Commentary: Northanger Abbey

Posted 2 December, 2012 by Lianne in Books / 4 Comments

Northanger Abbey
By: Jane Austen

While enjoying a six weeks’ stay in fashionable Bath, the young and callow Catherine Morland is introduced to the delights of high society. Thanks to a new literary diet of the sensational and the macabre, Catherine travels to Northanger Abbey fully expecting to become embroiled in a Gothic adventure of intrigue and suspense and, once there, soon begins to form the most gruesome and improbable theories about the exploits of its occupants.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s earlier works that was published posthumously. It’s quite different from her later works and sometimes gets written off for not being as polished or witty as Pride and Prejudice (commentary) or Emma but to me the novel is just as enjoyable as her other works and just as sparkly (and makes for a light, quick read).

Like some of my other re-reads, the following entry is not a review of the novel but rather a commentary of things that I picked up on this time around. Contains some spoilers ahead!

What really struck me as I re-read this novel is how involved Jane Austen is as a narrator in the tale. She comments here and there about Catherine’s state of emotions amidst personal drama, inserts her own opinion on the matter, etc. Perhaps she is just experimenting with her narrations or perhaps this is what was “in” during her time (am not sure, I have not read any of her contemporaries yet–and Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance is eons away from my memory). Either way, it’s interesting and different from her later works.

The common criticism to Northanger Abbey seems to be (at least from what I’ve read) that the story’s too simple, too straightforward, the ending is too abrupt. That’s actually what I like about this novel, it’s a nice break from some of the more complex or heavy books; I can pick it up whenever (like I did a few days ago) and just immerse myself into the story. It’s also simple in a way because the reader is reading the story from Catherine’s point of view, a young girl on the cusp of becoming an adult and who is exposed to Society for the very first time. She’s earnest and good-intentioned, which sometimes leads her into situations of misunderstandings but you can’t fault her for it, and some of the people around her tend to take advantage of her good intentions. While she endures a stern lesson for getting carried away with her imagination from all of the Gothic novels she’s been reading and she learns a lot about human behaviour along the way (particularly through Isabelle’s actions towards Captain Tilney and towards Catherine’s brother, James), there’s still that sense of earnestness that remains intact to the very end. She is the heroine of the story either way and at the end gets her happy ending and grows as a person, like any other story.

While Persuasion‘s Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth are my favourite Austen couple, Catherine and Henry Tilney are the sweetest IMO. Henry is the sweetest period (I mean, from all of the Austen heroes, he’s the likeliest I’d go for because he’s so easygoing and has quite a sense of humour–clever and sometimes sarcastic but he’s not brooding or dour. Certainly an interesting personality for someone who’s a clergyman) and from their first dance he certainly seemed to take a rapport to Catherine. I remember reading a comment somewhere saying that they weren’t sure whether Henry really felt anything for Catherine but re-reading the book again, I think he did and that his proposal of marriage at the end wasn’t out of pity, obligation or friendship; after all, for a good part of the novel he acted more as a mentor through Bath Society and a friend. But there were moments when she was at Northanger Abbey where it seemed that Henry was really paying more attention to her. He also wanted to make a very good impression of his place at Woodston to her. So yeah, I think what he felt for her was a genuine sense of love and attachment. As for her, I didn’t realise that she had quite a crush on Henry so early in the novel, haha. It probably didn’t occur to me the first several reads or something, lol.

Finally it’s interesting reading the segments in Bath when Catherine is hanging out with Isabelle, John Thorpe and her brother James. It’s interesting to see how youth are the same no matter what period they’re in. Isabelle’s got this sort of self-centred attitude; while I don’t doubt that she genuinely cares for Catherine, her attention is certainly fleeting and she can be pretty inconsiderate at times. And John Thorpe–oh man, I think out of all of the Austen characters (save for maybe Aunt Norris from Mansfield Park), I wanted to throttle him the most. He’s pretty boorish, he talks endlessly about his horses and carriages (lol, like today’s hot rides) and equally inconsiderate (albeit less delicate in his manipulations). He kept on interfering every time Catherine was close to hanging out with the Tilneys, infuriating lol =/

Overall, it’s always a joy to re-read Northanger Abbey, it’s light-hearted but it’s still very Austen in her presentation and examination of character motivations.

Also, the 2007 ITV adaptation starring Felicity Jones and JJ Feild was just as lovely =) I think I’m due for a major Austen adaptation re-watch.

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4 Responses to “Commentary: Northanger Abbey”

  1. I like Henry Tilney as well! I also never doubted that he loves Catherine. Not at first, of course, but certainly when she’s at the Abbey. Somewhere towards the end it does say that although his feelings arose out of gratification for her feelings for him, he was by that time sincerely attached to her. πŸ™‚
    The reason I like Northanger Abbey is mainly that it’s just so very funny! Like you say, it’s a short, light read, but one that has me chuckling no matter how many times I’ve read it before. And the characterizations are truly Jane Austen – I love the line where it describes the meeting between Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe and how they are both “much more willing to give than to receive information”.
    I don’t agree with you, however, on Isabella – I think she doesn’t care one bit for Catherine – she’s just someone who she can feel superior about, and who admires her and lets her play off her act of being nice and fashionable and all those things she really isn’t. Also, she’s James’ sister, and since she believes the Morlands to be rich… πŸ™‚

    • I agree, it’s a great book to turn to for something light or a change of pace; I too also find myself chuckling here and there no matter how many times I’ve re-read it in the past xD And Austen’s ear for dialogue and observations of people and society are certainly there so yeah, I think this novel is just as strong as her other works πŸ™‚

      Oh yeah, Isabella certainly has that social-climbing/eyes on the cash prize aspect to her personality and having Catherine around definitely ensures that she’s always the one admired (that instance at the ball when Catherine was trying to hang out with the Tilneys comes to mind) but there were a few moments early in their relationship where I actually found myself thinking (at least in this re-read), “Hmm, she’s not being vapid at all, she seems to genuinely care.”

      I don’t know why I chuckle a bit when the Thorpes believe the Morlands to be rich :p

      Thanks for dropping by my blog and for sharing your thoughts on NA! πŸ™‚

  2. Love Northanger and really enjoyed your comments on it! I remember one of my English professors describing John Thorpe as an Austen-era used car salesman, which seems pretty spot-on to me. I also love Henry Tilney and, like you, would probably want to date him in real life. πŸ™‚

    • lol, Thorpe would definitely fit in as a car salesman, he just kept going on and on about his sweet rides! lol.

      Tilney = <3 πŸ˜€

      Glad you enjoyed reading my comments on NA! πŸ™‚

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