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The Jane Austen Weekly: 'Northanger Abbey' and the Presidential Campaign

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As should surprise nobody, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama keep accusing each other of lying. That is "extreme and untrue," the Obama camp said when Romney questioned the president's position on God. He just "delivered more empty promises and false attacks," a Romney spokesman said after Obama recently spoke in Florida.

To me, these words could be straight out of Northanger Abbey, the Jane Austen novel I am currently teaching at Fordham University. "You are describing what never happened," the bewildered Catherine Morland declares. Granted, the heroine of Austen's first major novel has been accused of flirting with an idiot, not of ending the welfare-to-work requirement (as Romney said of Obama), or of causing a woman to die of cancer (as an Obama super PAC ad implied of Romney). Nevertheless, the campaign against Catherine has not been "dictated by fact-checkers."

I also thought of Catherine Morland after hearing each candidate's self-serving claims about the middle class. "In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class," Romney said in Tampa. "Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known," Obama announced in Charlotte.

"Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing." She is sitting in a horse-drawn gig in Bath, but she might as well have been watching the conventions on a flat screen TV.

Obviously these resemblances strike me only because of the coincidental timing of my Austen course. But given that happy accident, I want to take advantage of it. In the next few months, as the election approaches, occurs, and recedes, my class will be reading all of Austen's major novels. I'll be writing a weekly column about that overlap and about other current events and concerns. My own political views are (prepare to be shocked) very liberal, but I hope my analysis of Austen can be relatively bipartisan. Unlike the candidates, however, I promise nothing.

In Northanger Abbey, virtually no language is trustworthy. Clichés abound; "not an observation was made, nor an expression used . . . which had not been made and used some thousand of times before." People either lie -- like Catherine's faux friend Isabella who says "I never think of myself," when she does nothing else -- or they contradict themselves, like the hero Henry Tilney, who praises women in one breath and mocks them in the next. For the hopelessly literal Catherine, this is utterly confounding. Why someone "should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?"

As if this weren't trouble enough, Catherine is also an avid reader of Gothic novels (imagine an eighteenth-century blend of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray), and she half expects "real life" to conform to their sexually-charged and supernatural plots.

Now, Austen is hardly an advocate of Catherine's literalism. She is famous for her ironic zingers, like opening line of Pride and Prejudice, which emphasize the difference between what is articulated ("a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife") and the truth (a single woman without a good fortune, must be in want of a husband). Austen's point is not that the world would be better if, like Horton in the Dr. Seuss story about an elephant hatching an egg, everyone simply "meant what I said and I said what I meant." Meaning emerges from the contradictions, detours and silences.

The challenge for Catherine is to sift among the verbiage and know how to think beyond it. Sounds like the task facing the current electorate.

Like the electorate, Catherine also has to make a decision about a powerful man. In her case, this is General Tilney, the hero's mean-spirited father. Based on her literal reading of Gothic novels, Catherine decides the General has either murdered -- or has hidden and is torturing -- his poor wife. Catherine is literally wrong about this, and Henry reprimands her.

But after the General kicks Catherine out of Northanger Abbey without ensuring her safe trip home, she discovers the indirect accuracy of her perception. When told he evicted her for being poorer than he thought, Catherine decides that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty."

About this much she is right: If a powerful man cares more about money than people, if he is willing to sacrifice a vulnerable individual of modest means like Catherine for economic self-interest, then you cannot trust his "character."

But since this sounds perilously like an endorsement for one presidential candidate over another, I will resort to what Austen calls "tell-tale compression" and end this column.