By Sebastiaan Foppen
Through her characters’ contrasting attitudes toward money in her novel Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen clearly demonstrates their moral stances. Money, being one of the means to distinguish oneself in society, was of the utmost importance in Austen’s time: so much so that it features as a major theme in all her novels. In his poem Letter to Lord Byron, Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden wryly took notice of this: “It makes me most uncomfortable to see an English spinster of the middle-class describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’, reveal so frankly and with such sobriety the economic basis of society.” (Auden 21) Auden was not mistaken: one of the main characters of Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe, was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, her mother being a “a widow, and not a very rich one” (Austen 33), and is therefore determined to marry for money. Isabella’s predicament is a clear example of Lisa Hopkins’ claim that “in Northanger Abbey … financial pressures are very keenly felt” (Hopkins 76). Isabella’s object of choice is James Morland – the brother of Northanger Abbey’s protagonist, Catherine – who is to gain a living of 400 pounds after his coming of age. Despite Isabella’s assertion that she “hate[s] money; and if [the] union could take place now upon only fifty pounds a year, [she] should not have a wish unsatisfied” (129), she throws herself at a man with far more to offer than James the moment the opportunity presents itself.
However, in having an affair with Captain Frederick Tilney, Isabella bets on the wrong horse – very few wealthy men would dare propose marriage to penniless women. Both Henry Tilney – Catherine Morland’s love interest – and his sister Eleanor think of “Isabella’s want of consequence and fortune as likely to throw great difficulties in the way of her marrying their brother.” (195)
Captain Tilney’s father, General Tilney, is equally fixated on money. He wishes his children to marry advantageously, or to use a quote from one of Austen’s other novels, find a spouse with “either a great fortune or high rank.” (Sense and Sensibility 23) Upon learning that his guest Catherine Morland is not as wealthy as he had been told by a mutual acquaintance, he takes no time in ejecting her from his home. Much to his dissatisfaction, however, his son Henry refuses to conform to his expectations: in spite of General Tilney’s objections, Henry proposes marriage to Catherine. Only after it is found out that Catherine is not completely without money he gives his consent, partially out of avaricious happiness caused by the marriage of his daughter to a wealthy viscount: a veritable sign of his mercenary nature. Catherine, in contrast, gives her two cents’ worth on the matter of money and matrimony as well: she tells Isabella’s brother that she considers marrying “for money … the wickedest thing in existence.” (118). By juxtaposing the greedy General and mercenary Isabella with the “open, candid, artless, guileless” (193) Catherine – who believes that “if there is a good fortune on one side, there can be no occasion for any on the other. No matter which has it, so that there is enough. I hate the idea of one great fortune looking out for another” (118) – and her noble suitor Henry, it becomes all the more obvious towards whom Austen and the reader’s sympathies must be directed.
In spite of her clear criticism of both Isabella and the General, Austen rebels against the Gothic tradition of her time: neither Isabella nor the General sink into complete misery. In a letter to her niece Anna, who was writing a novel, Austen told her that she wished “[Anna] would not let [one of her characters] plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’… it is such thorough novel slang–and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.” (Le Faye 277) And this belief of hers might be what makes the ending of Northanger Abbey so satisfying: Austen is realistic enough to acknowledge that less morally inclined characters do not necessarily have to end up badly, but embodies enough elements of the Romantic period to grant her more virtuous characters a happy ending.
Auden, W.H. Letters from Iceland. London: Faber and Faber , 1937.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
—. Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Hopkins, Lisa. “Jane Austen and Money.” Wordsworth Circle 25:2 (1994): 76-78.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen’s Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.