Northanger Abbey

November 13, 2020

Spoilers ahead

Finished “Northanger Abbey.”  Ok, I’m going to be grossly unfair to Austen here, but I’ve got to call this one “The One With the Brothers and Sisters”: the Morlands (Catherine/James), the Thorpes (Isabella/John), and the Tilneys (Eleanor/Henry/Frederick).

“Persuasion” can be “The One With the Widow(er)s.”  I guess “Emma” would have to be “The One With the Matchmaker”.  “Sense and Sensibility” could go as “The One With the Two Sisters.” As for “Pride and Prejudice”, who knows, maybe “The One With the Two Proposals”.  Or it could just come to the party as itself.

Yes, grossly unfair summaries, because I actually like the way these novels have distinct themes.  Before I started reading Austen last month, I had an idea that all her stories — which I knew only from movies — were basically the same, and all about family and romance.  Now, strictly speaking, they are about those things.  But she works these themes in different ways, and here in “Northanger Abbey” she does something I hadn’t expected.  Here she’s doing the Cervantes thing, Catherine being, like our knight of La Mancha, a lovely-hearted specimen of humanity who unfortunately has read too many romances.  Don Quixote has been reading romances of chivalry, while with Catherine it’s Gothic novels.

And I love this theme.  This novel might have brother/sister pairs everywhere, but it’s really not about them or about that specimen of family tie.  Its central theme, if it has one, is discerning reality from fiction, although even that puts the matter too neatly.  What I love the most in this novel is how Austen satires Gothic novels but entertains us all the same with some of their elements.  Speaking directly to the reader, she lampoons early on the idea that her heroine will suffer through such tropes as being turned “out of doors”, but at the end of the novel Catherine is actually turned out.  And by then we’re totally taken in, fearing for her well-being as much as, or more than, if she’d been thrown out into a cold heartless heath.

Austen gives us some of the elements of the very novels that she’s satirizing, just as Cervantes did — with loving satire.  She doesn’t throw the whole thing out.  She gives us the imposing medieval architecture, a storm raging outside, the candle put out in a dark room — all surely well-worn tropes — but this is all saved by humor, and by a heroine who is struggling with her own imagination.

A great line, from soon after Catherine’s arrival at the Abbey:

The breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain; and having given a good shake to her habit, she was ready to be shown into the common drawing-room, and capable of considering where she was.

I like Henry Tilney’s good common sense, and his intelligence.  He’s the main love interest but he’s not heartbroken, or dying with passion, either expressed or repressed.  He’s funny, perceptive, and a self-admitted reader of novels.  He’s not complex — we are not shown any negative qualities — but he’s refreshing just the same.

Henry gives us three passages which are themselves worth the price of admission:  his first meeting with Catherine, whom he charms by gently mocking universal expectations about romantic meetings; his analogy between dancing and marriage; and his teasing prediction of the Gothic frights that are about to meet Catherine at the Abbey.

If it’s an Austen novel, there has to be a scoundrel/rogue somewhere.  Someone like Frank Churchill, or the W brothers: Wickham, Willoughby, and William (Elliot).  But is there one here?  I suppose Frederick Tilney is a candidate, but he seems to be no more than vain.  John Thorpe does plenty of damage, but he’s more of a jerk and a loser than anything else.  If there’s a rogue going around breaking hearts, it has to be Isabella. 

General Tilney turns out to be the Catherine de Bourgh of this story, just as cruel, but able to disguise it. 

When he sent Catherine away, I tried guessing, of course, what the reason was.  He could have learned from Henry about Catherine’s imaginings and insinuations, but Henry would not have disclosed that to anyone; so the general could not have even overheard it in conversation.  I thought Frederick Tilney could have worked with Isabella to create some fiction about Catherine, to mislead the general, and keep her from marrying Henry, if they had a motive.  (Frederick might want to prevent the marriage; and Isabella would certainly prefer that Catherine marry John.)  I didn’t see the true cause coming, although there were signs there.  There was no indication that the general could have been so mistaken about the Morlands’ true wealth, but it was clear by the end of the novel that General Tilney’s attitude toward money was somewhat questionable, and that his children did regard money as a huge obstacle preventing their father’s consenting to a marriage between Frederick and Isabella.

I kept imagining Ewan McGregor as Henry Tilney.  He would have been great in that role.  I know he played Frank Churchill in “Emma.”

Henry Tilney is actually all the things that I would use as adjectives for “Northanger Abbey”:  sensible, open-hearted, funny, perceptive, and well-read.  Maybe “Pride and Prejudice” holds the attention more strongly from cover to cover, but “Northanger Abbey” doesn’t lag.  And though I understand it’s her first-written novel, I can’t tell that from the language.  I’m looking back now and finding that I’ve underlined many striking passages, some of them quite short; she seems maybe a little more concise here than in later novels; and her long sentences are not too long.

I’m not going to end without quoting one passage which gives us some of Austen’s thoughts about non-fiction.  They are spoken by Catherine and seem almost too perceptive for someone so imaginative and young, but they show Austen to see through works of history as well as she saw through Gothic romances:

“I wish I were [fond of reading history] too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.” 

Austen sounds almost like Tolstoy here.  And if she had turned her mental powers to the study of history, I’m sure she would have skewered historians no less than he did.

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