Fashioning the Body: Cross-Dressing, Dressing, Undressing, and Dressage in Northanger Abbey

  • Jillian Heydt-Stevenson


Every Austen novel has its share of fakes, frauds, and humbugs: from the various texts, Wickham, Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Henry Crawford, Mrs. Elton, and Sir Walter Elliot and his heir glitter with pretense. And Northanger Abbey’s own Henry Tilney, Isabella, Mrs. Allen, and John Thorpe emanate inauthenticity as each, in their own fashion, acts in manipulative, hypocritical—and in a couple of cases—imbecilic ways. Their flimflammery provides comic relief; however, they also dramatize how ideologies compromise what might be thought of as the genuine in courtship rituals. For instance, posited against Isabella’s jaded maneuverings, Catherine’s intellectual inelasticity appears charming. I will argue, instead, that the novel breaks down an opposition such as this one by exposing the difficulties that all the characters have in negotiating their society’s conventions: while Catherine flounders because she is uninstructed in anagogical or psychoanalytic interpretation, the Thorpes themselves fail because they call attention to the artificiality of conventions by embodying them so exhaustively. An example from Leigh Hunt’s Feast of the Poets helps explain this: in his critique of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, Hunt revealed how Darwin, “whose notion of poetical music, in common with that of Goldsmith and others, was of the school of Pope, though his taste was otherwise different, was perhaps the first, who by carrying it to its extreme pitch of sameness, and ringing it affectedly in one’s ears, gave the public at large a suspicion that there was something wrong in it’s nature” (Feast 34).


Eighteenth Century Back Region Comforting Model Courtship Ritual Military Wife 
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© Jillian Heydt-Stevenson 2005

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  • Jillian Heydt-Stevenson

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