and then, if the ball is not caught, runs bases to score, with play divided into innings. The principal differences are that the cricket bat is wide and held low to the ground, the batter must stand in front of and protect a set of three vertical sticks (called a wicket), the batter runs between only two bases (called creases) and can earn multiple runs, and the field extends behind as well as in front of the batter. The first written records of cricket come from the sixteenth century, though it may have been played earlier. By the eighteenth century it had emerged as the most popular team sport in England. It was played by both children and adults, and, unlike most sports, it was played by members of various social classes and by both men and women; during the mid-eighteenth century, matches between ladies’ teams became popular, though by the nineteenth century this had faded and the sport became more exclusively male.
(14) The English dormouse (now technically called the hazel dormouse) is a small tree-dwelling nocturnal rodent, one that was sometimes kept as a pet. Kindness to animals was praised in many sentimental stories of this period, especially those intended for children. In the very popular The History of Sandford and Merton
by Thomas Day, which contrasts the good boy Sandford with the bad boy Merton, the former engages in charitable actions toward animals, especially small ones. Such writings reflected a general growth in the eighteenth century of humanitarian feeling regarding animals, which included an increased belief in their commonality with humankind and a revulsion toward cruel treatment. This attitude was reinforced by a trend toward celebrating the beauty and goodness of the natural world, something promoted strongly by much sentimental literature.
All this would make nursing a dormouse (nursing could refer to raising an infant creature as well as tending a sick one) a proper activity for a young heroine, though the selection of such an insignificant creature as the object of this heroism, along with the trivial nature of the next two tasks in the list, is probably intended to underline the absurdity of these “heroic” standards.
(15) Canaries had first appeared in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and soon became desirable pets, especially among the wealthy. They were carefully bred, which resulted in birds with the familiar yellow color starting in the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century, pet birds of various types grew in popularity in England.
(16) An appreciation of natural beauty could be a mark of a sentimental hero or heroine, for it would demonstrate refined sensitivity. Love of flowers would be especially appropriate for a heroine, since cultivating flower gardens, beautifying the home with flowers, or painting pictures of them were all common feminine occupations.
(17) [Image] A girl with a bird.
[From George Williamson, George Morland: His Life and Works
(London, 1907), p 96)
Catherine is contrasted here with the many heroines who display almost superhuman abilities as they grow and become educated. The author may be aiming particularly at Emmeline (1788), by Charlotte Smith, a very popular novel discussed in the last and longest of Jane Austen’s youthful stories, “Catharine, or the Bower.” Emmeline, having lost both parents when young, is raised by people too ignorant to provide more than a rudimentary education. This proves no deterrent, however, for “Emmeline had a kind of intuitive knowledge; and comprehended everything with a facility that soon left her instructors behind her.” Thanks to that superhuman ability, and equally superhuman labors, she becomes a prodigy of learning while still an adolescent.
Jane Austen mocks the same idea in her early satire of sentimental fiction, the novella Love and Friendship, whose heroine, boasting of her many perfections, declares, “Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress. . . . My progress had always exceeded my instructions; my Acquirements had been wonderful for my Age, and I had shortly surpassed my Masters.”
(18) “The Beggar’s Petition,” or “The Beggar,” is a poem by Thomas Moss first published in 1769. It begins, “Pity the sorrows of a poor old man,” and continues in the same strain as the old man details and laments the harshness of his lot. Memorizing poetry was an important part of education, and works that encouraged sympathy for the poor and distressed were often taught to children. This poem appears in various literary anthologies of the period, especially ones intended for children and schools. Anthologies, usually consisting of both shorter works like poems and extracts from longer ones, were very popular; a typical one, Elegant Extracts
, some of whose editions included this poem, is mentioned in Emma
(19) “The Hare and Many Friends” appears in the Fables of the poet John Gay. It tells the story of a hare who attempts to please everyone but, never having formed any deep attachment, is abandoned by all her superficial friends when she is in danger. Well known at the time, the poem is also cited or alluded to by two different characters in Emma. Catherine’s ease in memorizing “The Hare and Many Friends” indicates her character, for, in addition to being shorter than “The Beggar’s Petition,” it tells a more engaging story and is less openly didactic.
(21) [Image] "A Girl Sketching."
