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Jane Austen's aesthetics and ethics of surprise.

In a memorable scene in Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding likens Lady Booby, sexually rebuffed by her virtuous servant, to "the statue of surprize" spoken of by poets. (1) Presumably, he invokes an old metaphor of astonished or fearful people as petrified, but the ambiguity of his phrase raises the possibility of a sculpture fashioned to represent an allegorical figure named "Surprize." (2) If such a deity did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it as the presiding spirit of the eighteenth-century novel, an emergent genre that signally promised to exceed the reader's expectations, as well as the equally new discourse of aesthetics, which adopted surprise as a key term in the emotional lexicon of artistic experience. The full title of Robinson Crusoe's narrative, to cite only one example, advertises the wayward sailor's Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures, the adjective of the new modifying an old signifier of romance. Defoe's title indicates both the strangeness and veracity of the narrator's experiences: real rather than fantastical, and thus all the more surprising; or, in Michael McKeon's formula for the epistemology of seventeenth-century news-ballads and early novels, "strange, therefore true" (5-6).

What the adjective "surprising" adds to "strange" is affect--the emotional response activated by the extraordinary, the foreign, or the inexplicable. It also encompasses a wider range of experience, since not everything that is surprising is necessarily strange; the mundane, too, can be arresting. In its participial ambiguity, the word aptly suggests the intersection of characters and readers in the eighteenth-century novel: both are meant to be jolted out of ordinary patterns of perception and thought; both will be seized by an experience of the new. As an adventure-narrative, Crusoe promises an aesthetic form of surprise (delight in the new); and as a spiritual autobiography of self-correction, it delivers a salubrious moral surprise (the experience of being jolted from inattention into awareness).

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, famous as a novel about novel-reading, crystallizes many salient features of the eighteenth-century discourse of surprise. Its young heroine Catherine Morland, who temporarily leaves the provincial routine of Fullerton for the social intrigues of Bath, is perpetually startled by the books she reads and the people she meets, even as Austen's narrator archly registers the presumably jaded reader's familiarity with novelistic conventions and the ways of the world. The emotion of surprise is important to all of Austen's novels, but it appears with particular intensity and frequency in this one. Even more than in Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion, the heroine's courtship is mediated by eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse. Discussing the plots and merits of novels, acquiring the language of the picturesque, parsing the lexical nuances of words for the sublime ("shocking") and the beautiful ("nice"), learning to love a rose--all are alibis (and stimuli) for the growing erotic interest between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. These things are, like Henry himself, novelties to Catherine, and it is partly for this reason that surprise figures so prominently in the narrative.

In reading Northanger Abbey through this lens, I wish to challenge critical accounts that either dismiss surprise as a symptom of the young heroine's naivete or overlook it in favor of its stronger relative, alarm; and thus to identify in the novel a powerful eighteenth-century idea and narrative device. Stuart Tave, the first critic to comment on the prevalence of the word in the novel, offers this gloss: "Surprise is a foolish thing, as it offers itself in, for example, the indeterminateness of what is 'odd' as it creates the emotion of an undefined 'alarm,' it is dissolved; in its stead is a process of understanding by means of 'observation' of what is and a determination of 'probability'" (37). (3) In what is essentially a novel of education, Catherine Morland must abandon her gothic suspicion that her host at the abbey, General Tilney, has murdered his wife, and yield to a clear-eyed reckoning of the probable.

Critics have since revised Tave's premise by retrieving "alarm" from the realm of the naive and feeble-minded to assert genuine, lingering concerns that the novel cannot resolve or contain. As Tony Tanner phrases it, borrowing Austen's own terms, "'Common life' has proved to be capable of producing surprising uncommonness; anxiety may be a form of controlled alarm" (73). The patriarchal tyranny of General Tilney, who summarily banishes Catherine from the abbey after discovering that she is not the wealthy catch for his son that he had imagined, is momentarily softened rather than decisively cured; and in Tanner's punning observation, the ghostly traces of "anger"--snobbery, cynicism, emotional coldness, patriarchal irritability--still linger. Similarly borrowing Austen's own terms, Claudia Johnson observes that Northanger Abbey is "an alarming novel to the extent that it, in its own unassuming and matter-of-fact way, domesticates the gothic and brings its apparent excesses into the drawing rooms of 'the midland countries of England'" (42). Echoing D.A. Miller's argument about the novel and its anticlosural discontents, (4) Johnson suggests that Austen draws our attention to the fact that "the convention of the happy ending conceals our all-too-legitimate cause for alarm" (48). The real cause, in Johnson's reading, lies in the arbitrary power of paternal figures like General Tilney, a domesticated English version of Radcliffe's villainous Montoni. There is no more incisive commentator on this dynamic than Austen herself, who summarizes Catherine's enlightened disenchantment at the end of the novel as a change of genre, feeling, and linguistic register: "The anxieties of common life began soon to succeed to the alarms of romance" (148).

It is not at all surprising that Austen's affective language would be so readily imported into late twentieth-century critical rubrics of anxiety, subversion, interrogation and critique; and Tanner's and Johnson's readings tell a fundamental truth about the novel's dialectic. These accounts, as well as Tave's, use the gothic as a reference-point: for Tave, a foil to the domestic and ordinary, for Tanner and Johnson, an amplification of issues of gender and power. But Austen's parodic staging of gothic sensations appears late in the novel, and by the time Catherine reaches the abbey, she has already experienced plenty of jolts, none of them tinged with the horror of Radcliffe or Lewis. I would agree with Tanner and Johnson that Austen asserts genuine causes for alarm in the novel, but I also wish to emphasize the importance of an often-overlooked emotional correlate. The difference between alarm and surprise is, in part, a function of time: the former is a state of sustained fear or anxiety; the latter is a briefer flare of feeling, a passage to some other emotional or cognitive state, and an experience that can be a source of either discomfort or pleasure, or both. Many readers have noticed the novel's stylistic unevenness, the awkward fit between the parody of romantic fiction and the Burneyesque narration of a young woman's entrance into the world; and by focusing on surprise, I wish to identify an emotional current that runs through both parts. (5)

I will make several arguments about the function of surprise in Northanger Abbey. First, it is a feature of the narrative itself, which is concerned with the reader's experience of the novel as both familiar and new; it is not only a state to transcend through rational judgment but also a figure of delight. Catherine's susceptibility to surprise serves not merely as a sign of naivete or ignorance but also as a moral register of other characters' foibles; like Candide's perpetual astonishment, it is an instrument of satirical commentary. Rather than merely mocking Catherine's susceptibility, Austen places it in dialogic relation with other ways of being in the world: the novel is peopled with characters who adopt defenses against shock, and these attitudes are as much a subject of comedy as Catherine's episodes of bewilderment. Such defenses come in several forms, often inflected by elements of masculine control: the assertion of special knowledge or omniscience, the attitude of stoic confrontation, the claim of intuitive or predictive powers. Surprise in Northanger Abbey might be called the emotional corollary to the novel's often-noticed preoccupation with the probable (6)--the ordinary or normal, the statistically typical, the logically inferred, the devoutly wished-for. Finally, as we shall see, it is a reflection of Austen's conspicuous concern with her readers' response to the novel--their familiarity with conventions, their literate resistance to surprise.


