Though published last, Northanger Abbey was probably among the first novels Jane Austen wrote, sometime around 1799. While it's not regarded as straight-up juvenilia, it's sometimes dismissed as a slight and occasionally awkward mix of parody with the "free indirect speech" approach she later perfected, a satire of Gothic novels that can seem obvious and unnecessary. Austen has some fun lovingly mocking the books of Ann Radcliffe and her ilk, while issuing a gentle warning not to mistake the intensity of Gothic novels' narrative suspense for truth. Readers must not go Quixote with them and start interpreting everyday life in their terms.
But there is more going on Northanger Abbey than that. It's not merely a novel about reading novels and the dangers such reading can present to an "innocent" girl like Catherine Morland, the book's main character. That was certainly a popular 18th century theme among moralists, who saw something inherently suspicious in women finding solitary pleasure in books. Austen was too much of a reader herself to buy into that entirely, but an ambivalence about books comes through in the novel as a larger concern with consumer goods in general, which were just beginning to veil social relations. That is, Northanger Abbey is not just about novels; it's about novelty as an emerging value and how that affects other social obligations. It's uneasy with its own conservatism, but nonetheless critiques emerging consumerism on the grounds of protecting traditions and preserving social order, lamenting increased consumption as a kind of social threat.
Much of the book takes place during a trip to Bath, a resort where fashionable tourists do little more than alternate between shopping and making public appearances to display their purchases. The commodification of experience inherent to tourism (Austen revels in exposing the Bath visit's formulas) is likened to the fictionalizing of experience for the purposes of selling novels, a different sort of experiential good. Inherent in all these new alluring leisure goods is the danger that consumers will become absorbed, preoccupied with these newly available goods, at the expense of being considerate of others. The ill-mannered people at Bath can only talk of their possessions; possessions constitute a medium for the expression of their vanity that might otherwise have been suppressed. In that way, consumer goods started to serve as social media. You know, they allow people to interact with others while remaining basically narcissistic.
Often Austen uses the same trendy, ungainly word to describe both novelties and those wrapped up in them: "quizzes." The word is esepcially linked with Isabelle Thorpe, Catherine's vain, false friend who, we are told when she is introduced,
could compare the balls of Bath with those of Tunbridge, its fashions with the fashions of London; could rectify the opinions of her new friend in many articles of tasteful attire; could discover a flirtation between any gentleman and lady who only smiled on each other; and point out a quiz through the thickness of a crowd.
Isabelle has mastered the world of surfaces at the expense of becoming superficial herself. She is a quiz among quizzes. Catherine's maturation hinges on rejecting what Isabelle represents: hedonistic selfishness. She needs to see through the false novelties of the fashionable world of leisure and embrace an ethic of polite consideration for others, here represented as traditional and natural.
Consumer goods, Austen recognizes, can incite a certain kind of selfishness through the pleasures they afford. They inculcate bad habits of thinking and public behavior, immersing one in a private narrative and making it seem as though satisfaction can come without having to make the compromises involved with accommodating other people. That is, they teach us that we can be around others without caring about what they are feeling; the pleasures of ownership can supersede the pleasures of sympathy. Consumer goods promise antisocial pleasure, and that's why Austen finds them dangerous.
This skepticism about consumer goods plays into the satire of Gothic novels. Consumer goods invite one to escape into an indulgent and unrealistic narrative about oneself, just as Gothic novels do — one where you imagine you are at the center of everyone's attention without really having done anything to genuinely deserve or sustain that attention. Both can make you morally myopic. While we are induced to be sympathetic with Catherine and her preoccupation with books, we should not miss the parallels between her and her chaperone in Bath, Mrs. Allen, who is given only one personality characteristic, an obsession with a different sort of commodity: clothing. She never appears in the text without Austen pointedly reminding us that she can't think of anything but clothes, can't offer any social advice that isn't about how to dress to advantage, and can't recognize anything about anyone else's character except their fashionability.
Catherine's books are in danger of causing her similar problems: making her capable of talking only about books and tampering with her ability to receive and dispense moral judgment. In the opening chapter, we're told about Catherine that "from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives." And naturally the events of the novel will expose the inadequacy of such training, the ways in which that training threatened to make Catherine fail to recognize what the actual "events" of her ordinary life really are.
