I feel embarrassed admitting that I still haven’t read all of Jane Austen’s books, knowing how popular she is both with book bloggers and the world in general. The reason for that is because although I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice I was less impressed with Mansfield Park and Emma. I didn’t dislike them but I didn’t love them, so I haven’t been in any hurry to read the rest of her books.
Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl who is obsessed with reading gothic novels. On a visit to Bath with some friends of the Morland family, Mr and Mrs Allen, Catherine gets to know Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. The Tilneys invite Catherine to stay at their family home and she is thrilled to discover they live in an abbey! But when on her first night at Northanger Abbey, in the middle of a thunderstorm, she finds a mysterious cabinet in her bedroom, Catherine’s imagination starts to run away with her…
This seems to be a book of two distinct halves. The first half, set in Bath, follows Catherine as she begins to fall in love with Henry Tilney and tries to escape the unwelcome attentions of her brother’s obnoxious friend, John Thorpe. She also meets John’s shallow, self-absorbed sister Isabella, who quickly becomes her ‘best friend’. In the second half, after Catherine accompanies the Tilneys to Northanger Abbey, the book becomes a parody of the gothic novel for a while before everything starts to tie together at the end. I’ve read a lot of gothic novels (including Catherine’s favourite Ann Radcliffe book, The Mysteries of Udolpho) and I think this probably helped me understand the humour, although all you really need is a basic knowledge of what a gothic novel involves (crumbling castles, dark passageways, sinister secrets, a gloomy atmosphere, melodrama etc). I imagine a lot of people are inspired to pick up a gothic novel for the first time after reading this book, rather than the other way round though!
Northanger Abbey could also be described as a coming of age novel. At the start of the book Catherine is very naïve and innocent, with romantic notions and an over-active imagination. As the story continues she begins to discover that there are some big differences between the world she lives in and the world of Ann Radcliffe’s novels. She also learns to be a better judge of character and to understand other people’s motives. Catherine is not a particularly strong character but she’s amusing and likeable, and so is Henry Tilney.
I found this a lot easier to read than the other Austen books I’ve read. The writing feels very bright and lively. This is the first Jane Austen book that I’ve really found funny and been able to understand why her wit and irony are so highly regarded. I know a lot of people don’t like it when an author ‘intrudes’ into the story and speaks directly to the reader, but it’s not actually something that bothers me at all. Austen does quite a lot of it in this book, particularly in chapter 5 when she defends novel-reading:
There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
I think I can see why this is considered one of Austen’s less popular books, because although it was a fun, entertaining and relatively quick and easy read, it did somehow feel less satisfying than the other books of hers that I’ve read. The ending seemed slightly rushed and some of the characters not as well developed as they could have been. But those are only minor criticisms because overall I loved this book. I still have two more Jane Austen books left to read and as I enjoyed this one so much, I’m now looking forward to reading the other two!