Dating Rules for “Ordinary” Heroines (Hat Tip to Jane Austen)

Northanger Quote with the TitleMost of us don’t expect the heroines in our novels to be “ordinary,” but that’s what we get in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803/1818).

As the novel begins, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.” She’s not an impoverished orphan in need of saving nor a particularly handsome teenager. At 17, with the awkward early teen years finally over, her improved appearance still doesn’t inspire “rapturous wonder” in those who behold her. She’s pretty enough, and maybe even the prettiest girl in the room, but that depends on who else is there.

However, even a late 18th or early 19th Century heroine like Catherine will marry her hero, if she follows at least these two rules:

(1) Play Dumb:

“Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” [Chapter 14]*

(2) Conceal Your Feelings from the Object of Your Affection:

“It must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.” [Chapter 3]

Oh, and it also helps to be in Bath (or another social hot spot closer to home) and to have a healthy inheritance to your name.

These “rules” are the conventional wisdom of Jane Austen’s day, as perpetuated by other novelists (whom Austen refers to as a “sister author” and a “celebrated writer”). Austen’s heroine, though, finds her hero largely because she subconsciously breaks these rules, particularly #2. Her hero wouldn’t have noticed her had she not displayed an interest in him first. Of course the heroine would like him: he’s wealthy, has a “pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, [is] very near it.” He also likes to read the sorts of novels primarily read by the women of the day as much as his heroine does. He says, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Far too many people have dismissed Northanger Abbey and Austen’s other works as books for silly girls who “just want a boyfriend.” This novel may appear at first glance to be nothing more than a simple “girl meets boy” love story, but it’s really a parody of the gothic novels of the time, and it is full of insightful and witty commentary about late 18th and early 19th Century gender roles, marriage constraints, and social behavior.

I won’t go so far as to say that modern readers who don’t find pleasure in Jane Austen’s novels are “intolerably stupid,” but those who dismiss her body of work as silly must be.

Be sure to check out Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms (a read-along of Northanger Abbey), which encouraged me to revisit this novel (thanks, Katie!).


*In case you were wondering where the name of my blog comes from, here it is.


  1. As a Jane Austen fan, I always enjoy reading insight about her books and the ideas behind them. My favorite part about her novels is definitely the fact that they seem so shallow on the surface but are actually a great commentary on the problems of her cultural and in extent ours. This was a fabulous read!

  2. I have yet to read this Austen novel, but I do want to. I’ve enjoyed all three of the books I’ve read by her. While Pride and Prejudice is probably my favorite, I appreciate Emma more and more as time passes.

    1. Hi! Which is your favorite Austen novel? Mine has changed over the years. At various points in my life, it’s been Emma, P&P, or Sense & Sensibility. Right now, it’s Persuasion (I appreciate the portrayal of aging more now!).

        1. Mansfield Park is the only one of Austen’s completed books that I haven’t read within the last year or two. I’ve been meaning to revisit it!

  3. Love the reveal of your blog title! Austen’s sharp observation on the perils of being an intelligent woman inspire me to read the book – her wit and insight still wonderfully relevant.

    1. If it weren’t for some of the antiquated language in her novels, it’s sometimes hard to believe that 200 years separate us from Austen. As you say, her insights are still relevant!

  4. Playing dumb is a great tactic in many areas of life. It makes others feel important and be forthcoming with information not always offered otherwise. I have to say I milked that one many times. Manipulative as it is…

    1. How can the person who recommended “The Jane Austen Book Club” not be well-versed in all of Austen’s work?! But I understand how life gets in the way. There are so many great books I’ll never have time to read.

  5. I love this post so much! Thanks for the shoutout! I remember you telling me when I chose Northanger Abbey that was where your blog title came from, and I totally perked up when I heard it (I listened to the audio version.) I hadn’t thought much of how Catherine really broke the rules with Henry, but she really did! He came right out and told her that his interest was first piqued because he knew she was into him. It’s an apt lesson, because I think vestiges of the old social rules are still in force. (I’m going to link your post up in my newly working linky, if you don’t mind.)

    1. Thanks, Katie! I had been meaning to read Northanger Abbey again, and your Fellowship for Worms was the perfect way to do it. It isn’t my favorite Jane Austen novel (at the the moment, that would be Persuasion!), but there’s so much to love about it. I can’t resist Austen’s sarcastic wit.

  6. Ah, your blog title revealed 🙂 Bath is gorgeous all right, especially outside the tourist season. And yes, there will have been plenty of society gatherings at which to see and be seen back in the day.

    1. It makes sense that I would choose a title from a sarcastic quote about gender stereotypes, right? I really struggled with naming this blog, and while I’ve always appreciated Northanger Abbey, it’s not one of Austen’s most memorable novels for me. So, the credit for coming up with “The Misfortune of Knowing” as the name for this blog actually goes to my husband. I remembered it from the book as soon as he suggested it. He has yet to read this novel, but it’s on his list. He’s one of those men who, like Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, has no trouble reading books that society labels “girly.”

  7. I hate to admit it, but I remember thinking those two things when I was a teenager. It was a long time ago, but not THAT long. Girls weren’t supposed to scare off boys by being too smart and God forbid a boy know I like him! Weren’t we supposed to play hard to get? I don’t know no why I thought these things.

    1. That’s interesting. Those “rules” sounded pretty familiar to me too. I’m hoping it’s different for my children’s generation (I’m doing what I can to raise them to think differently!).

      1. I suspect I’m one of those who differ from my own generation, but I still tend to hold to those ‘rules’ as well. ‘Improper’ is the thought that comes to mind at the idea of myself making the first move in a relationship. (And, I suppose, this is from where the NeoVictorian manners/class system of my novel comes.)

    1. I love watching movies based on Jane Austen’s novels. It’s great to see her wit and insights come through in an adaptation. My favorites are Pride & Prejudice (BBC version, 1995), Clueless, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Bride & Prejudice, and the Jane Austen Book Club. Thanks for stopping by!

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