It seems obvious that I would have read all of Jane Austen’s books. In reality, I’m not entirely sure I’ve read any of her books except Emma, at least until this week. (I am a fan of many of the movies, including the Sense and Sensibility from the 90s: one of my all-time favorites.) Now I have also read—at the least—Northanger Abbey. How did I choose Northanger Abbey? I was looking for some Jane Austen to put on a book-a-week through-the-year reading list, and I wanted Austen but didn’t want to overwhelm people, so I chose her shortest book. Simple as that. Then I transferred any of those books that I hadn’t yet read over to my own reading plan and when February was at an end—there it was.
I also didn’t realize that, due to an early death, Austen only ever published six books, only four of them during her lifetime. Six! You’d think as a casual observer of world culture and literature, that there were a hundred, they come up so often and are talked about so frequently as a beloved body of work. She is something like the godmother of the modern novel, writing about the “normal” people and early on in the wave of “novels of manners,” which is how we think of many of the Victorian novels and nineteenth century writing. Austen, though born in the eighteenth century, was writing largely in and about the nineteenth.
I don’t think there are too many surprises in Austen’s novels, at least since most people have an idea what they are like and what they are about. The stories and some of the style remain all around our culture—from movie adaptations like Clueless to conventions, fan-fiction to spin-offs like The Jane Austen Book Club, etc. “Janeites” is a thing, not just in America, but around the world. And paradoxically, there are groups from opposite sides of feminism praising and commandeering her literature. From the vantage point of modern times, her stories come from a place of tradition and purity, and yet Austen often challenged or at least bucked convention with her characters and her strong female leads (as well as her keen wit which she used to expose and satirize the practices and culture of her day). So everyone claims them.
Northanger Abbey is a solid tale. I didn’t know anything about it except what I already knew about Austen when I picked it up. It’s not one of the stories that is adapted continuously. Catherine Morland is an unassuming heroine. Austen tells us so. She’s quite unlikely. She’s not especially talented, but is frank and naïve. She develops a love of the popular Gothic novels of the day—a love that is akin to today’s teens eating a steady diet of their favorite literary-, movie- or music-junk food (and whatever yours was), unapproved by many of the adults around her, thought by some to be a “girls” thing. The story is framed within this obsession, so that the whole story is a satire of the very type of novel Catherine would have read. Catherine is the unlikely heroine of her own novel and she is also the victim of said novel, as well as the victim of the combination between the garbage she’s read and her own over-active imagination. Skipping genres occasionally to give us tidbits of humor, mystery, and horror, in the end the story is classic Austen romance and also classic Austen fun.
Oh, but what is it about? Catherine is the first daughter in a very large parish family. She is asked by the childless Allens to accompany them on their summer trip to Bath for Mr. Allen’s health, where she traipses off to. While adorned literally by Mrs. Allen’s obsession with clothing and fashionableness, Catherine remains completely unadorned in other senses—she tries to act normal, but she is straight-forward and transparent to a fault. For me, it’s endearing and charming. She makes a new friend who consumes her for a time. Her brother finds romance. She finds romance. And somewhere along the line she is invited to Northanger Abbey—a real, live abbey just like in the novels she reads!—to stay with the sister of the one whom her heart pines for. It’s all very exciting, little clues about things in the background and people very obviously pulling things over on Catherine while she just tries to do the right thing, always. Thrown into the big game of Victorian marriage and the two-faced lives of high society, we wonder if Catherine will emerge in tact.
As long as you are capable of reading back a few hundred years (both in the language and the culture), there’s nothing to get in your way, here. The story is clear, engaging, well-peopled, and funny (if you can read a sidelong glance). I had a little issue when the copy I was reading—an anthology of all of Austen’s novels—had printed eight pages out of order. But I found my way, eventually, pretty much like an Austen heroine. You’ve got it all here, in this short book: love, deception, heroes, villains, and all the while the whole thing is being made fun of. Don’t look to shed tears: you’re never allowed to take Catherine too seriously. And I also was not as convinced about the main romance as I wanted to be, though I liked both of the characters and thought there were reasons to recommend them to each other. But still, what I loved about Emma was the clever weaving, the neat subtlety, the amusing Victorian restrictions, the fantastic characters, and the pure romp-ness of the thing. You get all this here in Northanger Abbey, just on a smaller scale and with the added lens of a Gothic spoof.
The only movie I really found that looked like it was worth watching was the 2007 PBS Masterpiece Theater version. After I also watched a segment of the 1980s version (oh my, so bad, and the hair so distracting!), I realized there were elements borrowed from the 80s version. What I mean is that the movies spread on the Gothic novel really thick, throwing us occasionally into Catherine’s imagination. They also make her imagination a little naughtier than what is portrayed in the book, which I think was a mistake. Yes, we are willing to go there nowadays, and people have always been naughty. And yet, I believe girls and women really did function differently back then, due to the repressions (and, dare I say, protection) of their society. I’m not sure they did imagine themselves hopping into the bathtub with some guy they just met, on average. It wouldn’t have occurred to many of them. So there. Other than that, the movie is a pared-down version (as they always are) of a more complicated plot and it works just fine. I liked the actors, and I don’t envy them the job of making Catherine’s and Henry’s romance pop. It barely does that on the page. It’s highly unlikely this will become your favorite movie, but once you’ve read Northanger Abbey, it’s the version you’ll want to watch, out of curiosity.