It is one of the pleasures of half term to have time to choose one’s reading, and over the last few days I have been spending some leisure on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
For those not familiar with it, Northanger Abbey is basically the story of a young person’s education, Catherine Morland’s, beginning when she is seventeen and introduced to society at Bath, and ending about a year later with her marriage to Henry Tilney. Part of the process is through her widening acquaintance with people in society, and part is through the painful yet comic corrections of her ideas – ideas she has been uncritically drinking in as truths from Ann Radcliffe’s popular romantic novels.
Catherine is not depicted as a bright girl – Austen always keeps the reader ahead of her heroine in understanding where she is wrong or blind – but as simply honest, well-meaning and open to learning from friends and mistakes. One instance (Chapter 14) in which she is pulled up occurs in a conversation where she unthinkingly uses or over-uses the word ‘nice’ : she is referring to her favourite Radcliffe book. ‘But now, really, do not you think “Udolpho” the nicest book in the world?’
Her partner in this critical exchange is Henry Tilney, whom she will eventually marry. ‘The nicest (he repeats) – by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.’
At this point Henry’s sister intervenes to alert Catherine to her brother’s habit of ‘finding fault with some incorrectness of language … the word “nicest,” did not suit him; and you had better change it…’
But Catherine sticks her ground: ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?’
Henry answers by launching into the English lesson on lazy usage that is taught in every school, year after year, generation after generation: ‘Very true, and this is a very nice day; and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh, it is a very nice word, indeed; it does for everything …. every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’
Who can disagree? Only nowadays, perhaps, the message may not be delivered with quite the same chauvinistic sarcasm.