In its earliest sense, the word "surprise" meant the military strategy of attacking without warning, from the French surprendre (to seize or, more literally, to overtake); but that meaning quickly migrated into the cognitive realm. The flux between these senses is memorably registered throughout Paradise Lost, in its Christian revisions of epic battles and sneak-attacks. When the tutelary angel Raphael advises Adam to "govern well thy appetite, lest Sin / Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death" (7.548-9), he invokes both senses of "surprise": Sin is an external foe that attacks in a moment of weakness, and in the immediate aftermath, the sinner is astonished--too late--by what he has done. Traces of the earlier etymology persist in eighteenth-century usage. Applied to women's experience, for instance, the word "surprise" often had a sexual connotation. Richardson's Pamela, to use an emblematic example, often registers the surprise of Mr. B's unwanted advances--a mixture of physical assault and emotional disturbance.

As a cognitive phenomenon, meanwhile, surprise became an important component of eighteenth-century aesthetics: in Joseph Addison's terms, it is the emotion associated with Novelty, one of the three primary pleasures of the imagination. In this spectrum of feeling, surprise stands between the astonishment of Greatness and the "secret Satisfaction and Complacency" of Beauty. "Every thing that is new or uncommon raises a Pleasure in the Imagination," Addison says, "because it fills the Soul with an agreeable Surprise, gratifies its Curiosity, and gives it an Idea of which it was not before possest" (371). We are so vulnerable to habit and boredom that this emotion "serves us for a Kind of Refreshment, and takes off from that Satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual Entertainments" (372).

Edmund Burke, in simplifying Addison's triad into the binary of Sublime and Beautiful, passed over surprise to focus on the more powerful feeling of astonishment, noting that the word comes from the French participle etonne, "thunderstruck"; the word thus names an experience of terror in the face of forces beyond our control. Surprise, on the other hand, is milder than this--an "inferior" affect, along with admiration, reverence, and respect. By implication, whereas astonishment involves a solitary and utterly terrifying experience, surprise belongs to the realm of social existence. Adam Smith makes precisely this point in the Theory of Moral Sentiments: "The amiable virtues consist in that degree of sensibility which surprises us by its exquisite and unexpected delicacy and tenderness. The awful and respectable, in that degree of self-command which astonishes by its amazing superiority" (I.i.5). Along similar lines, Hugh Blair discriminates among a cluster of affective terms sometimes used in interchangeable ways: "I am surprised with what is new and unexpected; I am astonished, at what is vast of great; I am amazed with what is incomprehensible; I am confounded, by what is shocking or terrible" (197). Sucia points would not be lost on the pedantic Henry Tilney, in whose presence female companions are threatened with being "overpowered by Johnson and Blair" (78).

Austen, who adeptly deploys the vocabulary of the gothic sublime in the abbey chapters, surely appreciated such distinctions, and in her novels she often pokes fun at abuses of the language of astonishment. In Sense and Sensibility, for instance, one satirical target is the excitable Mrs. Jennings: "The sudden termination of Colonel Brandon's visit at the park, with the steadiness in concealing its cause, filled the mind and raised the wonder of Mrs. Jennings for two or three days; she was a great wonderer, as every one must be who takes a very lively interest in all the comings and goings of their acquaintance" (62). In the course of a single page, "wonder" deliberately appears five more times, and through this repetition, the word metamorphoses from an Addisonian term for the emotion of Novelty ("filled the mind") into a synonym for the restless curiosity of a busybody ("So wondered, so talked Mrs. Jennings").

It is true, as Tave remarks, that naive or dim characters in Austen's novels are more easy to shock (44), but it is also important to see that resistance to surprise can be a deliberate, and problematic, ethical stance. Samuel Johnson's moral commentary on the avoidance of surprise can help us think about this stance in Northanger Abbey. In a locution that strikingly anticipates the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, Johnson suggests that resistance to surprise is a mark of stoic (and masculine) survival:
   It is a maxim commonly received, that a wise man is never
   surprised, and perhaps this exemption from astonishment may be
   imagined to proceed from such a prospect into futurity, as gave
   previous intimation of those evils which often fall unexpected
   upon others that have less foresight. But the truth is, that things
   to come, except when they approach very nearly, are equally hidden
   from men of all degrees of understanding; and if a wise man is not
   amazed at sudden occurrences, it is not that he has thought more,
   but less upon futurity.... He is not surprised because he is not
   disappointed, and he escapes disappointment because he never forms
   any expectations. (159-60)

The "wisdom" of such stoic cauterization of the imagination is not easily practiced, (or even to be desired), and Johnson surely knew as much. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen seems directly to parody Johnson's paragon of wisdom, or at least the moral vocabulary that it epitomizes: "Your letter came quite as soon as I expected, and so your letters will always do, because I have made it a rule not to expect them till they come, in which I think I consult the ease of us both" (Letters 18-19 December, 1798). Surely, Austen's expectations do outstrip the actual pace of the world, and she would like to hear even more frequently from her sister; the comic redundancy of expecting a letter only when it arrives wittily suggests the impossibility of Johnson's desideratum. In Austen's world, and perhaps still in our own, there is such a thing as postal surprise, the slight shock of the mundane: though the two sisters corresponded regularly, Austen often begins her letters by expressing amazed gratification at receiving another one from Cassandra, or by imagining the surprise of her correspondent. In Austen's world, a letter is surprising because it arrives either earlier or later than expected; in short, though it is the most common thing in the world, it is still remarkable that it comes at all. It is the gratifying moment in which free-floating expectation opens into the delight of fulfillment; it is the sudden admixture of the mundane with the pleasurable.

The categories of modern psycholinguistics shed further light on the eighteenth-century language of affect. As theorist Barbara Kryk-Kastovsky puts it, surprise is a "'super-emotion' underlying emotive language in general"; and expressions of surprise, like that of any emotion, can be ranked on a scale ranging from the "iconic" (spontaneous reactions such as raised eyebrows, or a shout of "Oh!") to the "conventional" (ritualized, syntactic constructions such as "You don't say," or "I am shocked to find ...") (156). As a verbalized emotion, surprise is for the most part retroactive or revisionary--a post-facto expression of a fleeting response: when we say, "I am surprised," the moment has already passed, or we are using the expression as a formula of disapproval or judgment rather than the reporting of an internal state. In this way, utterances of surprise differ from expressions of sustained passions like sadness or anger. In the grammar of emotions, as Meredith Osmond points out, we say that we are surprised by rather than with something, and the distinction is based on the duration of response: one feels angry with someone because the emotion can be sustained, and its embodied cause continues to exist. But one is surprised only by the sudden or unexpected, after which the emotion vanishes or subsides into something else. (7) As Philip Fisher has put it in his study of the cognitive and aesthetic phenomenon of wonder, "surprise, the eliciting of notice, becomes the very heart of what it means to 'have an experience' at all" (20).


