Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Spoilers – but does it matter? Now Jane Austen Northanger Abbey Being identified by a British university as a vehicle for potentially disturbing ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘toxic relationships and friendships’ is perhaps the surest way to approach satire, if at all second-hand.
The University of Greenwich (TW) trigger warning is aimed at students, but since the original intention of these warnings was to prepare readers for a possible recall of a disturbing experience, older people should be very grateful of this vigilance. Who has slipped into more toxic relationships or suffered more from gender stereotyping? Can such a romance be considered safe for mature women, even those of us who are too young to be dumped in a Georgian bar by an army captain? Apparently, since Greenwich put a warning on it, no.
This may be a cop-out for some readers. Until now, the novel, published posthumously in 1817, has somehow escaped the notice of websites where readers can search for warnings contributed by survivors of the literature. In these admittedly random collections, most of Austen’s novels are somewhat risque, with TWs involving alcohol (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, sense and sensitivity), slavery (mansfield park), hateful Roma “antiziganism” (Emma), incest (deputy), classicism (p&p), misogyny (p&p), indicated treatments (Emma), depression and “mentioned animal hunting” (H&S).
Perhaps something more systematic underlies Greenwich’s decision, widely reported last week, to settle for gender stereotypes and toxic relationships. Northanger Abbeyis the exceptional trigger. Reading it for the first time in years, I was surprised that scholars hadn’t been more eager to warn against the occasional character’s anti-Semitism, assuming they needed to show of caution (emphasizing his brutality). Maybe we asked for something more global? A survey last year showed that 86% of students support TWs, up from 68% in 2016.
So it’s understandable that academics want to give in to their student clients, despite the mounting evidence against TWs. A 2022 meta-analysis concluded: “Overall, the results suggest that trigger warnings are not beneficial in their current form and may instead lead to risk of emotional harm. On the other hand, students who are denied TWs may do so by concluding that a university is neglecting their welfare.
From this point of view, one almost has to admire the ingenuity of the Greenwich English department, which is determined to pin a TW on one of the least disturbing novels by an author whose critics balk at its superficiality and his supposed composure. Likewise, many of her admirers looked to Austen for comfort. “What a quiet life these people had,” wrote Winston Churchill. Pride and Prejudice (Read to him during an illness in World War II). Maybe he skipped Lydia’s escape and Charlotte Lucas’ pragmatic marriage to an idiot.
Henry Tilney, like the young women in the novel, reads gothic romance and knows the price of muslin
Which sounds like an equally perverted read Northanger Abbey, the University of Greenwich is now presenting the behavior that Austen so brilliantly satirizes – gender stereotypes, toxic relationships – as a potential problem. It is a comic virtue of the hero Henry Tilney that, like the young women in the novel, he reads Gothic romance and knows the price of muslin. Very early on, he inspects the heroine Catherine Morland’s dress. “’It is very pretty, madam,’ he said, examining it attentively; “But I don’t think it washes well. I’m afraid they’ll fray.’ Catherine struggles without femininity to love flowers. “‘I just learned to love a hyacinth.'”
Although these warnings have grown in popularity and ambition in the decade since Oberlin College, Ohio pioneered TWs in the classroom, Greenwich scholars deserve credit. congratulated on their achievements. Northanger Abbey, which is certainly Peak TW. The original aim – before researchers questioned the finding – was to protect students from unexpected flashbacks of traumatic events involving, for example, racism or sexual misconduct. While their opponents have expressed concerns about the infantilization of students and the potentially suffocating impact on teaching, TWs have simply expanded to embrace micro-aggression and teasing. And now with Northanger Abbey, to the point of arousing the fear in anticipation of Isabella Thorpe, a false coquette whose toxicity awakens disturbing memories of – what? Hats? Has anyone, except perhaps Gothic novelists, ever been triggered by Northanger Abbey? Contrary to academic warnings about, among many texts, the old sailor (animal death), Beowulf (various), Greek tragedy (tragic?) and, now reported, that of James Joyce Ulysses (“sexual issues”, race, gender), this could be interpreted as a general warning that any literature, even supposedly safe, is a minefield: proceed with extreme caution.
Students live in an inevitably discordant world before, during and after their studies. You watch the news
In a strong defense of TWs, Professor Timothy Baker of the University of Aberdeen rightly says that journalists who poke fun at the latest alleged idiocy tend to ignore those we sympathize with and focus on innocuous texts . But are they as harmless as we think? “A college degree is all about taking this work seriously. This may involve unpacking the racist or sexist assumptions underlying a particular canonical text.
But why such literary unpacking should require advance warnings, even when the findings are likely to be disreputable, remains unresolved. The protective instinct can be understandable when students are fresh from monasteries, or from the best kind of worship, with minds like Catherine Morland’s “warped by an innate principle of general integrity”. But, as other scholars have noted, they live in an inevitably troubling world before, during, and after their studies. You’ve seen the news. they saw Game Of Thrones. You can endure finger stubs and a dead little donkey in an Oscar-nominated Triggerfest.
As for Austen’s “toxic relationships and friendships”, John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at UCL (University College London), wonders in a letter to the Just if the authors of this warning had admitted their “irony” at the new findings of the Children’s Ombudsman on pornography and toxic sex in the real world. For example, “47% of all respondents aged 18-21 have experienced a violent sexual act” which could be defined as “aggressive, coercive or degrading”. But somehow they still have to be protected from it Northanger Abbey.
“Poor Jane,” concluded the professor.
• Catherine Bennett is a columnist for The Observer
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