Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)
Extracts from early Reviews
The reviews are of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, with a biographical notice of the author, published together in 4 volumes (1818). Page numbers shown in square brackets are placed at the beginning of the text for that page. Footnotes have been interpolated in the text in square brackets, including editorial comments.
British Critic New Series 9 (March 1818): 293-301.
Edinburgh Magazine New Series 2 (May 1818): 453-455.
Gentleman's Magazine 88 (July 1818): 52-53.
British Critic New Series 9 (March 1818): 293-301.
[P 293] In order to impart some degree of variety to our journal, and select matter suited to all tastes, we have generally made it a point to notice one or two of the better sort of novels; but, did our fair readers know, what a vast quantity of useful spirits and patience, we are for this purpose generally forced to exhaust [P 294] before we are able to stumble upon any thing that we can at all recommend to their approbation; what innumerable letters we are compelled to read from the witty Lady Harriet F to the pathetic Miss Lucretia G ; through what an endless series of gloomy caverns, long and winding passages, secret trap doors, we are forced to pass now in the Inquisition, now in a gay modern assembly this moment in the east wing of an old castle in the Pyrenees; in the next, among banditti; and so on, through all the changes and chances of this transitory life, acquiescing in every thing, with an impeturbable confidence, that he or she, who has brought us into all these difficulties, will, in their own good time, release us from them; sure we are, that even the most resolute foes to all the solid parts of learning, will agree with us in admitting, that the sound and orthodox divinity with which so considerable a portion of our pages is usually filled, and of which we have so often had the mortification to hear many sensible young ladies complain, is nevertheless very far from being quite so dull and exhausting, as are their own favourite studies, when indiscriminately pursued. In return for this concession on their part, we on our's will frankly allow, that a good novel, such, for example, as that at present before us, is, perhaps among the most fascinating productions of modern literature, though we cannot say, that it is quite so improving as some others.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, are the productions of a pen, from which our readers have already received several admired productions; and it is with most unfeigned regret, that we are forced to add, they will be the last. From a short biographical memoir prefixed to the volumes before us, we learn that the fair writer of them, died in July of last year, leaving the two works which constitute the publication prefixed to this article, ready for the press. Before we enter upon the merits of these, it may, perhaps, gratify our readers to learn the few particulars related of the authoress, in the brief sketch of her life, with which these volumes are prefaced. . . . [Summarizes from, and quotes, memoir of Jane Austen's life and character.]
[P 296] The above portrait is drawn by a partial hand; but as it is a partiality probably occasioned by the many amiable qualities here imputed to our authoress, it is, in some degree, an evidence of the truth of the likeness. With respect to the talents of Jane Austen, they need no other voucher, than the works which she has left behind her; which in some of the best qualities of the best sort of novels, display a degree of excellence that has not been often surpassed. In imagination, of all kinds, she [P 297] appears to have been extremely deficient; not only her stories are utterly and entirely devoid of invention, but her characters, her incidents, her sentiments, are obviously all drawn exclusively from experience. The sentiments which she puts into the mouths of her actors, are the sentiments, which we are every day in the habit of hearing; and as to her actors themselves, we are persuaded that fancy, strictly so called, has had much less to do with them, than with the characters of Julius Caesar, Hannibal, or Alexander, as represented to us by historians. At description she seldom aims; at that vivid and poetical sort of description, which we have of late been accustomed to, (in the novels of a celebrated anonymous writer) never; she seems to have no other object in view, than simply to paint some of those scenes which she has herself seen, and which every one, indeed, may witness daily. Not only her characters are all of them belonging to the middle size, and with a tendency, in fact, rather to fall below, than to rise above the common standard, but even the incidents of her novels, are of the same description. Her heroes and heroines, make love and are married, just as her readers make love, and were or will be, married; no unexpected ill fortune occurs to prevent, nor any unexpected good fortune, to bring about the events on which her novels hinge. She seems to be describing such people as meet together every night, in every respectable house in London; and to relate such incidents as have probably happened, one time or other, to half the families in the United Kingdom. And yet, by a singular good judgment, almost every individual represents a class; not a class of humourists, or of any of the rarer specimens of our species, but one of those classes to which we ourselves, and every acquaintance we have, in all probability belong. The fidelity with which these are distinguished is often admirable. It would have been impossible to discriminate the characters of the common place people, whom she employs as the instruments of her novels, by any set and formal descriptions; for the greater part of them, are such as we generally describe by saying that they are persons of "no character