Thursday, 14 September 2017

#24 A Victorian novel

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Initially titled Susan , Austen had it revised.

Even though this was the first major work of Jane Austen which she sold to a publisher, this novel however was published only after Austen’s death . It is probably fitting then that I read this one last. Also intriguing is the fact that this is a novel about novels and novel-readers. Coming from Austen I expected it be as witty a commentary as any, and it didn’t disappoint!

Written by a youthful Austen, she parodies what she found to be distasteful in the contemporary literature of her time. Gothic literature was enjoying a raging popularity during the close of the neo-classical age and thereby a shift occurred from moralistic novels to sentimental novels.  The absurdities she found in the dramatic and sensational Gothic fiction was given a thorough satirical treatment in this light and delightful read. I will miss reading Austen for the ‘first time’ ever again, since I have now read all her major works. But future unhappiness at the thought vanishes when I realize what a memorable journey it has been with Jane Austen (future re-reads are not out of the picture either!)   

Now, on to the story itself.

Catherine Morland , the young heroine (she is merely seventeen at the start) is a rather ordinary looking girl with none of the qualities that would raise her to the status of a heroine. With the first line of the novel begins our young author’s not so veiled criticism against conventions that had become almost a formula for producing best-sellers.

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her."

Our young heroine doesn’t have a “situation” which could classify her as a possible heroine.  Her father is a financially secure clergyman, her mother well-tempered and still alive after the birth of ten children. Do you hear the hint of satire right there? 

Between fifteen and seventeen she indulges in reading of a certain kind. The novels that she reads belong to the genre of gothic fiction, or the sentimental novel. Most of these fictions included heroines who demonstrate their weakness by “erupting into a flood of tears or collapsing in swoons of distress” from where the virtuous heroes would rescue them. So, with her head full of such stories, Catherine Morland begins her training to become a heroine.

Regrettably, there are no interesting suitors in the neighbourhood. Friends of the family Mr. and Mrs. Allen invite Catherine to Bath, which is a most promising opportunity for young Catherine. The narrator wittily observes:   

“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”

And so, she arrives in Bath, fresh and naïve, with her head full of expectations and fanciful imaginations and is obviously delighted with the place. It is here during the social gatherings that future events will begin to unfold.

Catherine meets Mr. Henry Tilney at one such gathering. He is a charmer! Well, how could he not be when he is kind, witty, considerate, and knows the price and quality of good muslin! He is probably the first of the Jane Austen heroes (maybe the only one too) to show a remarkable skill in shopping for dress materials (which he confesses he does for his sister, Eleanor).

The book that Catherine reads in Northanger Abbey
In the meantime, Mrs. Allen recognizes an old school fellow Mrs. Thorpe, and Catherine is introduced to her daughter Isabella Thorpe and their friendship continues to grow as they read Gothic novels together. The main book that keeps Catherine enthralled is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, which was an actual successful work of Gothic fiction at the time.

As said earlier, something that effectively stands out in this Austen novel is that as much as it satirizes the conventions of fiction at the time, it being a work of fiction itself aims to simultaneously  defend the art of fiction. The author thus defends the act of reading novels, and points out, the novel is, “[..].the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Catherine Morland, our romance book addict, eventually falls in love with the charming and flirtatious Mr. Tilney and is invited by his father and sister to stay with them for a while at Northanger Abbey.  The possibility of living in an old castle, with locked rooms, dungeons, mysterious crooks and corners fascinates our heroine. Even before she reaches the Abbey has imagined it to be the perfect place for horrific incidents inhabited by a ruthless tyrant.  

As can be predicted her fanciful imagination carries her too far and leads her to a major misunderstanding which causes her heavy embarrassment when Mr. Tilney confronts her with the absurdity if it all. There are some twists and turns in the relationship between her and Isabella Thorpe which leads her to finally understand that she had been too naïve and neck-deep in absurd fancy up till this point.

However, as always tings all turn out well. No worries there. But it may have ended too soon. We almost get a feeling that everything was tied up too quickly in the last chapter. But even then, it remains one of the sassiest Austen novels among the whole lot.

Go gothic and give Austen a chance to convince you to the timelessness of her fiction!


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