From the very first sentence of her novel, Austen introduces the principle of surprise that will animate the narrative: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine" (5). It is telling that Catherine's putative unsuitability is framed within the form of a prediction, since this is a favorite activity of the novel's characters; and the question of whether an unremarkable little girl will grow up to be a heroine will be mirrored in the question, as the novel hastens toward its conclusion, of whether a disappointed young woman will find happiness. The surprise in each case is rhetorical rather than actual. Indeed, Austen's opening statement describes what I would calla virtual surprise. Within the world of the novel, no one would expect Catherine to grow up to be a "heroine" because the designation would be on no one's mind; and in the literary marketplace, readers acquainted with middling characters, such as Burney's Evelina, would not necessarily be surprised by Catherine's ordinariness. Less surprising than Catherine is Austen's style of presenting her--through arch commentary that anticipates Byron's ostentatious search for a hero in the opening of Don Juan. (8)

As destined "hero" of Catherine's romance, Henry Tilney functions as the heroine's tutor in the art and avoidance of surprise, and his role--and the role of the narrator--is summarized in a single stroke: "His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just--and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did" (83). The distinction between a surprising manner and a just meaning is essentially a function of time: the initial impression that Henry makes (bewilderment, shock) is superseded by a deeper acquaintance with reason and truth; and even Henry's enigmas are held in the good-faith expectation of illumination. This, in little, is the principle--a learning curve of sorts--that drives the narrative of Catherine's entry into the world. Austen's apologia for Henry's manner is both a poetics and an ethics--an epistemological and moral justification for the pleasure of the imagination that Addison called the Novel. Indeed, Henry's mode of flirtation fits the neoclassical model of wit, which Addison defines as a remark that is not merely funny but "gives delight and surprise to the reader." Addison's dyad revises Horace's formula of instruction and delight by placing surprise--the gentle shock of the new of unexpected--at the center of intellectual pleasure; and the exchanges between Henry and Catherine reflect that move.

Catherine's first conversation with Henry serves as a seminar in the theory and practice of surprise. In much the same way that the narrator bares the devices of the courtship plot, Henry begins by exposing the conventions of small-talk. Hearing that Catherine has been in Bath about a week, he exclaims "Really!" with "affected astonishment" (14). In response to Catherine's question about why he should seem so amazed, Henry concedes that there isn't a good reason, "but some emotion must be raised by your reply, and surprize is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable than any other" (15). Surprise is a socially mediated and articulated emotion, and Henry's apercu registers this fact. In terms of conversational etiquette, the feigning of surprise maintains the fiction of interest: the friendly interlocutor may not care about the answer to his question, but he must pretend that he does. More broadly, Henry grasps the Austenian point that in social situations, people must have something to say, no matter how inane. In psycholinguistic terms, Henry's "Really!" falls in the middle of the "iconic-conventional" scale: an exclamation whose brevity and suddenness could plausibly register a genuine response to the unexpected, or, as Henry confesses, an utterly deliberate, theatrical affect. Surprise is easily feigned because ephemeral, briefer than delight or curiosity. By performing a reaction and then retracting it as fake, Henry cunningly elides whatever emotion he might actually happen to feel. Beyond establishing a conversational connection, this gambit functions, in essence, as a pickup line akin to the latter-day cliche, "Do you come here often?" If there is genuine surprise beneath the smokescreen of archness, it might be interpreted as, "Why haven't I met you yet?" or, in the plot's providential frame, "Where have you been all my life?" Surprise, then, is an effective cover-emotion, even as it generates an erotic spark in the mental friction of question and answer, action and reaction.

In his playful but self-protective pose of omniscience, Henry presumes not only to predict how his conversation with Catherine will go but also to say how it will have gone as recounted in Catherine's diary at the end of the day. The ensuing conversation turns once again on conventionalized expectations, and the genuine surprise to be found within a frame of predictability. In response to Catherine's reply, "Perhaps I keep no journal," Henry blurts out, "Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one?" (15). Catherine's "perhaps" is a polite form of contradiction, but Henry's theatrical echo modulates the word into a term of probability and Catherine into one item in a large sample of young women and typically female behavior. In Henry's thinking, there is technically always some chance for deviation from a norm but not a very big one. Henry's Cartesian incredulity--you ate a young woman, therefore you write--is matched by Catherine's equally skeptical response: "'I have sometimes thought,' said Catherine, doubtingly, 'whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen. That is--I should not think the superiority was always on our side" (16).

At issue are two intertwined forms of knowability: the general knowledge of female behavior and the specific content of Catherine's thoughts. In both cases, Henry runs the risk of being wrong, and for once Catherine possesses the power to surprise. It is apt--and not at all surprising--that Henry's antidote to this predicament takes the form of a quintessential surprise: he simply approaches Catherine unawares and asks, "What are you thinking of so earnestly?" (17). Henry characteristically plays on probabilities: Catherine must be thinking about something, and there is a decent chance that she is thinking about him. In any case, the very presence of a questioning observer determines the nature of the answer: even if Catherine were not thinking about Henry, the question forces her to do so now. Responding to her demurral, Henry quips that there will always be this unspoken thing that he can tease her about in the future, and he is fundamentally right: surprise creates experience by precipitating something out of the ordinary; and it is a power wielded more by men in the novel than by its women. Insofar as Catherine's true thoughts are as inaccessible to the reader as they are to Henry, this conversation gestures, finally, to Austen's move away from the devices of the epistolary novel toward the use of indirect discourse to represent the interiority of her characters.

Within the social script invoked by Henry, then, the element of surprise lies in the mysterious subjectivity of Catherine herself. This is also true of Catherine's later tete-a-tete with Isabella Thorpe, in which the latter presumes to know how her new friend would have reacted to her growing attachment to James Morland: "You would have told us that we seemed born for each other, or some nonsense of that kind, which would have distressed me beyond conception; my cheeks would have been red as your roses" (50). This scene, which takes place in a theater, reflects a world of prescribed roles and situations, in which an emotion can be spoken about rather than had, and courtships are theoretical constructions. Once again, Catherine is startled to be the subject of an effort of mind-reading, and once again she must insist that the attempt has been botched: "Indeed you do me injustice; I would not have made so improper a remark on any account; and besides, I am sure it would never have entered my head" (50).

What has or has not entered Catherine's head is a source of speculation for both characters and readers. (9) We might agree with Isabella when she insists that Catherine must have known that John Thorpe was in love with her, and share in Isabella's incredulity at Catherine's surprise at the news (105). Indeed, Austen must assure us that the shock is sincere: "Catherine, with all the earnestness of truth, expressed her astonishment at such a charge, protesting her innocence of every thought of Mr. Thorpe's being in love with her" (104). In defending Catherine, the narrator acknowledges that her professions of ignorance are surprising both to Isabella and to the reader, who has already seen Catherine deflecting John Thorpe's dropped hints of affection. For the reader, the ultimate gratification of surprise lies in the revelation that Catherine is an unwitting virtuoso in the art of the cold shoulder, and for Catherine, it is the new awareness of herself as a sexually desirable woman: "That [John Thorpe] should think it worth his while to fancy himself in love with her, was a matter of lively astonishment" (107).

Austen overtly marks Thorpe's unsuitability for Catherine in his boorishness; more subtly, she indicates it in his defense against surprise--a stance of blase indifference, as opposed to Henry Tilney's anticipatory control. He might be expected to show some dismay when, in a conversation about novels, Catherine tactfully exposes his ignorance that Anne Radcliffe wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, but Thorpe instantly recovers from the shock: "'No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant" (32). Within a single sentence, Thorpe registers a flicker of chagrin, corrects himself, and launches a fresh salvo against another female novelist by saying, in effect, "Enough about Radcliffe; you know who I really can't stand is Burney."

