Wednesday 10 March 2021

Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

My biggest ‘shame’ as a reader is that I’ve never really got into Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one very few books I did not finish, having got impenetrably lost in the names, relations and general prose. I’d read her Juvenalia with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and enjoyed it, finding it fresh and funny, I’d also enjoyed the early novella, Lady Susan. Perhaps I would find Northanger Abbey, her earliest full novel but published posthumously, equally enjoyable.

The first thing that struck me was the tone. I knew that Austen was famous for an arch, ironic tone but the Juvenalia had been more silly than sophisticated, for the most part knock-about fun and much of it at the expense of novels of sensibility and the gothic. There’s a reflection of these earlier pieces in the beginning of Northanger Abbey, where the narrator informs the reader that Catherine’s father doesn’t have a fancy for locking his daughters up, her mother is alive and well, and she was a bit of a tomboy in her childhood. Yet there are suggestions of the more sophisticated tone as the seventeen year old Catherine is being described as ‘almost pretty’ and her education at a state where ‘though she could not write sonnets, she brought herself to read them’ -  a more lithe way to imply a certain lack of knowledge of Catherine’s part, but also one that hints at her resilience and points to They Mysteries of Udolpho where the heroine is happy to knock out a poem or two at any time.

The underhand tone of the book fits particularly well with describing characters, especially ones with flaws it may be too rude to highlight. This is done with particular effect with (possibly my favourite character) Mrs Allen. At first she is simply ‘a good-humoured woman’. When introduced next, she ‘was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.’ It’s not that she’s an unpleasant person, she’s just very stupid. 

Later, Mrs Allen finds that she can’t entertain herself very well and merely repeats how she wished she had a friend around to talk to. She meets up with Mrs Thorpe, an old school friend and talks about clothes while not listening to her friend talking about her family. Later, she is described as not having enough knowledge to have much to talk about, but not clever enough to stay quiet so she simply narrates things that are happening . When called upon to use all her persuasive powers to get Catherine to go on a coach ride, the best she can come up with is ‘suppose you go.’  By the end of the book she’s essentially a parrot, repeating what she hears but adding the occasional comment about clothes. What’s wonderful is that however we may laugh at her narrow range of interests and her empty inner life, we never hate her for it, not even pity her. She is content in her small way and she has only the best intentions to those characters around her.

In many ways, Mrs Allen reminds me of what Mary Wollstonecraft said about womanhood; that while women have the inherent potential to act clever and competently in the world, they are not given the education or have the expectation to care about any more than clothes. There’s an interesting section about female intelligence and ignorance while Catherine, Henry Tilney and his sister are walking on the hills above Bath. The Tilneys start a conversation about the beauties of the landscape which Catherine doesn’t know much about and the author muses that ‘imbecility in females is a great enhancement to their personal charms’ and then asserts that if a woman can’t be naturally imbecilic, she can be just as sweet if she’s kept in ignorance. All this being said by the narrator, who is obviously a very clever woman, the irony drips off the page.

The walk on the hills is also where the book goes into one of the many defences of the novel as a genre. Henry Tilney says, ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ Earlier on, the novel is described as ‘in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ As a novelist and keen reader of novels, I am all in favour of their praise, but it’s interesting that over a hundred years after the novel started gaining popularity in Britain, they still needed defending. Then again, I know of people who claim not to read novels as if it’s a virtue, one of them being the novelist Dan Brown.

This defence of the novel (and gothic novel in particular) I found particularly interesting as I went into this book expecting it to be largely a satire on that genre. I had just finished The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox and was expecting Catherine to be like Arabella in that book, to have had her head turned by so much ‘low’ reading as to seek the gothic in every situation. It’s not really like that though. She does feel a tingle when told that she’ll be visiting her friends in an abbey, and she does have a night of nerves where she opens a wardrobe and finds mysterious papers which turn out to be little more than a laundry list, but other than that she remains relatively grounded, if inexperienced. There are a few references to gothic tropes, and General Tilney, father of the man she fancies, does act in some strange ways which her fancy briefly builds up until she is corrected, but the jabs at gothic are rather slight and the book is more about Catherine’s naivety when it comes to people’s intentions.

She becomes instant friends with Isabella Thorne, seeing her as a paragon of truthfulness when it is obvious to the reader (and narrator) that she is a complete phoney. She also doesn’t realise that her brother fancies her and his boring, braggartly, boastfulness is his idea of courtship. I enjoyed how long it took for her to admit to herself that she didn’t really like him, as someone who tends to see the best of people, it takes me a while to realise I don’t like people also. 

In talking about this romantic fiction for over a thousand words, I’ve yet to really talk about the romantic couple, Catherine and Henry. I must say, I liked him instantly. In his first conversation with Catherine, he teases her a little about her fresh-faced impressions of Bath but not in a crawl way, or a fun-sucking way, he’s pleased she’s happy but knows it’s a happiness built on surface. I liked his little rant about the word ‘nice’, his little quirks and his playfulness in general. I can see why Catherine, with her flights of fancy is attracted to him. I also liked how he admitted he mainly grew to love Catherine because he was flattered by her attention to him. Despite the play of gothic, they are not a gothic couple and I wish them a bright, sunshiny future.

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