Monday, 6 June 2016

Book #28

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen


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. 

In Northanger Abbey, Austen writes a parody of 18th century Gothic novels. Our protagonist, Catherine, is a huge lover of these types of stories, and they, alongside her naivety and lack of life experience in general, have an influence on the way she makes judgement on others, and on situations.

The book is one of two halves. In the first, we're treated to Catherine's social experiences in Bath: making friends, attending balls and plays, falling in love, and learning of societal custom in all of these affairs. We're shown materialism, selfishness, and utter greed from her associates, but Catherine doesn't partake in any of these flaws, nor does she quite understand the motives driving them. The second half takes us to Northanger Abbey, a more lonesome rural setting, where Catherine's misguided judgements of others come to a head, and the realisation of her foolishness hits her like a horse and four.

Austen's subtle allusions to Gothic novels are hilarious, particularly in her use of free indirect discourse when describing Catherine's thoughts about the abbey. Her brain flies into a frenzy before she arrives at Northanger, imagining crumbling walls, candles which snuff themselves out unexpectedly, cabinets which hold old letters inscribed with scandals, and even, just maybe, a woman locked away against her will. Each imaginative fancy reveals itself to have a perfectly rational explanation, and all quickly move Catherine into maturity.

This is Austen's first work, and although it holds many of her well-known ornaments (including naive women and social commentary), there's a difference in that the pages aren't peppered with the obsession of finding a man to marry. Instead, Austen shows us a naive creature, and allows us to follow her maturation and discoveries. Catherine emerging from her chrysalis, and realising that life just isn't like a Gothic novel at all, is gorgeous, relatable, and something to treasure.

The story, the characters, and the situations are all entirely timeless. We all know a John Thorpe. We all know a Mrs Allen. The social expectations and customs are different, and interesting to read, but when stripped down, they are still very much apparent 200 years later. Isabella Thorpe was a particular favourite of mine, with her rampant flirtations, flighty desires, and entirely sarcastic comments. She was a perfect antagonist, and one who very well could, and no doubt has, appeared in my life so long after the novel was written.

I'm a huge Austen fan, and loved this one just as much as the more-recent of Austen's works. There was far less romance involved here than usual, which I loved, and I particularly enjoyed seeing young Austen's pure attitude and opinion shine through her words. I think we could have been great friends, Jane and I.

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