Pages: 240 First published in 1818
So a few days ago I finished Northanger Abbey!
There are certain books that I will never review, per se, because they’re too close to my heart for me to be objective, and Jane Austen falls into that category for me. Anything related to Percy Jackson does as well. I just like them too much. But I thought it would be fun to talk about the book and compare it to her other work. So this is not a review, it’s a rev-WOO!
Yes, I realize how dorky that joke is. Don’t judge. I’m the judge here, remember?
For those who don’t know, Northanger Abbey is about Catherine Morland, an avid young fan of spooky Gothic novels who travels from her rural home to visit Bath, where she makes some charismatic friends and, of course, a dashing gentleman, and, well, drama ensues. Apparently, Northanger Abbey was the first novel that Austen wrote, but it wasn’t published until after her death.
I get the sense that a lot of people view Northanger Abbey as a bit of an outlier, and that’s because it is. I haven’t read Persuasion, but I’ve read all her other books, and though they all have their variety, this one was a more obvious departure. That’s because it’s a parody of gothic literature, but even more, it’s a statement about novels and their place in culture. Jane Austen goes on multiple rants about how people in her era were always criticizing novels and depicting them as vapid and useless. The arguments she brings up are still very relevant these days, and I kind of loved it. When Jane Austen gets mad, she gets mad with flair.
The result of the slightly different motivation with which Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, and maybe her lack of experience in some ways, is that the actual plot had to share its space, and so although it has a beginning, middle, and end, there were fewer twists and thickening developments than one generally expects in an Austen novel. I was also a little taken aback by the abruptness of the ending. I assumed everything would be straightened out, and it was, but it happened with very few juicy details or space to savor. I got the sense that this rushing through the final resolutions was by design, as part of the satire of her peers’ and her own noveling style. For example, she says at one point while the characters are tensely waiting to see if an obstacle will be overcome: “The anxiety [of my characters] can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”
But these differences from expectations didn’t make the book less enjoyable. The constant references to novel formula (“My heroine was most unnaturally able to fulfill her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself”) made me feel like Jane Austen and I were sharing a joke, through the fourth wall and across a few centuries. At the same time, it was done skillfully enough that, even while laughing at the characters, I genuinely cared about them and was invested in things working out for them. Somehow, Austen simultaneously reminded me that whether or not Catherine danced with her favorite gentleman was really a very trifling issue and made me as anxious about the situation as Catherine was in spite of myself. That’s a strength of all of her work, actually. You care about these little aristocratic problems, more than you would have ever thought you could. There’s a filthy-rich English society girl inside of all of us.
Plus, Catherine was very relatable, especially for me, since she loves to read. She didn’t have Elizabeth’s cracking wit or Emma’s inexhaustible mischievousness, but I could put myself in her shoes, and she often surprised me with her maturity and sensibleness. Catherine has a big imagination, but she’s more reasonable than she seems.
In summary, Northanger Abbey had its own different flavor, but it was still made of delicious Jane Austen dough, and social-commentary Austen rants are something you don’t know are vitally missing from your life until you read one. Jane Austen is so great.
Now I’ve just got Persuasion and then I’ll have read all of her books. I’ll try not to be too sad, though– they lend themselves perfectly to re-reading!