Review: Northanger Abbey

50398Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen
251 pages
Published 1817

From Goodreads: Northanger Abbey is often referred to as Jane Austen’s Gothic parody. Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist.

The story’s heroine is Catherine Morland, an innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey? Can she trust Henry, or is he part of an evil conspiracy? Catherine finds dreadful portents in the most prosaic events, until Henry persuades her to see the peril in confusing life with art.

My Thoughts

I think I first picked up Northanger Abbey during a phase some years ago where I read almost exclusively classic books- 1984The Picture of Dorian GrayJane Eyre, that sort of thing. I figured I should give Jane Austen another chance, despite having read Pride and Prejudice at least two or three times for school and not having much interest in it. But the idea of Austen spoofing the gothic tales I’d read for my English 350 class amused my little goth heart. So I found a copy and set to reading.

I very nearly giggled my way through the story while Catherine imagined herself to be in dire situations, only to have her imaginings dashed when, say, the ‘forgotten letters’  turned out to be receipts. I didn’t pick up on Austen’s lessons the first time through. Sometimes it takes a few reading to figure them out, but that’s the thing about a good book- you can read it a dozen times and still find new things.

For example, I did not realize until this reading- my third or fourth- that Isabella and John Thorpe spent a good deal of time gaslighting the story’s heroine, Catherine Morland. The Thorpes imagine that Catherine and her brother James are far wealthier than they are, and so do everything they can to ingratiate themselves with the Morland siblings in order to procure wealthy spouses. They talk themselves up- John in particular, to a nauseating degree- and outright lie to Catherine about the goings-on of Henry Tilney, the young man Catherine is falling in love with. The most egregious example of this gaslighting occurs when Isabella insists that James proposed to Catherine when Catherine is quite sure that he did not. Fortunately, Catherine keeps her wits about her enough to deny this “proposal” until Isabella gives up.

Austen’s lesson? Keep your head about  you, and don’t go along with people just to be agreeable, or else you might end up in a terrible situation. Like getting married to John Thorpe.

Northanger Abbey’s primary lesson, though, is to remember to not confuse life with art. Catherine– partially by choice, and partially due to Isabella’s influence– gets so wrapped up in the melodramas of the gothic novels she’s been reading that she sees ominous events everywhere when she arrives at Northanger Abbey. Instead of seeing Mrs. Tilney’s long-ago death as a tragic, but not-unexpected event, she reads dark motives into Mr. Tilney’s responses- right up to the point where her beloved Henry realizes that Catherine suspects his father caused his mother’s death. Though his admonition seems quite gentle to me (a man of his time could have been far crueler to Catherine, and few would have found fault with it), it serves its purpose. Catherine comes to her senses, and the book’s romance can continue without imaginary specters hanging over it.

It’s no wonder the Bronte sisters didn’t like Jane Austen. The madwoman in the attic of Thornfield Hall and the ghosts of Wuthering Heights would have been driven right out of Jane Austen’s books. Sensible people get ahead in an Austen novel, not the dramatists.

I have Catherine Morland and her wild imagination to thank for my love of Jane Austen. Without Catherine poking around the closets and locked doors of Northanger Abbey and the humor those misadventures inspired, I wouldn’t have gone on to re-read Pride and Prejudice or any of the others.

So my recommendation is this: if you’re trying to get into Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility isn’t your cup of tea, start with Northanger Abbey. Catherine is a charming heroine, and if you let it work its charms, this book will help you see just how funny and how witty Jane Austen is.

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