Saturday, June 11, 2011

Northanger Abbey: Review


Northanger Abbey is now my second all-time favorite Jane Austen book. Pride of place goes to Persuasion. Pride and Prejudice is a fine novel, but it doesn't send me into the raptures it does so many other people; and I positively dislike Emma. Abbey has all the classic Austen elements: the lovely drawing room comedy of manners, the skewering of social class, the exposure of human frailties (particularly greed and pride in social position) and adds a delightful satire of the Gothic novels which were so popular at the time.

Catherine Morland, an unlikely heroine--as noted in the very first line, finds herself on a trip to Bath. Miss Morland has had no experience of the ways of society and soon finds herself attached to Isabella Thorpe. She is quite certain that her new friend will teach her what she needs to know and has great faith in Isabella's honesty and openness. Following Isabella's lead, she frequents the pump room and the evening dances and soon meets Mr. Henry Tilney. While she becomes more and more attached to Mr. Tilney, she is unaware that Isabella's brother John has intentions of his own. And she has no idea how John Thorpe's intentions will affect her dealings with the Tilney family later.

Eventually, Catherine is invited to stay at Northanger Abbey, home of the Tilneys, and a great friendship evolves between her and Eleanor Tilney. Catherine's Gothic taste in reading catches up with her, however, and soon she is imagining mysteries and danger in every corner. It takes a great many misunderstandings before Catherine's adventures at the Abbey are sorted out to a happy ending--which Jane Austen knows her readers are expecting: "my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." However, we do not reach that "perfect felicity" until we have witnessed the romantic chase with all of its ritual and prime motivations: ambition, greed, power, pleasure, self-interest....and, yes, even love.

This was a delight to read. As always, it is a perfect commentary on the social mores and expectations of the time. And Austen is even more pointed about it than usual--using authorial asides to make certain things clear. In some novels this might be distracting, but I did not think so here. I also enjoyed the send-up of the Gothic novel. She parodies the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing before it even came into existence. I love how inexperienced Catherine believes she can see through to the true motives behind everyone she meets....and is constantly wrong. Four stars out of five.

6 comments:

Anne Bennett said...

I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey, too. It was my last Austen novel to read not counting the partials (Sanditon, Lady Susan, Watsons). I like all the references to reading.

bibliophiliac said...

Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel too. Northanger Abbey was Austen's "gothic" novel-since you love mysteries so much, I can see why this Austen novel would really appeal to you. But I'm curious-why do you dislike Emma so much?

Bev Hankins said...

@bibliophiliac: Here's my review of Emma: http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2011/01/emma-jane-austen-review.html

And I realize that both Emma and Catherine are misguided in their interpretations of other people and their motives. The big difference is that Emma uses her "insights" to try and arrange other people's lives. Catherine is just inexperienced and way too influenced by her Gothic novel reading.

One of the commenters on my
Emma post said that the P. D. James essay on Emma as a detective novel really helped her understand and appreciate the book more. I've since read the essay and that didn't even help me--because while I admit James's points, I think Emma fails in those very points--the only one mystified is Emma. (for my full reaction to the James essay: http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2011/01/time-to-be-in-earnest-review.html)

Chelle said...

I liked Abbey, too. I found it funnier than P&P and Persuasion. I haven't read Emma yet but I loved the most recent BBC movie/tv version. Still, my favorite Austen in P&P!

quirky girls said...

Sounds like this was an excellent choice for your first The Classic Bribe entry! I do love authors with a sense of humor - and characters with all the wrong instincts ;0)

stacybuckeye said...

I have this one on my shelf. I plan to get through the rest of Austen, 3 down!