Jane Austen Discussion Group: Creepy Castles and Communal Reading

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of beloved British author Jane Austen’s death, as well as the publication of her two final novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. To celebrate, the Bethlehem Area Public Library and the Lehigh University English department are partnering in a discussion series.  Each month, a group of community members and Lehigh students and faculty gather to discuss one of her novels. The series will culminate in a one-day symposium at Lehigh featuring top Jane Austen scholars. The event is free and open to the public—learn more here.

Austen is one of the wittiest, incisive authors in the literary canon. She is remembered for her timeless heroes and heroines, paired off in classic marriage plots: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, etc. Romance isn’t the only topic under discussion, though; Austen was a keen observer of human nature and wrote characters that still feel relatable two centuries later. Reading an Austen novel somehow offers insights into our own twenty-first-century friends, neighbors, and colleagues, their motivations and their foibles.

For the first meeting, Dr. Laura Kremmel, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Lehigh, and Megan Bruening, a Ph.D. Candidate at Lehigh,  led an extensive group discussion of Northanger Abbey. Austen wrote the novel c.1798-99, under the initial title “Susan,” and successfully sold it to a publisher for £10, which would be around $1,200 today. The publisher promised to publish it soon and even advertised the novel, but the book never appeared. Austen’s brother Henry was eventually able to buy the manuscript back, but not until 1816. She revised the novel and renamed it “Catherine,” but was not able to seek publication before her death on July 18, 1817, in Winchester. Henry Austen renamed it Northanger Abbey and published alongside Persuasion later that year.

Signet classic paperback edition of Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey stands out amongst Austen’s novels for its preoccupation with reading practices, particularly those associated with “horrid” novels, or Gothic Romances. Written at the end of the most prolific decade for writers of the Gothic, a decade during which Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would review and berate many such texts, Northanger celebrates the primary readership for such novels—women—at the same time that it shares some of Coleridge’s misgivings. In fact, several of the novels mentioned in the text—most published by Minerva Press—would have been lost if not for Austen’s reference to them in her novels. They have been “rediscovered” because of Northanger Abbey’s popularity and appropriately dubbed the seven “horrid novels.”

Gothic novels of the 1790s faced ire from critics like Coleridge for excessive, unbelievable drama, formulaic plots, “barbaric” values, and promotion of superstition. They tended to fall into two camps: the “explained supernatural” of Anne Radcliffe and the graphic violence and sexuality of Matthew “Monk” Lewis. Lewis, though admired by many of the younger poets of the age (such as Byron and Shelley) was by far the more scandalous of the two. Radcliffe, on the other hand, was well-respected, a respect that she did not always extend to her imitators. Austen includes references to both types of Gothic Romance in her novel, though her heroine, Catherine Morland strongly prefers Radcliffe’s novels.

True to Gothic fashion, Catherine loves reading fiction but not history texts. Attracted to atmospheric abbeys and ruins, she has no interest in the historical accuracy of these structures. In this attitude, she articulates one of the Gothic tradition’s defining principles: prioritization of imagination. Translating these types of literary values and behaviors into real life earns her ridicule more than once. Love interest, Henry Tilney, chides her after she assumes that his father committed grave crimes based on contrived evidence that, in the world of the novel, would make perfect sense and lead to the discovery of a dangerous secret. Tilney chastises her,

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.”

Of course, what makes this novel fascinating is that, though Catherine’s direct application of fiction to reality does often lead her astray, it also benefits her. She learns to deal with situations similar to those she encounters in her Gothic Romances, be they forced carriage rides or authority figures of questionable character. Though Austen’s novel is often counted as a satiric comment on the Gothic, the fact remains that Catherine does learn something quite valuable from her reading. We hope this observation prompted our discussion participants to consider their own reading practices and the valuable contribution reading makes to our own lives.

Please consider joining us for one of the coming discussions. Whether you’re looking to improve your Tinder profile, a diehard fan of Austen, or just curious, we welcome all! The books are available at the Bethlehem Area Public Library, and ebook editions are free online at sites like Project Gutenberg and archive.org. We hope to see you there!

All meetings take place at the Bethlehem Area Public Library from 6:30-7:30.

May 16: Sense and Sensibility

June 20: Pride and Prejudice

July 18: Mansfield Park

August 15: Emma

September 19: Persuasion

September 22: Jane Austen at 200: One-Day Symposium

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