[From Sir Walter Armstrong, Sir Henry Raeburn
(London, 1901), p54]
A spinet is a keyboard instrument. Like the larger harpsichord, it had long been in use in England and continental Europe, but it was being superseded in this period by the pianoforte, or piano. The principal innovation of the piano is that the strings are struck when a key is pressed, which allows a player to vary the strength of the notes—“pianoforte,” which means “soft-loud” in Italian, refers to this ability. This gave it much greater flexibility than older instruments, which contain mechanically operated strings that are plucked when a key is pressed, always producing notes of equal strength. This is why a spinet owned at this time would likely be old. Possession of one rather than a piano, when the latter was becoming a standard feature of middle- and upper-class homes and was not terribly expensive, would also indicate that a family was not musical, which is why the spinet is described as forlorn. That Catherine’s only attempts at music occur on such a humble instrument reinforces her prosaic nature.
(22) The main goal of female education was to make girls “accomplished,” which could include academic learning and artistic attainments such as music, as well as more purely decorative talents like dancing and personal deportment.
(23) Masters were professional teachers hired by families to educate their children in a specific subject.
(24) Besides music, drawing was the principal artistic accomplishment taught to girls. In Jane Austen’s family, she learned to play the piano and her sister Cassandra learned to draw. Many books existed for the purpose of teaching girls how to draw.
(25) Letters were closed and sealed by folding the outside piece of paper; there were no envelopes as we know them. The outside page would contain blank spaces. The high cost of paper encouraged relying on such scraps if one wished for something to draw upon.
: chicks. The usual name for the species as a whole, except possibly when referring to its meat, was “common domestic fowl.” Catherine would almost certainly have selected these creatures as a frequent subject of her efforts because her family kept their own fowl; most families, including those of clergy such as Jane Austen’s own, engaged in home agricultural activities to supplement their income. Poultry was generally the particular care of the woman of a family, and it would usually be kept close to the house, the main focus of a woman’s labor. Catherine would draw hens and chicks particularly because most adult males of the species would be killed for meat; the females were kept alive for their eggs.
(27) “Writing” would normally include good penmanship, which was highly valued at the time; there were both books and masters for teaching the subject and enabling students to attain superb hands. “Accounts” meant basic arithmetic; this would also be a standard part of girls’ education, though higher mathematics were usually reserved for male students.
(28) Modern languages, particularly French and Italian, were a leading academic subject for girls. (Latin and Greek, central to boys’ education, were rarely taught to girls.) In being instructed primarily by her parents, Catherine is following a common, though not universal, practice of the time.
(29) Women’s hairstyles at the time usually involved curled hair. For an example, see the following page.
: importance, distinction.
: giving birth. The period of lying-in or “confinement” lasted from the birth of a baby until the mother’s recovery. The standard time was a month or a little longer, for medical opinion considered an extended rest necessary to ward off the postnatal dangers threatening both mother and child. Initially the mother was confined to her bed, and then in gradual stages she would be allowed to move about more and to receive more visitors.
: astonishing, amazing—i.e., full of wonder.
(34) This is one of the earliest known written examples of the term “baseball.” Games that involved hitting a ball with various objects existed in England as early as the Middle Ages, and starting in the fifteenth century there are written references to games in which players, after hitting a ball, circle around a set of bases or stools in order to score. The first known uses of “baseball” date from the 1740s, and their wording suggests the game was already long established at that time. Among the differences from current baseball, however, were that the ball was often hit with the hand (and when a bat was used, it was fairly small) and that the fielding team, if they failed to catch the ball, could get the runner out by hitting him or her when between bases. The dimensions of the field were also much smaller, in part because baseball was almost exclusively a game for children, as in this case.
Soon after this, in the early nineteenth century, the name in England was changed to “rounders,” and it continues to be a popular game there for school-age children, especially girls. Meanwhile, in the United States, where English settlers had brought the game, it grew steadily in popularity from the late eighteenth century and became a common pursuit of adult men, until by the late nineteenth century it had become the national pastime, with numerous professional teams playing the same basic version that exists today.
(35) [Image] A young woman with curled hair.
[From The Masterpieces of Lawrence
(London, 1913), p52]
The vicissitudes would be the woeful mishaps frequently suffered by heroines, at which time the moral reflections provided by poetry could furnish invaluable solace and fortitude. Poetry was widely read at the time, sometimes outselling novels, and was held in very high esteem, so that most educated people were familiar with leading poets. Love of poetry would be highly suitable to a sentimental heroine, both because it would signify her artistic taste, an important quality, and because poetry’s frequent appeal to the emotions would suit someone who was distinguished by emotional sensitivity.
(36) Alexander Pope was the most renowned poet of the eighteenth century. By this point his classicism and rationalism had begun to fall from favor, but he would still be known well by any lover of poetry. The romantic and emotional Marianne of Sense and Sensibility
prefers that others feel only limited admiration for Pope, without condemning him altogether. This line comes, appropriately for a heroine, from Pope’s “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717), a piece more sentimental than most of his. It laments a betrayed woman who killed herself in foreign lands and now rests in the ground unknown and unmourned.
