Monday, November 30, 2009

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

In a comparison of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen wins hands down. Austen may create characters who are just as petty as Heyer's Elinor, but they are secondary characters - so even if they are shallow and selfish, they at least contribute to the development of the protagonist's maturity.

Northanger Abbey is the first I've read of Jane Austen in many years, and I enjoyed her tongue-in-cheek humor as she parodies the gothic romances of her time. Though I must admit, I enjoy the suspense and drama of gothic fiction, I don't mind poking fun at a generally unrealistic genre. Austen's characters seem very realistic, though they might be somewhat stereotypical, and she paints a very plausible "slice of life" from the early 19th century middle and upper classes of England.

The protagonist, or unlikely heroine, as Austen calls her, Catherine Moreland is an ordinary girl in all ways: pretty, but not strikingly beautiful; a good girl, but not accomplished in much of anything and educated only so far as she was compelled to study. She comes from a large family, so can expect but a small dowry or inheritance. At seventeen, she really had no aims or ambitions nor the ability to pursue any if she had, so the opportunity to visit Bath with wealthy and childless neighbors offers an exciting diversion at the end of a long winter. In Bath she makes several friends near her own age, one brother and sister who only flatter her to advance their own interests and another brother and sister who prove to be genuine friends, even though their station in life is much higher than Catherine's.

I suppose this could be called a coming of age story, for through a series of events Catherine learns the value of true friendship and how to be more discerning of others' flattery and motives. She also realizes that life seldom mirrors the melodrama of novels, especially "in the midland counties of England" (188), and embarassingly finds her fears and suspicions to be completely groundless. Austen is not incapable of building drama and suspense, but the denouements of these potential threats are so commonplace as to be laughable. For instance, on her first night at Northanger Abbey, where she was invited to stay with her friends Eleanor and Henry Tilney, she is captivated with an old chest in her room because such chests often held dark secrets in the novels she read. She finds the chest hard to open, and her investigation is interrupted by the maid. Finally, "[h]er resolute effort threw back the lid, and gave to her astonished eyes the view of a white cotton counterpane, properly folded, reposing at one end of the chest in undisputed possession!" (154-155). After such a build-up, all she finds is a bedspread! One can just imagine the twinkle in Austen's eye as she wrote that!

In sum, this is a well-paced novel that gives a historical perspective on ordinary life in the 19th century, uses irony to show the foolishness of the gothic genre, and most importantly shows development of character in Catherine becoming a less naive and more well-grounded young woman through her experiences. Of course, there is a little romance, one unfortunate and one pleasantly resolved, but Austen's version of romance is platonic instead of erotic - a fact which I appreciate as I think it is often more appropriate to leave the intricacies of love mysterious. There is no gratuitous falling into the arms of the hero, and the term "odious" only appears two or three times! As I concluded previously, I think I will stick with the classics!


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Petunia said...

It wasn't until I read your review that I realized that Catherine is choosing between a frivolous, shallow life and one of substance. I'll have to reread it now.

Carrie said...

It's been a really long time since I've read this particular story. I think I read everything (I THINK anyway!) of Austen's back when I was 15-16 and I remember relatively few (that weren't turned into BBC adaptations, that is!). This was a good refresher. Thanks for linking it up!