at all." [Alexander Pope, "Epistle II: To a Lady," 2] Accordingly our authoress gives no definitions; but she makes her dramatis personae talk; and the sentiments which she places in their mouths, the little phrases which she makes them use, strike so familiarly upon our memory as soon as we hear them repeated, that we instantly recognize among some of our acquaintance, the sort of persons she intends to signify, as accurately as if we had heard their voices. This is the forte of our authoress; as soon as ever she leaves the shore of her own experience, and attempts to delineate fancy characters, or such as she may perhaps have often heard of, but possibly never seen, [P 298] falls at once to the level of mere ordinary novellists. Her merit consists altogether in her remarkable talent for observation; no ridiculous phrase, no affected sentiment, no foolish pretension seems to escape her notice. It is scarcely possible to read her novels, without meeting with some of one's own absurdities reflected back upon one's conscience; and this, just in the light in which they ought to appear. For in recording the customs and manners of common place people, in the common place intercourse of life, our authoress never dips her pen in satire; the follies which she holds up to us, are, for the most part, mere follies, or else natural imperfections; and she treats them, as such, with good humoured pleasantry; mimicking them so exactly, that we always laugh at the ridiculous truth of the imitation, but without ever being incited to indulge in feelings, that might tend to render us ill natured, and intolerant in society. This is the result of that good sense which seems ever to keep complete possession over all the other qualities of the mind of our authoress; she sees every thing just as it is; even her want of imagination (which is the principal defect of her writings) is useful to her in this respect, that it enables her to keep clear of all exaggeration, in a mode of writing where the least exaggeration would be fatal; for if the people and the scenes which she has chosen, as the subjects of her composition, be not painted with perfect truth, with exact and striking resemblance, the whole effect ceases; her characters have no kind of merit in themselves, and whatever interest they excite in the mind of the reader, results almost entirely, from the unaccountable pleasure, which, by a peculiarity in our nature, we derive from a simple imitation of any object, without any reference to the abstract value or importance of the object itself. This fact is notorious in painting; and the novels of Miss Austen alone, would be sufficient to prove, were proof required, that the same is true in the department of literature, which she has adorned. For our readers will perceive (from the instance which we are now about to present, in the case of the novels before us,) that be their merit what it may, it is not founded upon the interest of a narrative. In fact, so little narrative is there in either of the two novels of which the publication before us consists, that it is difficult to give any thing like an abstract of their contents. "Northanger Abbey," which is the name of the first novel, is simply, the history of a young girl, the daughter of a country clergyman of respectability, educated at home, under the care of her parents; good kind of people, who taught their large family all that it was necessary for them to know, without apparently troubling themselves about accomplishments in learning of any kind, beyond what our fathers and mothers were [P 299] instructed in. Our heroine is just such a person, as an education under such circumstances, would lead us to expect; with respect to the hero of the tale, (for every heroine must have a hero) that which fortunately threw one in the way of Catherine, was a journey to Bath which she happily made, in company with the lady of the manor, who was ordered to that place of fashionable resort, for the benefit of her health. . . . [continues to summarize the remainder of the plot, citing two passages: "An abbey! yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey! . . . the difference was very distressing." (Oxford ed., p. 117-8); "The night was stormy . . . but now, to be sure, there is nothing to alarm one'." (pp. 121-2).]
[P 301] Northanger Abbey, is one of the very best of Miss Austen's productions, and will every way repay the time and trouble of perusing it. Some of the incidents in it are rather improbable, and the character of General Tilney seems to have been drawn from imagination, for it is not a very probable character, and is not pourtrayed with our authoress's usual taste and judgment. There is also a considerable want of delicacy in all the circumstances of Catherine's visit to the Abbey; but it is useless to point them out; the interest of the novel, is so little founded upon the ingenuity or probability, of the story, that any criticism upon the management of it, falls with no weight upon that which constitutes its appropriate praise, considered as a literary production. With respect to the second of the novels, which the present publication contains, it will be necessary to say but little. It is in every respect a much less fortunate performance than that which we have just been considering. It is manifestly the work of the same mind, and contains parts of very great merit; among them, however, we certainly should not number its moral, which seems to be, that young people should always marry according to their own inclinations and upon their own judgment; for that if in consequence of listening to grave counsels, they defer their marriage, till they have wherewith to live upon, they will be laying the foundation for years of misery, such as only the heroes and heroines of novels can reasonably hope even to see the end of.
Edinburgh Magazine New Series 2 (May 1818): 453-455.
