Friday, March 3, 2017

Book Review - Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Published by: Little Books Ltd
Publication Date: 1817
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Catherine Morland isn't like the Gothic heroines she loves to read about; her name is prosaic, she's a content and happy girl who could never think badly of anyone and is surrounded by a big family who love her. But more importantly, alas, she's never even been to a crumbling castle or monastery let alone to the South of France where she could be held hostage. Her first real adventure is when her kindly and wealthy neighbors, the Allens, invite Catherine to accompany them to Bath. Mrs. Allen views Bath in the first few days of their residence as rather boring as they have no acquaintances, but that is soon about to change. Catherine's first acquaintance is a Mr. Henry Tilney, a lovely young man who dances with her and disappears. Her second acquaintance appears as if she'll be around longer. Isabella Thorpe is the daughter of an old classmate of Mrs. Allen and they soon become fast friends. It transpires that Isabella's brother John is friends with Catherine's brother James, and soon Isabella is confiding her feelings for James to Catherine all while trying to get Catherine and John together. But despite just one night Catherine's heart already belongs to Henry Tilney. Luckily for her he soon returns to Bath, bringing along his sister Eleanor and his rather forbidding father. As is often the case with young girls battle lines are drawn, Isabella wants Catherine to be hers alone now that she has become engaged to James, yet Catherine is defiant and sticks to the Tilneys. In fact Catherine shortly leaves Bath with the Tilneys for their ancestral home, Northanger Abbey. All the complications of Bath are behind Catherine, but will she create her own obstacles in the Gothic surroundings of an old abbey that might thwart her and Henry's happily ever after? Or did the Thorpes already plan for her disappointment?

Northanger Abbey in my mind is unfairly the most maligned of Austen's novels. The reason is because it's not what people expect. It's not like her other books and I think that is precisely the reason it holds such a special place in my heart. Admittedly the first time I read it I was thrown, because being released after her death you think it will adhere more to her later works, whereas in truth because of when it was written it's more a transitional novel bridging the style of her juvenilia and her later work. Therefore it's only on subsequent re-reads that you can fully appreciate Northanger Abbey for what it is. This book is unbalanced, it's not perfect, but it so clearly shows what Austen will be capable of with her wry observational style in the first section of the book. Which is why so many people say the book gives them such hope only to fall apart. While the second half is weaker, it shows that she is capable of seeing her concept through to the end. Because Northanger Abbey was written as a parody of Gothic literature, so therefore she had to take it to it's logical conclusion of Catherine thinking laundry lists are secrets of the dead. As a parody it is a wonderful send-up of the popular literature of the time, but as proto-Austen the first half is a glimpse into the writer she will become. That this is what she will be known for. For her humor, for what she will become, for the feelings, all the feelings I have each time I re-read this book it is easily in my top three of Austen's six novels.

As for those feels? Oh. My. God. It's not like this is the first or second time I've read this book but once again I am sucked in and it's like I'm reading it for the first time. I know what happens and yet my anxiety was at such a level you can not imagine it. I was seriously convinced that Catherine wasn't going to get her "happily ever after" that has been happening now for TWO HUNDRED YEARS! Seriously, two hundred years and I felt like it was happening for the first time. My main source of anxiety isn't that her and Henry get together, it's that they get the chance to get together despite everything those detestable Thorpes throw in their way. Oh, how I hate those Thorpes. Yes, John Thorpe is horrid with all his monetary delusions with regard to the Morlands, and with his assumptions. Also, let's take a moment here to point out how little men have changed in two hundred years. The way he's talking about his horses, it's like listening to a guy at a bar five minutes ago detailing everything there is to know about his car that you never cared to know! But I forgive John, to an extent, because there is no doubt in my mind that everything he believes and does is controlled by his puppet master and sister, Isabella. Such a faux friend! She only befriends Catherine to get to closer to her brother James, and when that falls apart, gaw, she's just scheming and double crossing, and just a lying little bitch. She deserves all the ill that befalls her. In fact, I think she might just be my most hated character in all of Austen... huh, that's a revelation that Caroline Bingley isn't going to like.

