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Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Member Name: lazywolfeyes
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Advantages: Funny, superb characters, fun plot
Disadvantages: Sometimes a little too clever for it's own good, abrupt ending
***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.
Summary: Undeservedly overlooked, a real gem from Jane Austen