Jane Austen — Northanger Abbey

Good lord, I feel like I’m starting off all of these reviews with “In this Jane Austen novel, a young girl…” I’m a bit on Austen overload at the moment as I’m almost done re-reading them in the space of a few weeks. Well, you can say one thing for Ms. Austen, she certainly sticks with what she knows! Still, Northanger Abbey is a bit of an anomaly because I feel as though people really don’t read it that often. It’s much shorter than most of her other books–only about 30 chapters, as opposed to the 50+ that are more usual for the major works, is more flat-out a comedy than any of the others, and also was the first of her books to be completed for publication, so that may have affected things a bit. Still, though perhaps a bit fluffier than some of her other novels, Northanger Abbey is plain fun, and also features one of the more likeable-from-the-start Austen heroes in any of her works yet.

To really appreciate this book, I think it also helps to have some knowledge with the Gothic novels that were popular at the time Austen was writing, books such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, M. G. Lewis’ The Monk (both of which I’ll be talking about a bit more in the coming months). Gothic novels were works that combined both horror, adventure, and romance, and often, incredibly long picturesque descriptions of scenery, as well as an appreciation of terrible thrills and an appreciation of the sublime. It’s pretty fantastic stuff, ridiculous and wildly entertaining all at once. And not only is the heroine of Northanger obsessed with these novels, but Northanger itself functions as a very amusing parody of some of the cliches found in these works. Austen’s skewer is as sharp as ever, even when it’s turned more towards literary foibles than towards human failings.

Catherine Morland, the erstwhile heroine of the novel, doesn’t start off the story in a way that quite sets her up for heroine-dom. She is plain, a bit of a tomboy, and not terribly good at school. She lives a pleasant, not terribly interesting life with her parents and siblings in a small, calm little country town. And then she discovers Gothic novels, and becomes a bit obsessed. Around this same time, circumstances conspire to draw her out of the quiet life she’s been living and to bring her to Bath, a bit of a social hotbed at the time. While there, she meets Henry Tilney, a young clergyman with a droll sense of humor, a pleasant disposition, and a terribly intimidating father.

The plot is a total parody of Gothic literature in the sense that Catherine keeps hoping for things to happen in such a way, but is thwarted. One of the funnier examples of this is her discovery, in Henry’s house, of an old chest. She spends a good amount of time attempting to open it, sure that some dread document must be contained within. When she finally wrenches it open, she finds… old laundry lists. Catherine’s own ridiculous expectations provide a lot of the conflict in the novel; more still is supplied by Isabella Thorpe and her brother John, two rakish antagonists in the classic Austen mode, each setting their caps at the Morlands–Isabella for Catherine’s older brother, and John for Catherine herself. In addition, Catherine becomes convinced that Henry’s father is a bit of a villain himself–but is he? And will Catherine finally manage to straighten out all of the messes she caused and find true happiness? These questions, of course, will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, because in Austen novels, everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

In Northanger Abbey, though, getting there is the enjoyable part. It’s a fluffy book, but a fast-paced, amusing one. Catherine and Henry, though seemingly ill-matched, are quite a pleasant pair, and though she’s a very silly character, she’s also quite fun. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend a try.

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