Northanger Abbey: Catherine Morland and the Vice of the "Sympathetic Imagination"

Nicola Cummins
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.1 (February, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Nicola Cummins, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Critics as well as the characters in the novel Northanger Abbey have noticed Catherine Morland's artlessness, and commented upon it. In this article I have chosen to utilise the names given to Catherine's unworldliness by A. Walton Litz in Jane Austen: a Study of her Artistic Development,[1] and Christopher Gillie in A Preface to Jane Austen.[2] Litz refers to "what the eighteenth century would have called the sympathetic imagination, that faculty which promotes benevolence and generosity" (Litz, p. 67). Gillie calls this same quality "candour", and states the importance of it to Jane Austen herself, gleaning a definition of it from one of Austen's own prayers:

Incline us, oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves (cited in Gillie, p. 22).

Both critics recognise that Catherine's possession of this quality is problematic; it is desirable, but it must also be regulated if a heroine is not to be frequently duped by the harsh world. Both Gillie and Litz also acknowledge that an investigation of this enigma is at the heart of all Jane Austen's work.

I believe that the exploration of this fundamental conundrum is at the core of Northanger Abbey, and that this should be so dismisses the claims of those who believe that the lessons Catherine learns in the Gothic section of the novel are thematically most important.[3] I maintain that Northanger Abbey is not merely a curiosity, a burlesque of the Gothic style, a remnant which looks back to the parodic style of much of the juvenilia. Rather it is the herald of a new phase in Jane Austen's development of the theme of the heroine's transition from girlhood to womanhood because it is in Northanger Abbey that the theme that is perennially associated with Jane Austen--the importance of the education of judgment--becomes pre-eminent.

This article will first define the term candour as it would have been understood at the time Jane Austen was writing. I will then explore key words arising from this definition which illustrate the importance of the idea of candour as a thematic concern in Northanger Abbey. Finally I will consider Jane Austen's equivocal attitude to the quality of candour as it is evidenced in Northanger Abbey, with the intention of being able to judge whether or not by the end of the novel Austen regards candour as a good or bad quality with which to be endowed. Catherine Morland's candour gains her the friendship of Henry and Eleanor Tilney, and ultimately causes her to win Henry's heart, but candour also allows Catherine to be manipulated by Henry and raises queries about Henry's position as the hero of the novel.

The OED lists five possible definitions for candour, three of which could legitimately be applied to the quality Catherine Morland possesses because they are contemporaneous with the composition of Northanger Abbey. They are 3) freedom from mental bias, openness of mind, fairness, impartiality, justice [1637-1802]; 4) freedom from malice, favourable disposition, kindliness [1653-1802]; 5) freedom from reserve in one's statements, openness, frankness, ingenuousness, out-spokenness [1769-1876]. A fourth definition is, I believe, applicable in Catherine's case, although the OED states that it would not have been current at the time Jane Austen was writing Northanger Abbey: 2) stainlessness of character, purity, integrity, innocence [1610-1704].

A check of key words from the various OED definitions and Jane Austen's prayer [as cited above] in a concordance[4] to Austen's works suggests that candour is a quality of paramount importance in the characterisation of Catherine Morland.

Firstly "humble", a key word in Jane Austen's prayer. This word is used in the novel as both adjective and verb. Taking into account "humbled", the past tense of the verb, "humble[d]" is used proportionately more in Northanger Abbey, a short two-volume novel, than in any other of Jane Austen's works. In seven of the nine times it occurs in Northanger Abbey, it is applied to Catherine, with four usages occurring in the first volume, and five in the second. The fact that the spread of use is even is a further proof that the lessons learnt by Catherine in the first volume of the novel are as important thematically as the lessons she learns in the second (Gothic) volume.

"Open" is not as significant a word as "humble" in building up a word picture of Catherine's personality, but must be investigated because it occurs twice in the OED definitions of "candour". It is used three times in Northanger Abbey to describe a personal quality. Once it describes Eleanor Tilney,[5] and on the other two occasions it is applied to Catherine, first directly in a narratorial statement illuminating Catherine's nature, and again indirectly, in Henry's ironic description of Isabella's personality.[6] The most important conclusion which can be reached from these figures is that, in common with "humble", "open" is a word which is applied more to Catherine than to any other character in the novel.

"Artless", while not used in the OED definitions of candour, or in Austen's prayer, is a word favoured by critics when discussing Catherine Morland's personality. "Artless" is used three times in the novel, and each usage is applied to Catherine. Questions posed by Catherine are twice described as "artless", and Catherine herself is indirectly described as being "artless" in the same ironic catalogue of Isabella's qualities given by Henry, and discussed earlier in the paragraph on the word "open". The most interesting fact about "artless" as revealed by the concordance is that as far as usage is concerned, Northanger Abbey uses the word proportionately more than any other of Jane Austen's works with the exception of Emma, and there the usage is approximately equal.[7] The interest lies though, not in the number of times the word "artless" is used, but to whom it is applied. In Emma, as in Northanger Abbey, "artless" is an appellation given to one person only--Harriet Smith. The relationship between Emma and Harriet is an inverted, and considerably subtler version of that existing between Isabella and Catherine, with a more worldly character serving as a foil to an "artless" one. In Northanger Abbey Isabella's cunning serves to illuminate the worthy qualities of the heroine, Catherine, whereas in Emma Harriet's pliability is used to demonstrate the foolishness of Emma's considerable wiles.

