George III of Hannover reigned over Britain from 1760 to 1820. From 1811 his son George exercised the function of Prince Regent because of the king’s permanent insanity.
After 1793, with the end of the French revolution, the British army was engaged in the fight against Napoleon Bonaparte till 1815, when the French emperor was defeated in the battle of Waterloo.
In the course of the century England consolidated her power in India.
The XVIII century was dominated by the figure of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He wrote dramas, novels, issues, but, in particular, he became well known for his critical works and his Dictionary of the English Language (1775).
Novel: After The mouthpieces of the rise of the novel, D. Defoe, S. Richardson and H. Fielding, other writers approached the genre:
- T. Smollet (1721-1771) wrote about life on ships and social scenes in England and Scotland (Roderick Random; Humphrey Clinker)
- F. Burney (1752-1840) wrote humoristic and realistic novels such as Eveline; Cecilia and Camilla.
- L. Sterne (1715-1768) evoked the rules of language with a flux of thoughts in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
- H. Walpole (1717-1791); A. Radcliff (1764-1833) and M. G. Lewis (1775-1818) started writing stories full of mystery and imagination, the so called Gothic Novels based on supernatural events and emotional characters.
- Sir W. Scott (1771-1832) wrote novels based on Scottish folklore and tradition (Waverly; Rob Roy) and on England’s past (Ivanhoe)
- The Graveyard School: E. Young, W. Collins and T. Gray’s poems are about melancholy thoughts and desolate landscapes, ruins and tombs.
- The Antiquary School: J. Macpherson’s The Works of Ossian (1765), T. Percy and T. Chatterton shared the same enthusiasm for Celtic studies and Norse literature and popularised poems and legends of barbaric ages.
- The Pre-Romantics: R. Burns’s lyrics speak of genuine feeling and the beauty of nature. W. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience stress the contrast between the innate goodness of man and the corruption of society, with a simple and imaginative language with new symbols and energetic creative power.
- The Romantic Poets: W. Wordsworth (1770-1850) and S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834) published the Lyrical Ballads (1798), the manifesto of Romanticism that stressed the importance of imagination and of nature and described the poet as a prophet.
- Second generation of Romantic poets: P. B. Shelley, Lord Byron, and J. Keats start writing their poems in which they declare their love for remote stories, events and forms of art, their individualism and stress the role of the poet as a prophet.
Life and works
1775: Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh child of a rector. She remaines here for the first 26 years of her life. She studies at the Abbey School at Reading and then completes her education at home.. Soon she reveals her ability in writing.
1795: Jane starts writing her first novel, Elinor and Marianne, then revised and published in 1811 with the title Sense and Sensibility.
1796: The author writes First Impressions that will later develop into Pride and Prejudice published in 1813.
1798-9: To this period belongs the first draft of Susan, the future Northanger Abbey, that appeared in 1818, after her death.
1801-5: Her father retires and the family moves first to Bath, then, on his death, to Southampton. These years, spent far from Steventon, are probably unhappy because there is a pause in the writer’s activity.
1805: Jane moves with her mother and her beloved sister Cassandra to Chawton where she starts writing again surrounded by the love of her family and the devotions of readers like W. Scott and the Prince Regent.
1811-15: The author begins Mansfield Park; Pride and Prejudice appears; Emma is begun in 1814 and Persuasion is published the following year.
1816: Jane’s health starts declining and her last work Sanditon is left unfinished.
1817: the author goes to Winchester in search of medical attention, but she dies after three months. Her body is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Northanger Abbey is the story of an ordinary girl, Catherine Morland, a clergyman’s daughter. She goes to spend some weeks in Bath with a middle aged couple, the Allens, friends of her family. There she meets the Thorpes and becomes close friend to Isabella, one of the daughters. At first Isabella gets engaged to Catherine’s brother while John Thorpe falls in love with the heroine of the novel. At a ball Catherine meets Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. He is an intelligent young man attracted by the protagonist’s simplicity. His sister, kind and goodhearted, becomes Catherine’s bosom friend. Meanwhile Isabella Thorpe has revealed to be an opportunist, ready to break off her engagement when she meets a wealthier young man, Henry’s brother, Captain John Tilney..
