Female Cunningness and Male Deception in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Sense and Sensibility' and in Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

27 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents


Part 1
Female Cunningness in Jane Austen's
Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility
Male Deception in Northanger Abbey and
Sense and Sensibility

Part 2
Female Cunningness from a Male Point of View
Lady Bellaston in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones
Male Intrigues in Tom Jones




When comparing Jane Austen's novels Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the reader's first observation will be that they do not have too much in common. Jane Austen tells romantic love stories. Henry Fielding mostly deals with sex. Jane Austen's main characters are women waiting for and suffering on behalf of a man. Henry Fielding describes male behaviour.

In this work, I want to take a closer look at the differences between the novels. Focussing on cunning and intrigue - how do the authors present their characters? In both Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, we come across women of relatively low social status who want to improve their lifestyle by marrying a wealthy man. We also come across men who turn out to be not what they seem: men that (in Northanger Abbey) lack responsibility or who (in Sense and Sensibility) are too responsible. In Tom Jones, we find two both evil and cunning characters one of whom is male. This work focusses on these characters' motives, actions and on the effects of these. Furthermore, it deals with the question whether their behaviour is judged by the authors.

Genre will not be focussed on, but the questions mentioned beforehand will be answered by a closer examination of style. A man thinks differently from a woman; he presents female and male characters in another way than a woman would and he expresses his thoughts in a different manner.

Starting from the topic of cunning and intrigue, the following pages will deal with the different perception and presentation of both female cunning and male deception in the novels - depending on the author's sex.

Part 1

Female Cunning in Jane Austen’s

Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility

In Northanger Abbey and in Sense and Sensibility, the reader is confronted with two kinds of female cunning employed for different reasons - but both aiming at defeating a possible rival in love. In Northanger Abbey, we come across Isabella Thorpe, a beautiful young woman of 21. Isabella is everything Catherine is not. She wants to have attention, is eager to get a man and has one great advantage over her inexperienced friend:

"Their [Isabella's and Catherine's] conversation turned upon those subjects, of which the free discussion has generally much to do in perfecting a sudden intimacy between two young ladies; such as dress, balls, flirtations, and quizzes. Miss Thorpe, however, being four years older than Miss Morland, and at least four years better informed, had a very decided advantage in discussing such points; she could compare the balls of Bath with those of Tunbridge; its fashions with the fashions of London; could rectify the opinions of her new friend in many articles of tasteful attire; could discover a flirtation between any gentleman and lady who only smiled at each other; and point out a quiz through the thickness of a crowd."(NA, IV, 30)

From the beginning of their acquaintance, the reader is brought to the impression that the clever Isabella uses Catherine as a kind of negative. She instantly realizes that the young girl is plain and shy, the ideal friend at whose side she can sparkle and shine and be admired. Gabriela Castellanos describes her as "a fortune-hunting, shallow, hypocritical young lady"1 pursuing only one genuine interest "in spite of her duplicity and mercenary spirit"2: men. Convinced of Catherine's brother James' wealth3, Isabella seeks her friendship to lay hands on the desired object. Catherine does not see Isabella's intention although the Thorpes refer to James' stay at their home over christmas (NA, IV, 29). It was then that James met the charming and emancipated Isabella and fell in love with her and Isabella formed her idea of marrying him and even drops hints of her intention to Catherine who does not understand them. In chapter V already, Isabella speaks of her liking for clergymen (NA, V, 33) one of whom is James Morland and gives a little sigh. But Catherine does not ask for the cause of this sigh. She does not see through Isabella's allusions and is sure that Isabella's only interest is to help her get Mr Tilney's attention. Although she has only met him once, Catherine believes Mr Tilney to be the love of her life, and, of course, she thinks a lot about him - as any young girl would who has just experienced her first ball, her first dance and her first conversation with a witty and handsome young man. Isabella even enforces these reflections and tells Catherine to put all her zeal into catching her man. In chapter VI, she assures Catherine that her "feelings are easily understood. Where the heart is really attached, I know very well how little one can be pleased with the attention of any body else. Every thing[sic] is so insipid, so uninteresting, that does not relate to the beloved object! I can perfectly comprehend your feelings!" (NA, VI, 38), yet it is not Catherine's fancied man she is referring to but her own. And when Catherine opposes her with her natural logic saying that she might never meet Mr Tilney again, Isabella's character starts to show for she presses Catherine not to give up the man but to act and face him. She in a way instructs Catherine to copy her feminine ways and treat men with coolness and an opposing spirit:

"I make it a rule never to mind what they (men) say. They are very often amazingly impertinent if you do not treat them with spirit, and make them keep their distance." (NA, VI, 38)

Catherine is impressed with this behaviour, but she does not realize that Isabella's feminism is artificial. It is only a "pose, for Isabella's first object is to make males worship her. Men are, therefore, the center of her life, as surely as they would be if she acted submissively toward them"4. We can, thus, say that Isabella blinds Catherine with a strength of character she does not possess and tricks her into thinking of her as an independent and adorable person. Isabella's intention is, of course, Catherine's positive judgment when talking to James.