[P 453] We are happy to receive two other novels from the pen of this amiable and agreeable authoress, though our satisfaction is much alloyed, from the feeling, that they must be the last. We have always regarded her works as possessing a higher claim to public [P 454] estimation than perhaps they have yet attained. They have fallen, indeed, upon an age whose taste can only be gratified with the highest seasoned food. This, as we have already hinted, [See Review of Frankenstein in our March Number] may be partly owing to the wonderful realities which it has been our lot to witness. We have been spoiled for the tranquil enjoyment of common interests, and nothing now will satisfy us in fiction, any more than in real life, but grand movements and striking characters. A singular union has, accordingly, been attempted between history and poetry. The periods of great events have been seized on as a ground work for the display of powerful or fantastic characters; correct and instructive pictures of national peculiarities have been exhibited; and even in those fictions which are altogether wild and monstrous, some insight has been given into the passions and theories which have convulsed and bewildered this our "age of Reason." In the poetry of Mr Scott and Lord Byron, in the novels of Miss Edgeworth, Mr Godwin, and the author of Waverley, [Scott's novels were published anonymously from 1814 to 1827. -- DSM] we see exemplified in different forms this influence of the spirit of the times, the prevailing love of historical, and at the same time romantic incident, dark and high wrought passions, the delineations, chiefly of national character, the pursuit of some substance, in short, yet of an existence more fanciful often than absolute fiction, the dislike of a cloud, yet the form which is embraced, nothing short of a Juno. In this raised state of our imaginations, we cannot, it may be supposed, all at once descend to the simple representations of common life, to incidents which have no truth, except that of universal nature, and have nothing of fiction except in not having really happened, yet the time, probably, will return, when we shall take a more permanent delight in those familiar cabinet pictures, than even in the great historical pieces of our more eminent modern masters; when our sons and daughters will deign once more to laugh over the Partridges and the Trullibers, [characters in Fielding's Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews respectively -- DSM] and to weep over the Clementines and Clarissas [characters in Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa.-- DSM] of past times, as we have some distant recollection of having been able to do ourselves, before we were so entirely engrossed with the Napoleons of real life, or the Corsairs of poetry; [Byron's The Corsair was published in 1814 -- DSM] and while we could enjoy a work that was all written in pure English, without ever dreaming how great would be the embellishment to have at least one half of it in the dialect of Scotland or of Ireland. [probably a reference to novels by Scott and Edgeworth, respectively -- DSM]
When this period arrives, we have no hesitation in saying, that the delightful writer of the works now before us, will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point out the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing upon her. She has confined herself, no doubt, to a narrow walk. She never operates among deep interests, uncommon characters, or vehement passions. The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive, without the slightest strain of imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England, (for it is only English manners that she paints,) that we think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, pourtrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner. She has much observation, much fine sense, much delicate humour, many pathetic touches, and throughout all her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity that are almost unequalled. It is unnecessary to give a particular account of the stories here presented to us. They have quite the same kind of merit with the preceding works of their author. As stories they are nothing in themselves, though beautiful and simple in their combination with the characters. The first is the more lively, and the second the more pathetic; but such is the facility and the seemingly exhaustless invention of this lady, that, we think, like a complete mistress of a musical instrument, she could have gone on in the same strain for ever, and her happy talent of seeing something to interest in the most common scenes of life, could evidently never have been without [P 455] a field to work upon. But death has deprived us of this most fascinating companion, and the few prefatory pages which contain a sketch of her life, almost come upon us like the melancholy invitation to the funeral of one whom we had long known and loved.
[Brief summary of the prefatory memoir.]
Such was this admirable person, the character of whose life fully corresponds with that of her writings. There is the same good sense, happiness, and purity in both. Yet they will appear very defective to that class of readers who are constantly hunting after the broad display of religious sentiments and opinions. It has been left for this age to discover that Mr Addison himself was scarcely a Christian: but we are very certain, that neither the temper of his writings, nor even that of Miss Austen's, (novels as they are, and filled with accounts of balls and plays, and such abominations,) could well have been formed without a deep feeling of the spirit of Christianity.
Gentleman's Magazine 88 (July 1818): 52-53.
[P 52] To some of the former productions of this lady, all of which have been favourably received by the publick, we have given just commendation in our vol. LXXXVI. ii. 248. Of the present volumes the most affecting part is the introductory Memoir of Jane Austen; whose death is recorded in vol. LXXXVII. ii. p. 184.
This excellent young woman was born Dec. 16, 1775, at Steventon, Hants, where her father was rector. . . . [Briefly summarizes from and quotes the memoir.]
[P 53] The two Novels now published have no connexion with each other. The characters in both are principally taken from the middle ranks of life, and are well supported. Northanger Abbey, however, is decidedly preferable to the second Novel, not only in the incidents, but even in its moral tendency.
Document prepared September 27th 2004 / corrected Oct 4 2004