"Ignorance" is a noun frequently applied to Catherine Morland, and one which reinforces the impression of her as an ingenuous girl, fresh to the wonders of fashionable society. Seven of the ten uses of "ignorance" in Northanger Abbey concern Catherine, and the word itself is used proportionately more in Northanger Abbey than in any other novel. One of the important themes of Northanger Abbey is that "knowledge is power", and we follow the ignorant Catherine as she goes about the painful process of shedding her ignorance and receiving her education into the world outside Fullerton.

Looking beyond the words of the text to how they are expressed, the punctuation marks used by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey provide an important insight into Catherine's character. J. F. Burrows, in his book on computer applications to literature, Computation into Criticism: a Study of Jane Austen's Novels and an Experiment in Method,[8] provides a table detailing the distribution of punctuation marks in dialogue in Jane Austen's novels. The Northanger Abbey section of this table confirms the importance of the themes of education and experience in the novel.

The most significant evidence from this table concerns the large number of question and exclamation marks which are used by Catherine. No one in the novel questions more than Catherine, and surprisingly, Catherine uses even the exclamation mark more than the obviously hyperbolic Isabella. A brief scan of the text illustrates that during the course of the novel much is revealed to Catherine about the ways of the world through her uninhibited asking of questions, and that where Catherine asks a question her reply upon receipt of an answer often concludes with an exclamation mark as the naïve girl expresses surprise at the information she has received.

We first hear Catherine's querying voice in a conversation with Mrs Allen when they attend a ball at the Upper Rooms soon after their arrival in Bath. Catherine, unsure of the protocols involved at such an occasion, questions Mrs Allen persistently.[9] Catherine's interrogatory tones are heard again in Chapter Six, where Jane Austen states her intention of providing "a specimen of [Catherine and Isabella's] very warm attachment, and of the delicacy, discretion, originality of thought, and literary taste which marked the reasonableness of that attachment" (p. 39). The irony of this prefatory statement prepares us for the comedy of the "conversation" between Catherine and Isabella. In her role as Catherine's tutor, Isabella fields questions from her protégée, and astounds Catherine with her answers:

'I think her [Miss Andrews] as beautiful as an angel, and I am so vexed with the men for not admiring her ! - I scold them all amazingly about it.' 'Scold them ! Do you scold them for not admiring her ?' 'Yes, that I do . . . if I were to hear anybody speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment: - but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with the men.' 'Oh! dear, cried Catherine colouring, how can you say so?' (pp. 40-41).

Although Catherine is occasionally ashamed of her ignorance,[10] she is never ashamed to ask a question and through inquiry gain further knowledge. It is in this spirit of discovery that Catherine goes about educating herself into the ways of the world.

Jane Austen's equivocal attitude to candour has already been mentioned, now this reservation may be considered in more detail.

In its most obvious application candour is a beneficial quality. By possessing it Catherine gains the attentions of Eleanor and Henry Tilney. When Catherine is first introduced to Eleanor she quickly gains the latters approbation with her unselfconscious, indeed unwitting, declaration of her interest in Eleanor's brother:

How well your brother dances! was an artless exclamation of Catherine's towards the close of their conversation, which at once suprized and amused her companion (p. 72).

Catherine is so very unsophisticated that she does not pause to consider how such a remark would be taken by someone whose company Catherine has taken care to secure as soon as she spied Eleanor and her chaperon, Mrs Hughes, entering the room, and who is a close relation of the admired Henry. Eleanor, at twenty-one, has had considerably more experience of the world, and is quickly able to make an accurate assessment of the naïve Catherine's feelings, "they parted - on Miss Tilney's side with some knowledge of her new acquaintances feelings, and on Catherine's, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them" (p. 73). Eleanor is unperturbed by Catherine's candid revelation of her partiality for Henry, thus demonstrating the value of possessing an artless disposition.

Catherine's candour also gains her the heart of Henry Tilney. When Henry seems annoyed at Catherine who has been unable to keep an appointment with him and his sister because of John Thorpe's lies, Catherine is gripped by "feelings rather natural than heroic" (p. 93). Catherine's lack of art means that she does not employ the usual tricks of someone who feels falsely accused; she seeks only an opportunity to set the record straight. Catherine's excuses tumble out; she is almost incoherent with true feeling. Henry recognises that there is no artifice in Catherine. She cannot disguise her emotions for they are readily discernible in her speech, and Henry is duly flattered by Catherine's obvious depth of feeling toward him. Jane Austen notes the benefit of this artlessness:

Is there a Henry in the world who could be insensible to such a declaration? Henry Tilney at least was not. With a yet sweeter smile, he said everything that need be said of his sister's concern, regret, and dependence on Catherine's honour (p. 94).

