home_page suggestions_&_aims info-page writing_competition 2007 invitation Proceedings: Pushkin & J Austen perfect_match


. The generally accepted contradiction between literature and life is often objected to by some critics. In a letter of the 15th of April 1819, Keats suggested that this world should be called the valle of “Soul-Making”. Although we very well know that literature -one of the expressions of art- is an artificial construction in the making of which certain elements of reality are wisely and craftily blended.

What happens when certain readers who cannot recognize the boundaries between fact and fiction, regard novels as transcripts of life? Cervantes’ Don Quixote’s misfortunes is an outstanding example of the human disposition to mimic the values and standards of art without being fully aware of doing so.

Our purpose is to compare the destiny of the heroines of two novels who have suffered the consequences of self-deception resulting from eager reading without common sense of certain types of novels: Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Let us first compare the status of the novel as Genre in Jane Austen’s and in Flaubert’s times.

Although Richardson may be called the father of the modern novel in England, we have to remember that the popularity of the novel coincided with, and very largely depended upon the growth of a miscellaneous reading public, and of a public in which women were becoming increasingly numerous and influential. It was practically a new form of literary art. While the eighteenth century novel arose as a picture of men and manners, the growing interest in the middle ages later brought a revival of romance: Horace Walpole and his “Gothic” romance The Castle of Otranto (1765), Ann Radcliffe who gained a big public by her Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1798) and the Italian (1797).

In Chapter 6 of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen undertakes the defence of the novel as a Genre: a work

” in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”. (p.55)

The Reviewers were not kind to the authors of prose fiction when this novel was written. Nonetheless, we shall see later what Jane Austen thinks about a certain type of novel.

In France, at the beginning of the XIXth Century, the novel was a relatively new genre. Since Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse, under Richardson's influence, different types of novel appear: psychological and sentimental, historical, (inspired by Walter Scott), "roman noir" (Horace Walpole's and Mrs Radcliffe's  influence), but the great genres were still Tragedy and Poetry. Balzac with his study of the social manners of his time gives it a nobility status. Madame Bovary (1857) is for some critics a realistic novel, others as Vintilia Horia believe to be
         "el rastrojo otoñal del romanticismo"

Jane Austen instead, according to Christopher Brooke, 

“was able to create the illusion of realism by exceedingly subtle use of relatively common place human experience (…) with far greater skills than most of her kind.” (p.12)

So the novel considered as Genre started a little later in France but during the first three decades of the 1800, in England and in France, the authors of prose fiction had to fight against

“their foes who were almost as many as their readers” (p.55)

The setting in which the motley characters in Northanger Abbey move stretches about a hundred miles to London in the direction of Wiltshire and Gloucester. Near the latter, more precisely near Bristol, is Bath where the main events of the story occur. Bath, the old Roman town, has been famous for centuries for its curative waters. At the time of the Morlands, the Thorpes end the Tylneys all sorts of entertainement were held during the six weeks of the Summer season.

Hilly surroundings to the North and West, the land reaches down to a valley irrigated by the same rivers and streams meandering towards the mouth of the river Severn in Wales and the English Channel in the South of England. The undulating, at times rock scenery abounds in forests, lakes, waterfalls and quite a numer of historical sites among which old castles and abandoned abbeys are not less relevant. As to the location in which part of the novel takes place:

“Northanger Abbey having been a richly endowed convent at the time of the Reformation (…) having fallen into the hands of an ancestor of the Tilneys on its dissolution” (p.167)

Flaubert's subtitle of his novel is "Moeurs de province". Madame Bovary's setting moves between two provincial towns, these are in Normandy: Tostes (for some nowadays Tôtes) and Yonville-l'Abbaye (a  fictitious name), in "le pays de Caux". Incidentally, some episodes take place in the city of Rouen, like the evening at the Opera and Emma's weekly rendezvous with Léon.

The region is a fertile plateau for agriculture and dairying. From there the importance given in the novel to the "Comices Agricoles". Wind coming from the sea brings the necessary humidity. During her solitary walks through the country, Emma often sat on the grass to meditate: 

“Il arrivait parfois des rafales de vent, brises de la mer qui roulant d’un bond sur tout le pays de Caux, apportaient, jusqu’au loin dans les champs, une fraîcheur salée (…) Emma serrait son châle contre ses épaules et se levait.” (p.43)

Although the historical context is not mentioned in Northanger Abbey, we must remember it as a back drop that influenced the manners and opinions of the readers.

In England, side by side with the frequent war conflicts with continental Europe i.e. from the Spanish war of Succession through -among others, the Triple Alliance to the Napoleonic wars- there sprang up the controversial issues derived of the increase in number or the working class, the increase in their potential powers such as war, representation, agricultural policies, the poor, etc. A rapidly changing world brought also by the English Industrial Revolution (1760-1820).

In his speech to inaugurate the Commices, M. le Conseiller refers to:

“ce roi bienaimé à qui aucune branche de la prospérité publique ou particulière n’est indifférente” (p.132)

It is then in Louis Philippe's reign when a parliamentary regime was established. A period of prosperity started although no solutions were brought to the social problems. It has been said that Northanger Abbey is "a novel about a novel and the people who read novels". But, one mustn't forget that although Jane Austen takes the defence of the novel as Genre in Chapter 6, she sends a clear sign to people who, as in the case of Catherine Morland -the daughter of a well-to-do clergy man-, are prototypes of inexperienced passionate young women prevailed upon, nay harassed, by the fashion of getting their minds widely deranged through unabated preference for Gothic horror novels. By telling us Catherine's adventures, Jane Austen presents her heroine's enthusiasm for Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. But, actually, the novel is a satire upon another book  by the same author: The Romance of the Forest whose ruined Abbey of St Clair with its labyrinthic corridors and old chests hiding mysterious rolls of paper and many other details must have surely inspired our writer.

