I don't think I ever appreciated or realized before just how humorous Jane Austen can be. She seriously made me laugh. Although Northanger Abbey is a parody of gothic literature, in particular Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is as much a comedy of manners. Once again, as I've come to expect from Austen, the novel is about marriage and social status. Catherine Morland, our heroine, will come to learn who she can trust as a friend and who she can't, and the difference between reality and fiction, and she grows from a somewhat naive 17-year-old into a true heroine by the end of the novel. Also she has one of the best imaginations I've come across in a long time!
Catherine doesn't start out as heroine material. She's no great beauty, not particularly intellectual and as a young girl was rather tomboyish. For all her drawbacks, however, she is still a kind and sincere young woman and very likeable. She has moments of great insightfulness, though she doesn't always realize it. Although she loves to read, it is not for edification of the mind or spirit. She's enamored of gothic literature. As a matter of fact she happens to be reading Mrs. Radcliffe's famous Mysteries of Udolpho, while in Bath. And this is not her first encounter with a story filled with drama and intrigue. It's obvious she loves the rush of a good book.
The first half of the book is set in Bath, where Catherine has come with Mr. and Mrs. Allen, friends and neighbors of her family. Mrs. Allen continually laments her lack of acquaintances in Bath, where they seem to spend endless hours in the pump room (had to look it up, as it is mentioned so often). It's not long, however before Catherine dances with Henry Tilney and she's instantly smitten and will later meet Eleanor Tilney who will become her very good friend. Happily for Mrs. Allen, the Thorpes will also become part of their circle. Isabella Thorpe is slightly older, very attractive and sophisticated and will take Catherine under her wing. It turns out that Catherine's brother, James, is friends with Isabella's brother, John. Two sets of friends will be hard to juggle for Catherine, however. Appearances can be deceiving, and a misunderstanding about the wealth of the Morlands will cause grief to both Catherine and her brother.
The second half of the book is set in Northanger Abbey, the family seat of the Tilneys. Catherine is invited to Northanger by General Tilney to be with her friends Henry and Eleanor. Catherine is happy to visit the abbey, so much like the crumbling castle of Udolpho. Her imagination runs completely wild. She sees mysterious letters in trunks, cowers from the gusty winds rattling the windows, and worse thinks the General must have had a hand in the death of Eleanor and Henry's mother, whose room is kept just as it was the day she died. Austen's parody is a gentle one, though. Through her conversations with Henry and Eleanor (and some unhappy experiences with Isabella and John Thorpe) Catherine will come into her own and realize life isn't always like a book.
This is a wonderful novel and so much more could be said about it. Austen writes with such precision. Every aspect of the story is important, every conversation has meaning. In the introduction the editor discussed Austen's use of language and how it can "exceed as well as fall short of human experience". Nothing is wasted in this book. I believe that this was not the first book Austen wrote, but it was the first that was accepted for publication (though if I understand correctly it was not actually published until much later). I marked some great passages in the novel, but I'll just share one (as it is rather long--spoken by the narrator of the novel not Catherine). This is quite a famous passage--it is a "gentle assault on romantic fiction with a defense of the novel":
"Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. 'I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.' Such is the common cant. 'And what are you reading, Miss—?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, 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. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it."
I'm not sure which Austen I'll read next. Perhaps Sense and Sensibility, but whatever I choose I am sure it is going to be equally (if not more) delightful than Northanger Abbey. I'm also greatly looking forward to The Complete Jane Austen (Masterpiece Theatre's Sunday with Jane), which begins January 13th.