But going into Catherine's mind and how she sees Isabella? That is truly painful. Because the truth is Catherine is a heroine more in the Disney sense, she's all goodness and light and can't imagine anyone being mean or duplicitous because she's never come across this before. Of course her eyes will be opened by the end of the book but what I find fascinating is that because she is so genuine if someone isn't the only conclusion she can reach is one straight off the pages of the Gothic novels she loves so much. The second half of Northanger Abbey deals with Catherine thinking that Henry's father killed his wife because Catherine doesn't have any foreknowledge about people who say one thing while meaning another. She gives General Tilney these dubious motives because its the only way she can understand how he makes her feel. General Tilney is all polite obsequiousness to Catherine, assuming she is a rich heiress due to the Allens. Yet while everything is so nice that comes out of his mouth she can't ignore that she doesn't like him. She has every reason to like him, logically, but she picks up on the fact that Henry and Eleanor are never happy around him and therefore he must be a murderer. She is naive but sweetly so, so you can see why Henry can forgive her for making someone who is two faced into a man capable of the worst horrors... but of course, he has nothing on the duplicity of Isabella! Scheming, money grubbing, false friend!

Thankfully Henry can forgive Catherine's overactive imagination. Because the truth is this, Henry Tilney is the perfect Austen man. Darcy, a bit haughty, Bingley, a bit naive, Brandon, a bit dour, Edward, a bit too secretive, Knightly, a bit too much of a pedo, Wentworth, a bit too stalwart, and Edmund, a bit too relative... whereas Henry? Henry in my humble opinion is the perfect man. Seriously, this isn't up for discussion. Just take this as fact. He is perfect. Perhaps it's because he's the most fleshed out of Austen's heroes, but there's just something about him that makes me think, yeah, he's the one for me. One reason is his sense of humor. Can you imagine say Darcy, Brandon, and Wentworth in a room together? Not a smile among them. Whereas Henry is self-deprecating, willing to see the humor in tense situations, and seriously, think about it, who wants to marry someone who they can't have a good laugh with. Though the part that truly melts my heart is when he tells Catherine that of course he reads! Due to that odious John Thorpe Catherine has come to the wrong conclusion that not only do men not read but that reading is silly. I'm sorry, but reading is not just the best way to live a richer life full of adventure, but it's been proven that it makes people more empathetic because they can put themselves in other people's shoes. The fact that Henry proudly proclaims that he's a reader? Melting again. Not just that, he's read all the books Catherine loves and is a huge Mrs. Radcliffe fan. Be still my heart... or the lumpy wet mass it now is since it melted.

Though the sad truth is I don't think everyone has fully embraced Henry or Catherine... because as I said before, this is the troublesome book among Austen fans. I think the real reason is actually the parody of the Gothic. When Austen first wrote Northanger Abbey Gothic novels were all the rage. In fact, with age bracket and the rabidness of the following, the Twilight franchise is comparable. So Gothic novels were the Twilight of the early 1800s. Now here comes a girl who's never written a book before and she decides to parody the books she loves and also loves to mock. While Gothic literature comes and goes, having a resurgence every now and then, there's never been that stranglehold on the public imagination that it had during Austen's life, especially with the works of Mrs. Radcliffe. So modern readers aren't tuned into what the book is parodying. I remember reading Vanity Fair years ago, which is a bit of a slog, because there are so many topical jokes. I distinctly remember getting one of the jokes, which was in reference to She Stoops to Conquer and I thought, think how much I'm not getting. This book might be uproarious to someone of the time or a historian of the time... Therefore the first time I read Northanger Abbey I, like most everyone else, just didn't get it. It's just a sub par Austen I incorrectly thought. Thankfully, unlike most, I wasn't going to swear off the book. When I read it a second time knowing more I realized I was a fool the first time. The way Austen even parodies the origin stories of heroines is spot on. Plus, it's totally meta! So in other words, read something Gothic then come back and read how Austen tells her version... it's a little snarky, but in my mind nearly perfect.


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