Victorian Lit Essay

Or: Two Hours and This To Tell For It?

I was not going to post this because it was a rush job (per the assignment) and I can’t really say I am exceedingly happy with it.  It is okay, but it does suffer from the same faults that many of my essays do.  I feel like I am standing in the archery range, releasing arrows one after another and coming within a few inches of the bull’s-eye but always just ever so slightly missing the mark.  I feel like my essays of the last year have been plagued with shy attempts to articulate my thoughts and occasionally succeeding and often coming just short.  Still, if I don’t try I will never improve.   It occurs to me that I certainly got the better end of the deal in that I never have such problems when writing narrative/fiction (though I will leave this open for any of my readers to debate).

(Oh dear, I just realized I submitted this  to Hube with a rather silly grammatical error.  I should probably recognize the insignificance of such and be absolved of my shame, but I find such far from simple.)

The essay:

As soon as Henry Tilney can utter these words at the end of the twenty-fourth chapter in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Consult your understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. . .” Catherine is altered irrevocably, and, as Austen succinctly summarizes, “The visions of romance were over” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, XXIV, XXV). And thus Austen, who was living on a nebulous line demarcating the cusp of the Victorian era while Romanticism was slipping away, announces the end of that framework that defined Romanticism. In Northanger Abbey, Austen takes advantage of the Victorian’s acute, self-conscious, and explicit awareness of themselves and makes a microcosm of that shift from Romanticism to Victorianism, embodying it in the life of Catherine Morland.

Catherine, throughout Northanger Abbey, embodies some of the most obvious of those characteristics that define Romanticism. Austen constantly reminds us of Catherine’s brilliant imagination and emotive cognitive processes. The ubiquitous reminders of her fascination with those Gothic novels that so define her is also a driving motif throughout the work. Moreover, Catherine has a persistent belief in the innate goodness of individuals—or, at least, she has a faith in the total goodness of those good individuals, and the total depravity of those evil individuals. As we see, one of the results of her paradigm awakening or disillusionment towards the end of the novel was the realization that, while in Romanticism “such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend,” in the Victorian era, in the real world, is instead “a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.” In the character of Catherine, those Romantic traits are displayed in an extreme. The most blatant, of course, is her obsession with the Gothic, the sublime, which drives the plot of much of the second volume of the novel.

The plot of Northanger Abbey through the twenty-third chapter builds up the character of Catherine and enables us to see what she only sees in hindsight, that she arrives at Northanger Abbey “craving to be frightened.” Before she has arrived at the Tilney residence, Catherine attempts to imagine it more than simply an abbey just as she attempts to integrate something beyond life into the character of General Tilney. This constitutes the essential flaw in the character as well as an essential distinction between Romanticism and Victorianism.

In a manner analogical to that with which the classical Romantics attempted to find meaning and truth in nature, the pre-awakening Catherine attempts to find the meaning in things, places, and people that she is unable and unwilling to concede are nothing more than things, places, and people. There is a place called Northanger Abbey. There is a man known as General Tilney. Yet, to Catherine, if there is nothing more, they have absolutely no meaning. And so, from her Romantic framework developed through prolific perusal of Romantic and Gothic literature, Catherine integrates the places, things, and people that she knows with standards that are not in any conformity to the real world. Her “sense of the probable,” as Henry Tilney calls it, is skewed to such a degree that to overlay these Gothic stereotypes onto reality in order to discover or create some meaning is fully sensible.

The reversal in chapter twenty-four is utterly simplistic and yet strikingly profound within the context of the plot around the well-developed character of Catherine. Catherine finally makes her way into Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, the bedroom that must reveal the nefarious truths about Mrs. Tilney’s death that must be more than simply a sudden, fatal illness. And, of course, Catherine finds a bed, and a wardrobe, and chairs, and, in the end, exactly what one would expect to find in a bedroom: perfectly mundane innocence and simplicity. It is a testament to Austen’s narrative skill that the seemingly self-evident discovery that a bedroom, in fact, is a bedroom, can be such a dramatic upheaval for her characters. The recognition of the “common sense” (and her hitherto lack thereof) that immediately overcomes Catherine begins the paradigm shift away from Catherine’s Romanticism to an almost skeptical Victorianism which rejects far-fetched integrations. In the stead of the Romantic risk of absurdity by going to such extremes as Catherine has done in order to find meaning in daily experiences and interactions, the Victorian Catherine rejects the search for such integrations by denying the necessity that a house be any more than a house or a man be any more than merely a man. There need not be any sublimity. In other words, Catherine’s revelation exemplifies the Victorian era’s reaction to the Romantic’s over-wide realm of the probable by limiting the meaningful to only the extant and eliding the excessive, and external integrated meaning.

“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened.” She is suddenly made aware of the “extravagance of her late fancies,” “[t]he liberty which her imagination had dared to take. . . ,” and “the absurdity of her curiosity and fears” (Ibid. XXV.) In this, Austen sums up the dramatic shift from the Romantic mindset into that of the Victorian era, from the over-inclusive to the skeptical. But there is nothing to fear in this shift, and Austen offers this comfort for Catherine and her readers: “Her [Catherine’s] mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever. . .” (Ibid. XXV).1

1. Dr. Hubele, please know that your temporal restrictions have resulted in this inchoate creation which you have (no doubt) perspicaciously perused. I would have liked to discuss the idea that Henry’s acutely aware recognition of his own framework is a key component of Victorianism, but your restrictions have cruelly cut off the head of these thoughts before they had time to integrate and fructify. I will end this superfluous footnote by mutilating John Milton:

‘Doth Hube exact hard labor, time denied?’

I fearf’ly ask. But Prudence, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: ‘Hube doth not need

Either your work or the whole class’s: who

Simply write their essays, they serve him best.’

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  1. #1 by Stephen on September 23, 2010 - 6:41 pm

    Quite nice. You pulled quite a few things out, and I feel bad posting any critiques at all given the time limit. Yet I will anyway — two small things:

    (1) While I found the essay quite interesting, I would have been surprised after reading it, had I then read the book, to find the extent to which the book seems to be humorous, a parody if you will (and much moreso even than Austen’s other works).

    (2) I suspect that you, or at any rate your essay, underrates the evil of Victorianism’s sceptical over-response to romanticism’s admitted excesses. But perhaps I am wrong. An interesting conversation for sometime.

    • #2 by Angmód on September 23, 2010 - 11:33 pm

      I don’t mind any critiques. At least, not much. I might shed a tear or two at your harsh words while I lie awake tonight wondering why I ever put this into the public sphere, but it won’t hurt too much.

      (1) I haven’t really thought about this, actually, but it is definitely relevant. Unfortunately, because the time-limit was so narrow and the assignment so specific, I wasn’t really considering the books as a whole like I should have been.

      (2) I think my opinion might be absent from the essay, but I don’t think it underrates the negative side to this. I don’t think it touches on it at all. I do, however, think that the Romantic “framework” is far better than that which the Victorian era maintained. While I think there might be some middle ground better than that of Romanticism, I do not approve of the skeptical response.

  2. #3 by salvageroost on October 3, 2010 - 2:15 pm

    Nice new readable format. Sorry I fussed. X)

    I wish I had thought to write (or mutilate) Hube a poem.

    Good point about Catherine’s faith in “total good” and “total depravity” and “if there was nothing more” than mundaninity, then these things “had no meaning.”

    I have so much writing to do, I may have to start setting time limits on myself regardless. Ugh. I AM glad he made us do that, for the sake of our sanity if not of quality.

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