Jane Austen and the Timeless Tradition of Mansplaining
From Austen to Rebecca Solnit, Men Will Explain Things
In 1816, the year before her death, Jane Austen wrote an “Advertisement by the Authoress” to preface a novel, still unpublished, that she had completed many years before. The advertisement opens, “This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn.” At this point, Austen, barely 40, had begun to feel ill, but was terse on the subject. Over the next year, her sickness would become undeniable, until her death in 1817.
That was Northanger Abbey, the first novel Austen wrote for publication and one of the last to be published, now 200 years ago. Titled Susan and then Catherine, and written from 1798 to 1799—though scholars say it was most likely begun as early as 1794, when Austen was barely 20 years old—she sold it anonymously in 1803 to a publisher, Crosby & Company, which ended up holding its rights without pursuing publication. It wasn’t until 1816, close to Austen’s death, when her brother bought back the rights to Catherine. In 1818, the novel was finally published. But there are still points of discrepancy: over the date of the novel’s publication (late 1817 or early 1818), and over the question of whether the new title was her brother’s doing.
At the book’s bicentennial, ruminations on Austen continue to proliferate at an impossible speed. In the past year alone there has been Jane Austen and Masculinity (December 2017, Bucknell), Jane Austen at Home (July 2017, St. Martin’s), and The Making of Jane Austen (May 2017, Johns Hopkins). And this is only three of them. That isn’t even counting the fan fiction: over 75 spinoffs were published in 2017 alone, including the paperback version of Curtis Sittenfeld’s New York Times bestselling Eligible (April 2017, Random House).
Though Austen’s frustration and bewilderment at Northanger Abbey’s shelving are all too apparent in the advertisement, her most pressing anxiety was that the events and manners the novel spoke of would become irrelevant with time, for, as she continued,
That any bookseller should think it worth while to purchase what he did not think it worth while to publish seems extraordinary. But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete.
Her concern was valid. Northanger Abbey roots itself in historical details of the late-18th century: the London riots, the frenzy over gothic novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Another one of these markers, as Claudia Johnson notes, is the Treasonable Practices Act of 1794, which allowed a “neighborhood of voluntary spies” to surveil and report citizens for conversation regarded as disloyal.
It is this Act that afforded perhaps one of the novel’s most hotly debated monologues, a scene academics have been poring over for years. With each new decade the brief exchange between 17-year-old Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, and her courter, Henry Tilney, reaffirms and revises its relevance in the moment of discussion. Though it seems quite simple—it’s so short! so curt!—the admonishment, as the persistence of this discourse indicates, is, in true Austen fashion, much more complex than it appears.
Near the novel’s end, Henry discovers that Catherine has built up a reserve of gothic paranoia about the past of Henry’s father, General Tilney. The general is a mercurial and selfish man—Catherine fears he abused or even killed Henry’s mother. (No doubt, Catherine’s obsessive reading of gothic novels has a lot to do with these fantasies.) Once Henry guesses Catherine’s suspicions, he scolds her in a monologue:
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that 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 connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
Henry’s lecture fits within a tradition of Austen criticism that Eve Sedgwick calls the spectacle of “Girl Being Taught a Lesson,” in which a heroine is put in her place by the male lecturer. Of course, the erotic ramifications here are impossible to overlook: for the heroine of the novel, for the reader, for the critic, for the reader of criticism.
Could Henry’s monologue have been in Rebecca Solnit’s mind—lingering from a summer reading assignment, perhaps, when she was Catherine’s age—as she wrote “Men Explain Things to Me,” an article that is, this year, celebrating its ten-year anniversary and taught in gender studies classrooms, her name now part of the third-wave canon?
An uncanny gesture back to Catherine’s censure, Solnit writes about what we now refer to as mansplaining, a practice in which a man proceeds to explain, in a condescending manner, some topic to a woman in which she may or may not be expert. In the case with which Solnit opens the essay, a man she has met at a party asks her about her interests; when she tells him, he cuts her off and commences a long and indulgent lecture on the subject, as if he were the expert and not she. The anecdote culminates in his telling Solnit about a book she should read—it’s her book. But he fails to realize this until after the third or fourth time her friend interjects to tell him that the book is Solnit’s. It finally sinks in. “As if in a 19th-century novel,” Solnit recalls, “he went ashen.”
There are elements of Henry’s speech that illustrate Solnit’s ideas in more disturbing ways. Solnit points out that there is a real danger to mansplaining: “It trains” women “in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” She then provides an anecdote. When she was young, she had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One family event, the physicist recounted, “as though it were a light and amusing” story, “how a neighbor’s wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her.” Solnit asks the physicist how he knew that the husband wasn’t trying to kill his wife. Of course, his explanation is just like Henry’s. The husband wouldn’t kill her, he explains gently, because “they were respectable middle-class people.” Thus “it was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her.” It’s a frightening story, but one that repeats itself again and again.
A pressing heartbreak of Northanger Abbey is that we learn that though the details of Catherine’s suspicions of the general are inaccurate, the nagging feeling that something is off—that he wants something from her that feels creepy but that she cannot quite name, that he poses a danger to the women in his life—is correct, in more ways than one. Later in the novel, after spending a lot of time wooing her for his son, General Tilney, in a temper, abruptly forces Catherine to leave Northanger Abbey early one morning to brave the long trip back home alone. Crying and confused, she has no inkling as to why he’s kicked her out, especially because the general had seemed to like her, but considers the idea that it might have something to do with Henry’s discovering her fear of his father. She is wrong on this front. Later, we learn the reason stems from the general’s disappointment upon realizing that her family is not worth as much as he thought. A gothic scene, indeed.
And as Northanger Abbey goes on, we watch as General Tilney again changes his mind about her. The analogy is not subtle: a volatile gothic patriarch with Catherine’s livelihood in his hands. As Henry returns to offer his hand to her, “The affrighted Catherine, amidst all the terrors of expectation,” listening to his explanation of the general’s behavior, “could not but rejoice in the kind caution with which Henry had saved her from the necessity of a conscientious rejection, by engaging her faith before he mentioned the subject.” Austen, shrewd as ever, uses the language of prostitution to describe the arrangement: General Tilney “had courted her acquaintance in Bath, solicited her company at Northanger, and designed her for his daughter in law.” The etymology of the term solicit, of course, echoes its roots of both sex work and business transactions.
What is so disturbing about Northanger Abbey is that Catherine, because of Henry’s mansplaining, is conditioned to ignore her intuition. Like Solnit’s physicist, Henry uses the position of the family—“they were respectable middle-class people,” “Remember that we are English, that we are Christians”—to gaslight a woman in danger, one who senses that fact. He tries—successfully—to convince her to doubt her instincts, perhaps the most important tool any human has for self-protection.
Jane Austen’s advertisement finishes: “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” Two centuries later, I wish I could ask her: have they?