That Catherine should have allowed herself to even feel the beginnings of a more than platonic attachment to Henry is flouting the conventional wisdom of the day, which stated that a woman was not at liberty to acknowledge that she was in love until the gentleman who was the object of her affections had declared his love for her. Jane Austen obviously had little time for this preciousness since she has all her other heroines follow the same pattern Catherine does; they are aware of their love for a man before he has stated his feelings in spite of their all being more aware of social conventions than Catherine. In Northanger Abbey Austen takes a tilt at Samuel Richardson's support for this belief,[11] which he stated in a letter to The Rambler,[12] and further emphasises the triteness of this outmoded idea by having Catherine marry the man she "set her cap" at.

When Catherine is forced from Northanger by General Tilney, Henry has not officially declared his feelings for her, yet Catherine is so obviously in love that when she comes to take her leave of Eleanor she is unable to even pronounce Henry's name without becoming tearful:

she paused for a moment, and with quivering lips just made it intelligible that she left her kind remembrance for her absent friend. But with this approach to his name ended all possibility of restraining her feelings (p. 229).

Jane Austen gives tacit approval to Catherine's naïve unconventionality by allowing her this "pursuit" of Henry, which is another example of the acuity of Catherine's natural responses to people; none of Austen's other heroines have the facility to recognise the man they are to marry as early as the third chapter.

Candour, or a sympathetic imagination, occasionally allows Catherine to interpret a situation intuitively and accurately. Her suspicions about General Tilney and Isabella prove to be correct. These characters function as educative examples for Catherine as she proceeds to learn to trust and contain her own judgement, and "grows up". The following examples are minor in comparison to Catherine's intuitions concerning Isabella and General Tilney, but they further prove how accurate the sympathetic judgement can be in its assessments of situations.

Following Catherine's explanation of her behaviour to Henry in the theatre, and her relief at hearing that Eleanor bore her no malice, Catherine wonders aloud why, if Eleanor was so ready to forgive her, Henry appeared less charitably disposed. Henry denies ever being any such thing, but his reported distress and swift change of subject argue otherwise. In her artlessness Catherine has come very close to guessing Henry's true state of feeling. Her accuracy in reading his character discomforts him:

Catherine's mind was greatly eased by this information, yet a something of solicitude remained, from which sprang the following question, thoroughly artless in itself, though rather distressing to the gentleman: - But, Mr Tilney, why were you less generous than your sister ? (p. 94).

Catherine's candour has had the required effect although she did not plan it. Her frankness and simplicity appeal to Henry, and by way of making amends for slighting her, Henry "remained with [her] some time, and was only too agreeable for Catherine to be contented when he went away" (p. 95).

When she first meets Henry, she is struck by his patronising of the foolish, but good-hearted woman, Mrs Allen:

Mr Tilney was polite enough to seem interested in what she [Mrs Allen] said; and she kept him on the subject of muslins till the dancing recommenced. Catherine feared, as she listened to their discourse, that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others (p. 29).

If Catherine had only borne this revelation in mind while Henry was entertaining her on the journey down to Northanger Abbey with his condensed version of a Gothic novel, she could have spared herself much later heartache by remembering his fondness for teasing others. Instead, she allows herself to be persuaded of the Gothic potential of the Abbey, as a direct result of Henry's indulging himself with her own foibles. The supreme irony is to come when Henry scolds Catherine for her naïve gullibility, the very quality he had previously obtained enjoyment from. This moment comes when Catherine confesses to him what she is doing in his mother's room.

By the time Catherine has learnt the lessons of Isabella and James, when Henry again attempts to gain a laugh for himself at her expense, Catherine is ready to consult her own feelings and deny him the pleasure. Her advance is clear in the exchange between Henry and Catherine after she has received James' letter revealing Isabella's scheming nature. Henry attempts again to suggest to Catherine what she should be feeling at this time:

'You feel, I suppose, that, in losing Isabella, you lose half yourself: you feel a void in your heart which nothing else can occupy . . . you feel that you have no longer any friend to whom you can speak with unreserve; on whose regard you can place dependence; or whose counsel, in any difficulty, you could rely on. You feel all this ?' 'No, said Catherine, after a few moments's reflection, I do not - ought I? (p. 207).


  1. A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of her Artistic Development, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965). [Back]
  2. Christopher Gillie, A Preface to Jane Austen, (London: Longman, 1974). [Back]
  3. For instance, Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952). [Back]
  4. Peter L. De Rose and S. W. McGuire, A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982). [Back]
  5. Northanger Abbey, p. 56. [Back]
  6. Northanger Abbey, p. 18, and Northanger Abbey, p. 206. [Back]
  7. Northanger Abbey uses "artless" three times in two volumes; Emma uses "artless" four times in three volumes. [Back]
  8. J. F. Burrows, Computation into Criticism: a Study of Jane Austen's Novels and an experiment in Method, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987). [Back]
  9. See Northanger Abbey, pp. 22-23. [Back]
  10. See Northanger Abbey, p. 92, pp. 110-112. [Back]
  11. See Northanger Abbey, p. 30. [Back]
  12. "That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young man undeclared, is an heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow" (Johnson's Collected Works, V. 168). [Back]

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