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Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey

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In which Austen plays narrator to devastatingly good effect.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1818
Date Reviewed: 27th March 2011
Rating: 5/5

Catherine Morland loves Gothic books, in fact she loves them so much that they can overtake reality. That she’s not well-versed in anything else is of no importance to her. As luck would have it, it may not be important to the hero either, at least in his choice of partner. But before she can meet this handsome fellow she must first travel to Bath, because that’s where he is, and must, before they can become well-known to each other, embark on a few irritating friendships.

If my summary sounds strange, it is because I have endeavoured to provide a hint of the style of the book. Austen has no qualms about letting the reader know that this is just a story, and in fact she makes it so that the story is one of the easiest narratives written. She purposefully creates a heroine who is to have little trouble in meeting the hero (she reminds you often that they are the heroine and hero) and points out where she could have made the book stereotypical and chose not to. In essence, the book is far less eventful than many but still very good – but you have to know the style of writing to understand why the contents stop it from being boring.

The book centres on the relationships between three major factions, Catherine and her brother James, John and Isabella Thorpe, and Henry and Eleanor Tilney. All three factions impact each other in various ways, both directly and through the “use” of one another. As you might expect with an Austen novel, love plays its part, as does money, and overall personal situations.

On the whole, Catherine isn’t a particularly interesting character, but Austen focuses on her quirks in order to make the story the success it is. Catherine is a sensationalist and some of the humour in the book inevitably arises from her love of Gothic novels and the value she places on the information in the real world. It’s like the thought that often crosses the mind of an admirer of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to investigate any old-fashioned wardrobes they come across; but unlike these more modern thoughts that are meant only in jest by all but children, Catherine’s thoughts that stem from her novels become a reality to her, and the chastising she gives herself for it being a fantasy is only half-hearted. That her imagination is taken advantage of several times by Tilney is to create not only humour but also a situation in which Catherine can develop as a character, as well as to make Tilney himself not only a brilliant hero but to demonstrate Austen’s own superb mind.

If Henry had been with them indeed! – but now she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it.

Catherine’s development in regards to general knowledge, which includes general social knowledge, may not be particularly detailed, but it is fun to read about and good to be able to imagine where she might be in a few years time.

The other characters are almost equally compelling. Although not as passionate and impulsive as Catherine (in Northanger Abbey I found the spin-off, of sorts, that I would have loved to see of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, focusing on Ginerva Fanshawe) they each possess distinctly interesting qualities. Henry Tilney is sarcastic, intelligent, and, I would say, the way in which Austen divulges her thoughts to the characters; his sister is an obedient woman but unconvinced by general society. Their father is a matriarch and the Thorpe siblings hard to bear, an assuming, self-righteous, deceiving duo.

“Would he thank you, either on his own account or Miss. Thorpe’s, for supposing that her affection, or at least her good-behaviour, is only to be secured by her seeing nothing of Captain Tilney? …Is her heart constant to him [Morland] only when unsolicited by anyone else?”

Something that marvels me about this book is Austen’s detailed knowledge about relationships. I know that so many things about love and relationships only occurred to me after I had experienced them, together with the information from music, books, and movies, and here we have Austen, a woman in the Victorian era, when woman were suppressed, a woman who experienced love but not for a great length of time, discuss subjects so much better than many writers even today.

As to the theme of parental interference, Austen ends the novel leaving the reader to decide whether her work is in support of “parental tyranny” or “filial disobedience”. It’s a fitting way to end the book. That she had pointed out to the reader, several paragraphs before, that she knew that they knew how it would finish, just adds to the superior quality.

The best aspect of this book is the writing. The story is enjoyable but if it had been told in a more regular manner it would be nothing special, and that is it’s selling point.

Northanger Abbey is one of a kind, especially where Austen’s own work is concerned. If you are an admirer of her books but have not yet read it, I urge you to do so in haste.

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May 1, 2011, 3:51 pm

This was my first Austen, which I read earlier this year. I did enjoy it, though I think if I’d been more familiar with Gothic novels I’d have enjoyed it even more. It was the Austen “in” I needed, though, and I hope to read more of her novels soon.

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