Her last attempt to hint at a match between herself and James is Isabella's comparison of tastes in men:

"I have not forgot your description of Mr Tilney; - 'a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.' - Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion - do you know - I like a sallow better than any other. You must not betray me, if you should ever meet with one of your acquaintance answering that description." "Betray you! - What do you mean?" "Nay, do not distress me. I believe I have said too much. Let us drop the subject." (NA, VI, 39)

Obviously, Catherine does not think of Isabella's talking of James, and so -when reunited with James at Bath- Isabella charms him directly, neglecting her friend Catherine. James is easily impressed and praises Isabella as "thoroughly unaffected and amiable" (NA, VII, 46), and in the following, Isabella and James seldom separate, leaving Catherine to herself at balls (as in NA,VIII, 48). Yet, there is Isabella's boastful brother John Thorpe keeping Catherine company and trying to court her. But his manners are not so refined as Isabella's, and he directly asks about Catherine's property, alluding to Catherine's friend Mr Allen's having no children of his own and being her godfather, thus to her being one of his heirs (NA, IX, 57-58). So John Thorpe's intention becomes obvious right from the start. Like his sister, he wants to marry wealthy; knowing about Catherine's clumsiness, he thinks of her as of an easy prey. But Catherine does not like him (NA, VII, 46) and only accepts his company because he is Isabella's brother and James' friend.

Isabella's and John's cunning shows -at least to the reader- when they spoil a set of Catherine's walks with the Tilneys (NA, XI, 77-78; XIII, 87-90). Catherine begins to feel that there is something wrong with the way she is treated by Isabella, yet she is not sure about her friend's actions. She only starts to wonder at remarks such as "And did Isabella never change her mind before?" (pronounced by Mr Tilney when Isabella dances with his brother while James Morland is out of town, NA, XVI, 118) and "Is it my brother's attentions to Miss Thorpe, or Miss Thorpe's admission of them, that gives [James] the pain?" (also pronounced by Mr Tilney when Catherine confronts him with his brother's courting Isabella, NA, IXX, 132-133), but nevertheless, she trusts her friend. It is only when James writes to her to tell her of Isabella's not marrying him (NA, XXV, 175-176), that Catherine understands Isabella's wrongs, and when Isabella writes to her (NA, XXVII, 188-189) because she wants to get back together with James that she sees through Isabella's character. She understands the letter's "inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood" and thinks: "She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so; but perhaps this has served to make her character better known to me than mine is to her. I see what she has been about. She is a vain coquette, and her tricks have not answered" (NA, XXVII, 190).

From a female point of view, one can say that Isabella's behaviour is understandable though morally not acceptable. But we have to keep in mind that by the time Northanger Abbey was finished, 1803, and in the period before5, from a woman's point of view, everything depended on society, on the seeing and being seen, on presenting oneself most profitably and making a good match; as Rachel Trickett puts it, "Jane Austen records accurately the social distinctions and the status of her characters - the amount of their estate or the extent of their lack of it, their family background, their rise or fall in fortune"6. At a time when one's own or one's family's money played the most important role in match-making, it is perfectly normal to hide one's lack of it and to try to impress with one's advantages. Isabella Thorpe is neither rich nor remarkably educated7, but she sets her aims high and does not avoid "improper, reckless or vulgar actions"8 to reach them.

As for cunning, we have to say that Isabella is a self-centered person whose only interest is moving up the social ladder; and though Catherine does not understand Isabella's intentions, she gives indirect hints as to her desire of marrying James Morland. However, she tricks herself when she tranfers her attention from James to Captain Tilney because he appears to be an even more promising partner. After the openly shown affection towards James, this behaviour must be called a social faux-pas, only worsened by her letter to Catherine in which she asks for understanding and pity. It remains unclear whether Isabella really regrets her behaviour towards James Morland or whether she just regrets having lost both admirers and thus being forced to restart her search. Equally uncertain is whether people like Isabella are able to feel love or affection for another person. She never thinks of marriage for love, but only calculates the benefits of it.

By making Isabella Catherine's friend and tutor, Jane Austen creates tension. She makes the reader aware of Isabella's recklessness and egoism and lets him/her think about possible consequences for and effects on the heroine. Isabella -strong, persistant and clever- is used as a figure of contrast, as Catherine is shy, non-imposing and appears a bit naive. By letting Isabella deceive Catherine, Austen also gives her character an instructive function. Catherine learns about life without being deeply hurt, and she understands that intrigue and egoism are no positive traits of character. That Jane Austen opposes the hypocrisy of people like Isabella as well, becomes obvious when Isabella loses her two admirers while Catherine -all innocence and unimpressiveness-finally gets the man of her dreams.

A similar scheme is used in Sense and Sensibility, published in 18119, where Lucy Steele tries to save her engagement to Edward Ferrars. As she is neither rich nor educated10, her chances of meeting a promising husband are rather limited. She therefore takes her first chance and enters into an engagement with a young man at her father's school. Edward Ferrars lacks all possible ambition and wants to be a clergyman; but Lucy knows that he will be the heir of a considerable fortune. For the following four years, they stay engaged as Edward wants to settle in a parish before telling his parents about his future marriage. But Edward meets another woman, the intelligent and witty Elinor Dashwood, and begins to compare the two. Elinor does not know of Lucy's existence, but Edward tells his fiancée of Elinor - and Lucy does not lose a second to try and get the other woman out of her way (SS, XXII, 124-126). Lucy chooses Elinor as a confidante - already knowing that this will hurt her adversary. But Elinor remains calm and gives no hint as to her emotions.

