115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“United for Their Ease What They Must Divide for Mine”: Authenticity and Imposture in Northanger Abbey

Katheryne Morrissette, Concordia University (Canada)

This paper provides a reading of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) as a specimen of that Romantic culture that navigates concerns about authenticity, imposture, and forgery on a multiplicity of levels--the literary, the formal, and even the critical. Analysis of the use of free indirect discourse provides the lens through which the argument is focused.


In the introduction to her book, Fictions and Fakes: Forging Romantic Authenticity, 1760-1845, Margaret Russett summarizes how “spectacular fakes participated in defining the ‘fictional identity’ bequeathed to the modern subject by Romantic culture” (5). As a specimen of that Romantic culture, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey displays a marked interest in the concept of imposture, attempting to negotiate the problems of authenticity that arise from it. The novel betrays a thematic concern with the ideas of imposture, deceit, and, forming the other side of that coin, with authenticity. Its formal manipulation of those themes reflects Russett’s claim that “the acknowledgment of subjectivity as fiction is an ethical condition of authenticity in its fully Romantic sense” (5, emphasis original). In terms of the narrative itself, the theme of deception is a recurrent one: most, if not all, of Catherine Morland’s problems occur due to some form of deceit or false representation. In Russett’s terms, “modern subjectivity should be understood as a subset and, to some extent, as a precipitate of the representational practices the Romantics called ‘romance’ but which, in their derogated forms, also go by such names as ‘imposture,’ ‘forgery,’ ‘plagiarism,’ and ‘delusion’” (5). This paper articulates the relationship between such thematic concerns and the formal qualities of the narration in Northanger Abbey. My argument is that the increasing use of the free indirect style reflects Catherine’s own critical development, in that it forces the reader to do the work of navigating a type of narratorial imposture in the form of free indirect discourse. In other words, when using free indirect discourse, the narrator—who is established as a distinct voice from early on—takes on or performs the voice and thoughts of a person not themselves. I have elected to read this performance of identity as a form of imposture. In its thematic concern for the idea of authenticity and the problem of falseness, Northanger Abbey reflects Romantic developments in the conceptual framework around identity and subjectivity, and models, to both character and reader, one approach to navigating the issues raised in the question of subjectivity as fiction. Returning to Russett’s work on the importance of Romantic conceptions of forgery, imposture, plagiarism, and delusion to the development of fictional identity, it becomes clear that the narratorial technique in Austen’s penultimate work, published posthumously, attempts to negotiate the evolution of such abstracted notions of subjectivity. Not only does the novel reflect these concerns on the level of content and the unfolding of events in the plot, but it also does so on a formal level, through the use of free indirect discourse. Even concomitant nineteenth century and subsequent criticism of the work follows in these thematic footsteps, arguing about provenance and edits and insertions, and mimicking the same kind of footwork that was required in evaluating cases of literal imposture so common in newspapers and periodicals in the Romantic era.

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