Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

The main difference between the romantic comedies of today and the romance of Jane Austen is that in Jane Austen's romances the most scandalous (and most exciting) things happen to the side characters, not the main characters. Modern romances allow the hero and heroine to make a grievous error and still be forgiven. The scandals of Austen are a mark of shame that lasts forever. However, Austen's skills as a storyteller would put many modern romance writers to shame. Besides, some of us like to go back to a time where we imagine that the best of us had only minor flaws, such as "want of affection" now and then. I admire and enjoy Austen's Northanger Abbey, as I do most of her other stories I have read, yet I can't help but feel a certain boredom creeping in as the inevitable conclusion creeps upon two very nice, yet somewhat dull, characters.

Life has grown dull for Catherine Morland back home. She loves her family, but her home town offers no hopes of finding a good man to bring some excitement into her life. So when her neighbors, the Allens, offer to take her to Bath, Catherine jumps on the opportunity. Immediately her life begins to perk up. She meets a good friend in Isabella Thorpe, and takes a liking to the handsome and charming Henry Tilney, a clergyman of some wealth. Catherine is shocked to find her brother, James, is a good friend of the Thorpes, though she has no inkling of the obvious attraction between him and Isabella. Catherine is so caught up in her attraction to Henry that she also fails to notice that Isabella's brother, John, has taken a liking to her.

This sets up all the major characters (not including General Tilney, Henry's father, and Miss Tilney, Henry's sister), and the necessary elements for conflict. My own modern mind couldn't help but hope Austen would surprise us and turn John into some kind of underdog love interest for Catherine. I found the early passages with him to be very entertaining. I was rooting for him. But there came to be too many things against him. He comes from a poor family, for one, and no doubt was interested in her for her family's money. He swears, saying, "D---" every now and then. He doesn't handle his horse carriage very well, and one can imagine his road rage on today's roads, with heavy traffic and too many potholes. Worst of all, he hates literature. That last one is the nail in the coffin for John Thorpe. You know he has no chance when one of the most highlighted passages on the Kindle version is Austen's diatribe against authors whose heroines fail to care much about literature.

Besides, Henry is the novel's hero, as Austen's narrator calls him. Any suspense about what will happen is removed. Thus the major drama must revolve around the secondary characters. We wonder whether John is going to sabotage Catherine's chances to meet up with Henry. We also begin to realize the seedy side of Catherine's best friend, Isabella, who is fickle and hypocritical. Though Isabella claims she's the type of friend who will never leave her closest friends alone, she nonetheless finds every excuse to leave Catherine's side during the parties they attend, mostly to spend time with James. When the scandal happens, it is like the shock of hearing about such a scandal happening to someone you know, rather than the humiliation of being involved in that scandal yourself.

It's interesting to note the difference in values between the upper class world of Jane Austen and our own much more liberal values in middle class United States. Turn on a romantic comedy today and both the hero and heroine are having sex, sometimes lots of it and sometimes with other people. It's not uncommon for the source of scandal to originate from the hero or heroine, and this is often what leads to the break-up towards the end. However, we are able to forgive these faults. The hero and heroine get back together, one ashamed of their mistake, the other forgiving, though perhaps more cautious in their trust. Austen's hero and heroine can hardly fathom the idea of scandal. To invite flirtation from another man when you are engaged only in heart to another whose hand you have never even held is among the gravest of romantic sins.

That's not to say readers today won't feel the romantic sin any less, and that's because Austen is such a skilled writer. Northanger Abbey moves at a much quicker pace than any of her other books I have read. At times, particularly in the middle, it is gripping and very entertaining. Austen sets up a lot of potentially intense plot points, but unfortunately rushes through some of them or settles them in anticlimactic fashion. The story fizzles towards the end, as Catherine leaves Bath and goes to Northanger Abbey. Here, Catherine's imagination is awakened by the horror stories she reads, and she imagines some dark secret lurking within its walls. Austen sets up a mystery subplot, in order, it seems, to prevent her novel from going stale. It doesn't work. By this time, the conclusion is drawing closer to its inevitable end. When things do finally set in motion, they wrap up far too quickly, or perhaps just quickly enough to prevent things from dragging on too long.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent novel, and I'd say it's my third favorite Austen, behind Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice. Northanger Abbey's side characters are less entertaining than those of the former, and the central romance is weaker than in the latter. This is a book of highs and lows. It begins at a rather subdued pace before rushing, manically, into the ups and downs of Catherine's emotional states of ecstasy and disappointment and tedium, and then tumbling into the slow crawl of the finale. That seems to be the way of the romance genre, and not necessarily any fault with Austen. We are thrilled more by the chase than the catch. While Catherine's romance with Henry is less certain, yet so greatly desired, the story is all the more thrilling, particularly when coupled with Henry's unaccounted absence from a ball here and there, and John Thorpe's relentless pursuit of her heart. It's almost impossible to feel anything but disappointment when the thrill of the chase is over and what you knew was going to happen finally does happen. But it sure is fun.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to read your thoughts on Northanger Abbey. I re-read it recently as part of a read-along (I discussed it on my blog on May 30th). It's not my favorite Austen, but I do enjoy it. The title for my blog comes from it, and Henry Tilney is my favorite Austen hero. He likes to read (and doesn't feel confined by reading-related gender norms) and he jokes around with Catherine.