Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' as a Social Drama

Categories: Jane Austen

The use of settings in this novel evokes thoughts which make different events happen due to the mood created and the settings described. In this essay I will be looking at Jane Austen’s use of settings and how they relate to the social, historical and cultural contexts in this book. Northanger Abbey, written by Jane Austen, is a social drama focusing on the lives of the characters and how changing relationships have an impact on them. This book is probably influenced by the lack of events in Jane Austen’s life, causing her to dramatise the smallest things, as does Catherine Morland in this novel.

This novel was set and written in the 1790’s. We know this because the gothic novel ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, which is frequently mentioned in the book, was then written. This was also the first novel the Jane Austen wrote. The readers of this book tended to be ‘Upper Class’, especially women, as they could afford books because of their status and had lots of time to read them whilst their husbands went out hunting and so forth.

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As these were the types of people reading the books, the different settings and interactions are probably based around the type of subjects that Upper Class women thought were proper to talk about.

As well as this there was also the enjoyment of reading. The culture and social life of these women were probably considered when writing this book as to give them the type of things they looked to find in a book without causing uproar in feminist ideas which offended them.

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Even though the village of Fullerton is Catherine’s hometown, the place where the story begins and the place she eventually returns to, we do not find out much about the setting from the novel.

The first chapter is mainly introducing Catherine to us leaving any description of her surroundings and home being vague. Fullerton is shown to be quite small, housing only ’40 surrounding families’. The wealthiest family in the village, The Allens, are said to be visiting Bath for the benefit of a ‘gouty constitution’, which evokes the thought that Fullerton is quite a quiet village without much happening and no room to prosper. If the wealthiest people in the village are going to a place to make contacts and meet acquaintances then this shows that lack of activity in the village. Read how certain events change our impressions of life

As Fullerton is such a quiet town Catherine visits Bath with the Allens, who are very fond of her, to find a suitable husband, as her village seems to be lacking in anyone appropriate. This is probably not the reason that Catherine thinks she is going but in the long run it is probably what her family expects to happen, almost like an unspoken motive. The failings of Fullerton as a village are quite obvious, there are no people of Catherine’s age and/or social class for her to talk to and befriend, as there ‘was not one Lord in the neighbourhood… not even a baronet’.

It appears as thought nothing much ever seems to happen there. I think that because Fullerton is portrayed to be such a dull and monotonous, it helps build up some anticipation of what Bath might be like because it is described as being a social place where Catherine is sure to meet many people. This makes it obvious that there is going to a dramatic change in the place of the book for the chapter shown about Fullerton doesn’t show much excitement. The contrast between Fullerton and Bath is very apparent before Catherine and The Allens actually arrive there.

There isn’t much happening in Fullerton, which is probably why Catherine has ‘read all such works as heroine’s must read’ as there isn’t much else to pass the time. Due to Catherine living in a place which is lacking in action and the social excitement of most places, it causes her attitude to be different to people that come from a place such as Bath. Fullerton has caused Catherine to be very much alone without having friends, which is shown when she makes her first friend in Bath, Isabella Thorpe. Catherine was ‘invited to accept an arm of the eldest Miss Thorpe’, showing how she tags along a bit as all this is new to her.

Also she straightaway considers Isabella a friend as the thinks that ‘friendship is certainly the finest balm’. Her naive nature allows her to be taken along and agreeing with every happening straight away and this is partly to do with the lonely lifestyle of her childhood. This helps to display how nai??ve and inexperienced she is. Jane Austen is said to have had an early life that often lacked in events so the settings of Fullerton and their influence on Catherine may be a portrayal of the early life of Jane Austen as this was the culture that she was exposed to.

She, like Catherine, also had a large, loving and supportive family as in the times around the 18th century large families were considered to be the best kind. Bath is a great contrast to Fullerton, showing the social etiquettes of the period and the way in which people interacted with each other gracefully, unlike anything that Catherine experienced in Fullerton. Unlike Fullerton, Bath is a real place of which Jane Austen appears to be familiar with, as places such as Pulteney Street do exist, even today.

There are no parts of Bath that are explicitly described building up a good image in your head of the place, but the events that go on and the period in which the novel is set help to make up for that. Bath is shown to be a very fashionable place as Catherine discovers on her first few days which she spends ‘learning what was mostly worn’ and being provided with ‘a dress of the newest fashion’. Due to it being such a fashionable place it is highly regarded by people whose judgement is not solely independent, and thinking ill of a place such as Bath would have shown that the person that didn’t like it was at fault.