(37) These lines are from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), one of the most popular and celebrated poems of the century. In it the poet muses sympathetically on the lives and virtues of ordinary country people who never achieve fame or distinction; such sympathy for humble folk also figures strongly in many sentimental novels. These famous lines are also quoted by a character in Emma
; in both cases Jane Austen, presumably drawing from memory, substitutes “fragrance” for the correct “sweetness.”
(38) These lines are from “Spring” (1728), one of four parts of the long poem The Seasons
, by James Thomson. This poem is significant for its celebration of the beauties and glories of nature, a theme that would attain greater prominence as the century progressed. “Spring” concludes with an evoca- tion of the virtuous and harmonious existence of a couple living close to nature. The actual lines alluded to here are, “Delightful task! to rear the tender thought / To teach the young idea how to shoot,” referring to the rearing and education of children.
(39) Shakespeare, after a period of partial neglect and disfavor from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, experienced a resurgence in popularity after 1750 and was widely extolled as the great English national poet and playwright. A continuous stream of editions of his work appeared, while extracts from them formed a staple of literary anthologies.
(40) This line is spoken by Iago in Othello
, as he reflects on how to inflame the title character’s jealousy by planting his wife’s handkerchief in another man’s lodging.
(41) These lines are from Measure for Measure
(though the first line actually begins “And the,” while the second line has “finds” instead of “feels”). They are spoken by Isabella to her brother Claudio, as she, to justify her refusal to sacrifice her honor for his life, argues that the reality of death is far less painful than the apprehension of it.
(42) These particularly famous lines come from a scene in Twelfth Night
, in which the heroine Viola, unable to avow her own love to her listener because she is disguised as a boy, speaks of it in analogy by relating the supposed story of a sister who concealed her love and pined hopelessly.
(43) A prelude is a short piece of music, and the pianoforte was the most popular instrument of the time (see note 21 above). Musical performances, usu- ally by young women, were a frequent feature of social gatherings, for people had almost no other means of hearing music outside of church (unless they lived in large towns that could support public concerts).
(44) Although many ladies would learn to play music, almost none composed their own pieces. Such an achievement, like that of composing one’s own sonnets, was rarely found beyond the exalted ranks of novel heroines.
(45) This could refer either to the pencil we know or to a paintbrush. A person skilled at drawing or sketching would probably use both.
(46) The detection of a secret love, often with disastrous consequences, was a common convention of novels at the time. Catherine is contrasted again with the aforementioned heroine of Emmeline, who shows an extraordinary innate ability in drawing, for after a simple explanation of the rules of drawing she is able to produce a faultless portrait of her beloved.
: benevolent; lovable or worthy of being loved. The term, a frequent one of praise in Austen’s novels, had a broader meaning than it does now.
: capacity for feeling. The term, a common one then, could refer particularly to a capacity for highly refined feeling, and many writers in the late eighteenth century celebrated such sensibility, especially when it led to strong appreciation of art and natural beauty and acute sympathy for human suffering. For more on this concept, and its application to this novel, see note 1 above and the introduction.
(49) [Image] A lord, or peer, in ceremonial robes.
[From William Alexander, Picturesque Representations of the Dress & Manners of the English
(1813), Plate 6]
A lord was a member of the peerage or nobility, those who had formal titles and the right to sit in the House of Lords, one of the two houses of the British Parliament. Lords were at the pinnacle of English society and therefore made ideal lovers for heroines who were fated to experience extraordi- nary events, whether good or bad (the latter might include having a romance blocked by family opposition or being tempted by a lord who ultimately proved unworthy). A baronet was the next highest rank. The holder of a baronetcy would be called “Sir” (as opposed to “Lord”), and could pass on this title to his eldest son, but he enjoyed none of the political or legal privileges of a member of the peerage.
(50) [Image] A family of the period with a pianoforte (picture by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres).
[From Max von Boehn, Modes & Manners of the Nineteenth Century,
Vol. I (London, 1909), p 59]
A child accidentally found at someone’s door, or generally of unknown origin, was a frequent feature of novels, most notably in the title character of what was probably the most renowned of all eighteenth-century novels, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, whose subtitle is “A Foundling.” Foundlings did occur in real life then—for widespread poverty and the absence of any significant safety net caused some women to abandon their infants at others’ doors to give them a better chance of survival—but not as often as in literature, where it could provide an excellent opportunity for dramatic developments as the true identity of the foundling was revealed. In many fictional cases, unlike in reality, the child turns out to be the son or daughter of wealthy and high-ranking parents. A youthful satirical sketch by Jane Austen, “Henry and Eliza,” begins with the discovery of the infant heroine in this fashion.