Mrs. Allen's fixation on clothes means that she only notices others to compare them with herself; her notion of being in society consists of a series of invidious comparisons and narcissistic confirmations, and her main social strategy is to search for fabric bargains. In a telling aside, Austen tells us that Mrs. Allen,"not being at all in the habit of conveying any expression herself by a look, was not aware of its being ever intended by anybody else." She is too wrapped up in herself to pay the sorts of attention that make up polite society; she lacks the art of rhetoric at every level of communication. Catherine is at times described the same way, but this is not a positive description of her innocence, her lack of wiles; it's an indication that she is immature, not bearing her share of the burden of sustaining the social world.
We see the same commodity-induced selfishness in John Thorpe, Catherine's unwelcome suitor, who is preoccupied with his horses and traps and gigs. (He is the 18th century equivalent of a gearhead.) His possessions prompt him to inane and incoherent boastfulness. When Austen introduces him, she has him prattle a bunch of self-contradictory nonsense about his carriage to Catherine, which confuses her totally:
Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next.
We see what happens when one becomes more interested in stuff than other people. You lose track of when you are fabricating and get caught up in your own delusional fantasies of grandeur. Even when Thorpe is supposed to be wooing Catherine, Austen makes it clear he would rather be engaging in literal horse trading than courtship. Rather than become jealous of his rival Henry Tilney after seeing Catherine dance with him, he asks her instead, "Does he want a horse? Here is a friend of mine, Sam Fletcher, has got one to sell that would suit anybody. A famous clever animal for the road—only forty guineas." A fascination with consumer goods, it seems, leads to a vulgar commercializing of the mind. (You can even see this in the transactional metaphors Catherine uses to evaluate her emotional experience: "In vanity, therefore, she gained but little; her chief profit was in wonder.")
Austen has no hesitation about condemning the vanity of being overinvested in clothes. After describing Catherine's excitement to get dressed up for a ball, Austen steps out of the shadows of indirect address to condemn Catherine's nascent interest in fashion:
What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim ... Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it.
But Austen's attitude toward novels is trickier. Throughout the book, she appears to be looking for ways to defend them while retaining the force of her larger conservative critique of slipping standards of social etiquette. She makes a point of addressing readers directly to defend the novelist's craft so that she won't seem a hypocrite herself for writing one, and claims that novels can be a showcase for "the most thorough knowledge of human nature." But this is immediately undercut by the way Catherine is lampooned for being so caught up in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe's hugely popular 1794 novel. "I should like to spend my whole life in reading it," she sighs, and that is precisely the danger. "While I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable," she tells Isabelle, becoming dangerously detached from the actual threats to her reputation in the social world. (Austen delicately hints that Catherine would be better off reading Samuel Richardson's moralistic Sir Charles Grandison, distinctly unfashionable by that time. Having survived both books, I can't agree.)
In a much-noted scene (at least among literary scholars) in Chapter 14, Henry, his sister, and Catherine discuss novels, with Henry declaring, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." But that is not exactly an endorsement of novels, just a recognition of their efficacy, their manipulative power. Just because they are pleasing, doesn't mean they are to be universally recommended. In fact, Henry goes on to explain that he has compulsively read "hundreds and hundreds" of novels, and how the pleasure he got from Udolpho led him to be rude to his sister. ("Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud.")
Once again, the preoccupation with a commodity leads to a compulsive short-sightedness. Though with novels, it appears that the selfishness can be ameliorated through taste. If consumerism is to be redeemed, this is how it will presumably happen: Personal, antisocial pleasure will be subject to social restrictions stemming from discussions conducted under the auspices of taste. Good taste will check (and condemn) the nerdy obsessiveness Mrs. Allen and John Thorpe indulge in. Their obsessions are passive, escapist, ultimately isolating. But via the alchemy of taste, Henry's becomes an active expression of a creative mind.
But only certain sorts of goods qualify for tasteful assessment. Austen gets at this when she has the Tilneys move directly from the talk of novels (and a pedantic conversation about grammar) to an appreciation of the landscape.
The Tilneys were soon engaged in another on which she had nothing to say. They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste.