Thorpe's emotion might almost be called embarrassment, but for the absence of a visible blush. More accurately, it can be called surprise, which is typically registered in a character's speech: here, in Thorpe's strange negative-affirmative glissando, "No sure"--an iconic expression akin to, "Oh!" or "Of course!" But Thorpe erases his reaction with remarkable speed: now he knows the author of Udolpho, and only this fact matters. Thorpe fundamentally knows that the contents of his mind are inaccessible to Catherine, and that she must simply take him at his word; in this way, ignorance can masquerade as forgetting. For someone so adept at shock-absorption, it is apt that Thorpe professes not to have been surprised by anything in Burney's Camilla, or at least what he has skimmed: "indeed I guessed what sort of stuff must be before I saw it" (32). Thorpe's charge of predictability is not based on deep or extensive acquaintance with novels, any more than Henry's remarks about journalizing are informed by vast knowledge of women; but it nevertheless touches upon the concerns of Austen's narrator. Indeed, it could be said that Austen is apprehensive of readers like John Thorpe--or, more subtly, affects an anxiety about them when she acknowledges, toward the end of the novel, that her readers surely know where events are tending. For a reader like Thorpe, knowing how a novel will end amounts to finding no surprise and thus no pleasure; but Austen's ideal readers discern finer-grained surprises despite--and even because of--narrative convention and predictability.

In pitting Thorpe against Henry Tilney as suitors, Austen makes an implicit distinction between two kinds of surprise--between bluster and intellectual play, unintended comedy and calculated humor. When Thorpe takes Catherine for a ride in his gig, he warns her not to be alarmed by his spirited horse and thus succeeds in thoroughly alarming her. But the melodramatic advisory is belied when the horse goes off "in the quietest manner imaginable" (43). Here again, Catherine's capacity for bewilderment serves Austen's satirical purposes. Voicing "grateful surprize" at the horse's docility, Catherine can't help wondering why Thorpe would have thought it necessary to scare her, but of course we can: he is a braggart and a "rattle." And yet while Thorpe's warning is exposed as masculine bravado, it also has the unintended effect of increasing Catherine's pleasure, in the sense of passing through a peril unscathed. In the end, Catherine "[gives] herself up to all the enjoyment of air and exercise of the most invigorating kind, in a fine mild day in February, with the consciousness of safety" (44). The emotional contours of Catherine's ride--the thrill of anticipation, the frisson of danger, the consciousness of safety--are not unlike the dynamics of reading a romance or gothic novel. Thorpe may profess a dislike for such fictions, but he indulges in his own personal romance of equestrian heroism; and Catherine unwittingly participates in the fantasy.

I have said that Austen's defense of Henry Tilney as surprising-yet-just functions as both an ethics and a poetics, and the full import of this proposition emerges in a later scene in which Henry dances with Catherine, a flirtation that fluctuates between affected and genuine surprise. Henry suggests that the country-dance is itself "an emblem of marriage" (54), but Catherine cannot fathom how a life-long commitment can be likened to something as frivolous and ephemeral as an evening's dance. Her unfamiliarity with rattles and their gigs is matched by her puzzlement over the subtleties of tenor and vehicle; and Henry further complicates the matter by spinning his analogy the other way around and comparing "the dancing state" to the marriage state. With feigned alarm, he suggests that if Catherine does not see a dancing obligation as having the solemnity of marriage vow, she risks being perceived as an unreliable dance partner: "Have I not reason to fear, that if the gentleman who spoke to you just now [John Thorpe] were to return, or if any other gentleman were to address you, there would be nothing to restrain you from conversing with him as long as you chose?" (55).

Henry's playful question is overshadowed by a larger concern with sameness and variety, in what amounts to a Burkean consideration of the dulling effects of custom. Looking back on her way of life in Fullerton as devoid of surprise ("One day in the country is exactly like another" [56]), Catherine exclaims, "Oh! who can ever be tired of Bath?" (56). To which Henry replies, "Not those who bring such fresh feelings of every sort to it, as you do. But papas and mammas, and brothers and intimate friends are a good deal gone by, to most of the frequenters of Bath--the honest relish of balls and plays, and every-day sights, is past with them" (56). Such disenchantment has been described by Jerome Kagan, in psychological terms, as the fading of surprise from life: "The changes in mood that accompany aging are as mucha function of fewer surprises and states of uncertainty as they are the inevitable consequence of compromised organs and the wearing away of the ends of chromosomes" (5). In witty illustration of Henry's reference to disaffected "papas and mamas," Austen stages the sudden arrival of General Tilney, a widower and a creature of clockwork routine, not to mention the would-be agent against Catherine and Henry's happiness.

And yet the general's appearance becomes the occasion for a form of mutual surprise. This older man may well have tired of dances, but he finds fresh interest in regarding Catherine; in turn, Catherine is unnerved to find herself watched by a strange man. Perpetually startled by the discovery of familial and social connections, Catherine here voices her reaction to General Tilney's identity in a single iconic expletive, "Oh!"--which the narrator describes as "an 'Oh!' expressing everything needful" (57). What is "needful" is left unsaid, but the startled monosyllable can be interpreted as a release of nervous energy from the banter of the son and the gaze of the father. Everything in this feeling--the intellectual heat of conversation, the erotic thrill of watching and being watched--is coyly translated into a euphemistic "secret remark" that Catherine makes only to herself: "How handsome a family they are!" The physical and mental delight that Catherine has taken in the evening is finally summarized in her departure, in a moment of exhilaration that recalls the ride in Thorpe's gig: "her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home" (57). In the emphatic repetition of the verb, the evening's ball has an afterlife as both trope and reenactment; it is a movement of both body and soul.

Beyond the delight of novelty, the expression of surprise frequently serves as a judgment of other people's behavior--whether deliberate, as in the statement, "you surprise me," or implicit, as in Catherine's unstudied reactions. When Catherine sees Isabella, recently betrothed to James Morland, dancing with Frederick Tilney, her shock functions as a lever of moral judgment: both a reflection of her naivete about the flirtatious customs of assembly rooms and a register of her high expectations of Isabella's behavior. Whereas Henry offered a metaphor of marriage as dance, Catherine insists on a metonymy--the ethical connection between a social engagement and a betrothal. Henry had meant, in an Augustan turn of wit, to surprise and delight Catherine with an instructive trope; but Catherine means to assert real social consequences.

Henry's response to Catherine's shock is a telling mixture of masculine knowingness and gallant sympathy, of jaded resistance to surprise and vicarious participation in it. First, he says, "I cannot take surprize to myself on that head," but adds: "You bid me be surprized on your friend's [Isabella's] account, and therefore I am; but as for my brother, his conduct in the business, I must own, has been no more than I believed him perfectly equal to" (96-7). Catherine's fears are confirmed after Isabella jilts James Morland, and this time Henry is genuinely taken aback. Watching Catherine reading the news in a letter from James, Henry shares the eclat, but the sudden arrival of his stern father conveniently releases him from betraying any emotion: "He was prevented, however, from even looking his surprize by his father's entrance" (149). In the event, he professes that "my surprize would be greater at Frederick's marrying her" (150), but then assures Catherine that this will not come to pass, presumably because he knows his brother's mind. On further reflection, he allows that such a marriage is possible, with the world-weary disclaimer that "Frederick will not be the first man who has chosen a wife with less sense than his family expected" (151). In this way, Henry has it both ways, first claiming knowledge of his brother's character and then assuming a more jaded knowledge of the world. In a distinctly gendered contrast, his sister Eleanor empathetically expresses her "concern and surprize," without qualification.

