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***Please note this review contains some spoilers***
Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's first completed novel, but it wasn't published until 1817, after the author's death, along with Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is vastly different from her more well-known works, but not to its detriment. Although it contains many of the themes prevalent in Austen's oeuvre; marriages, misunderstandings, love, deceit, it feels like a very different work. Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels and reading, specifically gothic fiction. Northanger Abbey cleverly pokes fun at the excess and high camp of such novels, while at times knowingly invoking their themes, and at other times, gleefully subverting them. Ann Radcliffe's celebrated The Mysteries of Udolpho gets mocked the most which pleased me no end because I could never get more than half way through it. Its gothic heroine spends most of the time unconscious. Honestly, is she fainting or just really, really tired? As it gets mentioned a lot throughout Northanger, I felt like I should give it another chance but have yet to pick it up again, so it's unlikely I will. You don't need to be familiar with Udolpho, The Monk (which I did enjoy, I suppose that says quite a lot about my taste) and the rest, but it helps to have some knowledge of gothic literature in order to fully grasp the extent of Austen's mocking and sarcasm.
Catherine Morland is only seventeen when she's invited by Mr and Mrs Allen to join them at Bath, where she is befriended by the beautiful and deceitful Isabella Thorpe, her vulgar brother John and the flirty and charismatic Henry Tilney. Catherine fills her head with gothic novels and when she is invited by Henry's sister to their home Northanger Abbey, she can't help thinking up dreadful murders and scandalous plots and begins to suspect Henry's father, General Tilney of murdering his wife...
Catherine Morland is Austen's most innocent, sweet heroine. Far too trusting and it has to be said, a little dim at times, this young ingénue is possibly Austen's most charming heroine. She may not have the wit of Lizzie or the independence of Emma, but you can't help but love a girl who has no concept of how she is perceived by others. She immediately takes a liking to the fun and flirty Henry Tilney, and can't conceal her feelings. She has no clue how to respond to Henry's teasing, doesn't see that Isabella isn't genuine, and doesn't pull her head out of a book long enough to see that villains aren't always murderers in the alps, but often obnoxious money grabbing toe rags you can meet in Bath. Ultimately it's her ignorance and sweetness that grants her happiness where previously it had only caused her trouble, but she does learn a little about life along the way.
'Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again'. Henry Tilney is the obligatory Austen hero, but he is rather unlike the typical Austen male lead. That isn't to say they are all much of a muchness, but that Tilney is so different from the others. When I first read Northanger I was a bit miffed after first meeting Tilney, because I assumed he was going to be a scoundrel, as all the flirtatious Austen men are, and I immediately liked him and worried I would have to try to hate him. My fears were unfounded as shock of all shocks; Henry Tilney was the good guy! Henry is the most fun, flirtatious and obviously sexy of Austen's heroes. His first meeting with Catherine is full of saucy smiles and teasing words and it's easy to see why Catherine falls hopelessly in love with him. I'm pretty much in love with him myself.
Isabella and John Thorpe care only of money. They believe that Catherine is an heiress and they both try to get their clutches on her and her brother James. Isabella is conniving and immediately latches onto Catherine and her unsuspecting brother, while the vulgar John tries to win Catherine's hand by bluster, lies and generally being an odious git.
General Tilney is the main villain; in that he is the most 'Gothic' - or has the appearances of being gothic, that is. A widower, he is an intimidating man and Henry's father. A stern, cold man, his children are subdued when around him, though he is all smiles and kindness to Catherine. Although she doesn't fully understand why he shows her kindness he doesn't show his children, she is perceptive enough to know he isn't a nice guy.
