A review (Or essay? What’s the difference?) of Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. This is my third or fourth read through of the book.
Before I met Marcel Proust, Jane Austen was my favourite author by far. Now I have reread Pride and Prejudice often enough to be unfortunately tired of it. (The recent comic version of it put out by Marvel is still good to read, but the movie always puts me to sleep…)
So my new Jane favourite is a tie between Persuasion and Emma, because the one has the romance (and lovely mature elegiac melancholy tone) and the other has the homey cozy comedy. Pride and Prejudice has comedy and romance together, but for some reason it just doesn’t appeal anymore like it used to.
I am reading the other Austens now on this holiday, the ones that I don’t read as often. Northanger Abbey was the second of her novels that I read, snatching it away from my roommate after she had introduced me to Pride and Prejudice. At the time I wrote silly little sarcastic stories for the amusement of my friends and oh how I loved Austen’s satire of everyone, especially in Northanger Abbey, the heroine, and what it meant to be the heroine of a novel at all.
Now that I am writing this, I think Jane Austen must have been the first truly adult author I ever read. I had grown up reading the good sanitized christian novels and the old children’s classics like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. Jane Austen may be old fashioned, but her satire always keeps her from being sentimental. Her novels still had the happy ending I got in every book I had ever read, but with bite. She said things I thought, as a frustrated and overlooked bookworm.
I had read all the classic good girl books, Little Women and all its sequels, and this was the first author I truly and totally identified with and loved. I loved books, the escape and pleasure of a good story, and so was willing to put up with whoever would supply me with a decent one, but I didn’t passionately love an author until I met Jane Austen.
From the first time I read Northanger Abbey until now, I have always preferred Henry Tilney over Mr. Darcy. (And definitely over the rest of them too.) For the first, last and everything in between reason: he has a sense of humour. And Darcy is kind of a stiff.
Henry is the only Austen hero who is truly a good person (clergyman: check! Not also ridiculous: check!) and who is also allowed to be charming. The whole entire time. Wentworth is sulky. Edward Ferrars just awkward. Edmund Bertram is blind and not much fun on the side. Knightley lectures. But the dear Henry Tilney makes jokes. He’s even better than the bad boys Wickham, Willoughby and Henry Crawford combined, they only flutter their eyelashes, complain about being mistreated and then murmur something vaguely naughty. Henry will be polite and kind, while flirtatiously teasing you the whole time.
The problem with Northanger Abbey, at least for me, is the parts Henry isn’t in. Why doesn’t he have more page time is my constant complaint. Instead there are the Thorpes and General Tilney, greedy and manipulative in many small ways. Of all of Austen’s alternate bad marriage choices available to the heroine, John Thorpe has always disturbed me the most. He doesn’t even flutter his eyelashes and give Catherine a good time, he acts like a tacky used car salesman, trying to trick and brag his way into her affections without any semblance of kindness. He and his family are consumed in petty greed and vanity and that somehow seems far worse, far more chilling and cold. At least the Crawfords in Mansfield Park genuinely like Fanny and Edmund, and Willoughby certainly loves Marianne. But John Thorpe only falls on Catherine because she’s handy, she’s naive and he thinks she’s rich.
In that way, Northanger Abbey is actually probably more realistic of her time period than some of Austen’s other novels. Bath was likely full of people like the Thorpes, Isabellas pretending self importance and unconcern and meanwhile trying to stuff themselves with as much male attention as they could get. I’m not sure someone like Mr. Darcy has ever actually existed, but the General Tilney type, busy trying to push his second son (who won’t get the big inheritance) on a girl he thinks is wealthy, is guaranteed to have lived, repeatedly.
Austen does two things in Northanger Abbey: she parodies the gothic novel that was very popular at the time and she also shows who the real villains of her society are: not the scheming in black caricature villains, but the ones all around us, the ones who could even be our friends. The ones who are lying and manipulative, but always in little ways.
On a different note, I finally tried to look for when Henry starts to pay Catherine more serious attention beyond the teasing and to me it seems to come after he lectures her about her overly fanciful imagination! He has become serious with her, he has genuinely hurt her (she runs from him crying) and then… “the only difference in his behaviour to her, was that he paid her rather more attention than usual.” Perhaps her reaction helps him to see her in a different light. Before this he has often gently made fun of her for not knowing enough, often for simply using words the wrong way. Now he comforts her after he sees that she has a good heart underneath her girlish thoughtlessness.
And soon after, when Isabella is shown up for what she is, Henry further sees Catherine’s character develop in comparison: she doesn’t blindly support her friend, she cares about what is right and about her family. (Maybe he’s affected by seeing Catherine cry yet again?) “Henry, earnestly watching her through the whole letter…” He watches her read her letter to see how it makes her feel, even more closely than Eleanor does, it implies.
Catherine truly grows up at Northanger Abbey, she outgrows her gothic ‘visions of romance’, the false fictions of imagination and instead experiences real life. In the end, she also finds real love too, despite all the typical narrative conventions being against her.
(Interestingly, I am rather naive and overly imaginative, while my husband is a tease, often playing on words. Somehow the personality match seems to work well! I used to be annoyed with Austen’s ending, that Henry only started to like Catherine because she liked him first, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that….)
Discussion questions: your favourite Austen hero? Or bad boy? Anyone want to talk about the many charms and intrigues of Henry Tilney? Which Austen character are you (or friends and family) most like? And anything else to do with Jane Austen that you feel like discussing.
(My husband and I actually became friends in the bookstore we both worked at because a coworker didn’t find Pride and Prejudice funny or even interesting and I had to protest about that to the nearest person available and that person was him and he’d had to read P&P for university and thought it was more than alright, so. Thank you again Jane Austen!)