No one who has ever read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey would have supposed the novel to be capable of triggering much other than amusement.
Before any narrative action takes place, we are cautioned by the author that readers will find the conceit dated and the heroine unlikely. Completed in 1803 but not published until after the author’s death, the reader is warned that “places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes” since the novel was written.
In the wake of the furore over the University of Greenwich’s decision to issue its undergraduate students with a trigger warning over Northanger Abbey, it is impossible not to read Austen’s own cautioning words as prescient.
Undergraduates at the university have been alerted that the novel contains “gender stereotyping” alongside “toxic relationships and friendships”. While Austen would probably be delighted to learn that her own books were the subject of such strongly held opinions some two centuries after their publication, she would have been baffled by accusations of upholding gender stereotypes.
Acutely aware of the limits Gothic fiction placed on her own sex, in Northanger Abbey Austen subverts the expectations of readers schooled by pioneers of the genre such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe.
There is, we are assured, “nothing heroic” about our protagonist Catherine Morland. She prefers cricket to dolls, riding to reading, and would rather steal flowers than water them; “she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house”.
Catherine exists as the carefully construed antidote to the elegance, delicacy, and sweetness of Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert (protagonist of Radcliffe’s seminal work The Mysteries of Udolpho), whose picture-perfect femininity doubtless made Austen “feel sick and wicked”.
Northanger Abbey is in many ways the most irreverent of her published novels, poking fun at the very readers most likely to have selected the volume from the shelves of their circulating library (domestic libraries would likely have only contained what our heroine later refers to as “better books” than Gothic novels).
Catherine is perpetually hopeful that some “horrid” adventure might befall her, but unable to recognise moments of actual peril. At various points in the novel, she is made aware of her vulnerability as a young, unmarried woman. She is subjected to an abduction of sorts by the loathsome John Thorpe, in an episode which implies that if in Regency society woman’s only power is that of refusal, she is sometimes divested even of that.
Throughout the novel, Catherine finds her hopes for Gothic adventures thwarted. When our heroine is finally whisked away from the civilities of Bath it is not to an Alpine castle, but a well-furnished and modernised country residence.
The lack of tapestries and sliding doors is initially compensated for by the overbearing General Tilney – a veritable stereotype of patriarchal tyranny. Our would-be Gothic villain, it transpires, has not murdered his wife, but does pose a threat to Catherine’s safety by unceremoniously turning her out of doors at seven o’clock in the morning to undertake a journey of 70 miles without servant or chaperone.
Catherine’s lesson, in the end, is that however compelling female victimhood may be on paper, it is at once more mundane and more pernicious in person.
The most intriguing episode of the novel for current readers – and not one for the faint hearted – is an unexpectedly eroticised solo bedroom scene. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously alerted us, bedroom scenes in Austen may be infrequent, but they are by no means uninteresting.
Safely ensconced in comfortable quarters in Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s curiosity is aroused by a locked cabinet. The compartments resist the efforts of her ‘tremulous hand’ and leave her in “breathless wonder”. Refusing to go to sleep “unsatisfied” Catherine’s determined ministrations are rewarded when she finally uncovers a hidden manuscript. She is overcome by “indescribable” feelings – which Austen knowingly goes on to describe: “Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale”. Once observed, the physical symptoms of Catherine’s erotic arousal and mounting excitement are difficult to unsee.
Whether or not masturbatory scenes in Jane Austen should come with a trigger warning is a conundrum best left to those in the know at the University of Greenwich. That Northanger Abbey has the capacity to surprise and shock twenty-first century readers is, however, beyond question.
Dr Anna Camilleri is head of English at Eton College