Throughout the novel, Henry lectures Catherine on the probable, most memorably in rebuke of Catherine's gothic fantasy that General Tilney has imprisoned or murdered his wife; and yet as the affair of Isabella and James illustrates, there are limitations to Henry's language of rational judgment. Like other characters, he makes double-sided predictions and professes in retrospect to have seen all possibilities. On the one hand, he declares that his brother will never marry Isabella Thorpe; on the other, he says that such rashness would not be so surprising in the spectrum of human behavior. Under the cover of worldly sagacity, that is, he says precisely nothing. Catherine's lament, "I never was so deceived in any one's character in my life before," might be seen as a reflection of naivete about the ways of an obvious flirt, and Henry's tart postscript--"Among all the great variety that you have known and studied" (152)--emphasizes that point. And yet Henry's purportedly broad acquaintance with human variety merely derives from what he has seen in Oxford and Bath; and the invocation of statistical sampling avant la lettre does not offer a heartening lesson in moral judgment. Much critical attention has been paid to Catherine's alarm at the Abbey and its aftermath, but it is equally important to see the ethical dimensions of the little moments of surprise that lead up to the novel's famous climax, in which the heroine's "visions of romance" are said to come to an end. As I hope to show, Catherine's surprises are implicated in Austen's narrative relationship to her audience: the imagination of what it is like to read this novel, both knowing and not knowing how it will end.


From the very beginning, Austen's narrator has conceded that there is nothing startling about the fundamental plot of Northanger Abbey. And yet within the framework of inevitability, the narrative reminds us of the chanciness of the protagonist's elevation to the status of "heroine." Ultimately, the person most surprised to find Catherine grow up to become a heroine is Catherine, whose desires are at least partially occluded--both from the reader and from herself. I would like to look at two homologous scenes to show the indirection of wish fulfillment in the novel--the mechanism of surprise by which Catherine is rewarded, and the rhetoric of probability and stoic resignation that surrounds each event. Both are scenes of seemingly interminable waiting followed by a sudden appearance--of a burst of sunshine and, improbably yet predictably, of a purported hero.

The scene in which Catherine anxiously waits out a morning drizzle to keep an engagement to walk with Henry and Eleanor Tilney is emblematic for several reasons. In a novel that so firmly announces the Englishness of its setting and idiom, the ordinary dreariness of morning rain is the tonal counterpoint to the gothic storminess of Catherine's nocturnal vigil at the Abbey (which felicitously arrives after the anticlimactic "thick mizzling rain" [117] that greets her arrival). Though weather is the quintessential symbol of chance and unpredictability, it invites the confident talk of probability to which most of the characters in the novel are addicted. Catherine's unflappable chaperone Mrs. Allen offers a tautological assurance ("She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the clouds would only go off and the sun keep out" [58]) and, as the rain continues to fall, an equally vapid prediction ("If it keeps raining, the streets will be very wet" [58]). These sage auguries recall the ludicrous wisdom of the rustic "natural philosopher" in As You Like It, who avers that "property of rain is to wet" and that "a great cause of the night is lack of the sun" (3.2.25-7); but in the world of Austen's novel, they also represent a common desire to fill the tedious space of waiting with speech, to give the semblance of knowledge and control in the face of the inscrutable or unpredictable. Mrs. Allen's disposition is cousin to Miss Bates's comic loquacity in Emma, but with a difference. If, as D.A. Miller has observed, Miss Bates's urge to say everything is at odds with the novelistic structure of withholding and delay (40), Mrs. Allen's "predictions" offer no factual value but mark the space of waiting and deferral on which the novel thrives. When the sun finally does come out, Mrs. Allen insists that she "had always thought it would clear up" (59); and like Thorpe's disclaimer that he simply forgot about the authorship of Udolpho, this is a claim that cannot be objectively verified. In essence, Mrs. Allen's statements are hyperbolic versions of Henry's probabilistic generalizations; both are defenses against surprise employed by those who must always be right.

The effect of the clearing sky on Catherine, meanwhile, is emblematic: "A gleam of sunshine took her quite by surprize; she looked round; the clouds were parting, and she instantly returned to the window to watch over and encourage the happy appearance" (59). If, as Burke's etymological observation reminds us, thunder is the figure of astonishment, the gleam of sunshine is the objective correlative of surprise. It might seem odd that this glimmer could startle Catherine, since she has been so ardently waiting for it; but her reaction indicates that she has lapsed into disappointed inattention. As in Austen's regular correspondence with Cassandra, the most mundane experience of expectation and fulfillment--the shock of the "new" no matter how ordinary--can produce a gratifying surprise. More subtly, an element of the supernatural (albeit in comic form) attends the scene. It is precisely at the moment that Catherine gives the vigil up that her prayer (so to speak) is answered. No prayer has been offered, of course, and no divine intervention is invoked, but Austen's description of the moment wittily registers a species of magical thinking, a mixture of Catherine's eager encouragement and the firmament's participation: "the sky began voluntarily to clear" (59). The diarist of Robinson Crusoe turns the weather into a sermonic emblem of providence, but in Austen's secular treatment, it is an occasion for wry observation of human impulses to predict and interpret. Austen's attribution of voluntariness to a natural event cuts two ways. It wittily suggests that the sky decides to clear on its own, independent of what anyone has to say about it; but it also intimates a wishful alignment of human volition with the phenomenal world.

This meteorological set-piece is interlaced, causally and symbolically, with ensuing events. The sun's reappearance prefigures the unexpected arrival of "the same three people that had surprized [Catherine] so much a few mornings back" (59)--Isabella and John Thorpe, and her brother James. Isabella represents the plan as a sudden flash of inspiration, the mental equivalent of the gleam of sunshine: "it darted into our heads at breakfast-time; I verily believe at the same instant" (60). Their brainstorm exerts the same kind of force on Catherine as the rain itself: it takes her off-guard and interferes with her plan of taking a walk with the Tilneys. The two moments aptly represent the frustration of Catherine's expectations by larger forces. For Catherine, the unannounced appearance of James Morland and the Thorpes is a bolt from the blue, and its coincidence with a standing engagement might even seem like a conspiracy against her growing intimacy with the Tilneys.

Indeed, this moment recalls the scene in which Catherine first meets the Thorpes, when she is utterly "surprized" to learn that John knows her brother (20). The natural explanation for the connection is that the two men are university acquaintances, but Catherine's momentary bewilderment registers the presence of a male social network beyond her field of knowledge. This feeling overcomes Catherine more intensely when she later sees with "surprize" John Thorpe talking with General Tilney at the theatre; and she feels "something more than surprize when she thought she could perceive herself the object of their attention and discourse" (68). "How came Mr. Thorpe to know your father?" a concerned Catherine asks Henry. The pedestrian answer bespeaks yet another inaccessible masculine sphere: the two met each other at a coffeehouse in Covent Garden. In terms of probability, it is not at all surprising that two men of the same social echelon might discover a mutual acquaintance, but from Catherine's limited perspective, it is a remarkable coincidence that she happens to know both of them. The name for the darker extreme of Catherine's surprise at previously unknown connections is paranoia: why do these people know each other and what could they be talking about when I am not around? Whatever name might be given to the ineffable feeling that is "more than surprize," the events of the novel justify Catherine's alarm. Thorpe immediately confesses that he was talking about her (69), and it will later be revealed that he overstated the financial prosperity of the Morland family and thereby inflated General Tilney's opinion of Catherine and indirectly precipitated her ejection from the Tilneys' social sphere.