Northanger Abbey is Austen's most spirited novel, with a heroine innocent and sweet, and a hero fun and charming. The two are naturally very suited to each other and are amongst Austen's most likeable characters. It doesn't have characters as funny as Mrs Bennet or Mr Collins, but Catherine's innocence, Tilney's flirtatiousness and the narrator's snide remarks are all chucklesome. Mrs Allen is quite funny with her obsession with gowns but she lacks the complete extremity of Mrs Bennet to be a classic character. The narrator plays a very prominent role, often speaking directly to the reader. It's here that Austen is at her most biting and sarcastic. A character is introduced in the last couple of pages in order to tie up loose ends and the narrator remarks on it being an annoying, lazy technique that unsurprisingly features a lot in gothic fiction.
There's a lot to like in Northanger Abbey. Catherine and Henry's relationship is sweet, funny and utterly enchanting. I love how different Catherine is to other Austen heroines. She unknowingly charms Henry by being innocently open in her feelings for him, and she lacks the maturity and knowing of other heroines. Henry is sexy and instantly likeable, it's easy to see why Catherine goes a bit teenage girl around him (mind you, she *is* a teenage girl). Isabella and John are great villains. Scheming but funny with it, and John's blustering, boasts and outright lies as well as his swearing (Oh, really!) makes him to my mind one of the funniest villains in fiction. General Tilney, although not as bad as Catherine perhaps once thought, is still very much a money grabbing, scheming git of a man and in that sense is gothic.
It's not Austen's best novel by a long shot, though. As funny and charming and clever as Northanger Abbey is, it doesn't have the brilliant pacing Pride and Prejudice has, or the great plotting of Emma. The main problem is the ending. All of Austen's novels have fairly abrupt endings, but it never feels as unsatisfying as it does here. Austen is knowingly invoking Gothic novel endings where everything is swiftly, neatly, wrapped up, all loose ends tied up in order to secure a happy ending after many, many pages of unrelenting misery. It's still irritating; no matter how clever you want to be. I just wanted it to be a little longer, which as criticisms go, isn't the most damning.
I would recommend this to any fan of Jane Austen's, lovers and haters of Gothic novels, and anyone wanting to read a genuinely funny book. It's has brilliant characters, a light but fun plot and it doesn't deserve to be as overlooked as it has.
Price and Availability:-
The version I own is an Oxford World Classic that includes other short stories by Austen and cost £4.99. It's wildly available in paperback, hardback and kindle and on Amazon you can get the paperback for as little as a penny! You'll find it easily on the high-street in all good book shops; it really deserves some more love.
Last Christmas (which seems absolutely ages ago now!) I received a box set of hardback Jane Austen novels. I read and reviewed a couple at the time, but then went off back to uni and didn't take my set with me. I've been home for a few weeks now and decided to take the opportunity to catch up with the novels.
Northanger Abbey has an interesting history. It was the first of Jane Austen's longer novels to be completed, towards the end of the eighteenth century, and it was in fact sold to a London bookseller in 1803 with a view to publication. However it was not published until 1818, alongside Jane Austen's final novel Persuasion, after the author's death and long after the Gothic tales parodied by the novel had gone out of fashion.
The book tells the story of seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, one of ten children of a country clergyman. She is taken to Bath - centre of the late 18th century fashionable world - by family friends the Allens, and makes the acquaintance of two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys, who will help to shape the story and her future. In the process Catherine must learn to separate real life and fantasy and true friends from false.
Readers of later Austen novels will recognise the world presented in the first half of Northanger Abbey. Set in Bath, it is full of Austen's social comedy and there are several entertaining characters, including Mrs Allen, whose only thoughts are for her outfits, and the selfish Isabella. Into all this comes the witty and sarcastic Henry Tilney. Even in a novel written over two hundred years ago, it is clear Austen had a deep understanding of human nature, and it's entertaining yet disturbingly realistic to see the extent to which some of Catherine's so-called friends try to manipulate her and others around them.
