Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Northanger Abbey is the first Jane Austen novel I have read since high school, and I was pleasantly surprised by this clever, light, gently satiric read.
Having long been a fan of the well-known Austen film versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, and all the attendant Darcy paraphernalia and adaptations (Bridget Jones, Austenland, etc.), I had very little idea of what to expect from Northanger Abbey. The title had never given me a very clear sense of the story’s tone, and I had always assumed that Northanger Abbey was a serious, lesser known, lesser, work by Austen.
In fact, in it’s own way, I would say that Northanger Abbey is one of my very favorite of Austen’s novels. My first surprise on reading this story was discovering how very lighthearted, and tongue in cheek, Austen’s tone is.
Northanger Abbey follows the adventures of our 17-year-old heroine, Catherine Morland, who comes from a large, happy, comfortable family in the country, and who is, to all accounts, the most unlikely of heroines. She is not especially beautiful, nor has she suffered great tragedy. Instead, Catherine is a heroine by proxy, as she delights in the “horrid” novels of the age, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. Catherine has the endearing qualities of being wholly genuine, compassionate, and honest. She is a stranger to deception or selfishness, and this will stand her in good stead as the novel progresses.
As the story begins, Catherine is invited to accompany some family friends, the Allens, on an excursion to Bath. With great excitement, she joins the couple in her first real exposure to “society.” Catherine’s visits to the pump room in bath are a delight to read about, since this is a place still popular with tourists today. In Bath, Catherine quickly becomes close friends with a beautiful young woman named Isabella Thorpe, and her outspoken brother, John. She also meets a rather mysterious young man named Henry Tilney, who dances with her and amuses her with his witty commentary on the rules of society.
In short order, Catherine’s life takes an unexpected turn, as, for the first time in her life, she is confronted with the more base traits in human nature, such as deception and greed, as well as, for the first time, feeling the stirrings of true love.
What makes this classic story so very much fun is that Austen is clearly aware of the tropes of the gothic genre. She plays with the idea of Catherine wishing to be a heroine in her own life, with the ideas of life imitating art, and with the dangers of too much imagination. Northanger Abbey is the funniest novel I have read by Austen, and one which at the same time shows the absurdity of over the top “horrid” novels, and reassures the reader that there is a basic truth of love, goodness, and happy endings that can exist in real life. For what it is, I give Northanger Abbey five stars, because I really can’t imagine how it could have been improved upon.
As a side note, I watched the Masterpiece movie of Northanger Abbey immediately upon finishing the novel, and found the comparison between the two fascinating. Because the movie is necessarily much shorter than the book, much of the witty dialogue that distinguishes an otherwise generic love story is lost. Also, one of the greatest strengths of the novel is the narrative voice and self-referential commentary, one which it is difficult to convey in the same way through film. Also, the movie takes some liberties with the story, for example, making explicit the sexual tone of the novels that Catherine is so fond of reading. Also, while in the novel, the abbey of Northanger is initially a disappointment to Catherine because it fails to live up to her idea of gothic horror, in the movie, the abbey is portrayed as a castle worthy of Dracula. Given these liberties, the movie is an enjoyable and beautiful experience, and the choice to depict Northanger Abbey as a crumbling ruin lends a delicious atmosphere to the story. Thus, the book and the movie have different focuses, the former, one of wise and clever social commentary, and the latter, a gothic tale filmed for modern audiences.
Northanger Abbey left me with greater respect for Jane Austen as an author, and with an interest in rereading other of her novels, to see if, as an adult, I appreciated new things about them. In the end, one thing is very clear to me, and that is that the novels of Jane Austen, including Northanger Abbey, have stood the test of time, and that it is for good reason that they still inspire films and written adaptations today.

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