Oct 26, 2008

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, the daughter of a numerous family, accompanies her family’s friends Mr and Mrs Allen on a visit to Bath. Catherine is very fond of reading Gothic novels, particularly Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. In Bath she befriends Isabella Thorpe, the daughter of a childhood friend of Mrs Allen’s, and also Eleanor and Henry Tilney. When General Tilney, Miss and Mr Tilney’s father, invites her to visit the family’s estate, Northanger Abbey, Catherine is immediately intrigued. An Abbey! What dark secrets could it hold? During the visit, she cannot help but let her Gothic-novel fuelled imagination take the better of her.

Even though I’d heard before that Northanger Abbey was hilarious, I somehow didn’t expect to find it quite this funny. But well, I did. It really is completely hilarious. The scene when Catherine discovers an “ancient manuscript” at night, only to realize in the morning that it’s a linen inventory, is just priceless. I’m new to Jane Austen – this is my second experience with her, after having read Pride and Prejudice earlier this year – but I’ve always heard that she’s renowned for her irony. Now I understand why.

Northanger Abbey makes wide use of Gothic plot devices to create a very effective parody. What interested me the most was the way this was done. Let me start by quoting a passage that I think sets the tone for the whole novel:
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.
Even though Northanger Abbey pokes fun at overly dramatic Gothic novels, it really doesn’t degrade the work of fellow novelists. It doesn’t feel contemptuous or disdainful in the least. The tone put me in mind of what Terry Pratchett does with fantasy clich├ęs in The Colour of Magic. Both are insightful and gentle parodies, made even better by their creator’s obvious knowledge of the source material in question.

I also liked the self-aware storytelling style, and the very visible presence of the author in certain passages, like the one I quoted. It was interesting to see Jane Austen using many of the strategies that are often considered hallmarks of post-modernism – intertextuality and metafiction and blah blah blah – but which in fact have been used for centuries.

Another thing: I wonder whether Northanger Abbey would be considered a YA novel if it were first published in today’s highly compartmentalised market. There’s the protagonist’s age, for starters. Then there’s the fact that this is a coming-of-age story of sorts, a story about a young girl learning to be herself, to use her head, to trust her own judgement. Catherine’s hunches about people turn out not to be all that wrong. It’s just that the reasons behind certain suspicious actions are not quite as fanciful as she had imagined.

I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey, for the reasons mentioned above and for everything else. And by “everything else” I mean the great characterization, the writing, the brilliant dialogue, and the fact that it’s a very satisfying story.

Other memorable passages:
"I never look at it," said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, "without thinking of the south of France."
"You have been abroad then?" said Henry, a little surprised.
"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"
"Why not?"
"Because they are not clever enough for you -- gentlemen read better books."
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time."

…it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books -- or at least books of information -- for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.

Reviewed at:
Becky’s Book Reviews
Everyday Reads
Life and Times of a “new” New Yorker
The Bookling
2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews
What Kate's Reading
Library Queue
You Can Never Have Too Many Books
Cynical Optimism

(Let me know if I missed yours!)

39 comments:

  1. I love Jane Austen, and have this one in my TBR mountain.
    I saw the BBC version of this book and really enjoyed it, I liked Tilney and Catherine.
    Thats interesting to think it might be considered a YA novel if published today.

    great review!
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  2. This is my favourite of Jane Austen's novels, and you've highlighted many of the reasons I love it so much. The parody, the hilarity, the self-awareness... it floored me when I read it earlier this year. I always feel all warm and squishy when I see other people reading it!

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  3. Great review. I really liked this one too, especially after reading P&P. The humor was just so perfect. And Tilney was a wonderful leading man. You must see the PBS/BBC movie. They did an excellent job of the whole thing.

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  4. This is one of my favorite Austen novels. It has some of my favorite quotes in it. I reviewed it awhile ago on my blog too.

    http://2kidsandtiredbooks.blogspot.com/2008/01/northanger-abbey.html

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  5. The first time I read this, early this year, I was surprised at how funny it was - I actually laughed out loud, which is not something I tend to do with even the funniest books. What made it so funny to me is that it almost seemed like Austin was even satirizing herself as well as the gothic novels of the time - some of the dialogue between Catherine and Tilney in particular, though without my copy at hand I'm hard-pressed to give some examples.

    http://whatkatesreading.blogspot.com/2008/01/reading-and-traveling.html

    Have you ever been over to the Austen blog, www.austenblog.com? Sometimes I'll drop them an email if I do an Austen-related post; they're very good and generous about spreading the net-word about Austen-related everythings. I think they'd like your review.

