Northanger Abbey and Suffocating Small Talk

Northanger Abbey and Suffocating Small Talk

How old am I allowed to become? Taylor Swift made 22 a popular age, but 23 seems ancient. At least, right now. I try to ignore the impending thought of next year’s birthday, but whenever I do allow myself to think about it, my nerves start feeling a bit anxious.

23 and still in school. 23 and unemployed. 23 and not dating. 23 and – and – and. The list can go on for a while. And when I’m especially peeved, I contemplate running away. Dropping out of school to do 23ish things.

Growing old is a terrible idea, one I think Jane Austen and I would agree on. No-one wants to look old-fashioned, out-of-style or bookish. Culture reminds us constantly that beauty and youth are inseparable. Make up can’t work forever, eventually you’ll develop that superior aged boredom.

Boring. That’s the problem with growing old. I don’t want to be boring.
But Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey reminds us that age has nothing to do with being boring.

Learn Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey isn’t the most popular Austen work, and I readily admit to not reading it. Some long ago night, I watched it, amused at naive Catherine and having a touch of admiration for Henry Tilney.

As William Deresiewicz points out, Catherine is an impressionable teen, eager to taste life’s adventures. Novels, dances, and gossip are pretty much everything she thinks about. Her shallow friends encourage her, chatting about horses, weather, and trivial nonsense.

Then Catherine meets Henry Tilney, who playfully challenges everything. No more chit-chat about horses, or silly nothings about the weather. Henry questions her opinions, undermines her thinking, and nicely points out her shallow friendships.

Tilney makes me sigh in relief.

Please, take away Catherine’s novels. Please, talk about something more substantial than weather. Please, make life more interesting.

Catherine is certain that the world her shallow friends crave: novel-inspired adventure, love at first sight, secret scandal waiting to be snooped out – equals adventure. As a viewer, I’m both amused and annoyed.

Life is more than hair-raising, book-worthy, movie-creating sagas. I know that, but despite this knowledge, I find myself fighting boredom.

It’s not even boredom, but learning-less induced weariness. Somewhere, my subconscious thinks I’ve attained it. (Not that I can even define the magical “it”)
After reading this chapter, I need to step back. And ask myself:

What am I choosing not to learn?

College isn’t just the class experience, though classes, tests and papers fills up your schedule fairly quick. I realize I don’t know everything about International Relations, French or Broadcasting. I can’t even imagine calling these classes boring.
But sometimes, I’m certain I’ve gotten relationships down. I’m sure my emotions are figured out. And I like to think my life goals and plans are set in stone.

That’s when I grow worried. When I begin to fret that I appear ‘old’. Old people, in my mind, have it figured out. They don’t crave new stuff, because they’re satisfied. Life is hardly a surprise anymore, and adventure is a distant memory.

This is exactly what I don’t want. Numbers don’t define your age – but your attitude towards learning. When I decide I’ve exhausted the subject of life, then I start to age. Youth requires a humility of mind, an eagerness to discover what you don’t know.

Austen must have been smirking when she penned this.

Austen must have been smirking when she penned this.

It’s interesting to note that Jane Austen focused on youth in her writing. The older characters seem to play very minor roles. And among the youthful characters, the ones who appear old are the ones most satisfied with their learning. Take Mary Bennet, for instance. While younger than her two older sisters, she’s often brushed aside as an ‘old’ spinster type. Why? Instead of focusing on her family, enjoying learning in each experience, she’s a complete bookworm. Thought nothing wrong with being a bookworm, Mary Bennet was satisfied in living in her books. Her living was stale, and Jane Austen poked fun at her endless bookish diatribes.

In Northanger Abbey, the characters appear nearly the opposite of Mary Bennet. Catherine doesn’t meditate on dusty old books, instead she flitters away life on small talk and novels. But Catherine is nearly as dull as Mary Bennet, until her life is questioned. It’s only when Henry Tilney begins showing her how much she doesn’t know, that Catherine’s conversation takes on new dimensions.

Which reminds me of my responsibility to examine life. Just the other day, I walked away from a conversation drained. I thought to myself, “Small talk has been around for at least 500 years, can’t we think of something else to say? You’d think society is bored enough with grades, weather, and dinner plans.

And then I realize, I’m the one perpetrating small talk. How often do I resort to commenting on the weather, instead of asking a deeper question? It’s less awkward to focus on nothing, than accidentally ask a difficult question.

But shallow thought doesn’t encourage relationships. It stunts growth, and ages your attitude.
So next time you see me, ask what kind of questions I’m pursuing. Maybe we can create a new level of small talk together. 🙂

You can read the beginning of this Jane Austen series here and my roommate’s favorite post on Pride and Prejudice 

Northanger Abbey

  • Roy Hunter

    I was still in collage at 23.