Saturday, November 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey: finding humor in gothic melodrama. Seriously.

Thus concludes my quest to read all six of Austen’s novels, and boy am I glad I saved this one for last. It’s been so long since I read Emma, I’d almost forgotten that Austen novels could actually be fun. And considering the fact that the last two I read were a little on the solemn side, I was quite pleasantly surprised by how lighthearted and playful Northanger Abbey was. I liked it more than I expected, especially since I feel that it generally gets the least love from Austen fans, though I can’t imagine why. It’s still not my favorite of all six, but it’s definitely in the top three. But more on that later.

Northanger Abbey tells the story of a young girl who travels with family friends to Bath in order to experience fashionable society. She quickly makes a variety of new friends, including the seemingly kind and generous, but ultimately expedient and self-serving, Thorpes, as well as the more elegant and distinguished Tilneys. When the Tilneys invite her to stay at their home, the titular abbey, Catherine’s overactive imagination begins to run away with her. Finding herself housed in one of those old and forbidding structures featured in so many horror novels, she begins to imagine all sorts of dreadful, fantastical things about its inhabitants. Having unknowingly convinced herself that she’s the heroine of a story that doesn’t exist, she attempts to solve a mystery that isn’t really there. The results are amusing, but the consequences aren’t to be taken lightly as she winds up interfering in some rather serious matters along the way.

I was a little apprehensive in starting the novel, as I knew it contained a good deal of satire of gothic fiction. I happen to be a fan of the gothic novel (everything from Frankenstein to Jane Eyre – I eat it all up), and I was concerned I wouldn’t enjoy a book that basically made fun of another genre. Yet I needn’t have worried. Satire well and lovingly done can always be enjoyed, even by those who highly esteem its object. Northanger Abbey serves as much more than a stern lesson to naïve young girls about the inherent danger and foolishness of reading novels. Indeed, what a silly, hypocritical thing to write a novel about! On the contrary, Austen does not disparage fiction in this particular work of fiction. In fact, she spends the better part of an entire chapter defending the activity of reading novels against its harsher critics. And yet her tale does caution the over-zealous, indiscriminate reader against the unhappiness one can expect if one fails to distinguish properly between fiction and reality, something most readers can probably appreciate all too well. And all of this Austen accomplishes through a very entertaining and amusing story to boot.

The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland, a young girl from a large family who grew up in the countryside reading as many novels as she could get her hands on in diligent, if slightly misguided, preparation for the time she would enter fashionable society for the first time at the tender age of seventeen. Some readers might take issue with Catherine’s poor jugement and lack of perception throughout the novel, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The combination of her inexperience (she’s by far the youngest of Austen’s heroines) and her open, trusting nature (having grown up among good, honest people she naturally expects others to be good and honest as well) make her an easy target for those who would take advantage of her innocently unsuspicious character. It was really fun to get inside Catherine’s head, and to watch her grow up over the course of the novel.

I don't really have a whole lot else to say about this novel; although it was very enjoyable, it was pretty straightforward for the most part, which is why it doesn't trump the more complex Emma or Pride and Prejudice in my opinion. Heck, even the horrible Mansfeild Park was more discuss-able than this one.

That being said, Northanger Abbey was one of the most quotable of Austen’s novels, what with the heavy satire and all. Some memorable excerpts from the pages of Northanger Abbey

To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Ok, so now that I’ve finished all six completed Austen novels, I can finally rank them. (That was the whole point of reading them, right?) Drum roll, please…

1. Emma. Hands down. The funniest, the most entertaining heroine, the best cast of extended characters, plus a very satisfying romance.
2. Pride and Prejudice. The most romantic. Also, some pretty classic characters. The one with Mr. Collins.
3. Northanger Abbey. See above.
4. Persuasion. Was ok, but not the best.
5. Sense & Sensibility. Meh. Started out great, went downhill. Had lost patience with both sisters long before the end.
6. Mansfield Park. I’ve already said enough about my feelings for this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment