Austen and Reading: Romanticism, Radcliffe and Ridicule
14th Aug 2013
Caroline Bingley’s “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” perhaps doesn’t best illustrate Austen’s literary views, given that Caroline belittles Elizabeth Bennet as a great reader with “no pleasure in anything else,” whilst posing with a book to (unsuccessfully) flirt with Mr Darcy.
Austen promotes well-rounded readership through her characters and their attitudes towards literature, and many friends’ and couples’ bonds form through discussions about reading.
Northanger Abbey and the Gothic Novel
Approaching literature in Austen, Northanger Abbey immediately springs to mind. Noted for its satire of the Gothic Novel, it’s crammed to the rafters with books. The most enthusiastic readers are protagonist Catherine and friend Isabella, who bond through a mutual passion for literature.
Catherine’s worldview is moulded by the goings-on in her favourite books (most importantly Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, often called the archetypal Gothic horror), even to the point of believing reality as terrifying and lust-fuelled as novels.
Not by coincidence, as the book progresses, and Catherine begins to separate fiction from reality, literary references become less frequent.
Almost 200 years since Northanger Abbey was first published, new works of literature by female writers still face tooth-grinding snobbery.Moreover, the narrator (a guise for Austen’s own opinions) spends almost an entire chapter defending novelists and the novel format, issuing a call of arms to fellow writers, entreating them not to approach novels with scorn or indifference, but as works as worthy of praise as “a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior.”
Sense vs Sensibility – expressions of personality through literature
Austen promotes balanced reading ‘diets’; characters who prefer factual, academic or religious works are as often flawed as those who solely consume romances and poetry.
Whilst visiting Lyme, Persuasion’s Anne is introduced to Captain Benwick, mourning his deceased fiancée. Both strangers to the joy happening around them, they bond over literature. Benwick is “a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry,” and Anne, a varied reader, is troubled by this:
“it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely.”
Their instant rapport allows Anne to recommend prose to him. Soon after, Benwick is engaged to high-spirited Louisa Musgrove. Perhaps Benwick takes Anne’s advice, and his poetic sensibility is reduced, allowing him to progress with Louisa. Or perhaps, as Anne suggests, “they fell in love over poetry”?
Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby demonstrate a more destructive relationship initiated through passion for romantic literature.
Soon after meeting, they strike up a friendship through mutual liking of Cowper and Scott and dislike of Pope, often held in opposition to the more fashionable, romantic poets.
Willoughby buys Marianne a horse which he names Queen Mab, a nod to Shakespeare (the Dashwood family have also been reading Hamlet together).
Yet, too much romanticism sees Marianne form a hasty attachment, presuming she instantly knows Willoughby’s character. If Anne Elliot had crossed into Sense and Sensibility, she would surely be extolling the virtues of prose.
Marianne and Willoughby are not a good couple, or well-rounded characters, because of their unbalanced preference towards the romantic. Similarly, Mr Collins and Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are ridiculed because of their reliance on pragmatism.
When asked to read aloud, Mr Collins chooses a passage from Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, and Lydia cannot control her laughter. Mary is also never taken seriously as she preaches tales of morality.
In Mansfield Park the love triangle of Edmund, Fanny and Mary overtly explores the dynamic between sense and sensibility. A soon-to-be-ordained clergyman, Edmund is automatically associated with ‘sense’ in reading, like Biblical and morality texts, yet his attachment to Mary moves him towards romantic literature.
The Bertram children and friends (most notably Henry and Mary Crawford), put on a play of Lovers Vows, a rather lascivious tale for young people (and family members) to act out.
Engaged Maria Bertram covertly expresses her feelings for Henry, playing his love interest, and Edmund joins in despite initial reluctance so that he can act out his feelings for Mary; this passion gradually dissolves, and Edmund finally turns to his moral counterpoint (the person who shares his distaste for romantic literature): Fanny.
So what do you think?
Who is a balanced reader? There is no doubt that Anne Elliot, arguably the closest character to Austen’s own, is considered one. How about Elizabeth Bennet?
Darcy believes that a refined woman must improve her mind through “extensive reading.” This could be taken to mean someone who reads a lot, but it very possibly means widely read. Does this apply to Lizzie, who prefers reading to cards?