All Posts Contain Spoilers
There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.
It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision). They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.
In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes. Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.
I should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago. I’ve read all the others, twice at least. ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.
‘Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.
Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner. Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother. Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements. All will come right for everyone who deserves it.
But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best. Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey). The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.
Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels. Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.
And this little conceit is charming. But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work. Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down. And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.
But it is visible. There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘. First of all, the pacing is odd. Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself. Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly. Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!
A bigger problem is Catherine herself. Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day. She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy. Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip. Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:
“For 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.” (p. 168)
This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point. But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.
Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero. In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison. She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.
Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort. But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.
For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:
“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)
Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:
“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)
Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:
‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)
I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing. Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time. I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.