Butler on Northanger

I just finished reading Marilyn Butler’s Introduction to the Penguin Edition of Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin, 1995). Learned some very interesting things. Unfortunately, once again I find it hard to summarise what exactly was so revolutionary about what Butler has to say. It reminds me of a speaker I once heard, who taught a group of us on very weighty and thought-provoking matters. At the end of his talk, he asked if there were any questions. The room was silent. “If you don’t have any questions,” he scolded, “you have been absorbing without thinking!” No, dear sir, I hadn’t been absorbing without thinking. I was so overwhelmed with thought from all I had learned, there had not been time to process and to distill the paradigm shifts into a few little sentences. This feels a little bit like it – I’ll be thinking of Northanger differently after reading Butler, but can’t put my finger on exactly what all constitutes the changes.

However, to offer you a few examples of matters I found intriguing: the 1790’s (when Northanger was first written) were a time of the so-called “romantic revolution”, which “was preoccupied with genre: it took its name from its revival of an old genre, used to challenge or oust more recent ones. Romance, ballad, and sonnet, all of them archaic forms, reappeared in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, at the expense of the forms neoclassical taste had privileged, epic tragedy, satire and history” (xvii). The new genres, particularly the “romance” and novel, were often associated with women writers and readers. Incidentally, the word “romance” in this context does not mean what it does today; from what I gather the old meaning is closer to our term “fiction” or even “fantasy” – or “heroic adventure” or something. No pink ruffles and lace or red candy hearts involved. So, 1790’s, romantic revolution, rediscovery (and re-invention?) of old genres.

Another interesting observation concerns the character of Isabella Thorpe, Catherine’s bitchy friend. Butler says that later in the 19th century Thackeray would write just such a social-climbing unscrupulous character as Isabella in the slightly more sympathetic Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair.  I’m going to keep my eyes open for the parallels as I read.


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