Representations of Englishness in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' (1817) and Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts' (1941)

Essay, 2018

8 Pages, Grade: Pass


“Remember that we are English” (Austen 182), Henry Tilney says to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey when he is confronted with her belief that mystery and crime are entangled with his mother's death. What, however, is it exactly that Mr. Tilney wishes Miss Morland to remember? What does it mean, in this novel and in other literary texts, to be English?

In order to discuss questions about the literary representation of Englishness, two texts will be analyzed in the following essay. Alongside Jane Austen's novel from 1817, Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts from 1941 will be discussed, and similarities as well as differences between the texts will be identified. The comparison of two works written more than a hundred years apart from each other should include a look at their respective historical contexts. This is especially true when the focus of the analysis is the representation of Englishness, because historical circumstances and changes may influence the significance of terms such as 'England' and 'English'. For this reason, a very brief historical background is provided in the next paragraph, before the texts and their portrayal of Englishness are considered in chronological order.

Jane Austen, who lived between 1775 and 1817, “was born into an age of nationalism” (Southam 189). Contemporary events such as the Declaration of Independence by American colonists in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789 as well as the wars between Britain and France from 1793 to 1815 caused “a period of high nationalism and patriotic fervor coinciding almost exactly with Jane Austen's years as a novelist” (189). With the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1801, England was first united with Scotland and later with Ireland, thereby forming the United Kingdom (Kishlansky n.p.). Within this union, it was the English identity that was emphasized, which may explain why Jane Austen solely focuses on “England, the English, and Englishness” (Southam 187), excluding Wales, Ireland and Scotland almost entirely. The consequence of England's domination within the United Kingdom was, however, that “England dissolved itself into Britain” (Goodhart 2008: 3; qtd. in Kumar 2010: 477), which is one of the reasons why Englishness and Britishness are often mistaken for synonymous terms.

Many historical events took place between Jane Austen's lifetime and the time of Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941). Among the events that unsettled the English nation were certainly World War I (1914 to 1918), World War II (1939 to 1941) and the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921), which eventually lead to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. Thus, while Austen wrote during a period with “a background of turbulence, and, prominent in the foreground, a confident national identity” (Southam 190, my emphasis), Woolf produced Between the Acts in an age of English/British distress and world-wide tumult. New technologies possibly added to emerging insecurities, because the invention of airplanes made it much easier to reach England/Britain during wars than in Austen's time, when a large part of England's confidence “rested on the fact that it was an island set apart from the European mainland and largely secured from Europe's internal conflicts” (189).

Having provided the necessary historical context, the next paragraphs discuss the representation of Englishness in Northanger Abbey. Afterwards, Austen's text will be compared to Woolf's Between the Acts.

As mentioned before, Jane Austen concerns herself very much with “England [and] the English” (Southam 187), but she does so very selectively. Her England is “narrowly chosen, an England of the Home Counties and the counties further south and southwest of London” (188). This is certainly true for Northanger Abbey, since its predominant settings are the city of Bath and Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire. The part of England portrayed in this novel thus merely covers a distance of 30 miles (Austen 126). Nonetheless, these two places represent very different sides of England. Whereas Bath is a place of culture, where men and women may go to converse, dance, see a play, visit a concert (13) and, possibly, find a suitable husband or wife, there are “[n]o theatre[s], no Rooms to prepare for” (180) in Gloucestershire, where the inhabitants of “one of the finest old places in England” (127) spend their days often in quiet and solitude. The city of London is not depicted in this novel, but it is mentioned as a place of serious business (203), an improved version of Bath (66) and a place of possible violence (101). Catherine refers to her hometown, “a small retired village in the country” (67), in order to point out that “there is much more sameness in a country life than in a Bath life” (67). Presenting the countryside and Northanger Abbey in opposition to Bath and London leads to the imagination of an England that is divided into busy and quiet, central and remote, but also potentially immoral and moral places. The proposition of the latter notion can be seen in the following statement by Henry Tilney: “You spend your time so much more rationally in the country.” (67) Catherine attempts to contradict this idea, but the novel nonetheless refers to romantic ideas about life in the country. The term 'countryside' formerly signified a specific side or piece of country, but came to mean a general, idealized space during the increasing urbanization of English society (Landry 1; qtd. in Jones 3). As cities grew and problems such as crime and pollution increased, the countryside began to symbolize “a purer, more refined way to live out the ideal English life” (4). This notion about Englishness seems to be what Henry Tilney associates with country villages as well.

Space and place are of high importance in relation to Englishness, not only with regard to the binary notions of town and countryside, but also concerning the specific house a person lives in. It is not surprising that an impressive old building like Northanger Abbey would “[stand] forward for admiration” (Austen 162) by Catherine Morland. Nonetheless, General Tilney is even more keen on showing her his son's country parsonage (197). The reason for this is that, at this point in the story, the General is in favor of a marriage between Catherine and Henry. The General thinks her approval of the parsonage brings him one step closer to this goal, and indeed, her delight seems to indicate her passion for Henry once more. Concerning Northanger Abbey, it is noteworthy that it has a very long history, but has been modernized as much as possible. The building was “a richly endowed convent at the time of the Reformation [...] [before it fell] into the hands of an ancestor of the Tilneys on its dissolution” (126), but the ancient kitchen is now equipped with contemporary stoves and hot closets. The General's father had even replaced an entire section with a new one, thinking “no uniformity of architecture [.] necessary” (167). This modernization of the abbey can be interpreted as a symbol for an England that is focused on the future, advocating technical advancement and progress. In contrast to this, “[t]he novels [Catherine] reads all have exotic settings some two or three hundred years earlier in continental, Catholic Europe” (Parrinder 96), which may be a way of contrasting modern England with a continental Europe supposedly stuck in the past.

