Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book's heroine is the sort of person, the narrator tells us, no one would have expected to be a heroine. But from that opening sentence on, that's exactly what we expect - that, and a story that will stand the conventions of sensational, Gothic fiction on their ear.

I opened this book under the influence of a rumor that it is primarily about a silly girl whose habit of reading novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho leads her into an embarrassing misunderstanding while staying in the stately home named in its title. Actually, that is only a minor subplot in a book that, like everything else by Austen that I have read so far, is really about a girl's dramatically fraught struggle to land Mr. Right.

In this case the girl is literally a girl: 17-year-old Catherine Morland, the eldest daughter of a clergyman and his wife who have 10 children. Mr. Right, right enough, turns out to be the first eligible male to whom she is introduced while accompanying a childless local couple to a season in the then-fashionable spa city of Bath. Unfortunately, Catherine has no experience in society, and the flighty Mrs. Allen, her chaperone, isn't a reliable instructor. So, she blunders her way into one fix after another, partly through her ill-judged friendship with the coquettish Isabella Thorpe. Isabella has designs on Catherine's brother James, and Isabella's odious brother John has designs on Catherine, but in spite of their best efforts, they seem unable to sabotage Catherine's growing attachment to the clever Henry Tilney and his lonely sister Eleanor. Things are looking really promising when Catherine is invited to visit the Tilneys' romantic pile for a while, but the Thorpes haven't played their last trick.

In addition to the romantic suspense of the story, this book contains an impassioned defense of the habit of novel reading, some superbly comic passages, and a daring number of authorial intrusions into the narrative, reminding us that Catherine & Co. are, after all, characters in a novel. It's a piece of romanticism with an anti-romantic wink, and sometimes more than just a wink. And it all goes by so quickly that you'll notice the dwindling number of unread pages with a sigh of regret.

Although one of Austen's earliest mature novels - she sold it to a publisher in 1803 - it was not printed until after her death in 1817. She is also the author of Persuasion (originally published with this book), Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. I can personally vouch for them all, except Mansfield Park (which I haven't read yet), as delightful pieces of Regency-era romantic comedies/comedies of manners, written with transparent style, economy of language, gentle irony, and sparkling wit.

On the other hand, I would rather not recommend the edition of this book I read, due to its preface by literary maven Margaret Drabble, who seriously entertains some of the most obnoxious and destructive feminist criticism of this book. I recommend enjoying this book for what it is, and for what generations before us have prized it for: a piece of lightweight, lighthearted entertainment by a self-taught authoress who scarcely lived long enough to be anything but a sheltered young lady, who knew never lived anywhere but under her parents' roof, who knew nothing but the provincial drawing room, the social hothouse of places like Bath, and the "marriage mart" of the late Regency period when, thanks to the Napoleonic wars, eligible English women significantly outnumbered their male counterparts. She wrote what she knew; she wrote it convincingly; she filled it with charm and a touch of good-natured good sense; and somehow, she bequeathed on English literature a small body of prose that remains among the most prized novels of her time. The books enjoyed by this book's characters, and lampooned by its storyline, are now almost forgotten. But we remember Austen. And we forgive her for not being the battle-axe people like Drabble seem to believe she should have been. I wish those people would get over it; but it doesn't matter. Austen triumphs in spite of them.

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