Monday, September 13, 2010

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine."

Catherine Morland comes from a large and loving family but too often has her head in the clouds or in a book, dreaming of Gothic castles filled with mystery and romance. She views the world through the prism of the books she reads and when she is invited to Bath by family friends the Allens, she jumps at the chance for adventure.

While there she is introduced to the Thorpes who use her innocence to their advantage. Fortunately she has the worldly Mr. Henry Tilney, who knows something about muslin, to guide her through the murky waters of society. After getting to know Henry better, she is invited to his childhood home, Northanger Abbey, where she suspects something sinister has happened to his mother.

The novel is an excellent parody of Gothic novels that were popular at the beginning of the 19th century, such as "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe. In fact, apparently the problem was that Austen had trouble getting the novel published and it wasn't until after her death in 1817 that it was put into print. By then the references to various popular Gothic novels were out of date and the book lost a little of its punch. Regardless though, Bath plays a major role in this book as it does with other Austen novels and the reader follows themes of maturation and life vs fiction.

This was Austen's first completed novel and it shows. As a character, Catherine doesn't feel fully realized. She's one of Austen's youngest heroines and is very much naive of the larger world and society. She has a very sweet personality but was maddeningly frustrating in her innocence. She has lived a very sheltered life but from a modern standpoint she seems ridiculous to forgive and believe some of John and Isabella's explanations for their behaviour and actions. By the end of the novel though, while Catherine has matured, she is still less independent and self-assured than some of Jane's other heroines such as Anne Elliot or Lizzy Bennett. This is understandable as "Northanger Abbey" is an earlier work and while Catherine's character may be less than satisfying to those who've read other Austen works, Henry Tilney makes up for this with his witty banter.

I found the scenes in Bath concerning Isabella and John to be far more interesting than Catherine's investigations at Northanger concerning General Tilney. While Catherine sees Isabella's comments as only sincere and heartfelt due to her naivety, the reader can see behind the facade that she constructs. The story seemed to drag as soon as Catherine reached the abbey and with the slower pace I lost interest. There was also no secondary storyline which is something I always look forward to in an Austen novel.

I'm finding that I have to ration my Austen novels. I only have three more to go and I want to savour them, almost like a last meal. Overall I enjoyed the book but Northanger would definitely go to the bottom of the pile behind "Persuasion" and "Pride and Prejudice".

Rating: 3.5/5

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