Scott's Reviews > Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
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Sep 09, 2008

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bookshelves: humor, regency
Read in September, 2008

Northanger Abbey (1803) hooked me with its first, hilarious paragraph, and I was eager to tuck in to what I hoped would be a light and entertaining comedy of manners along the lines of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View. The first chapters didn't disappoint. I enjoyed Austen's gentle but revealing wit as she drew a warts-&-all portrait of her ingénue, Catherine Morland, who slowly discovers life's many ironies as she comes of age in Regency Bath.

But as the brief chapters slid by, the prose became ever more abstract and difficult to decipher. Austen struggled to maintain the humor and charm of the first pages. So many of the characters and so much of the plot were obscured by her labored verbiage. At key moments I was reading and re-reading some sentences three or four times trying to figure out what was happening, and I was often confused, unable to easily determine who was speaking during much of the dialogue. Toward the end of the first volume the humor dried to a trickle, and the story, unencumbered with much of a plot, started to wither.

A couple chapters into the second volume, and I started counting pages, reckoning how long it would take me to get out of this thin novel. With only thirty pages left, Austen at last created a little suspense, and for a few pages I was hooked again: Jane had me in a headlock trying to figure out what General Tilney's true intentions were ... only to be disappointed when his mundane designs were revealed. The tidy ending was satisfying but not surprising in the least.

Austen re-wrote her first two unpublished novels, turning them into the classics Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It's a pity that Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication (though never actually printed during Austen's life); perhaps if she had the opportunity to revise it as well, she would have created a comic masterpiece to rival her other more mature novels.



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