northanger-abbeyIt’s difficult to read, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, without considering some of the ideas posted in Deidre Lynch’s The Economy of Character, a critical work I read in conjunction with the novel. Lynch claims that Austen, through her fictive writing, is trying to draw attention to the ways print culture influenced social life, “mechanizing” ways consumers of print acquired and reproduced knowledge. Conforming to trends and styles that signifies “genteel” living entails recycling some commonplace cultural knowledge, which, in a machinelike way, circulates in a manner similar to the way copies swell up an already overcrowded and chaotic print market. Catherine’s education is a salient reiteration of the machinelike, communicative system that recycles what is fashionable. Austen narrates that Catherine:

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. From Pope, she learnt to censure those who ‘bear about the mockery of woe.’ From Gray, that ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its fragrance on the desert air.’ From Thompson, that – ‘It is a delightful task To teach the young idea how to shoot.’ And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information – amongst the rest, that – ‘Trifles light as air, Are to the jealous, confirmation strong, As proofs of Holy Writ.’ That ‘The poor beetle, which we tread upon, In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great As when a giant dies.’ And that a young woman in love always look – ‘like Patience on a monument Smile at grief.’ 

The quotations begin as a series that introduce an author and his text but break down in inexhaustible, almost meaningless, nomenclature. The inability to exhaust knowledge that signifies high culture is, as Lynch claims, interlinked to the ways in which print culture has made the copy an inexhaustible commodity of the market. If we pay attention to the language of the quotations closely, they are disconnected from one another, purposefully arranged in arbitrary way – without any seeming substance and order. Just as readers cannot extract from it any signifance so does Catherine fail to discern from it any consequential instruction that would enlighten her education as a lady. They become devoid of substance to that point that quotations proceed without references . Decontextualzed and removed from their cultural surroundings, the quotes begin to function as the overproduced commonplaces that Lynch refers to as overcrowding systems of mass communication.

Still, Austen defends novel writing, as overcrowded and overproduced as it was becoming:

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. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy to their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans …And while the abilities of ninehundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens …. 

Acknowledging that her writing is another reproduction, copy, and more importantly, parody of Gothic novels, she justifies her place within the print market by asserting the unnecessary overabundance of literature that eulogizes the greats, works that have accumulated cultural capitol/value. The novel, as Austen asserts, is new mode of writing that has not yet generated such cultural esteem but will carve the path for future aesthetic tastes as it reveals “the greatest powers of the mind …and the most thorough knowledge of human nature” (27). Let’s admit that Austen’s prediction is pretty spot on.

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