From The Guardian:
from Northanger AbbeyEwan McEwan explains an arresting speech from Jane Austen.“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.
I first read this passage in 1965 at the age of 17 and it made a great impression on me. The heroine’s unruly imagination is suddenly tethered by this vigorous remonstration from General Tilney. What’s striking is that in the very early 19th century, before the railways had transformed the country, long before the telegraph, the General evokes a society that is intricately connected, where no one can hide from public scrutiny when a network of communications and media can “lay everything open”. No place here for wild and foolish imaginings. Perhaps this is the very essence of the condition of modernity – always to believe one has arrived in one’s time at the summit of the modern.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey profoundly influenced my novel Atonement. General Tilney’s resounding words form the epigraph.