Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Lamented knowledge

Illustration by Joan Hassall, View of Bath from Beechen Cliff, Folio Society, London, (1960)LAMENTED

In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives – lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.The Narrator on Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The first time I read this passage, I was totally confused. Why would Catherine think that the view from Beechen Cliff was unworthy when Bath has been proclaimed one of the most beautiful cities in England? What?

I confess that at times I find Jane Austen difficult to interpret. It can be the words from the early 19th-century, or the way they used language differently than we do today, or sometimes it may be that I am not clever enough to get her meaning the first time around, … like, I’m totally for sure doing the Valley girl thing!

So, when I finally realized that young, inexperienced, and naive Catherine was literally reacting and forming new opinions based on Henry Tilney’s explanation of the aesthetic picturesque landscape, I hit my palm on my forehead in acknowledgement! The view of Bath was fine. Catherine had a picturesque change of perspective.

There is a deeper level of contemplation here, and I think that Jane Austen is also making a side-ways comment about the recent picturesque movement and it’s affect on the individual perspective in his or her environment. Further explanation on the movement can be found in this excellent 4 part series from Old Grey Pony called  Austen and the PicturesqueThe movement had a strong impact on all levels of art, literature, music, architecture and landscape in late Georgian and Regency England. In a nutshell, it is a way of looking at your inner and outer environment in an idealized and fanciful way to create a stylized perspective. Think rose-coloured glasses. It’s critics lamented that it infringed on the rights of the individual to think and live in a natural state, and tansformed the countryside of England into man’s view of perfection, instead of gods natural order. Err, well,  – – whatever.

*Illustration by Joan Hassall, “He talked of fore-grounds, distances, and second-distances” page 99, Northanger Abbey, The Folio Society, London, (1960) 

1 thought on “Lamented knowledge”

  1. I also realized as I read this passage how much Cassandra and Fanny, both of whom are amateur artists, must have influenced Jane’s language. Not only does Jane use artist terms, she uses them quite accurately.


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