Our discussion of Northanger Abbeybegan with the scene in which Eleanor, and Catherine survey Bath from the top of a hill. Judging Henry's discussion of politics to be an attempt to reduce Catherine to silence is an excellent example of reading Austen's text against the grain. Catherine may be silent already, and she may be depicted as feeling anything but oppressed; nonetheless, brushed against the grain, Henry's talk can rightly be seen to echo and reinforce a set of cultural norms intent on reducing women to order. And in this way he can be made to seem at one with characters as "superficially" different from him and from each other as General Tilney and John Thorpe. I've been arguing, though, that the reading only against the grain of Austen's representation may be high. For Austen, nothing is ever essentially the same as anything else. She is always making distinctions; we can think of her linguistic practice as constituting a "difference machine." Dealing with language means evolving an ever more finely tuned and articulated instrument for measuring disparate realities, not by conflating them, but by putting them in their (slightly different) places. Then too, for some, sublime criticism can feel anything but liberating. Not too long ago, a female critic published in a prestigious journal an article that indicted "the feminists" for supposedly creating an oppressive climate in Austen studies. As Catherine supposedly is silenced, so are those young, untenured critics who do not agree with the new reading of Austen, the argument ran. In those who feel that the grains of works they love (or, for that matter, their own grains) are being brushed the wrong way, this kind of reaction seems predictable. Reading Henry Tilney against the grain leaves him no room to maneuver; he's just like his father, and that's that. He has one "subject-position," and he's trying to push Catherine into another. Being put in one and only one place is what the critic who leveled her accusation at "the feminists" objected to; unfortunately but predictably, she defended by assigning a single and oversimplified place to them. The model of ferreting out the true, hidden political self of critics and fictional characters has its uses. It also has its limits. We might want to think twice about overriding a novelistic discourse that allows for the emergence, within limits, of a series of potential selves that, under the right circumstances, could become part of a larger dialogue.
What does plot mean to Henry Tilney? Well, he can use fictional plotting to excite Catherine Morland, but in a world in which he is participant, not creator, his role is less powerful. Throughout most of the novel, he simply waits, observing how the plot of his father's infatuation working itself out to his own psychic advantage. At the same time, he participates in a love plot his father does everything he can to create. When the decisive moment of rectitude and defiance arrives, he is ready for it. Indeed, his adroitness throughout the novel gives him the air of somehow orchestrating the whole thing. It is worth mentioning that he contrives to extract as much enjoyment as he can from the plots that develop around him, from which we may gather the moral that plots are pleasure. For his sister, the norms of society are a more serious mal given what society expects from a woman by way of obedience and re nation. Her eventual release from her father's orbit by the entrance of "the most charming young man in the world" (218) is, in respect to plots and plotting, a nice parody of Henry's all-too-easy mixture of spectatorship, escape, and mastery, revealing (if by this point in the novel it needs to be revealed) the element of readerly fantasy that lies behind our acceptance of Catherine and Henry's achievement of perfect felicity. When plot has run its course, the large problems concerning the fates and proprieties of men and women remain as they have unfolded; they are energized by the workings of the plot, not solved or "solved" by its ending. [Chapter Four: "Austen: Narrative, Plots, Distinctions, and Life in the Grain," pp. 159-160; added by PVA.]
- Philip V. Allingham's Review of Harry E. Shaw's Narrating Reality
- Realism and the Outer Life
- Realism in Austen's Northanger Abbey
- Scott's Realism and Cultural Difference
- Eliot's Realism and Nineteenth-Century Historicism
Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, and Eliot. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 280, including four-page index. ISBN 0-8014-1592-6.
Last modified 18 October 2004