Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Review of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

When the name Jane Austen is invoked, literature lovers invariably think of such enduring classics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. That's to be expected, since those are two of the most well-known titles from this particular author. However, Austen wrote several other novels in her time, including Northanger Abbey.

Chronologically speaking, Northanger Abbey was the first full-length work produced by Austen, and one which she had a lot of trouble publishing during her lifetime. In fact, it is said that Austen intermittently revised and polished the manuscript for more than a decade in the hopes of finally getting it published. It was all in vain, however, since the book wasn't accepted, printed, and distributed until after her death.

I had read this bit of background information regarding Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey prior to reading the book. I have to say that I wasn't exactly filled with confidence about the plot or characters after having learned that Austen couldn't even get anyone to touch the work when she was alive. After all, she had to have contacts in the publishing world after getting her other novels into print. At any rate, I started reading the book without expecting it to be on par with Austen's more well-known stories.

Northanger Abbey opens by describing the heroine of the novel, Catherine Morland, as a young girl. The first thing I noticed as a reader was that Austen's tone in this novel was quite different from her other works. That's because this book is presented as a satire of so-called "Gothic novels" which were at the height of popularity in Austen's day. If modern readers are not familiar with the stylistic conventions of Gothic novels, then a lot of Austen's humor and jabs will be lost.

At any rate, Austen proceeds to tell the reader that Catherine Morland isn't the typical heroine that the reader might be familiar with. Catherine was something of a tomboy when she was younger, and loved nothing more than to run and play noisily outdoors. She grew more feminine as she aged, and by the time she was 17, which is when the events of the novel take place, she was actually beautiful. Yet, Austen tells us, she was as "ignorant" as a young woman of that age could be.

Catherine's family could best be described as middle class. They certainly weren't poor, but they didn't quite have enough money to rub elbows with the truly wealthy. In Austen's time, this was a very important point. Marriages were often made based on incomes, and it was highly unusual for a man or woman of fortune to take a spouse who's personal wealth did not measure up at least to some degree. Since Catherine was of marrying age, readers could be relatively certain that her family's standing would come into play later in the novel.

One day, Catherine receives an invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Allen to join them on a trip to bath. The Allens are family friends of the Morlands. They are wealthy, childless, and have taken a liking to Catherine. The trip is soon arranged, and Catherine and the Allens set out on their journey.

At first, the trip isn't much of a success because the Allens don't know anyone in town. So Catherine's days and nights are pretty boring because she has no one to socialize with. Even when she attends a ball with Mrs. Allen, she can't have fun because no one talks to her and, worse yet, no one asks her to dance.

Soon after the ball, Catherine's stay at Bath will take a turn for the better. That's because she is introduced to a young man named Henry Tilney at one of the many social gathering places in the town. Henry and Catherine immediately hit it off. Henry is enchanted by Catherine's beauty, while Catherine is impressed by Henry's charm and wit. Even during their first meeting, the reader can tell that Catherine and Henry are destined for romance.

Of course, since Northanger Abbey is a novel, things won't proceed very smoothly for the characters involved. Sure enough, several obstacles present themselves to Catherine. First of all, Henry soon leaves Bath after their first meeting and she doesn't know if she will ever see him again. Second, Catherine has the misfortune to make the acquaintance of the Thorpe family, which includes Isabella, a young woman near Catherine's own age, and her brother John. Isabella and Catherine become fast friends, though Catherine is too naive to see that Isabella is using her as a means of getting closer to Catherine's brother James. Meanwhile, John falls in love with Catherine, but he is so boorish and overbearing that Catherine can't bear to be in his company for very long.

Eventually, Catherine and Henry are afforded more opportunities to spend time together. This is partly owing to the fact that Catherine befriends Henry's sister Eleanor. Eleanor, with her father's blessing, invites Catherine to stay at the Tilney home, Northanger Abbey, for a few weeks. Eleanor and Catherine become so close and grow so fond of each other, however, that the Catherine's visit gets extended.

Once at the Abbey, Catherine and Henry can get to know each other better, and their feelings for each other deepen. The reader gets insight only into Catherine's thoughts on the matter; Henry's feelings can only be divined by examining his actions.

There is one more obstacle that Catherine and Henry must overcome if they are to "live happily ever after." What that obstacle is, and whether or not the two young people do indeed succeed, I will not reveal here.

Overall, I have to say that Northanger Abbey certainly didn't feel like a typical Austen novel. I know that it's sometimes a good thing for authors to experiment and try different approaches to their novels, but I felt there was something missing in this story. It wasn't what I would call a page-turner, and since I am not familiar with the Gothic novels that Austen constantly refers to and satirizes within the pages of Northanger Abbey, I found a lot of parts to be quite boring -- and often ridiculous.

Nevertheless, as an Austen fan, I am glad to be able to say that I have finally read Northanger Abbey. I think a lot of people might come away from this book with mixed feelings. It doesn't inspire either love or hate; it's just kind of there. So if you are an Austen fan, I would advise you to approach this book with the knowledge that it's not at all like her other works. If you're not an Austen fan, you could probably skip this one entirely and not be any worse off for it.

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