Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen



I’m going to divert from Young Adult fiction today to look at a bit of classic literature.  You will soon discover that I’m a bit of an Austen fan and she is one of the few romance writers that I can stand.  I would like to eventually review all six of Jane Austen’s published novels, but I felt it was very important that I start not with one of the three high profile Austen classics (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Emma) but with Jane’s first novel.  Northanger Abbey was the first novel that Austen completed, however it was not the first published – in fact it wasn’t published until after her death. 

Now I’m nowhere near decisive enough to actually be able to pick a favourite Jane Austen novel, but if I were to try, Northanger Abbey would be one of the front-runners.  It is a delightful book, short in length and fairly simple to follow (unlike a lot of her other, rather complex narratives), which makes it my pick if you are new to Austen or even classic literature.  But let’s look at the story before I give any more opinions.

Our heroine (because Jane Austen books always have a heroine as opposed to a main character or protagonist), is young Catherine Morland.  She is 17 years of age, which if you know your history, was a good marrying age for women in the Regency era, and one of ten children of a very loving country clergyman.  She is an avid reader with a very active imagination and a love of Gothic novels, in particular the works of Ann Radcliffe.

At the kind invitation of their wealthy neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen, Catherine joins the childless couple on a journey to Bath to enjoy the winter season and her first encounter in real ‘society’.  After a slow start due to not really having any friends in Bath, Catherine meets the charming, clever and handsome Mr. Henry Tilney, the second son of a rather wealthy family.  Soon after, Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe, the rather spirited and exceptionally flirtatious daughter of one of Mrs Allen’s old school friends, and the sister of John Thorpe, a friend of her elder brother James.  Catherine and Isabella become fast friends, sharing a love of gothic novels, and they are soon joined by James and John, the latter of whom forms a prompt interest in Catherine. 

Before long, Mr. Tilney re-enters the story, this time with his sister, the perfectly elegant but extremely sweet and kind Eleanor.  Catherine forms an immediate friendship with the siblings, and also meets their rather pompous and imposing father, General Tilney.  After spending a good part of the season in Bath, Catherine is surprisingly invited by General Tilney to join the family at their estate – Northanger Abbey, which she of course accepts.  The large, old house holds many secrets, and with an overactive imagination like Catherine’s, intriguing and often amusing incidents are certain to unfold.

As I mentioned earlier, the storyline is rather simple, not in a negative way, but in the sense that it is very easily to follow.  If you are new to this sort of literature, the language can be a challenge in itself, so the simplicity of the narrative helps to make it accessible. 

The characters though, are anything but simple.  Catherine Morland is delightful as the heroine of this story.  She is ridiculously na├»ve and the fact that she has almost no idea that several gentlemen are interested in her is actually quite endearing and amusing.  She is terribly trusting and assumes that those who are her friends would not lie to her or abuse her trust on purpose, which of course leads to all sorts of complications and misunderstandings.  The Thorpes are extremely amusing in their vulgarity and constant attempts to raise their own importance at the expense of others.  They seem to jump off the page, almost as caricatures, and the fact that you can see not-so-pleasant qualities in them that Catherine obviously misses, just seems to make the whole thing more enjoyable.  The Allens are pleasant and unimposingly amusing ‘sidekicks’, who bring their own quirks to Catherine’s little world (Mrs Allen’s obsession with fashion and clothing always makes me smile) and add some extra colour and depth to the cast of characters.

Whilst I cannot pin down a favourite Austen Novel, Henry Tilney is by far my favourite of all Jane Austen’s male love interests.  To say he is charming would be to do him a disservice; he is clever, funny, honest, caring and a complete and utter flirt!  He shows great kindness towards his sister Eleanor, and is incredibly patient with the terribly clueless Catherine, although he does love to tease her (good-naturedly of course).  He is a man who understands the ways of the world and yet is not swayed by it; he knows his own heart and mind and eventually that serves him well.

Besides being a lovely story with well-written characters, it is fascinating to note how much of Jane Austen’s personality and thoughts you can discern from Northanger Abbey.  Austen has a very specific writing style, which reveals something of her inner self in all of her works, but I find Northanger to be one of the most interesting.  There is a lot of focus in the book on the ridiculousness and frivolity of novels and in the dangers of letting one’s mind wander too far from reality into the realms of fantasy.  Austen’s own insecurities of herself as a young writer and her choice of profession (female writers were very rare and even less so respected at the time) are expressed through her teasing of novels and the romantic minds of young women.  It is rather special and almost intimate to get such an insight into a talented and respected author’s mind.

Northanger Abbey is definitely a book I recommend, it is delightful and one of those stories that quickly welcomes you in to its world.  I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you decide to read the book after reading this review. 

I am currently reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ so that will be my next review, hopefully it will be up soon.