Bath is obviously a place just for visiting as there doesn’t appear to be any permanent residents, showing the lack of social stability that there is. This is how people like Isabella manage to manipulate Catherine without her seeing it as Isabella is new around this place and people do not know of her scheming and hypocritical ways. Isabella is only getting close to Catherine so that she can get closer to her brother, James, whom she thinks a great deal of.

Once she has got James you notice the distinct lack of contact between the two of them. Also she flirts openly with another man whist engaged to James and once the engagement is called of she claims that ‘he is the only man I (she) ever did or could love’. Mrs. Allen shows enthusiasm for Bath because it holds for her, the primary interest of her life, making and having acquaintances. Whilst chaperoning Catherine to the balls at the pump room she often openly says that she wishes that they had ‘any acquaintance here’.

So she feels comfortable with the situation with the hope that she may finally notice or be noticed by someone who she already knows, and this does happen when she meets the Thorpe’s. Once she has met them she I completely at ease with the setting that she is in without noticing any of the superficiality of Bath. The more intelligent among the people in Bath like Eleanor and Catherine can see that the entertainment that Bath provides is only good when they are in the hope of meeting and making semi-permanent friends.

Although Henry Tilney expresses these thoughts it is ironic that his family stay in Bath as long as possible, maybe their only reason of staying being because of Catherine. Her nai??ve and innocent nature seems to enthral them, as she doesn’t know how to hurt people, therefore she is popular. Bath is an artificial place that almost seems to be set aside from the reality of real life as people are too much of a good time to carry on living their lives, as they normally would do.

As Bath is full of merriment, like at the balls, social interaction between men and women was inevitable and friends were bound to be made. As I mentioned earlier, fashion was important a buying ‘a dress of the newest fashion’ is important as good looks were what helped people to make acquaintances and have a good time. People then progressed to visiting each other’s houses, like Catherine to Northanger Abbey and Woodston, and generally going on walks and outings together. In Bath the biggest pastime and aim of the people is to socialise and make new acquaintances, and maybe even friends.

Due to this reason there is a mixed class of people here and to Catherine it must seem rather strange as in Fullerton she only seemed to want to mix with people of her class or higher. When she was talking about there being ‘no Lords… not even a baronet’ it is as though she is singling out the people of a lower class as if they were the last type of people that she would want to communicate with. Due to the popularity of this place, Mrs. Allen finds an acquaintance, which leads to Catherine making a new friend and seeing her brother, who has currently been studying at Oxford University.

The setting of the Ball provides and opportunity for the people to get to know each other in formal circumstances, hopefully knowing where they stand with each other. Also as people are used to having to interact, people like Henry Tilney have no problem acquainting themselves with other people, which leads to the growing relationship between him and Catherine. The people that spend time in Bath seem to thrive of the entertainment but also seem to boost their confidence, which is why the Tilney’s and the Thorpe’s are easy to make friends with, and are also of a similar class to Catherine.

I think that Jane Austen shows a great affection for Bath, but is also aware of its faults but is so enthralled with it because of it being a tremendously exciting place compared to the reality of tedious life. Jane Austen still seems to familiarise herself with Catherine in a comparative way as her family moved to Bath at one point once moving away from their sleepy village, which was probably a time full of the excitement of a new place which she felt to be almost unreal.

Jane Austen demonstrates the different social culture of the two different places that both she and Catherine Morland have lived in which show two completely different styles of life. The setting of Bath shows that in the culture of that period the young ladies had to be chaperoned to places like balls when meeting up with acquaintances and friends which is very different to the way that people live in the more modern times. After staying in Bath for a while, the Tilneys are going back to Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, as General Tilneys presence was wanted at home.

As the friendship between Eleanor and Catherine, she wishes for her to join them, As General Tilney is also misinformed about Catherine’s wealth he believes her to be very well off, therefore he wants her to accompany them. Catherine’s nai??ve nature builds up a picture of what the Abbey will be like before she even arrives at it as her Gothic novels like ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ have influenced her image of certain effects greatly. I think that she largely thinks back to Fullerton, the place of her childhood, as she doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of her nai??ve nature and the way that she approaches people.

