A Crisis of Conflict Reflected in Austen’s Novels

From Amazon: The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, combines historical analysis and readings of extraordinarily diverse texts to re-conceive the foundations of the dominant genre of the modern era. Now, on the fifteenth anniversary of its initial publication, The Origins of the English Novel stands as essential reading. The anniversary edition features a new introduction in which the author reflects on the considerable response and commentary the book has attracted since its publication by describing dialectical method and by applying it to early modern notions of gender.
Challenging prevailing theories that tie the origins of the novel to the ascendancy of “realism” and the “middle class,” McKeon argues that this new genre arose in response to the profound instability of literary and social categories. Between 1600 and 1740, momentous changes took place in European attitudes toward truth in narrative and toward virtue in the individual and the social order. The novel emerged, McKeon contends, as a cultural instrument designed to engage the epistemological and social crises of the age.

In the book, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, Michael McKeon purports the idea that the “new” novel form emerging in the mid 1700s displays a Progressive Ideology and the Transvaluation of Honor (150-151). He states, “Evidence on many fronts suggests that the early modern period marked a critical turning point in the efficacy not only of romance but also of the social institutions with which we are likely to associate it, a point at which they began systematically to attest not to the concord but to the discord of internals and externals, of virtue, status, wealth, and power. Indeed, the very life span of some of these social institutions suggests that they are to be seen not aa the traditional tools of stability but as signs of a crisis of confidence.”

Unprecedented new wealth brought on the rapid change of land ownership. A slew of new titles were bestowed during the reigns of James I and Charles I. Each brought more riches for the Crown and each served as a “balance” in an unbalanced society. Some even believe that James’s excessive sale of honors was the basis for the rebellion against the monarchy, but I am not an expert on that time and do not pretend to support the idea. However, history will show the “dispensing of Honours” and the large number of new titles created brought many, without merit or family connections or fortunes, into the aristocracy. The controversy had Sir Edward Walker, who served Charles I and Charles II, most loyally, saying, the inflation of honours “took off from the Respect due to Nobility and introduced a parity in Conversation . . . the Curtain being drawn they were discovered to be Men that heretofore were reverenced as Angels.”

We view this concept to a lesser extent in many of Jane Austen’s novels. She speaks of it in Sense and Sensibility in the whole Colonel Brandon/Willoughby fiasco, but it becomes painfully clear in her satire of the Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. Those of us who love Jane Austen’s works and have studied her writings, combing through every small detail, know Austen spoke to such important topics as social class, a woman’s role in society, the role of the clergy, inheritance, primogeniture, imperialism, and gender relationships and responsibilities.

Austen was able to take the “romance” novel and have it speak not only of romance but of the underlying issues of a society in transition.

In Austen’s Northanger Abbey, General Tilney is the perfect Gothic villain. He is an evil, patriarchal man. Whereas the novels that proceeded Austen’s works connected goodness and virtue to those of the aristocracy, Austen and those that closely followed her in developing a new novel form did not. Austen placed “honor” and “respect” in the person, not the title/rank. For example, Captain Frederick Wentworth is Persuasion displays much more honor than does Sir Walter Elliot.

Because Catherine Morland has been brought to think this long-established virtues are associated with wealth and patrilineage, she assumes General Tilney must possess honor and sense and caring. Essentially, General Tilney must be a good man. Austen describes the general as:

Soon after their reaching the bottom of the set, Catherine perceived herself to be earnestly regarded by a gentleman who stood among the lookers-on, immediately behind her partner. He was a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour of life; and with his eye still directed towards her, she saw him presently address Mr. Tilney in a familiar whisper. Confused by his notice, and blushing from the fear of its being excited by something wrong in her appearance, she turned away her head. But while she did so, the gentleman retreated, and her partner, coming nearer, said, “I see that you guess what I have just been asked. That gentleman knows your name, and you have a right to know his. It is General Tilney, my father.”

Catherine’s answer was only “Oh!”–but it was an “Oh!” expressing everything needful: attention to his words, and perfect reliance on their truth. With real interest and strong admiration did her eye now follow the general, as he moved through the crowd, and “How handsome a family they are!” was her secret remark.

Catherine does not understand when she is treated poorly by the Tilneys:

Catherine’s expectations of pleasure from her visit in Milsom Street were so very high that disappointment was inevitable; and accordingly, though she was most politely received by General Tilney, and kindly welcomed by his daughter, though Henry was at home, and no one else of the party, she found, on her return, without spending many hours in the examination of her feelings, that she had gone to her appointment preparing for happiness which it had not afforded. Instead of finding herself improved in acquaintance with Miss Tilney, from the intercourse of the day, she seemed hardly so intimate with her as before; instead of seeing Henry Tilney to greater advantage than ever, in the ease of a family party, he had never said so little, nor been so little agreeable; and, in spite of their father’s great civilities to her–in spite of his thanks, invitations, and compliments–it had been a release to get away from him. It puzzled her to account for all this. It could not be General Tilney’s fault. That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry’s father. He could not be accountable for his children’s want of spirits, or for her want of enjoyment in his company. The former she hoped at last might have been accidental, and the latter she could only attribute to her own stupidity. Isabella, on hearing the particulars of the visit, gave a different explanation: “It was all pride, pride, insufferable haughtiness and pride! She had long suspected the family to be very high, and this made it certain. Such insolence of behaviour as Miss Tilney’s she had never heard of in her life! Not to do the honours of her house with common good breeding! To behave to her guest with such superciliousness! Hardly even to speak to her!”

Catherine Morland first opinion of General Tilney is based on his position in Society. He must be a man of honor, for he is a man holding a respected position of authority. Instead, he proves to be less than virtuous and his reason for accepting Catherine is his misunderstanding of your family’s wealth. She is the perfect match for Henry Tilney until she proves not to possess a rich dowry, which will enhance the Tilney family’s coffers. Even when the General shows his true colors and sends her away, she finds his actions incomprehensible of a man of honour—of a well-bred gentleman.

I leave it to my reader’s sagacity to determine how much of all this it was possible for Henry to communicate at this time to Catherine, how much of it he could have learnt from his father, in what points his own conjectures might assist him, and what portion must yet remain to be told in a letter from James. I have united for their ease what they must divide for mine. Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.

Henry, in having such things to relate of his father, was almost as pitiable as in their first avowal to himself. He blushed for the narrow-minded counsel which he was obliged to expose. The conversation between them at Northanger had been of the most unfriendly kind. Henry’s indignation on hearing how Catherine had been treated, on comprehending his father’s views, and being ordered to acquiesce in them, had been open and bold. The general, accustomed on every ordinary occasion to give the law in his family, prepared for no reluctance but of feeling, no opposing desire that should dare to clothe itself in words, could ill brook the opposition of his son, steady as the sanction of reason and the dictate of conscience could make it. But, in such a cause, his anger, though it must shock, could not intimidate Henry, who was sustained in his purpose by a conviction of its justice. He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland, and believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain, no unworthy retraction of a tacit consent, no reversing decree of unjustifiable anger, could shake his fidelity, or influence the resolutions it prompted.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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