In chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen starts off by describing the activities of Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, but gets sidetracked rather quickly, and spends almost the entire second half in a delightful rant about the hypocrisy of novelists who deride their own genre:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.
It does seem like an odd decision to insert a sneaky criticism of novels into your own novel, to be read by a person who presumably has picked up your novel with the expectation of enjoying it. So what exactly are these critics saying?
“And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda“; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Unfortunately I don’t have the option here to go too deeply into how the reading and writing of popular literature was viewed and portrayed in the 18th and 19th centuries – particularly literature aimed at women, or written by them – or how gendered assumptions continue to impact upon assessments of cultural value today. Suffice it to say, Jane Austen was an outspoken fan of novels at a time when that was a rather controversial position to take (even amongst novelists), and her grievance is a reasonable one.
However, let’s take a closer look at the novels she mentions!
Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) and Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth (1796) are both by the author Fanny Burney, and were wildly popular with eighteenth and nineteenth century readers. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t any discussion of novels in Cecilia. Unfortunately for Austen, however, the narrator of Camilla has shamefully deserted her cause – in fact, not only is she not part of the solution, she’s part of the problem.
Camilla‘s Eugenia has never read any novels, and is the better for it:
Having read no novels, [Eugenia’s] imagination had never been awakened to scenes of this kind; and what she had gathered upon such subjects in the poetry and history she had studied with Dr. Orkborne, had only impressed her fancy in proportion as love bore the character of heroism, and the lover that of an hero. Though highly therefore romantic, her romance was not the common adoption of a circulating library: it was simply that of elevated sentiments, formed by animated credulity playing upon youthful inexperience.
By contrast, Mrs. Berlinton from the same novel has been left badly off by her education, which has consisted entirely of theology, from a fanatically religious maiden aunt “who had taught her nothing but her faith and her prayers, without one single lesson upon good works, or the smallest instruction upon the practical use of her theoretical piety”, and “some common and ill selected novels and romances, which a young lady in the neighbourhood privately lent her to read”. Consequently:
She had entered the world, by a sudden and most unequal marriage, in which her choice had no part, with only two self-formed maxims for the law of her conduct. The first of these was, that, from her early notions of religion, no vestal should be more personally chaste; the second, that, from her more recently imbibed ones of tenderness, her heart, since she was married without its concurrence, was still wholly at liberty to be disposed of by its own propensities, without reproach and without scruple.
We can see that the results of this are likely to be disastrous… although at least it doesn’t lead her to go roaming about the Scottish highlands espousing noble but doomed causes, like some protagonists we could name.
Belinda (1800), meanwhile, is rife with warnings about the dangers of novel-reading. Virginia’s mother, rather like Mrs. Berlinton, is “a sentimental girl, who had been spoiled by early novel-reading”, while Belinda’s dubious role model Lady Delacour also warns Belinda jokingly against too much reading (although she herself is clearly familiar with Camilla):
“A silver penny for your thoughts!” cried Lady Delacour. “You are thinking that you are like Camilla, and I like Mrs. Mitten. Novel reading.—as I dare say you have been told by your governess, as I was told by mine, and she by hers, I suppose—novel reading for young ladies is the most dangerous—
The hell-raising Harriot Freke goes a step further and argues with Belinda that books do nothing except prevent people from thinking for themselves:
“You read, I see!–I did not know you were a reading girl. So was I once; but I never read now. Books only spoil the originality of genius: very well for those who can’t think for themselves–but when one has made up one’s opinion, there is no use in reading.”
“But to make them up,” replied Belinda, “may it not be useful?”
“Of no use upon earth to minds of a certain class. You, who can think for yourself, should never read.”
“But I read that I may think for myself.”
“Only ruin your understanding, trust me. Books are full of trash–nonsense, conversation is worth all the books in the world.”
“And is there never any nonsense in conversation?”
However, it may well be the case that we are not supposed to take these admonitions seriously. Belinda, the book makes clear, has more innate good sense than Lady Delacour, Harriot Freke and Virginia’s mother combined, who demonstrate an enjoyable variety of poor judgment calls between them, including (but not limited to) falling victim to seducers and quack doctors, becoming addicted to opium, duelling, and performing burglaries while dressed in men’s clothing.
In contrast to these exploits, Belinda’s preferred pastimes are much more sedate. Upon being left to her own devices, Belinda takes the opportunity of retreating into a book, and thoroughly enjoys her morning off from all the scandal and intrigue.
Belinda, after her ladyship’s departure, retired to the library. Her time passed so agreeably during Lady Delacour’s absence, that she was surprised when she heard the clock strike twelve.
“Is it possible,” thought she, “that I have spent two hours by myself in a library without being tired of my existence?—How different are my feelings now from what they would have been in the same circumstances six months ago!—I should then have thought the loss of a birthnight ball a mighty trial of temper. It is singular, that my having spent a winter with one of the most dissipated women in England should have sobered my mind so completely.”
Maria Edgeworth, then, is actually of a similar mind to Jane Austen – while she pays lip service to the convention of disapproving of novels, it is only her sillier characters who fail to appreciate the joys of a good book. After all, given her own wonderful library and writing-room at Edgeworthstown House, she could hardly fail to do so herself…