Austen's notion of Englishness cannot only be found in narrative space, but also in the portrayal of characters. Much like the selected spaces, the chosen characters present a very narrow picture of England. Northanger Abbey focuses on the landed gentry and particularly on the efforts of young, single women to find a suitable husband. When Catherine Morland reflects upon the nature of English people, she states that, unlike in the Alps or Pyrenees where people are supposedly either bad or good, “among the English [.] in their hearts and habits, there [is] a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (Austen 184). Interestingly, this mixed character “is linked to the temperate English landscape” (Parrinder 97) which stands in opposition to the extremes of vast mountains and deep valleys found in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

The last aspect that should be mentioned concerns the vivid imagination of Catherine Morland (and Eleanor Tilney), as well as Henry Tilney's reaction to it. Referring to a Gothic novel soon to be published, Catherine mentions that “something very shocking indeed will soon come out of London” (Austen 100). Eleanor initially misunderstands her and Henry laughingly assumes that Eleanor has imagined “a mob of three thousand men assembling in St George's Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood” (101). His amusement at Eleanor's initial shock is explained later, when he reacts in a similar manner to Catherine's belief that his father could be a murderer: “Remember the country and the age we live in. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians” (182). In his patriotism, Henry believes “social turbulence and violent criminality [to be] essentially alien” (Neill 15) to English nature. However, the quoted description of violence actually resembles a real upheaval, namely the Gordon Riots of 1780 (15). Henry's speech that characterizes the English as civil, progressive and transparent people, and England as a country in which atrocities cannot happen (Austen 182), is thus undercut by the reference to a violent event in English history. Henry furthermore appeals to Catherine's understanding as well as her sense of the probable and her ability of observation (182), all of which he assumes to have been shaped by English institutions: “She is English, so she must know there is nothing nasty at Northanger Abbey.” (Parrinder 97) Ironically, of course, Catherine's feeling that something is not quite right with General Tilney and the abbey turns out to be correct: “[S]omething is rotten in this state of England [...] [and that something] is 'greedy speculation'” (Neill 17).

Northanger Abbey, then, presents Englishness in terms of contradictions, binaries and tensions within a highly selective version of England and argues that English character “is closely related to landscape or setting” (Parrinder 98). Looking at Between the Acts, it seems at first sight that Woolf's version of England is even more restricted than Austen's. Most of the plot takes place in a country house in a small English village and much of the action happens on a single day in June 1939 (Woolf 55). Nonetheless, it can be argued that Woolf's representation of Englishness is a more holistic portrayal in the sense that she attempts to embed this small piece of everyday life in the broad context of (English) history.

Similar to Northanger Abbey, space and place are important markers of Englishness in Between the Acts. Descriptions of the landscape surrounding the country house at the very beginning of the novel show that Woolf focuses on the history of that environment. Where Northanger Abbey contrasts different spaces within England, this novel focuses on a single village and house as well as on the way the immediate surroundings have been shaped by the past. Even though the main setting is the country house, a variety of English people and, in the form of the pageant, English history itself are present in the house and its vicinity. An example of the described entanglement of history and space is the cesspool which is situated on the Roman road (Woolf 3). Through the cesspool, the topics of historical change, war and the wish to control nature are introduced: “From an aeroplane, [Mr. Oliver] said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.” (3) Thus, English landscape is described as having been scarred and molded by the past. Even the lily pool by the house is described in relation to time: “There had always been lilies there [...] Water, for hundreds of years, had silted down the hollow” (31). As Dickinson notes, historical events are described as both “inscribing the land and creating it, too, as a textual record and reminder of history” (Dickinson 16; qtd in Czarnecki 22).

The interest in history and its preservation is also apparent in the house Pointz Hall itself, which provides a stark contrast to the abbey in Northanger Abbey. While the latter has been modernized by the Tilney family and thus lost part of its original aura, the country house in Between the Acts is a place in which history is preserved as much as possible. It contains, for example, an old portrait of an ancestress, “a watch that had stopped a bullet on the field of Waterloo” (Woolf 6) and mid-Victorian furniture (52). The interior of the house seems to be as much a collection of historical events as the history play that is performed in the novel. Here, showing the house or the greenhouse to a guest is first and foremost an excuse to leave the crowd of people and be alone in a secluded space (e.g. 53, 81, 107), but Pointz Hall is also a place that is presented to the guests in order to impress them.


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Representations of Englishness in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' (1817) and Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts' (1941)
Uppsala University  (Department of English)
MA Hauptseminar: Englishness and the Making of a Cultural Identity
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ISBN (Book)
England, Englishness, National Identity, Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts
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Silvia Schilling (Author), 2018, Representations of Englishness in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' (1817) and Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts' (1941), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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