Thursday, December 16, 2010

Propriety's Claims on Prudence in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey

Chapter 2: Propriety's Claims on Prudence in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey

In this chapter Sarah Emsley contrasts JA's earliest works, Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey. The character of Lady Susan is JA's only vicious heroine, and is not a model for female virtue! Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, and we see throughout Lady Susan's correspondence that she is conniving and cares only for herself. JA as the narrator tells us at the end, "She had nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience." Lady Susan is humorous as JA's juvenile works, but is longer and has a more mature feel. Austen may later focus on how virtues come into conflict with one another, but in Lady Susan her focus is more on "the villainy of human nature." Lady Susan only invokes the name of propriety when it will suit her. When she wishes Reginald out of the way for a few days so that she can continue her affair with Mr Manwaring, she acts as if they are moving too fast and pretends to be afraid of displeasing her brother.

Lady Susan has an excellent command of language and uses it to get what she desires. Some critics have argued that JA shows how Lady Susan uses her power, but then abandons the idea of female power in her later works. Emsley, however, sees that in the later novels "the heroine's pursuit of virtue is a quest for a different kind of power. Given the older definitions of virtue (or vertu) had to do with strength and power, it is important to emphasize that the virtues are moral excellences, and therefore may be seen as more powerful than aggression or manipulation."

In contrast to Lady Susan, Catherine, the heroine (or "in training for a heroine") in Northanger Abbey, is quite naive. Which may be one of the reasons that she is attractive. She is artless, open, and honest. Emsley observes, "Unlike Lady Susan, she is capable of genuinely caring for other people. In the course of the novel, Catherine begins to learn the kind of prudence that propriety requires, but the natural courage it takes to be honest and open with others is hers already...Henry learns from Catherine's openness even while he teaches her to be more prudent about social life."

Catherine learns that not all sacrifices are noble (such as choosing to go with the Thorpes and her brother when she really wanted to go with the Tilneys), not all villains are obvious (e.g. John Thorpe), and not all abbeys are haunted.

Henry and Catherine have many spirited exchanges before Catherine quite knows how to take what he says. One such time is when Henry Tilney and Catherine are dancing at the ball, and he asks her what she is thinking about. "Catherine coloured, and said, 'I was not thinking of anything.'" Henry responds, "'That is artful and deep, to be sure, but I had rather be told at once that you will not tell me.'"

JA closes Northanger Abbey with words that I could not agree with more, "To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well."

Where Lady Susan is innately wicked and Catherine is innately good, JA incorporates both virtues and vices in her later heroines. Elizabeth, Anne, Marianne, Elinor, and Fanny must learn the balance of the virtues.

These thoughts are taken from the second chapter (entitled, Propriety's Claims on Prudence in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey ) of Sarah Baxter Emsley's book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. Next up, Chapter 3: Sense and Sensibility: "Know your Own Happiness"

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