Spontaneous Reads: Northanger Abbey

I now find myself in the unexpected position of having read half of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. Let it not be said that people’s carved-in-stone literary tastes and opinions cannot change. Having once thought Austen to be one of the most deadly boring authors to have been perpetuated upon us (up there with Dickens), I now find her novels as witty and engaging as I always found those delightful BBC mini-series adapted from them. (I still think S&S is a little contrived in places, but never mind that for now…)

Northanger Abbey is an interesting entry in Austen’s work for a variety of reasons (and I’m cribbing these details from the Foreword/Afterword in the book–due credit). Let’s list:

1. It was Austen’s first novel, written when she was 20(ish), and sold to be published in 1803. However, for reasons that apparently escaped the author at the time, the novel was not published until a year after she died, in 1818.

2. Where Austen is said to have assiduously rewritten all of her manuscripts (almost obsessively), Northanger Abbey remained in much the same form from the time of its writing to that of its publication. She even wrote a note to precede the text when it was being finally prepared for release that apologizes (in witty, ironical fashion) for the fact that it was now rather out of date with reference to fashion and styles because it had been intended for publication over ten years earlier.

3. Jane Austen, the author, is all over this book. She includes a variety of opinionated asides about novel reading, her heroine’s lack of understanding, the tricks that a young woman must employ to secure a man’s attentions, etc. They are jarring little rants, and all a little po-mo for the time, but quite delightful in that she doesn’t really seem to have any interest in restraining herself.

Those are the main differences, at least in terms of the novel’s general style and publication. But there are also a few other notable points which occurred to me as I was reading. For one, there’s the fact that while there is certainly a romance involved in the novel’s plot, it isn’t the central focus of the book. The titular abbey, home to Catherine Morland’s love interest, doesn’t even make an appearance for the first half of the book. Rather, this is a book about a young, good-hearted, but generally naive, woman growing up and if not becoming cynical, than at least becoming a little more aware of the inclination of most people to act in self-serving and not entirely upstanding ways.

Northanger Abbey feels very contemporary in some of its relationship dynamics–it feels (and the updated packaging does underscore this) very much like a Chick-Lit book. I jokingly commented while reading this that a better title would be Frenemies in Regency England, and I think that actually still rings true. Catherine meets and instantly becomes entwined forever and ever BFF-style with the desperately cynical and conniving Isabella Thorpe and her more-than-equally rakish brother James. Isabella manipulates and lies to Catherine, pretends to put her needs and feelings above all else while constantly lying to her face and attempting to overthrow any other friends that Catherine might make. It’s a vicious power dynamic–particularly to any gal who lived through grade school friendships–and one which certainly features prominently in a variety of contemporary lady books. I’m not an expert on the genre, but people who are (hey you, Georgia!) have affirmed for me that a central element of chick-lit books is the main (female) character’s process of becoming an independent, self-confident, and self-actualizing (forgive me, it seems an appropriate phrase) person–often while working through a difficult, and somewhat demeaning relationship with a close female friend. And that, is Northanger Abbey in a nutshell.

One last thing that bears mentioning is that where the other Austen novels I’ve read (P&P and S&S) are all really emphatic about the fact that the actions of one’s family (or connections, to be Austenian) have every bit of bearing on the way that that individual is treated. Your sister elopes with a soldier and lives with him out of matrimony, and you–the upstanding virtuous sisters–are toast. No one will marry you ev-er because your sister’s trampy and your mom is a money-grubber or your father died and your step-brother isn’t interested in introducing you to proper society. This always seemed to be one of the more terribly unfair aspects of matrimonial rituals in these novels. As if anyone can escape having one or two people in the family (and extended family) who they aren’t totally proud of. But in Northanger Abbey, this your-family-does-wrong-thus-you-are-besmirched thing doesn’t really hold. Henry and Eleanor Tilney acknowledge (tacitly, I’ll grant) that their father is an overbearing, rather hateful fellow, but they specifically distance themselves from his behavior as having nothing to do with them, and other people (including Catherine’s family) accept that. Same goes for their brother, the “rattle” Captain Tilney. He acts dishonorably, and they accept that, but don’t see it as being material to their standing as people. It’s obviously men in question in these examples, so maybe that’s the difference, but given that Eleanor Tilney fairs pretty well, it still seems a pointed variation to other Austen novels.

And with that, I’ll just close with a quote that tickled me early on in the book, although it’s not really a key moment–just touching in a bittersweet sort of way:

“Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement. ‘Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl–she is almost pretty today,’ were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”

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3 thoughts on “Spontaneous Reads: Northanger Abbey

  1. It seems to me Austen was conscious of the part slavery played in the creation of wealth in England and its effect on those involved in its operation in the West Indies.

    As an undergrad I found reading her desperately boring, especially as a class assignment, and turned to other things. Actually, wish now I could remember what those things were so I might have a better idea of what I was like in my late teens.

    Patrick O’Brian admired Austen and said he wanted to write like her. I’m too ignorant of her works to make comparisons.

  2. I just watched a movie version of Mansfield Park and it definitely is true that Austen was very conscious of–and troubled by–the part that slavery in the West Indies contributed the wealth of England. I decided to wait awhile to read that novel so that the movie wouldn’t be so fresh in my mind, but Austen’s attitude toward slavery (at least as it came across in the movie) was one of the more compelling aspects of that story.

  3. Pingback: Anticipatory Reads: Georgette Heyer « The Afterword

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