Northanger Abbey

“To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”

Jane Austen

And this, Constant Reader, is the upside of revision.

I’ve read Northanger Abbey before, a few years ago now; but since I’ve been revising eighteenth-century Gothic (among other things) this week, Austen’s first full-length novel seemed like an obvious choice to throw into the mix. It’s a parody of sorts, of Radcliffe’s hugely influential Gothic tour de force The Mysteries of Udolpho, following as it does one Catherine Morland, who’s taken to Bath for the first time at the age of fifteen by some wealthy relatives. There, she meets a range of society characters, including the immensely amusing but ultimately flighty Isabella Thorpe (my favourite line: “I have no notion of treating men with such respect. That is the way to spoil them”), her odious brother John, who is, alas, intent on courting Catherine, the positively swoon-inducing Henry Tilney (who in my mind competes only with Persuasion‘s Captain Wentworth for the title of Best Austen Hero-Man), and his gentle sister Eleanor. Invited by the latter to the Tilney residence, the titular Abbey, Catherine is thrilled at the prospect of being inside a real Gothic mansion (she’s a big reader of the Gothic, you see), and looks forward to finding dark and ‘orrible secrets within. Getting to spend a whole month in the presence of Henry Tilney doesn’t hurt, either.

Northanger Abbey is often considered the weakest of Austen’s novels, though for me the re-read was utterly delightful, and nothing can be worse, in any case, than the deeply problematic and irritating Mansfield Park. Having said that, Northanger does have its weaknesses. For a start, I’d forgotten how very, very naïve Catherine is. Of course, she’s never been out in society before; but her naivete goes beyond inexperience of social conventions and into actual unawareness of how normal human relations are supposed to work. Her ignorance of what Thorpe means when he says to her “upon my soul, I do not know anybody like you” is deeply at odds with her passion for sentimental novels like Udolpho (sample quote: “am I to believe, that, though your esteem for me may return – your affection never can?”); her unwillingness to recognise that people do not necessarily mean what they say makes her seem profoundly unintelligent; her outbursts protesting her innocence and attachment to the Tilneys seems more desperate than heartfelt. All in all, it’s remarkable that Austen makes her as sympathetic as she is.

But the real uneasiness to Northanger lies in its attitude to the sentimental novel. On the one hand, Austen is parodying Udolpho, and novels like it, when she has Catherine searching for secrets in Northanger Abbey and finding nothing but washing bills. But there’s a sense, too, that the satire cuts the other way. Austen describes a scene in which Catherine, already engaged to dance at a ball, is forced to wait on what is essentially the reject bench while her partner chats to the menfolk at the card table:

 To be disgraced in the eyes of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine’s life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character. Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips.

Of course, in one sense this is hyperbole, satire of perhaps the most obvious kind. But there’s also a subtext that, for women of this time, to be sat on the reject bench, to be thought not suitable, not pretty enough or rich enough or engaging enough for a man’s notice, is a kind of infamy and debasement, one which can be actively harmful to the woman’s chances at marriage, and thus at happiness. We’re given to understand, furthermore, that the overbearing General Tilney is a type of Udolpho‘s villain Montoni, though perhaps not in the way that Catherine expects: like Montoni, he’s after her fortune, and doesn’t particularly care how immoral he is in getting it. He may be less…camp, less obviously villainous, in going after it; but that doesn’t change the fact that his underlying motives are fundamentally the same. For Austen, the Gothic mode is both deeply silly and an extrapolation of real social threats that women in her time face. It’s worth noting, too, that the requisite happy ending only comes about as a result of the kind of unrealistic sentimental reversal that Gothic novels revel in (though Austen’s endings are always problematic, and I’m generally inclined to write them off as formally necessary rather than novelistically harmonious). There’s this really profound ambivalence to Northanger about precisely which side it’s on, and it’s that which fascinates me about it.

I should add that it’s also a sharp, witty book that’s frequently very funny, and immensely enjoyable to read. It may not be as well-shaped as Austen’s other novels, but it’s is still utterly lovely for all that, with some great characters and plenty of finely-observed social comedy. There’s plenty to recommend it, and if you start with this least regarded Austen novel then things can only get better. What are you waiting for?

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