(51) A ward was not unusual in this time, for the high death rate meant that many children were orphans, and they were sometimes raised and supported by a distant relation or someone with another connection to them. Wards were a useful device for novelists, since an unrelated young person raised within a family provided an excellent opportunity for romantic entanglements with the family’s actual children.
(52) In the countryside, the parish was the basic unit of both local government and church organization, and “parish” could be used more loosely to refer to a rural neighborhood. A squire is an untitled wealthy landowner. The word derives from the medieval term for the attendant of a knight, the lowest-ranking of all titled positions. The squire at issue here is the Mr. Allen identified below.
(54) Wiltshire is a county in southern England (see map on p. 536). It is to the immediate west of Hampshire, the county where Jane Austen grew up and lived most of her life, but there is no indication that this is why she chose it. The obvious reason is that it is close to Bath. Austen always selects the location of her stories according to such considerations, in particular the way a place’s proximity, or lack of proximity, to important towns proves useful for the plot. She never gives regional mannerisms to her characters, a reflection of the fact that during the eighteenth century such mannerisms had mostly faded among the genteel classes that are the focus of her novels.
(55) [Image] A map of Bath from 1801.
[From Emma Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen and Bath
(London, 1939), frontpiece.
Bath is a town in western England (see map, p. 536), which, thanks to several warm springs beneath it, had become by the eighteenth century the leading spa in England. People came to bathe in or drink its waters, hoping to cure their ailments. The influx of spa-goers stimulated the development of entertainments for these visitors, who tended to be affluent, since travel and residence cost a considerable sum by the standards of the time, and to stay a long time, since the waters were believed to take a while to work their effects. These entertainments in turn drew visitors who came solely or mostly for pleasure, which turned Bath into the leading social center in eighteenth-century England after London, frequented by many members of elite society as well as by artistic and literary figures. Bath also figures prominently in a number of novels and plays of the period.
Jane Austen was familiar with the town. She visited there with her family in 1797, when she was twenty-two, and again in 1799. In 1801 her father retired and moved himself, his wife, and his two daughters to Bath; the latter three remained until 1806, following Mr. Austen’s death in 1805. It was some time after her first visit that Jane Austen commenced work on this novel, and she finished a revised version during her later residence. She sets approximately half of this work and of her last completed novel, Persuasion, in Bath, and it is the only town aside from London that is mentioned in all of her novels.
Mr. Allen would have been ordered to Bath by his doctor. Limited means of medical treatment meant that a more healthful place was often the recommendation for ailments, at least for those who could afford it. Gout was one of the leading ailments that sent people to Bath, to the degree that the city was frequently associated with the disease. Gout is usually caused by excessive consumption of alcohol and of foods rich in purines, which include certain types of meat and fish; this made it a disease primarily of the wealthy, whose diet was heavily based on meat, in contrast to the very limited meat consumption of poorer people. It is characterized by painful inflammation of the joints, particularly those of the big toe. In a letter, Jane Austen suggests that her elder brother may visit Bath for a possible case of gout (June 19, 1799). Gout afflicted men far more than women and tended to strike those who were older; hence a mature, wealthy man like Mr. Allen would be likely to suffer from it.
away from home.
(57) Catherine’s delight could flow not simply from the many amusements offered by Bath, but also from its far greater opportunities for social life and romance. Those of genteel social status could socialize only with those of the same status (for more on this status, see p. 29, note 10). In the countryside, the genteel class consisted of wealthy landowners and local clergy, pos- sibly supplemented by retired military officers and their families. Any given neighborhood would contain only a few such families, and the slowness and difficulty of travel, especially over rural dirt roads, precluded regular visiting with those farther afield. This situation created a very limited choice of mates for young unmarried people, and was particularly hard on young women, who were under great social and economic pressure to marry while being handicapped by social rules that prevented them from traveling on their own. In Austen’s other novels, much of the plot arises from the arrival in a rural area of one or more eligible young men. In this case the main character’s lack of local romantic options—due to the childlessness of the apparently only other genteel family in the vicinity—makes a venture to Bath, a town brimming with wealthy visitors and social events, a tremendous opportunity. In Emma
a man goes to Bath to find a mate and quickly succeeds.
Excerpted from The Annotated Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Annotations by David M. Shapard. Copyright © 2013 by Jane Austen. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.