She is presented as an anti-heroine: plump, pale, unable to draw and with a propension to male games. Jane Austen’s satire stresses the contrast between what Catherine would like to be according to the fashion of her time and what she really is, living in her imaginary world. Her visit to Bath and then to Northanger Abbey represent a sort of initiation: the innocent and amiable girl from Fullerton, Wiltshire, is opened to a different life in Bath; forgets her goodsense in Northanger Abbey to become a Gothic prima-donna and then, disillusioned, acquires a new naturaless. At the end of the story she is a young woman with a new capacity of judgement: life is not a Gothic novel and Isabella and Colonel Tilney have taught her a lesson for the future
He is a cunning young man that stresses with irony the contraddiction of the period. Henry is the Gothic hero reversed: he does not fall in love at once with Catherine, he does not rescue her. He gradually gets fond of Catherine appreciating her innocence, her purity and fragility. Henry is a man of the new middle class, witty and with common sense. Probably he mirrors the author’s thoughts about society and literature, enforcing every statement with ironical remarks.
John Thorpe: Like his sister, he is superficial and only concerned with horses. False and hypocrit, John speaks too much , unaware of the value of his words, and he causes, probably unwillingly, the apparent ruin of Catherine’s future life.
Mrs Allen and Mrs Thorpe: They are two women of the old generation, only devoted to dress and whose only care is how to make favourable and profitable acquaintances. In particular, Mrs. Allen is the target of Jane Austen’s satire against those women without personality and self-centred, representative of Bath’s society.Her deploration of the fact that Catherine has not been asked to dance, at the beginning of the novel, helps the author to define the Gothic convention that the hero and the heroine are mutually attracted by natural affinity, without the need of a formal introduction.
The writer seems to make fun of him: the man that makes the reader wonder about him at the beginnig, becomes a piece of amusement at the end of the book. The severe man of monomaniacal pride is submitted by a humble girl without “consequences”
James Moreland: Catherine’s brother, kind and good-hearted like his sister, he becomes an easy prey for Isabella. His function in the novel is to put in evidence the eagerness and hypocrisy of Isabella Thorpe and the false behaviour and values that are the bases of the rising classes.
Captain Tilney: Henry’s brother appears only few times during the story. Handome, elegant , he uses his charm to attract young girls that desire to reach fortune in their life. He is similar to his father as to villany, but his function is only to show Catherine the real nature of Isabella’s feelings.
The former represents the old world that is going to disappear. Empty values and false behaviour, hypocrisy and fashion typicalof the old country gentry’s culture.
Northanger Abbey is the place where Catherine’s dreams of mystery and magic can become true, according to the Gothic readings that the protagonist starts loving influenced by Isabella. Both these places represent the steps Catherine has to take to become adult in a sort of buildung roman where the protagonist, at the end, acquires a new awareness, a new capacity of understanding and ability at judging people..
Her style is rich in contrasts (consider, for example the dialogues between Catherine and Isabella). She uses the omniscient unobtrusive narrator. Jane Austen, in fact, intrudes into the narration only when the topics shift from the story to comments and judgements about novels. The writer lets the reader form her/his opinion thanks to different points of view,
In this novel in particular Jane Austen has a precise target for her irony: the Gothic novel.
The writer’s irony aims mainly at the melodramatic and pathetic aspects of the lives described in these novels and that obviously contrasts with the realism and the semplicity of her world.
2- Gothic Novel: The origin of the term Gothic is not very clear. A certain type of novel was called Gothic because the story usually concerned people and events of the Middle Ages (13th and 15th centuries). The main elements in these novels are monasteries, ruined churches, subterranean passages, hautnted castles; the themes are murders and mysteries. This form of fiction probably started in Germany.