Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – Book Review

Our monthly book review with Rory of According to Rory falls on Halloween, so what’s better than to pick a book in line with the season? I have toyed with the idea of diving into Flannery O’Connor (nothing in the public domain) or the gothic novels that inspired Jane Austen’s pastiche (too much effort), but in the end settled to talking about a much underrated but possibly my favourite of dear Jane’s works.

While the irony is easily lost in most of Jane’s writing unless you know you have to expect it (after all, aren’t we all conditioned to think that women like romances and would, therefore, take this all very very seriously?), it is hard to miss the genre in Northanger Abbey. The book starts with setting you up to see Catherine Morland as a girl with a too vivid imagination for her own good, and it creates a certain distrust of her own perceptions that will be key later in the novel.

Not a particularly handsome or rich girl, she is blessed with the friendship of a well-off childless couple who takes her to Bath as a companion. A classic Regency setting, you just had to take the waters regularly. This is, however, a minor departure from the rest of the canon, where the familial relationships of the heroine form a great part of the plot. The dynamic here is mostly centred on the friends she makes in Bath, although there is a love triangle involving her brother so family isn’t entirely absent.

She is, however, like the heroines of the novels she loves so much, not that sheltered by her close relationships, and dangers lurk at every turn (mostly in the guise of handsome young men). Like Pride and Prejudice, much of the novel revolves around the idea of poor judgment of character, although while Elizabeth Bennet is observant but prejudiced, Catherine is merely too naive and good-natured. A perfect target for the expected horrors.

You probably guessed by now that the horrors, while there, weren’t quite what they were imagined, and, luckily, all ends well. After a suitably long engagement, the heroine will marry her charming snarky boy (played adorably by JJ Fields in one of the adaptations). While the film is good, it’s not as good as the novel, but if you are into hearing things the latest dramatised production with Douglas Booth does a great job of bringing it all alive.

What I love about this novel is the fact the hero is a bit of an anti-hero himself, but not in the usual broody manner. He is a young clergyman of good family, with a lighthearted mood in polite society, and a bit too much banter with Catherine, who is really poor at taking it. His sister is a great role model, a bit like Jane Bennet, but also the fact she isn’t related to Catherine makes for a beautiful view of female friendship in contrast with the vain and coquettish Isabella Thorpe. And as it’s right and just, her virtue will have her triumph in the end, while Isabella falls to her ruin.

The gothic theme running through the novel, even as a pastiche, is an interesting addition to the usual carousel of society balls and broken hearts, and gives the whole novel an interesting dynamic. It also makes us question what we think about the villain, introducing more of them than just the seducer and abandoner (which, for once, does not affect the heroine at all). It’s clearly the age of the early dandy, but none of the characters live up to Lord Byron. After all, the breaking or making of a heartbreaker has more to do with the projections people make on them than their reality, and the same applies to old abbeys which may or may not hide dark secrets.

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