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Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. Ed. Claire Grogan. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1996. ISBN: 1-55111-078-4 (paperback). Price: £9.95

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra

…plus d’informations

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra
    Merton College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

When a new edition of an old and perennially popular novel is published, the question to ask is Why?. Though Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey is the earliest novel she wrote, it was not published until after her death, and then in conjunction with Persuasion. At the time, Northanger Abbey met with the sort of praise Austen was, and is, generally afforded: it is morally upright, the characters suitably true-to-life, and the dialogue humourous and well-crafted. The lightness of Austen's prose and the commonplace nature of her plots has continued to make her work enjoyable to readers for the last 175 years. There are numerous editions of all her novels, not to mention the critical work that has been done on Austen and her literary productions. Why now, then, should another edition of Northanger Abbey be published?

Part of the answer to this question is that each edition of a novel, depending on the editor's choices, can direct our attention to different and possibly new aspects of the novel by making us aware of previously unavailable supporting material. A newly-discovered manuscript, piece of biographical information, or even contemporary review can have implications for our understanding and interpretation of the novel and its place in the author's body of work. A new edition is often a perfect medium for publicizing these new discoveries, especially and obviously when textual differences are found, as in the case of Mary Shelley's 1831 revision of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein: the non-academic reading public will be made aware of contemporary academic work, and the academic world can neatly catalogue and monitor its own progress in critical studies. The difficulty with publishing this new edition of Northanger Abbey is that no new information seems to have been brought to light. The editor, Claire Grogan, includes several appendices which contain Austen's correspondence with Crosby, the publishers who delayed issuing and finally sold Northanger Abbey back to Austen; passages from Ann Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho; a selection from William Gilpin's Observations on the Picturesque; four contemporary reviews of Northanger Abbey; a map of Bath; and the frontispiece plate from the 1833 edition of the novel. All of this information has been readily available and quoted for some time, and even included in other, previous, editions of Austen's novel. Clearly Grogan has other reasons for making the choices she does.

The introduction to the novel is usually where the editor most overtly guides us in the direction he or she wants us to go when interpreting the work at hand, and Grogan's preface is no exception. Drawing heavily on Marilyn Butler's work on Austen, Grogan points out that Northanger Abbey is fundamentally about reading: she writes, "Northanger Abbey is a text about reading, reading novels, reading people and reading situations, directed by Austen at both the heroine and her readers." (23). Grogan's arguments about the different aspects of reading as explored by Austen are largely correct, but they have been made before and more substantially by others. Further, Grogan spends much of the introduction recounting the details of Northanger Abbey's publishing history, and attempts to draw sinister implications from the fact that Crosby delayed and eventually reneged on publication. Though the publication history was most likely frustrating to Austen and is interesting to us in terms of the preface Austen wrote and the revisions she made between 1803 and her death in 1817, it is not surrounded by curious and inexplicable happenings worthy of the Gothic genre, and should not be described as such. Grogan's interest in the novel's publication history and the more theoretical aspects of reading and context are not linked carefully enough to the overall presentation of Austen's text, and therefore make it difficult for Grogan's audience to understand the overriding motives behind her editorial choices.

Grogan's introduction also details the political events surrounding Northanger Abbey, specifically the French Revolution, the Gordon Riots of 1780, a riot in London witnessed by Austen's cousin Eliza, and the Peterloo massacre of 1819. Grogan points out the similarity between the letter Eliza wrote to Austen in 1792 describing the riot and Henry Tilney's story, and argues that "the general fear of civic disturbance would have been afforded more weight by nineteenth rather than by twentieth-century readers" (14). As with her other points, Grogan's work accurately interprets the context of Austen's novel, but due to the looseness of the dates and over-reliance on secondary sources, her arguments are too weakly made and too poorly substantiated to stand without the background of her solid bibliography and references to other, more thoroughly documented, modern criticism.

A new edition should tell us something new about the book. Arguments concerning Austen's interest in readership in the light of the "increased censorship and acts of repression of the 1790s and early 1800s" (15) are pertinent to Austen's "most overtly literary of her works" (9), but Grogan's conclusions about the overall importance of what appears to be only typical publishing snafus and authorial artistic concerns are too vague to be of any real help in reconfirming Austen's work as historical and political. The appendices are useful in any edition of Northanger Abbey, but are already available in most editions. Further, and perhaps most damning for a new edition, Grogan does not make a solid case for the importance of Austen or for the importance of Northanger Abbey: the inconsistencies between Grogan's introduction and the supporting material she chooses weakens any case she may make for Austen's importance as an innovative and potentially subversive author. It is fortunate that other editions exist which examine Austen more thoroughly and with a higher degree of scholarship.