LeAnn's Reviews > Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
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Feb 26, 2011

really liked it
Read from February 24 to 26, 2011

I really enjoyed Austen's Northanger Abbey, perhaps partly due to the fact that I'd mistakenly thought it must be less good than her other novels, all of which I've read. Certainly there aren't a-thousand-and-one sequels, prequels, adaptations, and movies of it, are there?

However, I think I understand. Northanger Abbey is less a romance than a satire of Gothic romance. It's witty authorial commentary on the progression of the story and the action of the characters made me laugh out loud, but I rather suspect that a reader hoping to become immersed in an unfolding love story would find these bits of commentary distracting.

I'm less certain about Austen's intents regarding the enjoyment of popular novels. Clearly, the hero, Henry, mocks and abuses them, yet he's familiar with them enough to understand their conventions and attractions. In addition, while he points out their negative influence on Catherine, the heroine, who suspects his father of murdering his mother, he doesn't appear to judge her for her folly (although the implication is that she needs to grow up and not mistake a good yarn for real life). Finally, there are the brother-and-sister duo who nearly wreck Catherine and her brother James's chances for happiness through their conniving, selfish actions. One makes a list of books she clearly cares little about reading and the other admits to never reading at all.

As for Henry, I loved him. He reminds me a bit of Mr. Knightley, who points the error of her ways out to Emma, also subject to an overactive imagination concerning the people around her. But Henry has a sharper tongue--he's sarcastic and ironic, yet in a good way. That is, it seems to be his response to the shallow, self-serving, materialistic society he finds in Bath. As with Mr. Knightley's love of Emma, Henry values Catherine for her warm, open temperament and ability to recognize and feel remorse for mistreating others, if only in thought. He also doesn't hesitate to act upon his convictions and stands up to his intimidating father on Catherine's behalf, just as Mr. Knightley says that all right-thinking men should do when commenting on the behavior of Frank Churchill.

Interestingly, Henry is a minister. A woman in the Austen book club of which I'm a member goes out of her way to claim that Austen's general views on churchmen are negative (she also thinks Austen's books are populated with deficient or non-existent parents, but I suspect she hasn't read any YA literature in decades, if ever). Henry offers the strongest evidence yet that this Austen reader is mistaken. Austen's father was a parish priest. Given how supportive he appears to have been of her (he allowed her open access to his library, encouraged her in her writing, and even submitted one of her novels to a publisher on her behalf), and that three of her heroes (besides Henry, there is Edmund in Mansfield Park and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) all obtain a "living" as Anglican priests, I doubt very much that Austen intends to make a statement about churchmen in general. It seems more reasonable to me that Austen poked fun at individuals of all sorts who are vain, shallow, not self-aware, greedy, selfish and self-aggrandizing, moralizing, and snobby. She has as many worthless young people as parents and priests. In fact, if I draw any conclusions from her stories, it is that the majority of society deserves the brunt of her mockery and that fortitude and a great deal of luck only allowed the worthy few to find happiness.
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