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Jane Austen, revered as one of the most salient writers of the Victorian era, tastefully concocted notions of love, matrimony, and the ideal woman for all facets of womanhood to cultivate. However, another key aspect of Austen’s unconventional writings was her ability to seamlessly culminate an engaging narrative while also challenging the construct of economic and social control of her ostentatious society. One of Austen’s famous quotations, “What has wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?,” encapsulates Austen’s critique of the “remunerative” era and seeks to depict the pleasure and pains of living in a market economy through the characters in her novels.
A prominent example of this notion is through Northanger Abbey, Austen’s novel, that exposes the flaws of the prevailing economic orthodoxy throughout the nineteenth century: the market was naturally self-governing, and that economic intervention was generally unnecessary and usually unproductive: the policy regime under which the Victorian economy thrived. Austen brilliantly takes this notion of capitalism and correlates it to women’s ‘value’ in the marriage market unveiling society’s proclivity to liken women to the asset of a commodity.
Theorists of consumer objects argue that around the turn of the nineteenth century commodities became valuable not only for utilitarian or exchange purposes, but also for their capacity to signify particularized selves. Commodities began to acquire individuality: the kind of singularity that was valued in people was also becoming a crave for consumer goods. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey parallels the Victorian capitalist market to the marriage market through the juxtaposition of Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney to the character of Catherine Morland, to emphasize the notion that the marketplace warps female agency and degrades female autonomy.
Through the juxtaposition of Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tinley, Austen reveals two different facets of women feeling constricted by the marriage market and how economic factors degrade them from full potential. Isabella Thorpe has an egocentric participation in the marketplace and has great hope in commerce’s so called liberating possibilities for women in the capitalist market as a space for female self-assertion. Austen utilizes Thorpe to expose women who commodify themselves are at a disadvantage in the marketplace, where value is determined by men. Isabella remains one of the novel’s most frivolous shoppers constantly trying to manipulate Bath’s marriage market with bargaining, negotiations, and contractual agreements.
Although she claims Mr. Moreland to be her “true love” and that “fourtane can be nothing to signify nothing,” Isabella aims for a better buyer (Frederick Tilney) because of his more prosperous financial situation (114). In the end, Isabella ends up serving Frederick Tilney acting as his eye candy obtaining no capital, forced to sell herself: her fate an object male choice. Isabella’s false grasp of societal gentility prompts her to sell herself as a commodity. This notion is apparent in the beginning of the novel as she begins to establish herself as the merchant and the merchandise. Isabella is appalled that “two odious young men” stared at her yet when they walked away she wanted to know “which way they had gone,” because she wanted to flirt with them (41).
Isabella’s superficial rhetoric and attempt to manipulate the rigid pool of commerce expose her failure in the marriage market of Bath. Isabella’s class and gender leave her stuck in a position to challenge economic rationalism, the forceful market efficiency, of both capitalism and the marriage market which leads to futility. Austen’s elaboration of the paradox of women turning to the marketplace as a site of freedom and agency unveils that economic self-assertion can lead to facades that can not be kept (Isabella playing the “sentimental” heroine) and defeating self-alienation which degrades her even further in the genteel marriage market.
Conversely, Eleanor Tinley understands the current ideology of women status and the notion of being a commodity in the marriage market however, despite this insight, unlike Isabella trying to manipulate societal commodification, she is depressed and immobilized. Eleanor suffers from not having any saving illusions about her own efficacy: she is the helpless damsel shackled to a gold cage. Eleanor, a woman with a very “agreeable countenance,” good sense,” and beauty admiralty attempts to remove herself from the market instead of consuming it like Isabella (54). Eleanor is considered an elitist, a product of old money, power, and values, thus she takes refuge in the customary pursuits of a gentlewoman: reading, drawing, and walking. The daughter of General Tilney, she was trained to conform to the dictatorship of a patriarchal society.
Although she is of old ideals, economic excellence was still very much prominent in her life: the Abbey was a double image to Bath. Eleanor holds the most prestige of any woman within the novel, thus she possessed the most vivid reality of women in English society: ‘I trust you will acquit me, for you must have been long enough in this house to see that I am but a nominal mistress of it, that my real power is nothing’ (210). Catherine had just been impulsively asked to leave the Abbey and Eleanor, despite Catherine being her closest female confidant, felt as if she could do “nothing” to bring justice to the situation: she lacked courage to stand up to the masculine laden society. Although Eleanor depict attributes bolstered in Austen’s works, there is disparity between the belief of virtue and the application of truth. She remains incarcerated to the notion that women cannot enact their own break away from the patriarchal mansion.
Catherine, Austen’s heroine, is the ideal persona of a woman within the tumultuous society. Catherine has the kind honest demeanor of Eleanor with the slight defiance of the conventional marriage market like Isabella. She has a bold self-promotion that is not inhibited by the economic realities and historical ‘truths” Eleanor knows so well. Catherine is a woman of vision, she takes the ideology of the marketplace but with a greater likelihood to enable voluntary female action. Catherine appealed to Tilney’s mental complexion, solely based on adoration of him: she saw her opportunity for love and did not shy away from the chase akin to buyers chasing commodities in the marketplace. However, unlike Isabella’s fallacious ideologies, Catherine possesses exceptional inner qualities, a mentality filled with “artless, guileless, affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise” (152).
Catherine is explicitly attached to the Tinley’s not for customary mercenary motivations, rather a threshold of friendship and love. Instead of being the customary “fortune hunter,” Catherine is characterized by an air of economic ignorance. If Eleanor and Isabella are dictated by the belief that economic insight breeds powerlessness or lack of restraint, Austen empowers Catherine through her cluelessness. Austen’s criticism of the marketplace manifests by making her heroine an economic ingenue: ‘imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms’ (81). In the end, Catherine not only achieves her pursuit, an authentic love, but gains wealth and wisdom through her experience: her, according to Mr. Tinley, is a rarity.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen explores the marketplace as a site of female agency through the socioeconomic lense of the Victorian market through the juxtaposition of Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney to the character of Catherine Morland. Through her characters, Austen challenges the dedication to the values of the capitalist market- the unmarketable woman, feminine propriety, and the commodity culture. The flaws of Isabella and Eleanor shed light on Catherine’s ability to hold history and merchandising concurrently without letting it consume her individuality. Austen wrote into an era straddling newfound capitalism and women yearning to leave the drawing room. Austen challenges society to look past stagnant truth about the currency of love and wittingly taunts humanity to practice “filial disobedience” of monetary fixation (235).
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