To the readers of the novel it is obvious that Henry is playing with Catherine’s imagination by describing the Abbey as having ‘ancient housekeepers’ and ‘gloomy passages’ whilst only slightly mentioning that the Abbey has been snugly repaired fore ‘their end of the house’. The typical image of a Gothic Abbey is what Catherine expects but it leaves the reader with an anticipation of what it will really be like and what is expected of it. Catherine’s 6-week experience in Bath did help her to mature but her nai??ve nature still lies there.

The disappointment of Catherine when the actual setting is revealed is conscious to us all as ‘the walls were papered… the floor was carpeted’. But parts of the house were very Gothic and suspicious such as the ‘old chest’ and the large dining room. Even though Catherine sees the room holds that distinctly antique chest, the rest of the abbey is completely modernised and doesn’t in any way live up to the expectations of a sinister and decaying structure that Catherine expects through reading the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.

The influences she has from these novels and her image of what an abbey is usually like, as described by Mrs. Radcliffe and the setting that she is currently in, is what evokes the thoughts of the General murdering his wife. This belief in fiction is completely evoked by her imagination with the flimsiest of circumstantial knowledge to back it up. General Tilney seems to also help her to think these thoughts as once he promotes the relationship between Henry and Catherine he returns to the abbey and changes his personality, becoming quite unapproachable.

When in Bath he obviously assumes that Catherine is of high class as his children were mixing with her. For Catherine’s first impressions of him were that he was an ‘agreeable, good natured and altogether charming man’. General Tilney has his personality changed once in the abbey because of the influence it has on him. Abbeys are obviously big showing his wealth and stature, which is all he seems to think about. But Catherine naively believes him when he says that he only values money insofar as it allows him to ‘promote the happiness of his children’.

Though he has little need of more wealth, yet he is greedy for further gain and an advancement of status, and this accounts for his otherwise puzzling behaviour towards Catherine. For him to have an increasing amount of wealth his social status will raise as the higher class he is, the more people will want to be around him. To him it is almost as though money is like an ultimate power over everyone. In the culture of this period (as already mentioned) the richer you are, the better person you appear to be.

Therefore, in the culture of the time he would seem to have a power over everyone and because of his obsession with his own life, this would be exactly what he wants. I think that he must assume that Catherine, supposedly coming from a rich family, is interested in social status and is impressed by the wealth of people which is why he shows off, trying to act the part. He is obviously suspicious of people as well as being obsessed with money as he sends Catherine away after finding out that her family aren’t as wealthy as they were made out to be as the hurting John Thorpe is keen too tell him.

He is a forceful man and I think that his attitude is reflected by the setting in which he lives in as he believes himself to be superior and a born leader. Because of the lack of social surroundings for General Tilney due to his wealth and almost infatuation with his own life, this was what caused him to be so unapproachable. The setting he is in but also in he period from which the book is set influences this. The people were blatantly divided in different class systems and someone of his stature would not talk to people that were thought to be below him because of the job they did or the amount of money they earn.

This type if historical and cultural aspect of his life is another aspect, which, along with the settings of his home, helps to shape this, mans personality into someone anti-social and unfriendly. Jane Austen is obviously aware of these social prejudices in the time that she is living in as in her life she travelled to many parts of England with her family and may have experiences of prejudices either against her or witnessed it against other people.

Before the novel even takes Catherine to Woodston, she is intrigued by it and the setting that Jane Austen creates for it almost makes it sound too beautiful to visit at the thought that you may spoil the picturesque place. Her fascination by Woodston before she arrives there is due to the description of it before she arrives. Who would be able to resist a place which ‘stands among fine meadows’ and has an ‘excellent kitchen-garden’? General Tilney, being obsessed with wealth and his own high status describes it to Catherine as if you have to have an invitation and be a very close person of the family.

Also he includes about his wealth and how Henry wouldn’t have to have a profession to have enough money which makes you almost feel in awe of this place before you are even there as these images make it sound more like a palace than a country parsonage, as it doesn’t sound much like a functional house. When Catherine first goes to Woodston the General apologises for the flatness of the land but is probably bluffing, as Catherine’s first impressions were of embarrassment for how ‘pretty she thought it’.