The domestic situation that ensues in the wake of that banishment plays as a comedy of humours in which the heroine's lingering alarm is counterpointed by blithe parental unflappability. Describing her daughter's sudden return home, Mrs. Morland reports that "Catherine took us quite by surprize yesterday evening" but rounds off her narrative with the pleasant discovery that the young woman has turned out not to be "a poor helpless creature" after all (176). Meanwhile, the language of probability in which Catherine received tutelage under Henry Tilney returns as farce. When her daughter despairs of continuing her friendship with Eleanor (and, implicitly, Henry), Mrs. Morland insists that "It is ten to one but you are thrown together again in the course of a few years; and then what a pleasure it will be!" (175). And yet a few pages later, her mother uses the same locution to say that she shouldn't worry about suffering any further at the hands of the tyrant who banished her: "Then you are fretting about General Tilney, and that is very simple of you: for ten to one whether you ever see him again" (178). As with Mrs. Allen, Austen has a fine satirical ear for the way that people talk about the unpredictable, but something more is going on in these comments. Coming so close to the end of the novel, they speak in probabilistic terms of a chance that has already been determined by the narrator. On the wayward paths of romance, separated characters always meet each other again.

The scene of Henry's one-in-ten arrival at the Morlands strikingly parallels the earlier scene in which Catherine waits out the rain: both are periods of indoor tedium taken up with talk of imminent improvement, broken by a sudden clearing of the literal or figurative skies. And yet the scene at the Morland's house represents an objectless waiting, a spell of boredom with no scheduled rendezvous or articulated desire. Austen narrates Henry's sudden arrival in a notably different manner from the way that she describes other pivotal surprises, such as the arrival of the Thorpes after the rainstorm, the discovery of the linen-bill, or the sudden noises that jolt Catherine out of her reveries at the abbey. Henry's reappearance is reported indirectly: we do not hear the knock on the door or see him enter the room; rather, we see him already in the room, through Mrs. Morland's eyes. In the quarter of an hour that she has been upstairs looking for an article in The Mirror about "young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance" (178), Henry has magically arrived. In this splendid coincidence, the verbal consolation of moralistic journalism is supplanted by the physical presence of Henry himself:
   Her avocations above having shut out all noise but what she created
   herself, she knew not that a visitor had arrived within the last
   few minutes, till, on entering the room, the first object she beheld
   was a young man whom she had never seen before. With a look of much
   respect, she immediately rose, and being introduced to her by her
   conscious daughter as 'Mr. Henry Tilney,' with the embarrassment of
   real sensibility began to apologise for his appearance there,
   acknowledging that after what had passed he had little right to
   expect a welcome at Fullerton, and stating his impatience to be
   assured of Miss Morland's having reached her home in safety, as the
   cause of his intrusion. (179)

In a progressive staging of surprise--Mrs. Morland's and the reader's--Henry appears first as a mysterious "visitor," then a visual "object," a distinguished-looking "young man," and finally a "Mr. Henry Tilney" whose awkward prolixity tumbles out in a syntactic tangle of indirect speech. The richly suggestive adjective, "conscious," implies several things: Catherine's full awareness of the visitor in contrast to her mother's blithe obliviousness; her recent recovery from the shock of Henry's unannounced visit; and her social presence of mind to introduce the handsome stranger to her mother. Catherine's full consciousness, brimming with unspoken things, is analogous to Henry's "embarrassment of real sensibility"--the feeling of being the subject of conversation, the sense of needing to apologize for "strange" happenings at the abbey. On the home turf of Fullerton, it is Henry's turn to be on display: Mrs. Morland's discovery of this new "object" echoes the scene in which General Tilney first gazes at Catherine in the public rooms of Bath. With symmetrical deliberateness, Austen gives two parents in the novel a chance to be instantaneously smitten with their future children-in-law. In a strangely felicitous way, the sudden entrance enacts the mocking figure of speech with which Henry had banished the possibility of Catherine's not keeping a journal: "Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible." Of course, a moment before Henry's arrival, there was plenty of doubt that the two might ever sit in the same room again--whether the chances were ten to one in favor or one in ten against a reunion.

The surprise in this scene is represented entirely by indirection: the perspective of Mrs. Morland, Catherine's "perplexity of words" in response to Henry, and a summary of Catherine's reaction to Henry's declaration of affection. After so many memorable scenes of banter between Catherine and Henry, Austen's synoptic mode is notable. In part, it allows the narrator to avoid the more overt language of sentimental fiction, but it does more than this. On one hand, it is an elliptical mimesis of Catherine's speechless surprise; on the other hand, it acknowledges the reader's unsurprise. Why quote Henry's declaration of affection at length when we have suspected it all along? Indeed, what the reader knows is what Catherine and Henry have tacitly realized: "She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own" (180). Perhaps? The tentative qualifier, used by Catherine when she demurely suggests that she might not keep a journal, here indicates both the inaccessibility of the characters' secret thoughts to the narrator and the ultimate unknowability of Catherine and Henry to each other. Each have speculated, in probabilistic fashion, that perhaps the other feels a genuine affection. Finally, the surprise that Austen keeps in her narrative quiver is not the news of the affection but its genesis in Henry's mind:
   though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and
   delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved
   her society, I must confess that his affection originated in
   nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a
   persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of
   giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance,
   I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity;
   but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild
   imagination will at least be all my own. (180)

The emotion associated with Henry's discovery of Catherine's affection is fastidiously identified as gratitude, the shock of revelation bypassed on the way to perfect happiness. In this feint, surprise itself is relocated to the aesthetic realm of the reader's response, to the mimetic field of novels and romances. Of course, this "new" phenomenon of mediated desire is a regular feature of common life; like the peculiar status of Catherine as heroine, the revealed genesis of Henry's affection is a virtual surprise. More to the point, the peculiar circularity of Henry and Catherine's romance presents a special exception to the fiction of feminine modesty that Ruth Yeazell has discerned in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conduct books: "Not until young gentlemen 'declare themselves,' as the idiom has it, will female consciousness--and sexuality--be awakened" (51). What makes the outcome of Catherine and Henry's indirect courtship "new" is that Henry does not "declare himself" in the usual way, nor does Catherine have to play the part of reluctant lover; indeed, if the narrator's precis of the conversation can be believed, Catherine's profession of love daringly precedes Henry's. The mutuality of their affection is, in effect, a simultaneous surprise to both.

In a novel that only briefly and satirically flirts with the conventions of gothic horror, it is surprise, as I have hoped to show, that occupies the emotional center. The novel does assert some cause for alarm (about the mercenary nature of marriage-matches, about the snobbery and callousness of men like General Tilney), but it is the recurring experience of surprise that drives that narrative--an experience, unlike alarm, that encompasses both discomfort and pleasure. Under the rubric of modern psychology, surprise is an important experience of cognitive development; and in the terms of Augustan criticism, it is a necessary component of wit and novelty. By making her heroine an easily-surprised character in a world of jaded ones, it is clear that Austen makes comic light of youthful naivete; but she also assays the shortcomings of the language of probability and predictability--the defenses against surprise and speechlessness.

