In the third lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online course on the young Jane Austen (which you can take along with me here), Lorraine Murphy, an English professor at the college, explains why the author made an ordinary girl the heroine of “Northanger Abbey.”
Austen Made an Ordinary Girl the Heroine
In “Northanger Abbey,” the heroine, Catherine Morland, is not a naturally beautiful teenage girl, nor does she behave in a way that suggests a natural refinement or superiority in character. When the reader meets her, it is when she is about to embark on a six-week-long visit to Bath, England, with a family friend. During her stay in Bath, she meets Henry, who is as charming as he is witty, though Catherine herself does not always understand his sense of humor as she takes what he says literally when he is being ironic.
Catherine’s characteristics starkly contrast with the typical literary heroine of the day. She’s not particularly beautiful and she must work to become mature and distinguished, as she does not posses these qualities naturally. Austen’s decision to make a woman like Catherine the hero in a novel toys with the literary conventions of the day, which usually told stories about extraordinarily beautiful women who naturally possessed an excellent character.
Austen Defends Novels Through her Unconventional Heroine
Catherine’s friend, Isabella Thorpe, enjoys gothic novels as much as Catherine does. When these two characters talk about their literary tastes, Austen is using them to mount a defense of reading novels — which was a genre that was looked down upon at the time.
The narrator in “Northanger Abbey” is a device Austen uses to guide the reader along in helping them to discern her use of irony. When Catherine and her mother part at the beginning of the book, the narrator suggests that one might expect the scene to be rather tearful and dramatic, but that instead what actually happens between the two is that she later gives her daughter some practical advice before she leaves for Bath. The narrator juxtaposes what a reader might expect from a typical novel with what actually happens in her story. Throughout the story, the narrator plays with the reader’s expectations — a tactic that playfully winks at some of the over-the-top things that happen in typical novels.
In chapter five, the narrator defends the practice of reading novels when describing the blossoming friendship between Catherine and Isabella, which entailed reading novels on wet days.
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.
Throughout Austen’s work, she makes it clear to the reader that they are in fact reading a novel and that when reading such works of fiction, one ought to always be distinguishing between what is improbable versus what’s probable. One must understand that a dramatic calamity, or perhaps falling in love at first sight — while all too likely in novel — is not a regular occurrence in real life. One ought to be able to enjoy novels for what they are — stories that are mixed with probable and improbable circumstances and not reflective of reality.
Why Ordinary Girls Can Be Heroines Too
Austen uses Catherine to express what she thinks about contemporary education. Catherine, who is not exceptionally well read, confesses at one point that her literary education is little more than a smattering of excerpts and quotes of longer works — much like the schooling children received in England at the time. Catherine repeatedly proves that is unable to read people as she takes them at their word instead of inferring meaning by their actions. In this lecture, Murphy says this implies that Austen does not think this type of education is sufficient to understand the deeper complexities and hidden meanings in what people say.
By using an ordinary girl as the heroine, Austen suggests that ordinary girls coming of age and growing up are the heroines of their own stories. A woman doesn’t need to be impossibly beautiful or virtuous in order to overcome challenges like a protagonist in a novel. Like the heroine in a book, women in real life need to employ virtues like courage and fortitude to navigate social circumstances with grace.