by Jane Austen
It was about time I had another classic in the bag and Northanger Abbey has been sat on my shelf since university – part of an extensive reading list that was never completed. I’ve read several of Austen’s novels before and I’m sure we are all familiar with the formula: husbandless female meets handsome rich male; complications ensue; yada yada yada; bish, bash, bosh; wedding bells.
I hope I won’t be revealing any big spoilers for anyone when I say this (look away now if you’d prefer not to know): they end up happily ever after. And yet…
I got genuinely riled up when the douchebag characters screwed things up for the heroine.
Having had a considerable break from Austen, I am now able to read her with fresh appreciation. She is truly a master of narrative prowess and impeccable characterisation. Yes, her works are filled with stereotypes and archetypes. But what is so enjoyable about her characters, is that they are as true to life now as then. I know people like the characters of Northanger Abbey in my life. I was particularly amused by the conversations shared by our heroine and her new best friend – a girl she’d barely known a day. Their chats bare all the marks of quickly made teenage friendships. The idioms of intimate conversation, the subtleties of social interaction are the same as they ever were.
“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was as quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves.” – 26
But besides her characters, I quickly warmed to this novel because it is very aware of its own formula (i.e. girl meets boy and so on). Northanger Abbey was released posthumously, as was Persuasion, and as such, have a degree of maturity to them that I personally do not find in her earlier publications. By the time she was writing Northanger Abbey, she had established herself well enough to be able to play with her form. And while all her works feature a degree of social satire, it is twice heightened in Northanger Abbey by taking on another genre: gothic romance.
From the outset, Austen is doing her best to unseat the conventions of her genre. The opening pages are strongly advising us not to think of Catherine Morland as your classic heroine: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (1)
And besides an unfortunate appearance, “not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.” (1-2)
Of her mother: “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.” (1)
Making fun of the epistolary trope:
“Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one? … My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.” – (17)
And Austen herself has some things to say to her readers:
“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, for whom she can 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 with threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” (26-7)
I think my dear Jane has said all that need be said on the matter. I shall simply add that I found Northanger Abbey a delightful read. Intelligent, self-critical and highly amusing.