Catherine's susceptibility to surprise amounts to a fiction of modesty, an affective counterpart to the blush or the refusal, even as it reflects a poetic principle underlying the novel itself. In essence, the moral ideology of that susceptibility intersects with Austen's aesthetic ambition--to surprise the reader with something new (even if that novelty is sometimes placed in inverted commas). The success of both of these things depends on a peculiar mixture of knowing and not-knowing. In the manner of Henry Tilney's lexical discriminations, we might make a distinction between two forms of surprise, the cognitive and the emotional, or the newer and older senses of the word. On the level of probabilistic thinking and narrative convention, the reader, like most of the characters in the novel, can boast of expecting the outcome; but in the more elusive realm of affective response, the reader might feel something like surprise--something like one sister's letters to another, which are always anticipated precisely when the postman delivers them, and yet always as unexpected as sun on a cloudy day.


Austen's later novels concern the dynamics of surprise in ways that I have sketched in Northanger Abbey: the intersubjective experience of imagining or anticipating another's startled reaction, the overuse of the idiom of astonishment, the impact of revealed social connections, the theatrical donnee of unexpected entrances, the impulse to predict the unpredictable, the veiling of moral of social judgment in expressions of shock, the narrative registration of the reader's response. A favorite pursuit of Austen scholarship has long been to articulate what changes from the "early phase" to "major phase" (10), and I would like to add to that critical conversation by suggesting how the novelist subtly rethinks the representation of surprise in the late novel Persuasion, whose last sentence famously raises the specter of "quick alarm." Among Austen's heroines, Catherine Morland is most susceptible to surprise, and Persuasion's Anne Elliott is surely the least. Henry Tilney's remark about mamas and papas wearied and jaded by experience seems prescient of the mature perspective in Persuasion: though hardly old at twenty-seven, Anne does not go to the Bath assembly rooms to meet potential mates; she readily confronts the revelation of unexpected news; she is open to a wider range of human possibility; and the few things that do surprise her she neutralizes through long and determined reflection. It is perhaps inevitable that surprise would take on new inflections in a novel that counts time in years rather than weeks, and that concerns recognition more than first impressions, repetition more than novelty, widowhood more than courtship.

In Northanger Abbey, I have suggested various ways in which we can see the moral and intellectual shadings of Austen's characters through their capacities for and resistance to surprise. Surprise exists in dialogical relationships, and in Persuasion, I would like briefly to draw a contrast between the shocks that Sir Walter Elliott is disposed to register and those that his daughter Anne does. A major function of surprise, as we have seen in Northanger Abbey, is to register what seems out of place--previously unknown connections or crossed social boundaries. This can be simply called naivete in Catherine's case, but Persuasion shows us its dark side, snobbery. Sir Walter most acutely reflects the novel's preoccupation with social change--the fluctuating fortunes of landed gentry, the growing prosperity of the naval and mercantile classes, and the crossings among these spheres. Forced to rent out Kellynch Hall to Admiral Croft and his wife, Sir Walter expresses his own shock at this development by pretending to imagine their surprise: "There are few among the gentlemen of the navy, I imagine, who would not be surprised to find themselves in a house of this description" (48). Even the dead can be shocked by change. At the Great House at Upper Cross, the disorder of the Musgroves and their unruly children startle the ancestors: "The portraits themselves seemed to be staring in astonishment" (67). Austen's wry aside is a joke on the ancien regime, a witty remark on a style of portraiture, and a visual juxtaposition of eternally frozen sitters and vibrant, living bodies. If there are statues of surprise, there are also paintings of surprise. And buildings. When Sir Walter discovers that Anne has been using Lady Russell's carriage to visit her old governess Mrs. Smith, he sniffs, "Westgate-buildings must have been rather surprised by the appearance of a carriage drawn up near its pavement!" (170). As with his comment about naval officers, Sir Walter displaces his own surprise onto someone else--or rather, something else; like the aside about the Musgrove portraits, the remark tellingly attributes affect and moral judgment to material objects.

These expressions of Sir Walter's snobbery are comical and inconsequential compared with the deeper surprise that lies in the novel's prehistory: the father's stunned and stunning reaction ("great astonishment, great coldness, great silence") to the idea of a match between his daughter and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Over seven years later, that shock is recapitulated with Wentworth's return, an occasion to which Anne, forewarned, must "enure herself" (77). It is an emblematic moment, in that Anne typically either anticipates surprises or absorbs them through determined reflection. In Northanger Abbey, as we have seen, the resistance to surprise is frequently a pose of masculine control or superior omniscience; but with Anne, it is better described as a defensive stoicism schooled by experience.

It is not that Anne is entirely immune, of course; and the scenes in which she is genuinely shocked merit special attention. I'd like to make several claims about the implications of these scenes for Austen's awareness of the capacities of her art: that the conventional language of surprise has become insufficient mimetic shorthand for more complex emotions; that the exact moment of surprise is so instantaneous and fleeting that it can only be represented through indirection and retrospection; and that the experience is best depicted not through reflexive exclamations but through sensory detail. Through Anne's subjectivity, Austen pays particularly close attention to what these moments feel like. (11) Early in the novel, the shock of meeting Frederick again is conveyed in a cubistic array of gestures and perceptions: "Her eye half met Captain Wentworth's; a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice--he talked to Mary, said all that was right; said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing: the room seemed full--full of persons and voices--but a few minutes ended it" (84-85). Various commentators on Persuasion have noticed a new attention to the velleities of thought and feeling in passages such as this; and in this vein, I would describe the development of Austen's narrative technique as a phenomenology of surprise.

Throughout the novel, surprise is an experience that must be recovered from; like a gust of wind, it can only be described through the disturbance it leaves in its wake. During the crisis at Lyme Regis when Frederick proposes that "capable Anne" accompany Henrietta Musgrove back to Upper Cross after Louisa's concussive fall, the mere verbal gesture is cause for a strangely gratifying frisson. Here, as elsewhere, Austen describes a revival from an ineffable complex of feelings: "She paused a moment to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of" (133). The moment itself is a sort of blind-spot in Anne's consciousness, and "recovery" is an apt term for its aftereffects, in a novel so preoccupied with convalescence. Later in Bath, when Anne runs into Frederick at Molland's, the surprise is narrated as a sensory experience ("For a few moments she saw nothing before her"), and as a phenomenon of aftershocks: "All the overpowering, blinding, bewildering, first effects of strong surprise were over with her. Still, however, she had enough to feel! It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery" (185).

Recovery is precisely at issue in the news of Louisa Musgrove's engagement to Benwick--in the matter of the former's restoration from her fall, and in the latter's emergence from mourning over the death of his fiancee. Just as the report of Isabella Thorpe's engagement to Frederick Tilney provides an occasion to represent Catherine and Henry's differing moral reactions, the revelation about Louisa and Benwick serves as a medium through which the feelings of Anne and Captain Wentworth can be partially disclosed, to themselves as much as to the reader. "I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her, with some surprise," Wentworth says, adding the self-revelatory remark, "A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman!" (192). Anne, meanwhile, is "struck, gratified, confused, and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel a hundred things in a moment" (193). A single participle for the emotion is not enough, and like the earlier scene of meeting Wentworth, this one is represented perceptually. Anne hears her former suitor's words "in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through" (193). These sensory details, we might say, are half noticed by Anne--"half" is a key prefix in the novel's subtle affective vocabulary--and half noticed by the narrator. In Anne's consciousness, they recall the sensory blur (also represented by sounds) of her reunion with Frederick, and from a wide-angled narrative perspective, they represent the numberless goings-on of a world indifferent to the complex emotional adjustments that pass in the minds of a man and a woman talking to each other. The scene is a benefit concert at Bath, the sort of place in which people go to meet and be seen; and the sheer multitude and ceaselessness of this backdrop intimate, in little, the period that Anne and Wentworth have spent apart, the purely mundane and incalculable passage of time.

