Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (1817-1818)

Well this is it.  Jane Austen's first book.  The author of the great Pride and Prejudice which was possibly the best love story in all of 19th century literature.  So Northanger Abbey's got to be good.  I mean, you don't dare knock something this monumental.  But then I read it.


I mean, sure, it was okay.  It had everything you'd expect in an Austen novel.  Leisured, landed classes moving about here and there.  Spending the "season" at one house, back home for the winter, that sort of thing.  Meeting a brother of a friend, who happens to be a soldier (or a member of the clergy would also do nicely).  They go on picnics and other excursions because that's what the leisured, landed classes did.  They stay at one house or another and have delightful misunderstandings that are ever so romantic.

However, this book had one redeeming feature that drew me to it before I read the first page.  This is something that I read about and knew to be a recurring theme throughout this book.  But I'll get to that later.  First, let me lay the groundwork.

The main premise is simple, and in it we see the seeds of Austen's later novels.  A young woman is introduced into society.  She has the usual balls and theatre and stuff.  A brother or sister or friend or whatever is involved.  She meets a man, is he what he appears?  Can she love him?  There is happiness and disappointment, and then she is off again on another adventure.

Well, it's all that sort of stuff, the usual Austen.  It plays well and is worth reading, I suppose.  Austen did this whole thing better in her later novels.  But this one feels a little flat.  I think the problem was that she didn't lay a basic groundwork of who the reader is supposed to like and dislike, and why.  What was the main conflict?  That was not written down early, and we just didn't feel it.  The story felt rambling and vague.  If Austen were to tell us, halfway through the book, that so-and-so actually was not a good match because of this or that reason, we would just shrug our shoulders and go with it.

Austen's novels deal with a very specific class of people.  Nothing below that class is hardly ever mentioned.  Above it are the people she strives toward.  Remember, this isn't Downton Abbey.  We don't get a glimpse of the goings-on of the servants.  But class distinction is a main theme as always.  Her heroine is usually of a struggling landed class, trying to be accepted by their "betters".  That is brought to light very plainly in this novel when the man she loves has a ruthless father who will turn a young girl out into the night when he discovers her heritage isn't up to snuff.

But then we come to the most interesting part of this book.  Gothic Romance.  Jane Austen is writing this when Gothic Romance novels have come into their own, and are in full swing.  Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a young woman who has romance on the brain.  She reads those books and actually describes herself as a heroine in training.

That's it.  That's what drew me to this book.  She mentioned reading Ann Radcliff's The Mysteries of Udolpho, a famous Gothic Romance novel.  Austen was apparently entranced by that genre and wrote a heroine who also was.  So Catherine spends all her time in the novel looking for the sort of adventure she reads of in those books.  At one point it leads her into trouble.  Henry Tilney is the love interest for Catherine.  She visits their estate and meets his father, General Tilney.  She learns that Henry's mother died years before.  Like a good romance heroine in a bleak old manor house, she assumes the general murdered his wife.  But that whole thread just seemed to fizzle when we're told he did not murder her, but adored her.  That's part of the problem with this book.  The characters aren't clearly defined.  Do we like this person?  Do we dislike them?  The general is clearly an unlikeable person yet Austen lets this thread go nowhere so the man appears to have been misunderstood.

I guess that's the trouble with this book.  Every thread just seems to fizzle.  Nothing really pops and keeps a steady course until the end.  It's just a meandering story of various people that we're not sure if we should root for or not.  They seem good, then they seem bad, then we just don't know.

Another bomb for this book was that General Tilney never got what was coming to him.  He is the only person who can fit the bill of a villain in this novel.  When he discovers (through a deceitful character) that Catherine is not of a wealthy family, he orders her to leave his house at once.  She has to get a carriage first thing in the morning.  She has no money for the journey.  Without someone intervening against the wishes of the evil old man, the poor woman will simply not make it home.  It's actually very tragic in a way.  She has parents who have entrusted their daughter to the guardianship of someone who is not trustworthy.  You wish this old bastard would get arrested, or beaten, or beheaded or something.  But no, he never does.  We keep thinking there has to be more to it, some misunderstanding for which he will apologize.  We only find out as an afterthought that he banished the young girl because of her family's position and nothing more.  There was no ulterior motive, he has no redeeming value, there was no mistake made.  And he was never punished for it.  That part really left a bad taste in my mouth.  I couldn't forgive Austen that little oversight.

Overall, this is worth reading if you are interested in Gothic Romance novels of the late 1700s/early 1800s, or as a period piece alone.  But it doesn't stand up to Jane Austen's later works.

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