Spoilers – but does it matter? Now Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is identified by a British university as a vehicle for potentially disturbing “gender stereotypes” and “toxic relationships and friendships”, perhaps the safest way to approach the satire is, if at all, second hand.
The University of Greenwich’s trigger warning (TW) is for undergraduates, but since the original intention of such alerts was to prepare readers for some possible reminder of upsetting experiences, it’s older ones who should be most grateful for this vigilance. Who, after all, is likely to have squeezed in more toxic relationships or suffered more acutely from gender stereotyping? Can such a novel be considered remotely safe for mature women, even those of us too young to have been jilted by an army captain in a Georgian pump room? Plainly, since Greenwich has stuck a warning on it, not.
For some readers it may be a narrow escape. Until now the novel, published posthumously in 1817, has somehow escaped notice on websites where readers can check for warnings contributed by literature’s survivors. In these admittedly haphazard collections, most of Austen’s novels feature as in some way risky, with TWs including alcohol consumption (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), slavery (Mansfield Park), Roma-hating “antiziganism” (Emma), incest (MP), classism (P&P), misogyny (P&P), implied grooming (Emma), depression and “animal hunting mentioned” (S&S).
Maybe something more systematic underpins Greenwich’s decision, widely reported last week, to settle on gender stereotypes and toxic relationships as Northanger Abbey’s pre-eminent triggers. Reading it for the first time in years, I was surprised academics had not been keener to warn, supposing they needed to warn at all, of one character’s casual antisemitism (which underlines his brutishness). Maybe something more all-encompassing was called for? As a poll showed last year, 86% of students support TWs, up from 68% in 2016.
So it’s understandable that academics may want to indulge their student-clients, regardless of growing evidence contra-indicating TWs. A 2022 meta-analysis concluded: “Overall, results suggest that trigger warnings in their current form are not beneficial and may instead lead to a risk of emotional harm.” On the other hand, students who are denied TWs may conclude that a university is neglecting their wellbeing.
From that perspective, you almost have to admire the ingenuity of the Greenwich English department, determined to pin a TW on one of the least troubling novels by an author whose critics dwell on her alleged superficiality and placidity. Equally, many of her admirers have sought Austen for comfort. “What calm lives they had, those people,” Winston Churchill wrote of Pride and Prejudice (read aloud to him during an illness in the Second World War). Maybe he skipped Lydia’s elopement and Charlotte Lucas’s pragmatic marriage to an idiot.
In what sounds an equally perverse reading of Northanger Abbey, Greenwich University now presents behaviour that Austen brilliantly satirises – gender stereotyping, toxic relationships – as the potential problem. It is a comic asset of the hero, Henry Tilney, that he, like the novel’s young women, reads gothic romances and knows the price of muslin. Early on, he inspects the heroine Catherine Morland’s gown. “‘It is very pretty, madam,’ said he, gravely examining it; ‘but I do not think it will wash well. I am afraid it will fray.’” Catherine struggles, unfemininely, to like flowers. “‘I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.’”
Although, in the decade since classroom TWs were pioneered by Oberlin College, Ohio, these alerts have surged in both prevalence and ambition, the Greenwich academics deserve recognition for achieving, with Northanger Abbey, what is surely peak TW. The original aim – before researchers questioned its outcome – was the worthy one of protecting students from unexpected flashbacks to traumatic events, those involving racism, say, or sexual misconduct. While their opponents expressed fears about infantilising students and the potentially stifling impact on teaching, TWs merely expanded, to embrace micro-aggressions, teasing. And now, with Northanger Abbey, to the point of instilling anticipatory anxiety about Isabella Thorpe, a false flirt whose toxicity might summon disquieting recollections of – what? Hats? Has anyone, with the possible exception of gothic novelists, ever been triggered by Northanger Abbey? Unlike university alerts about, among many texts, The Ancient Mariner (animal death), Beowulf (various), Greek tragedy (tragic?) and, it’s now reported, James Joyce’s Ulysses (“sexual matters”, race, gender), this one could be interpreted as a general warning, that all literature, even the reputedly safe, is a minefield: approach with extreme caution.
In a robust defence of TWs, the University of Aberdeen’s Prof Timothy Baker rightly says that journalists, ridiculing the latest supposed idiocy, tend to ignore those with which we sympathise, and concentrate on innocuous texts. But are they as innocuous as we glibly believe? “University study,” he argues, “is precisely about taking such work seriously. This might involve unpacking the racist or sexist assumptions that underlie a particular canonical text.”
But why such literary unpacking should require preparatory warnings, even if the discoveries are likely to be unsavoury, remains unresolved. The protectiveness might be understandable if undergraduates arrived fresh from convents or the better sort of cult, with minds like Catherine Morland’s, “warped by an innate principle of general integrity”. But, as noted by other academics, they inhabit, before, during and after their studies, an inescapably upsetting world. They’ve watched the news. They’ve seen Game of Thrones. They can tolerate finger stumps and a little dead donkey in an Oscar-nominated triggerfest.
As for Austen’s “toxic relationships and friendships”, John Sutherland, an emeritus professor of English literature at UCL (University College London), last week wondered in a letter to the Times if the authors of that warning had spotted its “irony”, given the children’s commissioner’s new findings on pornography and real-life toxic relations between the sexes. For example, “47% of all respondents aged 18-21 had experienced a violent sex act” that could be defined as “aggressive, coercive, or degrading”. Yet somehow they still need protecting from Northanger Abbey.
“Poor Jane,” the professor concluded.