The second half of the novel is different. Invited to stay at Northanger Abbey by her friend Eleanor Tilney, Catherine is wildly excited at the prospect of experiencing adventures like those she has read about in her favourite Gothic tales. The scenes set in the Abbey are incredibly funny, but they also carry a deeper warning about not mistaking fantasy for reality. The book is interesting because it reveals that in real life people can behave almost as badly as the murderers and villains in Gothic adventure stories, albeit in less romantic and exciting ways. Several characters in the novel are revealed as judgemental, frivolous or mercenary while others are discovered to be honest, loyal and decent - not least Catherine herself, who is a likeable character and a true friend in spite of her fanciful nature.
The novel was written partly to poke fun at the popular novels of the age. In the second half of the eighteenth century dramatic, exciting tragedies and romances, often set in the bleak forests and high peaks of central Europe and starring highly over the top villains and ancient castles, were highly regarded. Possibly the most famous of these, and the book chiefly targeted in Northanger Abbey, is Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. After reading Austen's novel for the first time I actually managed to get hold of Udolpho and I couldn't help feeling that it was rather unfairly targeted. As in Northanger Abbey, several of the more dramatic events in Udolpho are explained in a rational fashion rather than a supernatural way, although Radcliffe lacks Austen's wit and sarcasm.
Northanger Abbey is famous for containing Austen's defence of novels and the reading of them, which I have paraphrased in the title of my review. Presumably Austen felt her own novels belonged to this category (while over the top Gothic tales perhaps did not), and I can't help but agree with her. Although it is not as subtle as some of her later novels, and is slightly less joined together, it is great fun to read while still carrying a serious message, and remains very fresh and relevant today particularly owing to the current craze for vampire literature, the modern-day Gothic - I can just imagine Catherine and Isabella getting together to rave about Twilight!
I highly recommend the novel, particularly to newcomers to Austen as it is shorter and easier to read than some of her later works.
I love Jane Austen's books and had been told that Northanger Abbey was funnier and lighter than the rest, which was the first thing that drew me to it. The nineteenth century is so often regarded as a stiff and boring age, where society was steeped in concern for propriety and women therefore had little employment or conversation, but Jane Austen presents a stark contrast to this picture in her writing. Her intelligence and skill for irony and satire come out particularly well in this novel, published posthumously in 1818, and Georgian England is put in a better light because of her.
Northanger Abbey is a satire on the romantic and Gothic novels very popular in Austen's era, and the story concerns Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year old of with nine siblings in a family of inconsiderable wealth, with little prospects. The surprising but drawing first line of the book: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her." When she goes to Bath, however, to be introduced to society, she is met not only with wonderful friendship and adventure, but also betrayal and disappointment. The novel is about Catherine's naivety brought on by the influence of such silly novels as Austen satirises, Catherine's tendency to see the best in everyone she meets, and how the love of one man disillusions her false romantic ideals.
She is a delightful character, perhaps one of the most lovable of Austen's heroines, despite her silliness and youth, and the story continues to be engaging as a result. It's true that if you're not used to classical literature, the pace of the book may seem to be a little slow, but I believe that to be one of Austen's strengths. We are used to fiction being 'page-turning': it has become a requirement, almost; however, Jane Austen writes in a less obtrusive way, in that her chapters are short and without magnificent cliffhangers. She draws you back to the book because of her character development and witty style, rather than thrilling events that will mean you can't put it down! Northanger Abbey, therefore, is an absorbing but not gripping work, and this is one of its many strengths, in my opinion.
Its other key strength is the humour throughout. Jane Austen's style is gently ironic, not sarcastic, and she is immediately amusing as a result. Some of the dialogue and interaction between the characters is also very funny, such as Henry Tilney's teasing of Catherine on the way to the Abbey that he promises is haunted:
"...when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness."
"Oh! no, no---do not say so. Well, go on."
But Henry was too much amused by the interest he had raised, to be able to carry it farther; he could no longer command solemnity either of subject or voice.
Northanger Abbey is brilliantly written, as are all Austen's novels, but it is not heavy or dull, like much classical literature is. Since Jane Austen is looked on as possibly the best novelist ever, Northanger Abbey had a lot to live up to, but it did not fall short, in my opinion, and I recommend it heartily!