In a novel so focused on the intertwinement of cognition and sensation, the sound of a dropped pen is perhaps the ultimate emblem of surprise--analogous to the gleam of sunshine in Northanger Abbey. During her conversation with Captain Harville about the relative constancy of men's and women's emotional attachments to each other, Catherine is shocked to find that Wentworth is within listening distance when she hears him in the act of writing, just after she's insisted that women continue to love even "when existence or when hope is gone" (238). The sound of the pen, both exclamation-point and caesura, has resonance in both temporal directions. It tells Anne that Wentworth has been here all the while writing (while possibly listening), and it tells us that for the moment he cannot continue that activity. As both a physical accident and a signifier of temporary muteness, the dropped pen eloquently discloses Wentworth's emotion; it exemplifies surprise's mixture of the involuntary and the deliberate, the affective and the cognitive.

Anne's own reaction parallels this path toward silence. In the inadvertent disclosure of her own persistent feelings, Anne essentially surprises herself, and this flush of self-awareness is characteristically somatic: "She could not have immediately uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed" (238). Here, surprise is registered as fullness of consciousness, a sudden sense of the meanings of one's own words--both the embarrassment of having said too much and the triumph of having said precisely what one wanted to say. Wentworth, meanwhile, reveals himself in the letter that he has been writing to Anne, and its effect on her is characteristically narrated not as surprise or astonishment but as a ten-minute interval of cognitive and emotional processing: "Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from" (240).

I have said that Austenian surprise is dialogical, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the contrast between the subtle articulations of Anne's emotional state and the Musgroves' noisy intrusion on this reflective solitude: "They then could see that she looked very ill--were shocked and concerned--and would not stir without her for the world" (241). We can even better appreciate the novel's phenomenology of surprise in counterpoint with the conventional, reflexive language of shock that so many of Austen's characters speak. And the most fluent speakers of that language are the members of Anne's own family, whose reaction to Anne's betrothal to Wentworth is a predictable form of self-interested astonishment: "It cannot be doubted that Sir Walter and Elizabeth were shocked and mortified by the loss of their companion, and the discovery of their deception in her" (252). These are the noisy outward expressions of shock, expressions that Henry Tilney knows and manipulates so well in Northanger Abbey; but it is the quiet inner movements of feeling and thought--the pleasurable carriage ride, the burst of sun, the apt metaphor, the dropped pen--by which Austen excites, in the best sense of the term, our wonder. (12)


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(1.) Wolfgang Iser has argued in The Implied Reader (37-39) that Fielding's ekphrasis of Lady Booby's reaction invites the reader to visualize the scene, but I would argue that it asks the reader to appreciate an elaborate joke about novelistic surprise: it flaunts the author's virtuoso inflation of the emotional vocabulary of Pamela, with its repetitive anecdotes of shock; and it illustrates the function of ridicule that Fielding proposes in his preface to the novel when he argues that the unmasking of a character's affectation always "strikes the reader with surprise and pleasure" (29). Despite Fielding's topos of inexpressibility, the passage presents a richly allusive plenitude rather than what Iser calls "a gap in the text" (38)--as if the incredible two-minute interval of Lady Booby's speechlessness could be approximated in the sheer length of description.

(2.) Fielding does not specify what poets he might have in mind, but Charles Le Brun's famous treatise on physiognomy does invoke the metaphor in defining the passion of "Admiration." It is, he says, "a surprize, which enclines the Soul attentively to consider the objects that seem rare and extraordinary to her," such that "few spirits are left to supply the Muscles: hence the body becomes as a statue, without motion" (16).

(3.) For another philological approach, see Page, which focuses on abstract terms of morality and disposition in order to point out fine verbal discriminations in Austen's lexicon that have been lost to later generations. Austen's milieu was "one in which a critical attitude to language was habitual," and Henry Tilney's pedantry regarding usage (as in his lecture on overuse of the word "nice") typifies that ethos (86).

(4.) Miller's premise is that "[t]he narrative of happiness is inevitably frustrated by the fact that only insufficiencies, defaults, deferrals can be 'told'" (3). In Austen's novels in particular, the conflict between the author's "highly unexperimental moral ideology" and the characters' own misguided actions--the tension between ideology and form, moral transparency and narrative secrecy--constitutes the narratable (54).

(5.) A. Walton Litz suggests that the chapters of literary burlesque (1-2 and 20-25) are "detachable units" that might not have been part of Austen's original design; in any case, he argues that Austen's techniques "never coalesce into a satisfactory whole" (59, 68).

(6.) The idea of the "probable," as Douglas Lane Patey has shown, played an important part in eighteenth-century thought: in enlightenment philosophy, it denoted what is judged to conform to our knowledge and experience of the world; and in Augustan literary criticism, it meant both faithful representation of reality and internal consistency or plausibility within a fictive frame. Elaborating on this premise, Mark Loveridge reads Northanger Abbey as a novel of ideas that explores the powers and limits of probabilistic thought. As Loveridge and other critics have noted, Henry Tilney's famous description of English normalcy is historically undermined by the realities of social upheaval in the early nineteenth century. Both Patey and Loveridge owe an intellectual debt to Ian Hacking's foundational study, The Emergence of Probability.

(7.) The "surprise group" of emotional terms, Osmond notes, "refer only to the experience at the moment of discovery of some situation. Their duration is brief, and beyond the control of the experience. We cannot prolong the emotion by dwelling on the cause" (114).

(8.) "I want a hero," Byron famously declares in Don Juan (I.i. 1-4), using the term--as Austen uses it--in both literary and pedestrian senses: he announces a search for a worthy protagonist even as he laments the lack of real heroes in English public life.

(9.) For a richly suggestive account of novelistic mind-reading that incorporates recent developments in cognitive science, see Zunshine.

(10.) Marilyn Butler and A. Walton Litz, among others, have addressed changes in Austen's narrative style; and more recently, critics have studied changes in the conception of time, memory, and consciousness. In Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, William Deresiewicz attributes changing representations of time and memory to Austen's exposure to British Romantic poetry, particularly Wordsworth's; and in Amnesiac Selves, Nicholas Dames places Austen's novels in the context of changing cultural constructions of nostalgia and sanative, revisionary forms of memory and forgetting. In British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, Alan Richardson argues for a "concurrence between Austen's late style and emergent biological notions of the subject" (107), particularly the emergent discipline of brain science as it relates to the representation of "embodied, nervous sensibility" (112) in Persuasion.

(11.) For a recent study of corporeal experience in the novel, see Kay Young's article, which describes the reunion of Anne and Frederick as the experience of "feeling embodied together again," and links that "consciousness of the pain of being alive" with Austen's sense of her own mortality (89).

(12.) I am grateful to Leslie Brisman, Natalie Friedman, Michele Martinez, and Gabrielle Starr for commenting on earlier versions of this essay.

Christopher R. Miller is Associate Professor of English at Yale University. His book, The Invention of Evening: Perception and Time in Romantic Poetry, will be published next year, and he is at work on a new project on surprise in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century aesthetics, poetry, and novels.
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Date:Oct 1, 2005
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