In the case of Emma Bovary, she not only became infatuated with the novels which belonged to the school’s library, but also with those not allowed for young girls brought weekly under the cloak, on the sly, by a seamstress. In those:

“Ce n’étaient qu’amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s’évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires (…) Avec Walter Scott, elle rêva bahuts, salle de gardes. Elle aurait voulu vivre dans quelque vieux manoir, comme ces châtelaines au long corsage, qui, sous le trèfle des ogives, passaient leurs jours (…) à regarder venir du fond de la campagne un cavalier à plume blanche qui galope sur un cheval noir” (p.35)

In the nun’s school where her father had placed her, she had received an education which was not according to her surroundings. To escape country life she marries, but alas! her husband is mediocre:

“la conversation de Charles était plate comme un trottoir de rue” (p38)

Her monotonous life produces an insufferable “ennui”. Invited to a ball in a château, she revels in her dreams of luxury. Flaubert places her first fall in a very romantic setting: it is autumn, during a horseback riding in the woods with a gentleman. At the hill-top, the valley where lay her little town seemed, in the distance, a lake immense and pale. Later, she plans to elope with him just as in the novels she had read but, at the last moment, he abandons her. In her desperate search for consolation in religion, she compares herself with great ladies of ancient times, like Mlle de la Valière.

Although Catherine’s behaviour at the Abbey is outwardly ridiculous, Jane Austen manages to maintain sympathy for her character.

Flaubert also manages to make the reader feel sorry for Emma’s misfortunes.

The aims of the two authors differ: the English novelist uses her sense of humour to write a satire upon certain kinds of popular fiction. The same aim that drove Cervantes who explains it in Don Quixote’s Prologue, to have:

“la mira puesta a derribar la máquina mal fundada de estos caballerescos libros. Aborrecidos de tantos y alabados de muchos más” (p.15)

Ronald Paulsson believes that Northanger Abbey is a “specifically Quixotic novel” (p. 178)

In the case of the French writer, the “haine du bourgeois” drives him to describe the customs of small provincial towns where the characters are mediocre. Homais, the pharmacist, is typically “bourgeois”. However, with Emma’s cruel agony and death, Flaubert makes the reader forgive her moral faults and believe these result from what Charles Bovary expresses in the end:

“C’est la faute de la fatalité” (p. 323)

Self-deception in the form of delusion sets our two heroines apart. In the case of Catherine Morland, the character is confronted with the danger of exaggeration by reading too may of those Gothic terrorific novels which fashionable and deserving young ladies were so fond of. The ill consequences do not delay in manifesting themselves. She naïvely rushingly jumps to conclusions:

General Tilney is the murderer of his deceased wife. Fortunately enough, the young reader’s provoking misconstruction is promptly dispelled by Captain Tylney’s judicious reasoning and gentle reproof. Indeed, serious, well-ranked propos is what brings Catherine to cope with reality. At the end of chapter 25, she realizes that the infatuation which led her to extravagant fancies:

“might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading” (Mrs Radcliffe’s works). (p. 230)

In one of her trips to Rouen, Emma, seeing the convent’s walls, remembers all times:

“Comme elle enviait les ineffables sentiments d’amour qu’elle tâchait, d’après les livres, de se figurer” (p. 263)

Flaubert character has nobody to turn to. L’abbé Bournissien from whom she seeks counsel is incapable of understanding her plight. It is only in her deathbed that she realizes how much her husband loves her and how wrong she has been. When he asks:

“Est-ce ma faute? J’ai fait tout ce que j’ai pu pourtant!”

She answers:

“Oui…, c’est vrai…, tu es bon, toi!” (p. 295)

Setting off Catherine’s deception with its results, we feel that her vagaries are more of an emotional type and as such prone to be skin deep.

Just as with other misdemeanours, this habit has a way of growing. In Emma’s case this growing habit is more apparent, more grossly apparent.

Catherine’s self-deceiving did inhabit her inner self but did not openly commit her to reality. It did not reach the level of commitment to action as in the case of Emma. In her, undoubtedly, the lies she inflicted on herself and others are on a scale of more serious offence.(1)

Susana Zanetta and Nadine Aguilar (1) It is well known that Flaubert was brought to trial for: “outrage à la morale publique et religieuse et aux bonnes moeurs” but acquitted. The judges considered that Madame Bovary was not the glorification of adultery but, on the contrary, showed the terrible consequences of it. The lawyer in charge of the defence also insisted on the inadequacy to the education she had received at the nun’s school which did not prepare her for the reality of life

Works cited

AUSTEN, Jane, Northanger Abbey, New York, Dell, 1965 BROOKE, Christopher, Illusion and Reality, D.S. Brewer, 1999 CERVANTES SAAVEDRA, Miguel de, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Buenos Aires, Sopena, 1962 FLAUBERT, Gustave, Madame Bovary, Paris, Garnier, 1961 “Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter”, by RONALD PAULSON, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1988, Book Reviews, Comparative Literature, Vol. 51, Number 4, p. 348

Proceedings of The Jane Austen Society of Buenos Aires, October, November 1999

The Jane Austen Society of Buenos Aires