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  6. I loved your thoughts about classifying the novel as YA. I agree! I also read it earlier this year:
    http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/2008/01/northanger-abbey.html

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  7. I am looking forward to reading this and the other Austen books I have yet to get to. Jane Austen is such an amazing author. Thank you for a wonderful review! I never realized that this book had funny moments in it--that's good to know.

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  8. Oh my, I am just so truly classless, I believe. Why, oh why, can I not make myself read her novels?!! I tried Sense and Sensibility. Really, I did. But I just couldn't do it. And reading those passages you posted, well, they just reinforced my initial reluctance. I think maybe I'm just too lazy. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to accept my place in the minority of non-Austen-lovers. :(
    And even so, I still really enjoyed your review!

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  9. I think this is the only Jane Austen novel I *haven't* read, and I thnk I will have to remedy that very soon!! I usually go a couple years inbetween reading one of her novels and I'm always surprised by how funny and charming they are.

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  10. Naida: I'll have to look for that movie version!

    Memory: I know the feeling. I feel that way too when I see others reading some of my favourite books!

    raidergirl3, thanks! I'll definitely look for the movie.

    Holly: There were so many quotable passages! I had to restrain myself not to include even more in my post :P

    Kate: Some bits made me laugh out loud too. Thanks for the link for the Austen blog. I wasn't familiar with it, but I'll check it out now.

    Tricia: I really wonder if that would happen! The book is sophisticated in many ways, but then, but so are good YA books.

    Literary Feline: She is amazing! I'm so glad to have discovered her at last. I look forward to your thoughts on this one. And be ready to laugh a lot :D

    Debi: You are NOT classless nor lazy! I know the feeling of really wanting to like an author but not being able to. Sometimes it just happens. And I truly understand why her writing wouldn't work for everyone. It's too bad, but it's not like there aren't thousands of books out there that do work for you :P

    Daphne, I bet you'll enjoy it! Charming is indeed the perfect word.

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  11. Interesting thought about this one being considered YA in our times. I hadn't thought of that, but I think I might agree with you. I didn't love this one, but I would certainly re-read it again. I loved the gothic and haunted feel of the book, but I think I missed some of the humor that you found...eeks! Glad you liked it! And congrats again on finishing the classics challenge!

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  12. AustenBlog is here... or at least the Editrix! :-)

    I liked this review very much, particularly the part about it being a YA novel. That's very interesting and I think you have a point. The problem is that the kids wouldn't get most of the jokes. But the genre-ization of novels these days seems like an imperfect science, so I wonder if they would have just taken the easy, obvious tack and not looked at it too deeply?

    I will disagree about the recent film, though. I found it an immense disappointment. It left out all the best lines from the book, particularly Henry's! And he was mean to Catherine, which made me really angry. Henry is anything but mean to Catherine! The best film version of NA is Wishbone, believe it or not.

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  13. Great review, Nymeth! I read this years ago but I really would like to read it again sometime. I'd actually like to reread all of Austen's books but you know what I mean. :)

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  14. AustenBlog has arrived! :) I love their website (fangirl fawnings and etc.)

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  15. I have this book on my TBR, but somehow I have still not read it. I think i will need to.

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  16. Trish: I think that the fact that I've been reading so many Gothic novels these past few months really helped me get the humour. A lot of it has to do with the way she plays with conventions. I hope you enjoy it more next time if you do decide to read it again!

    Mags: Thanks for stopping by! I know what you mean about the jokes, and yes, I completely agree about the almost random genre-zation we see these days. A lot of YA novels are actually quite sophisticated, and I wonder if by targeting them at a specific audience publishers are discouraging other age groups from picking them up. I often read and enjoy children's and YA novels, but I know that not every adult feels comfortable doing that. So I think it's possible that Northanger Abbey would have suffered that same fate if published today. Thanks for the second opinion on the movie! I really can't imagine Henry being mean to Catherine.

    Tanabata: lol, I do :P

    Kate: I really enjoyed what I've read there so far!

    Violet, I hope you enjoy it :)

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  17. I'm thinking I am ready for another Austen book... Thank you, Care

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  18. I have not read the novel, but watched the film shortly after reading Persuasion, and was struck by how different the two works are. One is much more fun and carefree, about a young girl naive to the world around her. The other has an older, and wiser protagonist, who knows only too well the harsh reality of life. That alone has endeared me to Austen, and her ability to write such different characters and styles. I enjoyed the film, and though I don't think it will be my favourite of her novels, I'll definitely be reading it! I'm also somewhat curious about Udolpho now too. ;)

    Thanks, great review.

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  19. Oh I love this book. Doesn't it have a great first line too? So glad to hear you enjoyed it. Great review Nymeth!

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  20. Great review Nymeth. You really make me want to pick this one up. Maybe it would have gone faster than Little Women. I'm so glad you enjoyed it so much.

