‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

I bought this book from one of the cheaper department stores in Rundle Mall on a family trip back to Adelaide when I was twelve years old.  I was suffering an utter lack of new books to read, and it cost at a dollar one fifth of my discretionary spending money.  I haven’t read it since, and it never made as big an impression as others of Austen’s novels have, but I chose to try it again for two reasons.  First, since my undergraduate degree began several classmates have said Northanger Abbey was up in their favourite books.  Second, I am currently twice the age I was then and I have a very different perspective on the world and myself; I see myself as a different reader.

So with fresh eyes, I re-read it in one morning.  The story follows Catherine Morland, a young woman born into a large parochial but well situated family, who is travelling with an elder married couple to Bath.  Catherine meets Mr. Tilney, a young man who is healthy and intelligent, but he does not appear again.  Catherine acquires a female friend, Isabella, and through her (and Catherine’s brother James) meets Mr. Thorpe.  Mr. Thorpe is odious, pushy, deceitful, and upon Tilney’s return to Bath he becomes aggressive and manipulative.  There are a lot of lies, a lot of thinly veiled commentaries on society, romance, and even narrators’ voices woven in amongst the conversations.  Catherine is without guile and awareness of the patterns of romance, and she is vulnerable and clueless to Mr. Thorne’s intentions and Mr. Tilney’s high regard.

I enjoyed it far more than I did the first time.  I still think that the characters and storytelling are a bit raw, especially compared to later books of Austen’s.  What really upset me, though, was that we are thoroughly immersed in Catherine’s character right up until the climactic scene of the book, at which point we drift out to Catherine’s mother’s perspective and then even further still.  To details and a summary of what happened to the others in the book.  While I’ve come to expect an abrupt and sudden wedding at the end of Austen’s books, this one still leaves me blinking and reeling.  As a modern reader, I want to directly witness the happiness of the characters.  Perhaps to contemporary readers the privacy afforded the new couple and the attention to pertinent details were satisfying and rounded the story off solidly.  I can’t be that reader, though, and all I can do is grit my teeth and reassure myself that Austen’s other books have far less premature conclusions.

I did love Mr. Tilney’s wit and dialogue, though I wish he hadn’t been half as misogynistic.  I was a little frustrated that the reprehensible villains the Thorpe siblings turn out to be are neither described or understood.  It is very easy to hate them for behaviour that may only be a product of their circumstance, and I think that in some ways all the characters were a little less well rounded than similar characters are in later books.  Still, I feel much more generous towards it now than I did before I re-read it, which re-affirms what I have always felt to be true; one’s opinions on a book reflect more about who one is as an individual than about the content of the book or the author.  It is very interesting to see Catherine changed in my mind from a flightly adult into a wary and sheltered teenager.  I am very glad I read this book, though I probably won’t re-read it for another twelve years.

There are some other reviews at:

The Blue Bookcase,a quick summary and review.

Becky’s Book Reviews refers to both the book and the film.

BCF reviews had a much kinder reaction to the book.

I found it interesting that others shared my opinions, that the characters were a little too flat and the story ended too abruptly.  As it’s Austen, of course there are many other reviews out there, and I’m sure there’s more diverse opinions to be had if you have the time to read more widely.

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