Martine's Reviews > Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
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's review
Jul 08, 08

bookshelves: british, eighteenth-century, romance, gothic, film
Recommended for: Jane Austen fans and girlish girls
Read in April, 1996

Penguin calls Northanger Abbey 'the most youthful and optimistic' of Jane Austen’s romances. I'm going to be slightly less generous myself and call it the most immature of her major works. While the story about a seventeen-year-old girl who is led astray by false friends and her own overactive imagination is delightful, the way in which it is told is in some regards quite immature. So is the heroine herself, who sadly doesn't really work for me. As far as I'm concerned, sweet and naïve Catherine Morland would have made a superb secondary character in any of Austen's other novels, but as a protagonist in her own right, she strikes me as being rather inconsequential. Nor is her romance with Henry Tilney (who is definitely among Austen's more endearing young men) very memorable. It is neither intense and passionate (like Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby's) nor ever-lasting (like Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth's) nor a sparring match between two sophisticated equals (like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy's). Rather it's an uneventful minuet between an affable young man and a silly young woman in which the young man's affection, in Austen's own words, originates 'in nothing better than gratitude ... in other words ... a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.' It's an original premise, as Austen herself points out ('the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own'), but when it comes to central romances, I think I prefer grand and passionate to original and mundane.

The lack of a mature heroine and a great central romance isn't my only problem with Northanger Abbey. While the light-hearted tone of the book and the witty authorial voice definitely have their charms, I have to admit to finding the humour a bit too farcical at times, and the parody (inspired not just by the Gothic novels identified in the book but also by Smollett and Fielding) a little over the top. Call me dull, but I prefer the subtle, dignified satire of the more mature Austen to the rather burlesque and eighteenth-century humour on display here. I guess I've always been more of a nineteenth-century person than an eighteenth-century one. I'm glad Jane Austen eventually became one, too. :-)

Needless to say, Northanger Abbey also has plenty of merits. As a commentary on society, it's as good as anything Austen wrote later, if (again) a little less subtle. As a portrait of friendship, too, it is excellent; the juxtaposition of Catherine's friendship with the infuriatingly selfish Isabella and John Thorpe on the one hand and the perfectly agreeable Henry and Eleanor Tilney on the other is very successful. And yes, overimaginative teenage girls, gold-diggers and tyrannical paters familias will always make good subjects for a satirist, so kudos to Austen for recognising their potential and making the most of it. She was definitely onto a good story here; I just wish she had had the time to revise it before she died, as she was planning to. No doubt the combination of her youthful imagination and later grasp of story-telling techniques would have resulted in a great classic. As it is, it's just a nice book -- in Catherine's sense of the word, not Henry's.
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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Jul 08, 2008 07:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly See, and I much prefer Austen's witty, lighthearted beginning of her career than the tail end of it in where she got caught up in the Romantic movement and all that implied. I've always felt the Persuasion was the sort of novel that she would have laughed at around the time that she was writing Northanger Abbey. I do not mean to say that Persuasion does not have its more delicate charms, in terms of beauty of description, and the brooding perspective of star crossed lovers changed by knowledge of the world, wisdom gained, etc. I've just always felt that Persuasion was far too sentimental for my tastes, and the dranatically drawn "love conquers all," epic lovers' tale left me wondering if it was truly Austen I read, and not some long lost Bronte sister.

Perhaps her intent may be to have shown such a star crossed love with an ending that could happen in the real world. That's certainly what I had hoped when I began reading. But I don't think that it turned out that way. I think she let herself get carried away, particularly with the ending. It was all a little too contrived for me. A part of me wonders if Jane wasn't playing out her own wistful dreams and regrets about the past on the page and writing a little fantasy for herself, which is rather sad, really.

I do think that many of your criticisms of Northanger Abbey are just. We don't really care about the main couple (aside from some amusement with Henry Tilney) and the supporting cast really isn't that interesting either. But I think its meant to be that way. I know you think the parody is a bit over the top, but I just love the young, gleeful spirit of it. Jane as a young girl, skewering the gothic literature of the day with her sharp wit and preternaturally realistic, cynical outlook on life. Was she a bit impressed with her own cleverness at times? Sure. But I much prefer to see her exercising her muscles this way than to see her falling prey to the sort of illusions and sentiment that she spent her life poking fun at.

It is in the end a matter of taste, of course. I do appreciate the virtues of both novels, my preference just happens to fall upon this one. :)

PS: Penguin lies. 'optimistic'? Not at all.

Martine I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree here. I don't mind Northanger Abbey at all (it's perfectly enjoyable light entertainment -- the authorial voice is a hoot!), but I definitely prefer Persuasion. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Persuasion is my second-favourite Austen novel after Pride and Prejudice. It wasn't always, but I like it better each time I read it, despite its sentimental, melodramatic and overromanticised tendencies. It somehow strikes me as Austen's best-balanced story, in that it has both a funny satirical side, a serious societal one and a brooding romantic one. I've always loved brooding, romantic stories, and I always had a thing for tales about star-crossed lovers. So I guess I had no choice but to love Persuasion. :-)

As for Austen writing out her own regrets about the past in Persuasion, that's an interesting point. I'd never really given it any thought, but I suppose you might be right. No wonder the book has such a genuinely melancholy quality...

With regard to Northanger Abbey, I like it like I do the juvenilia -- as an introduction to the young Jane Austen and as a look at how she developed and matured as an author. I do think it's a pretty impressive book for a 23-year-old to have written, but I can't help holding it up to the standards of the mature Austen, by which it's immature (as I think we both agree). As I said in my review, I'd have loved to see the changes Austen would have wrought if she'd had the opportunity to revise the novel. I doubt she would have changed the tone of the book much, but I'm sure she would have added a bit more subtlety and improved the supporting cast somewhat. You know, made John Thorpe a bit less obviously obnoxious, fleshed out Catherine's brother and Elinor, found a way to introduce Elinor's secret lover before the last chapter, that sort of thing. If she'd had the time to do all that, I'm sure I would have loved the book to pieces. But alas, the Grim Reaper intervened...

For what it's worth, my three-star rating is really 3.5 stars. I hate that we can't give half stars here!

Martine ... and by 'Elinor' in my previous comment I obviously meant 'Eleanor'. I wouldn't want to be accused of mixing up my Austen heroines!

message 4: by A J (new)

A J Brenchley 'Quite immature': I can't agree. While it is true that certain aspects -- Catherine Morland's credulity, for one -- are at times hard for a modern reader to swallow, this is a virtually immaculate tale. She could do better -- and she did. But this is NOT an immature production. You're also quite wrong about the fact of revision: it has been established by outside evidence (obituaries of 1810, for one) that Austen DID revise this manuscript in her more mature period before its publication.

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