If one could wave an Austenian wand and have a skill for life granted, it would be resilience. As Jane Austen described it in Persuasion, “It was the choicest gift from heaven”. Perhaps more than anything else, resilience is the ability that predicts a happy life. To be able to get back up after a fall, to be able to overcome a failure, to be able to move on after a disappointment – resilience is the value to covet.
Most of Austen’s heroines and heroes are just ordinary everyday people: they don’t think themselves special or above the rest. Indeed perhaps our need to make ourselves into individuals and “special”, can be problematic. Heightened expectations leave us feeling inferior if we can’t boast the terrific job or the handsome new lover. In contrast, Jane knew that everyday life is challenging and there are pitfalls and temptations and just getting through it honourably can be a considerable achievement. One of the more ordinary heroines is Genuine-Girl-Catherine Morland.
Genuine-Girl-Catherine Morland, the young teenage heroine in Northanger Abbey, is first introduced by Jane as an almost anti-hero; she is awkward, “often inattentive and occasionally stupid”. But she is likeable; her disposition “cheerful and open”. The novel opens with Catherine about to embark on “six weeks residence in Bath”. Here is to be her test; she will need to put into practice all the things she has been taught in her young life so far. It is a typical situation, one where we can find many contemporary equivalents: young people moving into new circumstances like going to university, moving into a new share house or going overseas.
Genuine Girl Catherine has come from a family described as “plain matter of fact people”; the sort of people who are unused “to telling lies to increase their importance”. Genuine Girl Catherine is unlike the Thorpes who are the villains (although not too villainous) of the novel; who manipulate the truth at will to suit their desires and their ever increasing egos. As we have seen, Genuine Girl Catherine must navigate the travails of friendship. True, it is not the creaking crevices of mountains or the raging ocean seas complete with a film crew but it is difficult; she will stumble. But managing to behave with dignity and honour will bring its own rewards in happiness.
Managing everyday disasters isn’t easy.
Genuine Girl Catherine must manage a trip home alone across a difficult terrain, but more confronting she will need to face the humiliation of the loss of friends and a lover and being unceremoniously discarded by that lover’s father who had been earlier cultivating her for his son. How Genuine Girl Catherine manages this will tell us how capable she will be in finding happiness. Philosophic Mother Mrs Moreland tells her daughter, “we must live and learn”. We must learn from our experiences and not dwell on our difficulties and discontent. Difficulties “will not last forever” and we learn from our own foolishness. It is as if we need to choose contentment over discontentment. By the end of Northanger Abbey, Genuine Girl Catherine has managed this difficult situation. And it is a celebration; a celebration of the everyday life over the celebrity story in the magazine.