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  21. Care, I hope you're not disappointed if you decided to go with this one!

    Mariel: I'm thinking of maybe picking up Persuasion next. And I'm curious about Udolpho too! I think I'll keep it in mind for RIP IV :P

    Iliana: That it does! I'm very glad to have read it. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.

    Dar, this was actually a quick read for me as far as classics go. I tend to read them at a slower pace, but that wasn't the case with this one.

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  22. I've had this one on my TBR for probably 7 years and that's just SAD. I guess I'm afraid Austen will never surpass Pride and Prejudice for me. We'll see one of these days!

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  23. i loved the bbc version of this book. It was hilarious. I haven't read the actual book, though it is in my Jane Austen anthology.

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  24. NA is a great book, and I loved your review! Are you going to try Emma next? :)

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  25. I enjoyed the Masterpiece Theatre adaption of Northanger Abbey, so I'd like to read it, though I've heard it's not Austen's best work. I'd also really like to learn more about her life, as she sounds like an intriguing woman.

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  26. Hi Nymeth, great review. I enjoyed the passages you selected here. I have the book in my TBR--in fact, all of Jane Austen's books in my TBR but only read Pride and Prejudice. I think it's really time to change that but there are just too many good books around and I don't know where to start... :(

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  27. I enjoyed this book, Nymeth! Though I haven't read all of Austen's books, but I thought this one is so different! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  28. I just finished P&P (my first Austen novel) yesterday and LOVED it! I will definitely be reading the rest of her work. Thanks for the review.

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  29. This is one of the few books by Austen that I haven't read. It sounds really good. Thanks for the review.

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  30. I adore Northanger Abbey. While I've enjoyed all of Austen's novels, for me it really is her later ones that impress me the most.

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  31. I saw the movie version on A&E over the summer and I loved it. Like you say, the irony is fantastic. I must get around to reading this one!

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  32. Wow. look at all the comments! Who knew Jane would outdo Neil!!! lol She deserves it though, she's such a marvelous writer. I have this next up to read, if I can squeeze it in tomorrow before my mother visits for the weekend and everything. I love NA, this will be a reread for me, though it has been ages since I read it. I love all the comments, too! and your review is really good (as always!!! YOu might think you have not much interesting to say, but I dare say we all beg to differ - haha how's that for some Austenese??)I have to say, I love Henry Tilney, though not as much as Darcy, who owns me *sigh*

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  33. Andi: I know I'm very much in the minority when it comes to this, but as much as I enjoyed P&P, I think I liked Northanger Abbey even better! It felt closer to my heart somehow. Even if nothing surpasses P&P for you, I really think you'll enjoy this one.

    Serena: I hope you enjoy the book too when you get to it. The humour is just great.

    Jessi: I really want to read Emma! I want to read all of her novels, actually, but you know what I mean :P

    Charley: She really does. After I'm done with her novels I think I might try a biography.

    Alice: lol, I really know the feeling!

    Melody: This was only my second Austen, but so far she's a lot more diverse than I expected!

    Stephanie: I'm glad I'm not the only one who's just starting to discover her! I look forward to your post on P&P!

    Lisa, you're welcome!

    Bookchronicle: It's interesting how her fans' opinions are so divided when it comes to what her strongest and weakest works are!

    Heather: You'll enjoy it for sure! The irony really was great.

    Susan: I've noticed that posts on Jane Austen always get lots of comments :P There's a reason why she's so popular after all this time, of course. She really does deserve it! And lol, thank you :P Tilney was great, and so was Darcy. She writes such interesting characters!

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  34. I first got introduced to Austen two years ago, when we read Persuasion in my book club. I read Emma this year, and I think I'm planning to read one Austen book a year until I'm through with all of them. I'd always heard this one is the "worst" if you can call it that, but it sounds fun. Maybe this'll be my 2009 selection.

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  35. I own this book (thanks to my husband being an English major in college) and I've never read it. Your review piqued my interest in this book, and I will have to find time to read it sometime in the next year.

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  36. Amanda: I like your one Austen a year plan. I often hear that this is a lot of people's least favourite, but I just loved it!

    Alyce, I hope you enjoy it :)

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  37. What a wonderful review! I haven't read this one yet, though I intend to. I had no idea it was funny. Austen really was a brilliant writer.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  38. i shouldn't technically say that i love jane austen after having read just Pride and Prejudice.. but i say it all the time coz i loved P & P. I thought I should pick up Sense and Sensibility next but after reading your review, i am changing my mind.. i am going to be reading this!:)

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  39. I didn't know anything about this novel before your review and now I am going to have to find time to read it! I love the mysterious novel turning out to be the linen inventory!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.