Book Review: Northanger Abbey

northanger.jpgNorthanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s first book completed for publication, but the last to be published, with Persuasion, her last book, after her death. It had been sold to a publisher but never published. Eventually Jane bought it back for the same sum for which she sold it, but it was shelved for years.

Northanger Abbey, especially the first part, is a parody of gothic novels popular at the time, with their requisite ingredients of horror, castles, secrets, and villains.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine” is the opening line of the book, and the first several paragraphs expand on the reasons for such a supposition: she is not particularly beautiful nor remarkably intelligent or diligent, and her family, while well enough off, is not rich. All about her is rather ordinary. Her major asset is her trusting, innocent, good-natured heart.

Her adventure begins when she goes to Bath with neighbors and friends of the family, the Allens. Yet it doesn’t seem very adventurous at first: Mrs. Allen is obsessed with fashion and can’t seem to discuss much else, and they know no one in all the crowded places they go. Finally they run into the Thorpes, old friends of the Allens, and one the the Thorpe daughters, Isabella, is a friend of Catherine’s brother, James. And then Catherine and Mrs. Allen unexpectedly meet an affable and pleasant Mr. Henry Tilney at a ball, who engages Catherine for the evening.

Isabella’s brother, John, is a rather boorish young man who pursues Catherine, but Catherine is not interested. Isabella, after becoming engaged to Catherine’s brother, becomes interested in Henry’s brother when he flirts with her. Henry’s father, General Tilney, mistakenly believes Catherine to be richer than she is, and therefore invites her to Northanger Abbey, the family’s home, for a visit. Catherine is delighted, both because of her growing interest in Henry and friendship with his sister, Eleanor, but also because she longs to have the experience of visiting such a structure as is often found in the gothic novels she loves.

One of the many things she learns, though, is that life is not like those novels, and once her views are shaped by reality, she begins to grow and mature.

I don’t want to go further into the plot for the sake of those who might not have read the book. I found it very enjoyable. It contains Austen’s trademark observations of the social mores of her time, though not quite as ironically or satirically as her later books, plus a spirited defense of novel reading as well as a caution against the wrong kinds, with the lesson Catherine learns not to let her imagination, influenced by highly unlikely tales, get away from her. Catherine also learns one of the most painful lessons of maturity, that, while it is generally good to have a trusting heart, there are people not worthy of that trust. (Update: I just finished listening to this via audiobook 4/22/13, and I can’t believe I thought this book less ironic or satirical. It fairly sparkles with both irony and satire, but in a fun rather than a put-down sarcastic way.)

The particular copy I bought is a Barnes and Noble publication, complete with footnotes and endnotes, which were often helpful but sometimes unnecessary and distracting. The introductory notes I felt were better read after the novel than before, especially if one has not read the book yet, as too much is given away.

In the back of the book are a few questions, one of which is “Is there any sign that any of the characters in Northanger Abbey feels sexual desire? Can Austen’s realism be considered complete without this aspect of human relationships.” Good grief, what questions! One of the things I most resent about modern adaptations of classics is the inclusion of sexual scenes, or the spelling out of what had been written with restraint and decorum. The continued popularity of Austen’s books should indicate that an audience can be entertained without going into great sexual detail. Restraint and subtlety are no enemies of realism.

Update: I listened to this story again for the Austen in August challenge in August 2014.

Austen in August