Northanger Abbey

Austen, as you probably very well know, once wrote in a letter to her brother:

the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour…

Whenever I read her novels, I find this description so fitting. Things that appear ostensibly effortless are hardly ever so. The world Austen captures and describes with so much intricacy is perhaps smaller in scale than Tolstoy’s Russia, and yet scope is somehow irrelevant here. Within the daily happenings of provincial England, Austen manages to render – in such fine detail, too – the workings of human nature.

When I first read Northanger Abbey – probably when I was about fourteen? – I thought it was meant to be a solemn, sombre things. Jane Austen was ‘canonical’, ‘high-brow’- never anything else. Idiotic notion, really. But I liked to entertain the thought that I was reading real, serious literature. Yet Northanger Abbey is a reminder that the novel has always been a modern and highly playful art-form more than anything else.

What I like most about Northanger Abbey is that it’s more raw and revealing than any of Austen’s other novels. Though in her other novels, Austen lets us know exactly what she thinks about her society, she does it from behind a mask of propriety and gentle mockery. In Northanger Abbey though, she very openly launches into (what I think are very entertaining) all sorts of attacks on her contemporaries, and novel-bashers, and romance-distorters –

I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of  wild imagination will at least be all my own.

But the heroine. Ugh. Catherine Morland is sweet, and yet she annoys me senseless. She’s just like Anne Elliot – impossibly naive (blockheaded), unexposed to the ways of the world (ignorant) and blind to the ‘coquettry and vanity’ of other girls (senseless). Isabelle Thorpe, two-faced, scheming, [insert appropriate word here] that she is, is much more tolerable than Catherine Morland, simply because she’s more of a realistic heroine.

Disagree with me, if you will, but the Catherine Morlands of this world don’t exist. And if they do, I have yet to meet one. Elizabeth Bennett might not be as snarky as Isabelle Thorpe, but at least she has her head screwed on right. Emma Woodhouse is spoilt rotten and naive, but at least she’s got wit and a bucketload of personality. Catherine, Catherine, Catherine…

» Northanger Abbey was read as a part of the 18th and 19th Century Women Writers project


7 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey

  1. When I first read this book, I completely misunderstood it as well. In that, I didn’t really see the humor and thought the characters were a bit insipid. I dismissed it as a lesser work of Austen’s.

    Then I re-read it this year and really adored it. Yes, Catherine is not Lizzie or Emma, but I think a “simple” girl like her is necessary for this story. And I also liked that romantically speaking, it sort of breaks away from Austen’s classic “misunderstanding” formula. Plus, I think there’s a part of me that’s a bit like Catherine, letting books and fiction cloud my notions and my judgment. I think there’s something kind of wonderful about being able to give yourself so wholly over to your reading material as she does… I think when I read Austen, I’m especially inclined to become Catherine! :)

    1. Hmm I see your point about Catherine being ‘necessary’ for the story. But it’s not so much her judgement being clouded by Udolpho that bugged me. It was how incredibly bad she was at reading people. I don’t know – I still think Catherine is too ‘good’ to be a realistic character.
      That being said, my dislike for Catherine iddn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I don’t think it’s one of Austen’s ‘best’ but it’s definitely a fascinating book. Like the ‘Mrs Dalloway’ equivalent of Austen, almost, if you get my meaning :)

  2. I didn’t find Isabelle more tolerable than Catherine, but did find Catherine silly, which was very appropriate for this book. Loved it! Austen poking fun at her own characters, fun! I especially loathed Isabelle’s brother!!

    1. Ughhh Isabelle’s brother is terrible, but I found the female characters in this book so loathesome. They were just awfully bland, especially Henry’s sister (Miss Tilney?? I can’t evne remember her name…) and Mrs Allen

    1. Hmm gosh I’ve already forgotten the exact details, but I remember thinking the ending was a little rushed/abrupt. As is often the case when I read Austen. But also, I dont think plot was as much of a priority in Northanger Abbey. Like I said, its less tight/meticulous than her other novels, and even the relationship between Tilney and Catherine is sort of contrived, as though it exists merely to mock the hero/heroine relationships in gothic literature.

      I agree with Aarti that Catherine is undeserving of Henry. Henry has this wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour, and she’s so senseless and bland that she doesn’t understand it at all. I suppose he liked her because she was so pure/naive and earnest, in a way. But those were here only redeeming qualities. She’s a bit of an emotional wreck,. really.

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