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Taking a Page from Someone Else's Book: Those Who Influenced Jane Austen

In chapter one of her gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, through her narrator, lists the books that have influenced the thinking of her heroine, Catherine Morland. From Alexander Pope to Thomas Gray to William Shakespeare, the seventeen-year-old Morland fed her thirst for knowledge by delving into works that were not only popular at the time, but also deemed appropriate reading for a young lady who is on the cusp of becoming a woman of the world. As the youthful Morland is introduced into Society, and she makes her way through the marriage mart in the city of Bath, her thinking continues to be led by the works she reads. She loses herself in the writings of Ann Radcliffe and ponders at length the supernatural mysteries that are presented within those novels.

When reading a novel, it is always a bit of fun to explore the context in which the work was created, and because Austen so liberally sprinkles hints as to her influencers throughout this text, it is fairly easy to follow her line of thinking.

In chapter one, the author tells us the sorts of stories Catherine has been reading lately.

“From Pope, she learnt to censure those who “bear about the mockery of woe”; from Gray, that “many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its fragrance on the desert air”; from Thompson, that “it is a delightful task to teach the young idea how to shoot”; and from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information—amongst the rest, that “trifles light as air, are, to the jealous, confirmation strong as proofs of Holy Writ”; that “the poor beetle, which we tread upon, in corporal sufferance feels a pang as great as when a giant dies”; and that a young woman in love always looks “like Patience on a monument smiling at Grief.”

Now, let us examine the works referenced here.

Summary: A lady commits suicide because she is denied the love of a man. The author chooses to see this as a heroic act, and he decries the fact that no one is there at her funeral. So, when Austen writes that Catherine was to censure those who bear about the mockery of woe, she was saying Catherine despised those who dressed themselves in false trappings. The grief-mongers, or those who would feign to feel for someone, when they might not be wholly connected to the person, were to be mistrusted. We see this reflected when Catherine reads her final letter from Isabella. She can see plainly the true intent of Isabella’s letter and vows to call her a friend no longer.

Summary: Death is the great equalizer. It does not matter what a person did in life. Once they are buried underneath the earth, their great deeds are for naught. “It mourns the death not of great or famous people, but of common men.”

Thus far, we have two elegies. Elegies are poems that reflect upon death or loss. Traditionally, it contains themes of mourning, loss, and reflection… Both have a similar theme in that once a person is dead, there is every chance they might be forgotten. When those who loved them well or even pretended to know them expire, their memories will sink further into oblivion.

Summary: The poet writes of the ways birds behaving, particularly while they are mating, raising their children, then mourning—should those fledglings be struck down. This quote relates more to the education of the young and we see it employed later when Henry takes to teaching and lecturing Catherine.

We also learn that Catherine has been reading a great deal of Shakespeare, including excerpts from “Othello”, “Measure for Measure”, and “Twelfth Night”.  The poignant note to take from this comes from her perusal of “Twelfth Night”. She alights upon ideas expressed in Act 2, Scene  when Duke Orsino and Viola, disguised as his servant, Cesario, are discussing his love for Olivia. Duke Orsino contends that no one has ever been in love as he is with Olivia. He begs his servant to go to his lady and plead his love for her. Viola wonders aloud how the duke should feel if Olivia does not return his love and he says it is impossible for anyone to feel so keenly as he does. Violet argues that women have much the same feelings. They just do not express themselves in the same ways.

Excerpt from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”:

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more: but indeed

Our shows are more than will; for still we prove

Much in our vows, but little in our love.

And so, we see that Jane Austen, quite intentionally, crafted this novel about Catherine Morland and her journey to find love with the influence of others weighing heavily upon her mind. She wished for her heroine to be prudent and judicious, but also kind and capable of experiencing a wide range of loving emotions. Catherine is not a cookie cutter heroine, but one who has been formed by her willingness to expand her mind and absorb inspiration from all places, including the literature she reads, her interactions with malevolent people like the Thorpes, and her budding relationships with Eleanor and Henry Tilney. Just as the novel Northanger Abbey was a reaction to Austen’s learning and reading, Catherine’s love for Henry grows and flourishes the more she comes to know and understand about the world.

For those who wish to continue this discourse, leaf through some of your favorite novels. How has Austen’s work influenced modern writers? How have you incorporated her ideals into your own life? Are you desperately seeking your own Mr. Darcy or holding out hope for Colonel Brandon to rescue you and provide for your every want? And shouldn’t we all be inclined to take a page out of Jane Austen’s books…only finding love and agreeing to marry when we are convinced that the love is true and real?

Jane Austen understood something that her predecessors and influencers did not. She comprehended how marriage could be a contract…a business endeavor…between two people, but she also hoped for more. I’d like to think she wished for love, and that she would’ve wanted her readers to nurture that same, unfailing yearning to not just be married, but find joy in loving someone who challenged, provoked, and stretched their mind.


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