What kind of reader are you? Do you like history, romance, science fiction, biographies? Genres within genres have transformed all of us into unique readers. Our reading types are as unique as our DNA; special to our personalities. Our lifestyles and our place in the world will always shape a persons reading habits differently. What is your concept of the ideal reader? It seems as though that is impossible to determine. Every time period seems to have its standards as well. Certain types of books seem to be predetermined to fit a certain type of person. Romance novels, for example, seem to make more sense in the hands of a woman than a man. How do these expectations of readers shape our thoughts about the types of people we are? As different types of novels have been introduced the standards for who should read what have changed. Even in 18th century England these standards existed, as we can see in Jane Austens metafictive novel Northanger Abbey. Austen presents a profile of several types of novel readers; indirectly showing the positives and negatives of each type of reader. After looking at the different characters and their reading habits we can come to the conclusion that Austens ideal readers are brought to life in the Tilneys.
Austen first gives us Catherine Morland. The heroine of our story, we find that Catherine is not that exceptional. Shes just your average kind-of-pretty tom boy. Catherine finds herself ecstatic to go to the town of Bath, whom her semi-wealthy neighbors, the Allens, have invited her too. She has never left her home and we find Catherine very much changed by the end of the novel in many ways. Her reading habits are certainly one of them, and one that Austen focuses on exceedingly. Catherine is introduced to works of horror by her new friend Isabella. She begins reading Anne Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho and this quickly begins to blur the lines between reality and imagination for Catherine.
While we as readers tend to love Catherine and sympathize with her, Austen uses her as an example of how we can let our imaginations get away from us and allow the worlds we enter through novels bleed over into our own reality. In the second volume Catherine is extended invitation to visit Northanger and on the ride there Henry seems to sense how wild her imagination is with Udolpho running through her head and feeds her a spooky story playing off bits of Udolpho and the setup of Catherines room-to-be at Northanger. Catherine immediately delves into a mysterious chest and finds nothing. She is discovered by Eleanor very embarrassed. That night a storm rages and it is almost as though Catherine is transported to a scene in the The Mysteries of Udolpho. She finds a mysterious piece of parchment within a strange dresser. The next morning, when discovering the paper to be nothing the narrator, who seems to be Austen describes Catherine: Nothing could be clearer to her now that the absurdity of her recent fancies. She says that Catherine is humbled to dust. Brought back to reality Catherine throws away her hopes of finding bloody and frightening adventure within the Abbey, for now.
We should sense that Catherine has not quite learned her lesson. Eager to place herself within the novels of her imagination and find something terrifying about the abbey; she learns of the late Mrs. Tilney and is disturbed by how strange the General acts about his late wife. When her suspicions are furthered by his denial of their entrance into Mrs. Tilneys room she takes it upon herself to go wandering through the abbey to discover what the General is hiding. Surely, Catherine thinks, no man would be so cold about his late wife if he had not done something terrible to bring about her end. She finds herself shocked at how normal the room is because there is no blood on the walls or floor. There is no brutal murder weapon left behind. Suddenly, Henry Tilney appears from a staircase within the floor! Once Henry realizes Catherines motivations for coming to his mothers room he is appalled. Here Catherine is finally brought to her senses by his words: If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to---Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remembering the country and age in which we live. Remember that we are English, we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you---Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws contrive them?.....Dear Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting? Catherine is ashamed and with tears in her eyes runs away. Henry senses that Catherine is thinking too much of Udolpho when he asks her what she has been judging from. This speech was what Catherine needed to realize her error. At dinner directly after this scene she thinks to herself: Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffes works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Her lies the lesson Austen wants us to take from Catherine, the type of reader we should not let ourselves become, we must always remember that novels are fiction and that while they provide an escape for us from reality we must still face our daily lives and we cannot let our imaginations interfere with this.
Now let us look at the Tilney children who seem to be the complete opposite of the other readers in the book. Austen clearly shows us that in this time period women are expected to read novels, and men are expected to read nonfiction such as history books. When Catherine takes her walk with Eleanor and Henry in volume one we see what Catherine has come to expect of men who read when Henry asks her a question about her travel experience: Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in the mind of the country that Emily and her father traveled through in the Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels I dare say? Catherine is shocked to find that not only has Henry read Udolpho but he has read several of Radcliffes works and is an avid fiction reader, as is Eleanor. Catherine later in the conversation complains about her dislike of history and how it must certainly torture young children who are forced to read it. Her view is nave, as she is quickly taught by Eleanor who informs her that she likes history: I am fond of history---and am very well prepared to take the false with the true. In the principle facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under ones own observation: and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. We see in the novel and history reading characters of the Tilneys what would be Austens ideal readers. They are well-rounded. They fear no stereotypes, as Henry quickly tells of his love of novels and that any man who says he does not read them is just embarrassed that he does. They appreciate the various genres and as we saw in Henry they do not let their imaginations get away from them.
John Thorpe and Isabella are the other examples we see of readers in this book. Of Isabella, I believe Austen intended her to be the girl she speaks of at the beginning of volume one: and what are you reading Miss ---? Oh! It is only a novel! replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. Isabella, while she seems to enjoy her novels, we find is a very fake person. She wants to be the admiration of all men; the perfect lady. If ladies read novels, then Isabella should read novels. I believe Isabella would be the girl to say Oh! It is only a novel! We see that John Thorpe thinks that novels are indeed the stupidest things in creation. This is where Catherine seems to learn that men are not supposed to read novels.
The narrator and Catherines dislike of both the Thorpes by the end of the book should show us that we should not be like them in the slightest bit. Instead we should strive to be well-rounded readers like the Tilneys; with an appreciation for all literature and a respect for the viewpoints of others. Also with a disregard for stereotypes, if you want to read it and you truly enjoy it do not be ashamed to admit it. Through these characters Austen has shown what the 18th century England expected of its readers and her thoughts on what kind of readers she would like to see all of her readers be.