"Real taste" involves a sort of remaking; it involves consumption being linked clearly with a craft that warrants it. If you have trained yourself to draw, you can "consume" landscapes with taste. Reading can be done tastefully as well, presumably, if you have an appreciation for the craft of writing. (Unfortunately for Mrs. Allen and Mr. Thorpe, Austen doesn't seem to acknowledge a craft of dressing or driving.)
But even this view is called into question. Catherine's ignorance about how to properly look at landscapes leads to this strikingly cynical authorial interpolation:
It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
The amount of bitterness in this would be hard to detect amid Austen's encomiums to feminine submissiveness and sheltered innocence elsewhere, but it comes in the midst of protracted and unmistakable condescension on Henry's part, which encourages an ironic reading. That, in turn, makes this ironic as well: "It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just: and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did." Reading novels, for better or worse, was giving Catherine grounds on which she could exercise independent judgment, maybe even taste, but in this scene she is properly retrained into the blissful obedience of love.
At least in this chapter, Austen's frustration is palpable. She wants a route through her writing craft to the kind of respect Henry Tilney can automatically command for his judgment, but understands that her gender has ruled that out, and that public respect for women's ability must instead be channeled through the medium of marriage-market machinations. And she also knows that novels like the one she is writing, if they are to be regarded as respectable amid the commodity trash, must serve as one of the vectors for administering that sort of gendered discipline. They have to teach women the proper forms of "consideration" and "sympathy" — that is, submissiveness, in effect — and even encourage them to find such submissiveness training at the same time a form of indulgent escape. Consumerism is okay if you consume the right novels (Austen's novels), which inculcate subordination and call it tastefulness.
Gothic novels, full of sensation rather than sensibility, are subversive in that they tend to represent patriarchy as a kind of all-encompassing and unmotivated reign of terror for long stretches of pages. Compelled to mock these books that she also loves in the name of redeeming novels as more than just another species of vulgarizing consumer goods, Austen has to come to terms with that mockery costs, and with the possibility that redemption on these terms makes novels into something worse. This leads to some conflicted passages, some unresolved contradictions. Here's what she says in that same scene in "praise" of Fanny Burney:
The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.
I don't think Austen could have trusted to readers to separate out the sarcasm in that passage and interpret accurately the degree to which she genuinely admired Burney's novels while also wanting to condemn them, though not on the ordinary terms of male-reviewer condescension and not necessarily on proto-feminist grounds either. The indignities of the marriage market are implied, as well as the stupefaction it imposed on both genders. (The best that the best of men can aspire to is having an ignorant rather than imbecilic partner.) But the entire tenor of the scene and the narrative drive of the novel runs counter to the critique. Austen is trying to champion an existing social order under attack that can't really acknowledge her particular abilities in championing it, and the result are these testy, antisocial passages that jump out at readers, refusing to be assimilated, whether you're reading for taste or sensation.
Ultimately we're left with a heroine who wins love through her inability to understand the social stratagems around her — through a basic inability to read the motives of the people around her. She is loved by Tilney because she is a credulous reader, someone who doesn't have to suspend disbelief because she is too dense to disbelieve in the first place. After Catherine has a typically obtuse reaction to Isabelle's scheming, she and Henry have this exchange:
Henry smiled, and said, "How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people's actions."
"Why? What do you mean?"
"With you, it is not, How is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person's feelings, age, situation, and probable habits of life considered—but, How should I be influenced, What would be my inducement in acting so and so?"
"I do not understand you."
"Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well."
Catherine is self-centered in the right sort of way, apparently. She can't or won't recognize the schemes of others and calculates her own incentives without reference to reciprocity. Her self-regulation comes not in exchange for something someone else does; it stems from a pure sense of obligation. Social interaction on Bath's terms, it turns out, can only vulgarize and corrupt her, far worse than any Gothic novel could do, by teaching her to read others in a calculating way and begin to try to influence them. This is the skill that Austen herself exercises in writing the book — she is deliberately crafting an appealing consumer product, after all — but she won't glorify it in her heroine. Better for her to avoid the antisocial temptations of the emerging consumer culture by being nonsocial, disappearing into domesticity.