Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Genre: classic
Published: 1817
Pages: 250

In her first novel Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen defends fiction in a manner that any ardent reader can not but highly approve of and applaud:

“It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Northanger Abbey is definitely such a novel, though it seems to be sadly underrated compared to other Austen novels.  What it may lack a little in page count and dynamic secondary characters, in displaying "the most thorough knowledge of human nature," it more than makes up for in "the liveliest effusions of wit and humor."  Here Austen employed her usual candid wit to satirize not only certain elements and stock figures of English high society, but also the lurid Gothic romances like The Monk that were the bestsellers of her day.  The result is marvelously entertaining to read and often very funny.

Seventeen year old Catherine Morland is considerate and vivacious, a devoted reader of Gothic romances and a life-long country dweller.  When she has the opportunity to travel to Bath with family friends and spend a few months taking tea in gathering rooms and dancing with eligible young men, Catherine jumps at the chance, though she knows little of the manners of high society.  However, as Austen's omniscient narrator explains, Catherine's unworldliness can only work to her advantage in the game of attracting a suitor:

"She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  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 any thing, should conceal it as well she can."

One can easily imagine Jane's sardonic smile as she put that last line to parchment.
Sketch of a pump room or gathering room in Bath

Catherine initially feels as if she knows no one in Bath, but luckily makes the acquaintance of a certain Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and charming young man whom she quickly falls in love with.  Like any heroine, however, Catherine is beset by countless obstacles.  Isabella, another of her new friends in Bath must insist on carrying on in an embarrassing way with Henry's less pleasant elder brother, though she is engaged to marry Catherine's brother!  Likewise, Isabella's odious brother John has made up his mind that he is going to marry Catherine, despite the latter's indifference to his pathological lying and scheming.  Happily, Catherine is able to escape this intricate and embarrassing situation in Bath after Mr. Tilney and his sister invite her to sojourn at their family home, Northanger Abbey.  Catherine is delighted with the abbey and with her hosts...except for General Tilney, Henry's father.  As she learns more and more about the sudden death of the late Mrs. Tilney at Northanger Abbey, Catherine begins to suspect that the highly suspicious General poisoned his wife, or else is hiding her away in some secret passage...

Some readers have complained that the love interest Mr. Tilney is no Mr. Darcy or that he is a bit of a 2-D character, but I actually found him to be pretty nearly as well-written as Catherine and just...likable.  Fancy that, a love interest being kind and likable instead of going to incredible pains to convince the heroine that he hates her in order to disguise his great passion, or being some "bad boy" that the heroine has to work to redeem!  It makes for a nice change.  I particularly like his first conversation with Catherine, in which he ironically recollects after talking with her a while that he has forgotten to ask her all the stereotypical small-talk questions about how she likes Bath:

"...forming his features into a set smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, "Have you been long in Bath, madam?"
Catherine and Henry Tilney in the 2007 Northanger Abbey film

"About a week, sir," replied Catherine, trying not to laugh.

"Really!" with affected astonishment.

"Why should you be surprised, sir?"

"Why, indeed?" said he, in his natural tone--"but some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprise is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable than any other."  

I also enjoyed the conversations in which Henry playfully parodies Catherine's expectations that Northanger Abbey will be a haunted Gothic monastery filled with relics of the horrible murders which have taken place there, inventing a whole story about her frightening discovery of a secret passageway.  However, I guess I cannot quote every passage that I loved here!

Just as Catherine Morland must eventually confess to having been influenced by her insatiable love for reading Gothic romances to judge people before getting to know them, I must confess to having been influenced by my love for Northanger Abbey!  After reading it for the first time a few years ago, I determined that I absolutely must read some of these "horrid novels" that Catherine and her friend Isabella thrill over in the book.
Delightful Penguin cover for The Monk
I haven't managed to get through the infamous The Mysteries of Udolpho, whose beginning didn't inspire a lot of interest.  However, I have read Matthew Lewis's The Monk, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and a number of Gothics by Wilkie Collins, primarily to see if they were as silly as Austen suggests in Northanger Abbey.

My verdict is that yes, Gothic romances can be ridiculous and long-winded, but they are also thrilling and suspenseful and delightfully convoluted, a bit like soap operas.  I have no trouble understanding why Catherine and Henry might burn the midnight oils to finish these tales of wronged ghosts seeking revenge, wide-eyed heroines, wicked foreign counts, and unpleasant housekeepers, all set in the most imposing and medieval of architectural structures.  Austen's book is a satire of the Gothic thriller, certainly, but as an unabashed fan of the much-maligned genre, I also appreciate her homage to it by way of clever parody.  I hope to read more Gothic romances of the sort that Catherine might have encountered soon.  As a graduate student studying that period, I can half-convincingly claim them as necessary reading, and I really want to give Ann Radcliffe another chance!

5/5 stars

This book is one I selected for my Classics Club challenge list.  Fortunately, I am off to a pretty good start and have not neglected reviewing the books I read thus far.  I am still working on my review for The Awakening--it is turning out to be a difficult book to review!


cleopatra said...

I REALLY liked this one, but I found the ending weak, sort of a mish-mash with quickly added information and characters acting out of character. However, all-in-all, it was very good.

Some gothics are very silly, but I think Braddon and Collins write high-gothic and they are much more polished and interesting. I have The Mysteries of Udolpho on my Classics Club list. Ugh! I tried once to read it without much success but I'll have to plug away at it at some point.

Great review! :-)

Kat said...

@cleopatra-- I have also tried to read Udolpho, but all the descriptions of landscapes kept making my eyes glaze over. I guess we will both have to give it another shot for our Classics Club lists, because it's on mine as well. I wish us luck--I think we will need it! Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

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