Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Janespotting: Northanger Abbey (Austen's original)

The holidays interrupted me, but finally I get to resume my examination of Austen and her imitators by moving onto her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously in 1818. Why skip over Mansfield Park and Emma? First of all, NA was actually the first novel Austen actually completed and sold for publication, although the bookseller who initially purchased it decided not to publish after all, and Austen's brother Edward ended up buying back the rights. (What a comfort to us aspiring authors: even Jane Austen had problems getting published.) Second, NA is one of my favorite Austen novels, for it's her funniest. It's a parody of the gothic fiction of the time, and there's more about writing and books in it than in any of her other works. On several occasions she defends novels and the writing of them:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
NA's heroine, Catherine Morland, is certainly not snobbish about novels; she devours Gothic romances like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho with gusto. There's not much else for her to do at home in the country with her many brothers and sisters, but soon she's called to accompany her wealthy neighbors, the Allens, to Bath. Ah, Bath! Later, in Persuasion, Austen would portray this resort city as tiresome (as she herself found it), but in NA we see it full of all the fun and activity that would enchant a naive 17 year old: plays, shopping, and best of all, assemblies where one might make new acquaintances. Almost immediately Catherine makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney, a young clergyman with a quirky wit who catches her fancy.

Not long afterward she befriends Isabella Thorpe, the daughter of one of Mrs. Allen's friends. Isabella is quick to claim her as a bosom friend, and introduces Catherine to her brother John, who is a bit crude and wild, but is also a friend of Catherine's brother James, so she tries to be polite. She would much rather spend time with Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, but Isabella and James conspire to usurp Catherine's time, even going so far as to lie in order to get her to accompany them on a drive instead of a prior engagement with the Tilneys. (This "kidnapping" scene is just one of many that parodies typical events in a gothic novel.) Still, Catherine remains close to Isabella, especially after she announces her engagement to James.

Things start to head south in Bath after Isabella discovers that James's marriage settlement will be less than she imagined ... and she imagined quite a lot, it's clear from both her attitude and James's pursuit of Catherine. Catherine, of course, remains clueless to this, just as she doesn't realize that the Tilneys have extended an invitation to their home at Northanger Abbey because General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry's father, believes her to be an heiress. Catherine is excited about the trip to the Abbey, believing it will be just as full of atmosphere as the castles and monasteries of her Gothic favorites. Henry even teases her about it on the trip there:
How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! And what will you discern? Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fireplace the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it.
Of course, after Catherine arrives she lets her imagination run away with her. She looks into a wardrobe only to find a laundry list, and misinterprets General Tilney's reluctance for her to see the late Mrs. Tilney's rooms as something sinister. When Henry catches her peeking into his mother's rooms and intuits her thinking, she is deeply ashamed. She also wises up about the Thorpe family, after Isabella throws over James for the wealthier Captain Tilney, and then writes Catherine to intercede with James after she discovers Tilney was only playing with her. Still, Catherine is puzzled when General Tilney suddenly comes home one day and abruptly orders her out, not realizing that the General has just discovered she isn't an heiress.

She returns home, sad and puzzled, and after a few days everything is resolved quickly, in true Gothic fashion: Henry visits, appalled by his father's behavior, and proposes; Eleanor own, previously unmentioned, suitor comes into money and a title and softens General Tilney's objections; and the Thorpes fade into obscurity.

With a typical happy ending, and a whole bunch of comic subversions of the Gothic genre, why isn't NA more of a favorite with readers? My best guess is that it's because Catherine Morland is a rather unexciting heroine. Although she's honest and sweet, she's naive, not particularly witty, and ignorant. Even Austen recognized Catherine's limitations:
though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.
Personally, I love reading Northanger Abbey; it makes me giggle, all those literary subversions. It even makes me curious about all those Gothic originals ... and I'll be reading those for future "Janespotting" installments, although first I'll be visiting some of the TV adaptations. Next up: the 1987 BBC/A&E movie.

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