Thursday, August 15, 2013

Northanger Abbey

Blog post up a bit early folks, as I'm all day travelling and in conferences tomorrow. Enjoy! :)

If you were to ask me what my favorite Jane Austen novel would be, I would have to give you at least two titles. For years it's been a toss-up between Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, and for the life of me I can't decide between the two. Every time I come down to making a final decision, something about the other always pulls me into a state of indecisiveness again.

Well, it's a happy conundrum, and not one that need be gotten rid of at present.

We just finished reading Northanger Abbey aloud, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to review it on the blog. I was first introduced to this book when we tried to watch the old 1980s movie edition several years ago, and didn't finish it for various reasons. After that I wanted to know the end of the story, so I got an audio version, which had to be returned before I was quite done, and in this despairing state I finally took up the book to make a complete end of it. I did manage to get through the whole thing, and to date this is the Austen novel I've read the most times. It's so easy, so witty, and so enjoyable to get through that whenever I crave a taste of her novels, I always dig it out and give it a quick run through. And I heartily enjoyed hearing it again for the first time in a few years.

The Story
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome...Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.
--Northanger Abbey, Chapter One

In such an unpropitious manner begins this last of Austen's novels, published by her brother  and sister after her death. With a young woman who possessed neither the sparkling wit of  Lizzy Bennet, nor the beauty of Emma, Catherine bids fair to have an unremarkable tale.

She's normal. A common allotment of sense, with could be improved on;, a good nature, that only fell into very few occasions of bossiness with her siblings;, and a middling education which included neither drawing nor music, nor languages doesn't equip her very well for shining conquests of love. And even worse, there are simply no eligible young men in the neighborhood.

But hope is not lost, or we wouldn't have a novel to show for it. Her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allan, invite Catherine to come with them to Bath, and there amidst theatres and balls and visits to the pump room, she meets a remarkably agreeable young man--Mr. Henry Tilney. And in her simplicity, she hardly thinks she is in love with him, but only considers him an agreeable young man, almost as agreeable as her intimate friend Isabella Thorpe or a good Gothic novel.

Henry Tilney has an obliging sister, and she and Catherine strike up a warm friendship, encouraged by General Tilney, the father. All in all, life in Bath is quite pleasant, and with the pleasure of Isabella's engagement to her brother James, and an invitation to come with the Tilneys to visit them at their home Northanger Abby--a real Gothic structure!--Catherine's lack of heroine qualities doesn't seem to hinder her prospect of a contented life. They might not even hinder her from a happy match with Henry.

There is, of course, her lack of fortune to be got over. But Henry's father seems to be so disinterested about pecuniary matters that such a deficit shouldn't be the least hindrance--or should it?

My Thoughts
While my admiration for Mansfield Park stems from Fanny's good character, which is all too sadly underrated, my admiration for Northanger Abbey is of an entirely different kind. The wit! The satire! Oh, it is incredible and keeps you in constant amusement, all the time taking brilliant jabs a two very different pitfalls.
The first, of course--Catherine's love for all Gothic novels--touches on fantasizing over reading material, and for that alone should be a must-read for all teenage girls. Though if they're given to fantasizing, they might not get the point Austen's trying to make without a little help from someone else. Catherine is so very undirected and undiscerning with books that she begins to search for the plots that fill her reading diet in the world around her. Her fantasizing carries her so far that she spins a false story around the Tilney home itself, and comes to a very humbling stop when Henry discovers the ideas she is entertaining about his family's past. That confrontation between Catherine and Henry is so embarrassing, it's quite on a level with the Box Hill scene from Emma. Some authors make you cringe with sympathy for the characters. Others make you die with shame as if you had done it yourself. Henry discovering where Catherine's runaway imagination has taken her definitely falls into the latter category.

Moral: Do not fantasize. It warps your common sense and view of the world around you.

The second pitfall Jane Austen jabs at, is of course, the myth that fiction is trash. Oh, after that passage I was quite enraptured, rabbit trail though it was:

Let us [novel writers] leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. --Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Amen. Bravo. In paraphrase: It is ridiculous to pretend to dislike fiction when it has so much genius and wit to recommend it.

And after all that lofty moralizing, I'll end this post on a human level by saying that one very tiny reason I like Northanger Abbey so much is, of course, the hero. He's my favorite of all Jane Austen men. Henry Tilney--oh, I would give a great deal to take that walk around Bath with him and his sister that Catherine did. He's so hilariously satirical, and Jane Austen did a brilliant job of refraining from romanticizing him. He's neither a man with all a woman's qualities, nor socially clumsy; two of the traps female authors can fall into when writing about men.  No, he can carry on a polite and intellectually stimulating conversation with a lady, and has a healthy dose of compassion for Catherine's blunders, while still retaining his distinctly male characteristics. Sometimes his teasing goes a bit far, and he's by no means perfect. But he's as normal in his way as Catherine is in hers, and a very laudable fellow. I quite enjoy him. :)

Three very good reasons to like a book. Anyone who wonders about the quality to be found in Jane Austen's works should definitely give Northanger Abbey a try. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I enjoyed hearing Northanger Abbey for the first time! It was great fun and Henry Tilney was great fun! ;) I heartily enjoyed meeting him. :)

    Sister <3

  2. Northanger Abbey is my sister, Sarah's, least favourite of Austen's stories... I haven't read/watched it myself; though maybe she did not like it because of the adaption? Hmm...

  3. I think what I like about it is that Catherine is such an everyday person, and (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT) I appreciate the fact that she is protected from polluting influences, even though it doesn't look good for a while.


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