Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey

Posted on | October 1, 2011 | 8 Comments

Despite being the first novel that Austen started writing, Northanger Abbey was only published posthumously. It’s the second book by the much-acclaimed author that I have finished, and while I thought Pride & Prejudice was significantly more enjoyable, this book was quite readable as well.

I concede that readable isn’t a very encouraging adjective for a book, and despite the fact that I’ve only read glowing reviews of this online, I’ve unfortunately not been swept away.

This book is meant to be a social satire on life in the nineteenth century, where money, marriage and dance partners were all people thought about. In that world, we meet Catherine Morland, a seventeen year old, naive and romantic and more than a little innocent; a most unsuspecting heroine, really, as Austen declares at the very outset:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.

She loves her gothic literature (who doesn’t?) and is bestowed with the questionable gift of an overactive imagination. So, when her family friends take her with them to Bath for six weeks or so, to enjoy a holiday, go to some balls, and potentially, meet a dashing young man, she immediately befriends Isabella Thorpe, a fellow book lover.

[I]f a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us 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. […]

So imagine her happiness when she realises that her own brother is quite fond of Ms. Thorpe, that he comes down to Bath to visit her. Their friendship grows thus, as does the romance between her brother and Isabella. But when she’s introduced to Isabella’s brother, who she finds quite boring compared to the indelible Mr. Henry Tilney, she finds herself in a bit of an awkward position. The brother and sister duo keep trying to manipulate her and her position with the Tilneys (i.e. Mr. Tilney and his sister), but at that point, we see Catherine standing up for what she believes in, and not giving in to peer pressure – the first time her character actually shines through.

There is banter between Mr. Tilney and our young innocent heroine, which is amusing, entertaining, and completely valid. For instance, I did actually chuckle while reading the below.

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

The Tilneys take to Catherine as well (after all, she is our heroine), and invite her to visit them at Northanger Abbey which is where the last third or so of the book takes place. Northanger Abbey is the kind of place “you read about“, rich in Gothic ornaments. Getting carried away in the breathtaking Abbey, and blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Catherine jumps to a conclusion about events that have taken place in the days gone by at the Abbey, and when she’s made aware of her naivety and stupidity, it’s Henry’s character’s turn to shine through.

It’s really bizarre how quickly people are jumping to conclusions in the book, and the number of judgment calls that go wrong. It’s the shallowness and superficiality of the characters that are quite disturbing, and in a world where everyone has an end-game, Catherine’s innocence and Henry’s class (for lack of better words) stand out. The pompousness of some people, and the selfishness of others just leaves me feeling quite uncomfortable – it’s like… seriously, life’s too short! The sad thing is, even today, people are that shallow and selfish, and you just have to weed them out in order to find the people who are actually good.

The writing style, itself, is not a patch on Pride and Prejudice, but that’s quite understandable, considering that this was the first book that Austen started. The dialog isn’t as fluent or as romantic, and it didn’t leave me all wistful – mostly a result of Catherine not being that strong a character, compared to Elizabeth Bennett. There’s also large chunks where Austen seems to be addressing the reader, directly – possibly in a slight tongue-in-cheek voice. While a clever device, specially in a satire (which this was), it just didn’t work for me, which was unfortunate. I guess once I read her other works, I should come back to this, and then evaluate it against those.

The next Austen on my list is Persuasion. A lot of Austen fans suggest that it’s their favourite book by her, but considering how widely different I found this to Pride and Prejudice, I’m not quite sure as to what to expect with Persuasion. I guess that’s part of the Austen charm. Which is your favourite Austen?

Comments

8 Responses to “Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey”

  1. Erin
    October 1st, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

    I’ve only read one Jane Austen, which is this one. I thought it was enjoyable. I’d really like to read some of the Gothic novels Austen mentions in Northanger Abbey and then read NA again — I think it’d add a neat level to the latter. I think Pride and Prejudice will be my next Jane Austen, and then, who knows?

  2. Becky (Page Turners)
    October 2nd, 2011 @ 6:01 am

    Northanger Abbey didn’t sweep me away either, at aleast, not in the same way that Emma or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility did. I did enjoy it more than Persuasion though. I really enjoyed reading your review.

  3. Sarah
    October 2nd, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    I read the Jane Austen novels when I was a teenager, loved them, and have read them many times since. Perhaps too many times. I don’t enjoy them as I did.

    You make excellent points about the shortcomings of Northanger Abbey, now if you could just justify my alarming lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the novels…

    (Although I will always have a soft spot for Pride and Prejudice, for both the sparkling dialogue and the deliciously malicious caricaturing of the obsequious and foolish.)

  4. JoAnn
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    I’ve read all of Austen’s major novels except Emma (I’m saving it, but not sure how much longer I can hold out) and Pride & Prejudice is definitely my favorite. Northanger Abbey may be second… I found it laugh-out-loud funny in parts. I always think about rereading it this time of year.

  5. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    @Erin : I agree – I’d like to read some of the works that Catherine talks about. Pride & Prejudice is fantastic, so hope you enjoy it!

    @Becky : Thanks! I’m looking forward to Persuasion, although I have recently heard some not very flattering things about it. Have to try it for myself, I guess. Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park – they continue to elude me.

    @Sarah : Is it possible, even remotely possible, that you over-read them? :) The dialogue in Pride & Prejudice… oh wow! Words fail me. I spent weeks just wishing I could talk like that.

    @JoAnn : There really is something about Pride & Prejudice, isn’t there? I’ve not read enough of Austen’s works to have a second favourite yet (well, I’ve read two, so…), so kudos to you! Hope Emma’s worth the wait, and looking forward to your thoughts on NA if you do re-read it.

  6. Alex (The Sleepless Reader)
    October 4th, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    Even a not-so-good-Austen is a good Austen in my book :) You can tells she’s still trying to work out what works and doesn’t, but it’s still such a fun book.

    My major concern with NA is the romantic side. I always think that Katherine and Henry won’t make it after the Happy Ending. I’m afraid he’ll get bored with her very soon. I also put Amy and Laurie (Little Women) in that category. is it blasphemy?

  7. Steph
    October 5th, 2011 @ 12:11 am

    I think this might be one of those Austen novels that grows on you with subsequent readings. The first time I read it (back in 2005), I didn’t really think much of it at all and found it rather forgettable. Then I read it again last year after having read a bunch of Gothic novels (which is really what Austen was lampooning in NA) and found it very funny indeed. True, Catherine is a bit of a ninny and is no Lizzy Bennett, but I definitely felt this book’s humor and charms were stronger on my second reading.

  8. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 8th, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    @Alex : I wouldn’t put it in the same category. The thing with Amy and Laurie was, I never figured out if it was to spite Jo or because they truly fell in love… maybe ‘spite’ is too strong a word, but that whirlwind romance was too rushed and felt slightly fake.

    Re: Henry and Catherine – I reckon you’re right; the after “Happily Ever After” might not be so happy.

    @Steph : Thanks for that, Steph! I might try re-reading it, once I’m done with all the other Austens – a pile I’m making my way through very very slowly!

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