WARNING: Spoilers ahead for a 206-year-old novel
One of the most important parts of my childhood to me is the day I discovered Jane Austen.
At age eight, I walked in on my parents watching the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” BBC miniseries and became obsessed with everything about it. Additionally, my grandmother is an English historian who specializes in Jane Austen’s life and novels, and our mutual love of her work is a treasured part of our relationship.
A few weeks ago, a headline about trigger warnings attached to Austen’s 1817 novel “Northanger Abbey” crossed my feed. According to DailyMail, the University of Greenwich in London warns students taking literature classes of “gender stereotyping” and “toxic relationships and friendships,” resulting in part from Austen’s use of gothic literature tropes throughout the narrative.
Anyone familiar with Austen’s novels knows that beyond the swoon-worthy regency romances they are famous for, they are absolutely filled with social satire, mercilessly critiquing self-importance and superficiality. “Northanger Abbey” is no exception, and that makes it one of my favorite books.
In this particular story, Austen satirizes the genre of gothic novels popular at the time (which she apparently enjoyed herself, according to the Guardian) for their shockingly dramatic plots. She does so by centering her story around sweet, innocent heroine Catherine Morland.
Austen sends Catherine away from her sheltered village and into the ritzy English city of Bath, where she is exposed to the greater social world for the first time. While Catherine makes friends with an opportunistic family, she also meets and ultimately falls for a young man named Henry Tilney.
She is invited to accompany the Tilney family back to their grand gothic estate, Northanger Abbey. There she encounters the coldness of Henry’s father and the drama of their great old house, and with her imagination primed to expect horrors behind every tapestry, she forms an unfounded idea that Henry’s mother is imprisoned on the estate. While Henry eventually has to step in and correct her, she receives her happy ending when she marries him by the end of the story.
A great deal of the book does hinge on the idea of toxic friendships and relationships. Catherine meets several false friends while in Bath who manipulate her into saying “yes” to them at every possible opportunity, and she has to learn that “if [she] could not be persuaded into doing what [she thinks] wrong, [she] will never be tricked into it,” as she says in the novel.
Additionally, Henry’s father never imprisoned anyone on his estate, but he was a cruel and calculating man who put Catherine through a frightening and humiliating journey back home after learning she was less rich than he first thought. Austen uses this to show that in real life, not all villainy is as dramatic as the stories make us expect and gives us an example of Henry learning to stand up to his abusive relative in order to do the right thing.
Austen’s point is that toxic friendships and relationships are unavoidable, and she introduces her inexperienced young lady to manipulative people in order to contrast them with more valuable friendships. She creates characters that we love to hate, mostly because we have all met people like them.
As to gender stereotypes, Austen was writing within the world she knew, and it would be unreasonable to expect her work to uphold the standards of freedom women seek today. In regency-era England, women had very little agency, and Austen’s work is all the more powerful for giving her heroines important decisions to make within the framework of their society.
Trigger warnings, at their core, are an effort to provide safety for people who have not experienced safety in the past. They symbolize the work of a society that is trying to do better by its marginalized groups, giving them a way to avoid reminders of situations that have caused them lasting harm.
However, fuel is added to the idea that trigger warnings are unnecessary when they are overused. Putting a warning for any negative situation, satirical or not, takes away from the effectiveness of both the original work and the trigger warning itself. Sensitivity is good; discouraging access to a funny and honest depiction of the human experience is not.
Photo from alyannadenise.com.