This shows us what high expectation general Tilney has due to the way he leads his life, and of Catherine’s lack of travel for she has only visited four places, and yet she finds this one so entrancing. The General says that he is not ‘comparing it with Fullerton or Northanger’ which seems as though he is trying to make Catherine think more of it by implying that it isn’t in the same league as the other places. He obviously knows how wonderful Woodston looks and by putting it down he makes Catherine see it in a better way.

The places that General Tilney owns are what shape his character and personality because both Northanger Abbey and Woodston are grand places of which people will admire and he thinks that by having this wealth and respectful places, that he deserves respect too. A lot of the setting of Woodston is shown through people and what they think of it. The difference in the opinions between the General and Catherine are very apparent and make the setting seem ever more beautiful than it would if they both expressed what an exquisite place it really is.

The property and money are much of a concern to General Tilney, which is why he mentioned them early on in the visit of Northanger Abbey so that Catherine would admire him and see his wealth. This is a reflection of the society at the time because his wealth was seen to be a progression into becoming the best person there could be. The people of this time valued property as when there social status rises they can seem to be even more impressive by showing of there great properties.

Jane Austen almost makes General Tilney act as an estate agent, giving Catherine a perfect description of the place beforehand to ensure that she likes it. Then he tries to point out its faults (if any) to influence her to agree with her first impressions of it being beautiful. This literacy and social technique of manipulating Catherine’s thoughts comes easy because of her naivety and the high status of the General. There is an amount of symmetry between the setting of Fullerton and Woodston, both being villages and containing country parsonages meaning that you almost end up where you begin.

Jane Austen obviously holds familiarity with both places for she lived in a country parsonage so maybe this book is a reflection on parts of her life. She is obviously aware of the high status and class that is put onto the people who own places like this and in the culture of her times this a country parsonage was a place of beauty and containing quite a high status of person. Bath is a complete contrast to the tranquil and beautiful settings of Woodston. As Woodston is almost like a dream home that many people would like, it appeals to people such as Henry, Catherine and Jane Austen.

It allows them to live the lives they want without being influenced or undermined by people who consider themselves to be more knowledgeable. For Henry it would give him time away from his father to get a job and maintain a living. For Catherine her imagination would be able to run wild at the same time as being by Henry’s side, and for Jane Austen he would be able to write an dread without disturbances, but with a picturesque setting to help her stories develop.

From doing this essay I can see that settings have an important contribution to a novel due to the effects it has on the characters’ personalities and they behave whilst in certain places. The settings show the association to the social relationships between people and how the living environment they inhabit effects how they treat people, and judge who are worth speaking to and who aren’t. This type of class system relates to the historical period that this novel was written in and the culture in which the people lived.

This is because everyone was judged by his or her class and people like General Tilney wouldn’t want to be associated with anyone of a lower class, therefore poorer people weren’t thought to be as good or worthwhile as rich people. In any book, the settings contribute to the readers’ perception of the novel and the way they interpret the events that are taking place. Suspense can be built up by the way a scene is set like an old house can be thought to be scary when creaking doors and cobwebs are used.

Also when comparing one setting with another, like Fullerton and Bath, you long to see the next place as you did with Bath, because Fullerton had no excitement whereas Bath was described as being lively and sociable. When settings are described well you know the type of people that you may be meeting in this place and this helps to build up an image of this person and the type of personality that they might have. In Northanger Abbey each individual setting contributes to the events that happen there and the people that you encounter. For Fullerton, s sleepy little village without much happening, you get Catherine.

A nai??ve and sheltered girl without much experience of people and social activity. In the active hustle and bustle of Bath you get the manipulation of Isabella Thorpe, taking advantage of those who can be easily lead. In Northanger Abbey and Woodston you find General Tilney who is very obsessed with money and will not communicate with anyone who he considers to be below him. His children, Eleanor and Henry, have probably had a well-provided but very much ignored life, which is why they are so attentive to Catherine and willing to befriend her.

Without good settings a book cannot pull of much of a plot and Northanger Abbey has just the right amount to help thoughts to be evoked and the right happenings in the right places. For example the mysteriousness of being in and Abbey is enough to get Catherine thinking of murderous, yet fictional stories. Jane Austen seems to put apart of her into every setting created which is what makes Northanger Abbey such a good novel and something that people may be able to relate to.

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Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' as a Social Drama. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/jane-austens-northanger-abbey-as-a-social-drama-essay?post

Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' as a Social Drama

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