Thursday, July 4, 2013

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Fun fact: even though I live in downtown Ottawa (the national capital of Canada), I hate going to Parliament Hill for the Canada Day celebrations on July 1st.  It’s usually too hot, too crowded, and the government department that plans the show on the Hill is apparently either high or grossly out of touch with the average Canadian.  So, in light of all this, I’ve developed my own Canada Day tradition; I generally read until 6pm-ish, then I’ll watch the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.  Having just recently read P&P, I was inspired to pick up another Austen work, and settled on Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland.  Catherine, as might be expected from an Austen work, is a young woman on the look out for a husband she could love.  After accompanying a family friend to Bath, Catherine becomes fast friends with Isabelle and is introduced to her brother John; Bath is also where Catherine meets Mr. Tilney, and almost immediately falls in love.  However, John (who’s kind of a douche.  No, wait, he’s a douche), fancies himself as the prime contender for the roll of Catherine’s husband, and does what he can to upset the Catherine/Tilney apple cart.  In the mean time, Isabelle has fallen in love with James, Catherine’s brother, and accepts his proposal.  All this happens at Bath, but the climax and most of the dénouement of the novel happens at Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family home, where Catherine is invited to visit as Tilney’s sister’s friend.  It’s an Austen novel, so I’m sure you can guess the end, but there’s a minor twist in the climax of the story, so I won’t say any more here.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this work had more of Austen’s innate sense of humour than my last Austen read, Mansfield Park.  Right off the bat, Austen opens with a tong-in-cheek assessment of her main character.  This frank and humourous bent continues throughout the entire work as Austen continues to introduce her other characters, who are in fact archetypes in the Austen/Georgian world; we have the pompous (John), the well-meaning (James), the dastardly character (Captain Tilney), and the true gentleman (Mr. Tilney), just to name a few.  Austen’s pen at once lambasts her characters and yet makes them all highly engaging, if not endearing.

While Austen is busy harpooning her characters, she’s also busy doing the same to herself as the author.  There are numerous passages where Austen mocks the contemporary novelist; this can distract from the plot, but it’s also quite telling of her own assessment of her chosen profession.  During my last year of undergrad, I wrote a seminar paper of the gender-dynamics of the Victorian author (of which Austen doesn’t quite fit, admittedly, with the time frame), and many of the complains and observations that Austen makes with her own words were supported with the research; novels were considered trite ways to pass time for uninformed women, novels gave women un-reasonable expectations of every-day life, and most damning of all, novels created in women an impression of the men in their lives that just weren’t reasonable.  Austen plays on all these criticisms with her characters, while also addressing them head-on.

So, final verdict.  Read this book.  It’s one of the few works that Austen left to the world, and it embodies so much of the classic Austen world-view that it’s worth the read.  While I’ve yet to find an Austen book that lives up to the Pride and Prejudice of it all, Northanger Abbey is a close second with its wit, characters, and self-awareness.  

1 comment:

  1. I love Northanger Abbey. I've read all of Austen's novels except for Mansfield Park (although I'll be reading that one this summer), and this is up there with my favourites.