Where Isabella in Northanger Abbey completely hides the object of her motive, Lucy does not hesitate to tell Elinor every detail of her love to Edward, always shooting meaningful or testing glances at her to get a reaction11. Lucy is direct, yet not honest with Elinor. After having told her about the engagement, she tries to get an utterance of hurt feelings from Elinor by emphasizing that she might have hurt her with her words (SS,. XXIV, 140) - adding implicitly that Edward could have no feelings for Elinor:

"I am rather of a jealous temper, too, by nature, and from our different situation in life, from his being so much more in the world than me, and our continual separation, I was enough inclined for suspicion to have found out the truth in an instant, if there had been the slightest alteration in his behaviour to me when we met, or any lowness of spirits that I could not account for, or if he had talked more of one lady than another. [ ] I do not mean to say that I am particularly observant or quicksighted in general, but in such a case I am sure I could not be deceived." (SS, XXIV, 141-142)

Her second try is a false over-estimation of Elinor's judgment which is revealed by telling Elinor that -following her judgment alone, she would end her engagement (SS, XXIV, 144). But once again, Elinor cannot be tricked into any form of personal statement. Other than Catherine who does not see Isabella's cunning, Elinor proves more intelligent than Lucy. She realizes that -assuming Lucy's claims are true- she has no chance of breaking these two people's relationship up. She is proud and reasonable to see that an engagement is a serious bond while her acquaintance with Edward Ferrars is only a superficial -though emotional- one.


1 Castellanos, Gabriela, Laughter, War and Feminism. Elements of Carnival in Three of Jane Austen’s Novels, New York: 1994, 86.

2 ibd., 87.

3 ibd., 91. "In the present case, the mask torn away reveals the deepest motive behind Isabella's deception, greed. Isabella, the reader will later find, set out to conquer James' affection because she was deceived as to the extent of his father's wealth."

4 Castellanos, Gabriela, Laughter, War and Feminism. Elements of Carnival in Three of Jane Austen’s Novels, New York: 1994, 91.

5 Butler, Marilyn, Introduction. Writing 1798-1817, in: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, London: 1995, xiv: "Northanger Abbey is essentially a work of the late 1790s. [ ] each certain allusion to another text dates before 1800. The Gothic novels listed by Isabella at Bath (I, iii) as being currently the rage belong to the years 1794-9. The novels most closely used in the text [ ] include a number of works of the 1780s, some even earlier. [ ] Other leading cultural themes - the picturesque, gardening, estate management, the modernization of ancient buildings - are equally characteristic of the 1790s, and will perhaps appear specific to that decade, when some of the detail is more closely examined."

6 Trickett, Rachel, Manners and Society, in: David Grey (ed.), The Jane Austen Handbook, London: 1986, 297.

7 see 5, xxxv-xxxvii: Her ignorance of or indifference towards manners in society makes Isabella "the self-appointed Mistress of Ceremonies of the quartet of young Morlands and Thorpes, which she rules by whim and dictat". She boasts and thinks she can act as she pleases. Being in the company of mostly richer people, Isabella tries to invent and dictate new styles ("[at] most this is a new hat"), but she "has to achieve stylishness through cheap accessories" because she cannot afford a large wardrobe full of different dresses. As for education, "[t]hough she instantly turns Catherine into a fan of Mrs Radcliffe, Isabella is not much of a reader herself. Books serve as one of her conversational gambits". "Isabella spreads the news about the latest commodities". "Her news items are really news flashes [ ]: what is in a shop window, or playing at the theatre, or who is contemplating adultery with whom". Isabella merely uses literature to underline her own interests or to feign knowledge or world-wiseness.

8 ibd., xxxvii.

9 In the preface to Sense and Sensibility (London: Penguin, 1994) we are told that the novel "was reworked twice in the fourteen years before its publication in 1811". Over a period of 15 years, an author's ideas might well have changed.

10 Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility, London: Penguin, 1994, 123-124: "Lucy was naturally clever; [ ]but her powers had received no aid from education, she was ignorant and illiterate, and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood." Lucy is a person "who join[s] insincerity with ignorance".

11 Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility, London: Penguin, 1994, 130: "[W]iping her eyes", Lucy tells Elinor about her lonely hours without Edward. And she observes her conversational partner (SS, XXIV, 142).

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Female Cunningness and Male Deception in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Sense and Sensibility' and in Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones'
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Comedy and Burlesque in Henry Fielding and Jane Austen
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Female, Cunningness, Male, Deception, Jane, Austen, Northanger, Abbey, Sense, Sensibility, Henry, Fielding, Jones
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Stephanie Lipka (Author), 2001, Female Cunningness and Male Deception in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Sense and Sensibility' and in Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126046


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