Northanger Abbey was published after Jane Austin's death, that's a well know fact. One of two Austen's novels (the other being Persuasion) that were published posthumously, Northanger Abbey seems to have been the first work that Austen has prepared for publication. I've been wanting to read it for a while and I'm glad I finally did. I'm even more excited to share this review, because it includes, besides the obvious, my musings about Jane Austen. You see, I have something of a love and hate relationship with Austen. Alright, maybe that is an overstatement. I generally do enjoy Jane Austen's works, but I remain uncertain to whether Jane is all I think she is. One more thing, this is a very long review (+ 2000 words). I organized it as best as I could, but if you just want a general summarize, you will need to scroll down and read my final thoughts.
Should we trust our first impressions? As I started reading this novel, I marvelled at the elegance of Austen’s prose. I wondered: ‘Is this really Austen’s first novel?’ I even made a mental comparison, thinking to myself how reading an Austen’s novel is like drinking a cup of your favourite tea….and then I got bored and added another comparison- until you choke on it. A bit into the novel, you see, I got incredibly bored. I was so bored I literally couldn’t make myself read any more. I don’t remember that ever happening with Austen, whom I genuinely like (I wouldn’t say love, but I do like her and I think she deserves a place among the classics). Why was I so bored? There was something I didn’t like and at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it simply that I wasn’t in mood for Austen? After a week or so, I picked up the book (or better to say my laptop for I was reading an ebook) again and gave it another shot. I’m certainly glad that I did because I ended up enjoying a novel- apart from the way the heroine was written that is.
THE PROTAGONIST- THE HEROINE: CATHERINE THE SIMPLETON
I have to be honest and say this- the female protagonist spoiled this one A BIT for me. The description of her growing up was very interesting- but it was downhill from there. I do understand that for Northanger Abbey to work, one needed a simple and naïve protagonist. However, I’m pretty sure there is a difference between being naïve and being stupid.
I mean Catherine is thick, I don’t know how else to put it, and frankly it is a bit frustrating. I could understand that she is young and therefore a poor judge of character but to have an absolutely clueless female protagonist, that’s just not fun to read about. I think Jane Austen took it a bit too far with ‘simple’ protagonist, making her heroine such a simpleton was really not the best choice. There must have been some way to write her that would not make her look like an idiot. If the stupidity of the heroine– if that in itself is meant as a satire on romance novels, perhaps it could have worked- but from what could we draw that conclusion?
“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance - a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” ― Jane Austen,
There is nothing to suggest that the writer is using the heroine’s intelligence level (or better to say the lack of it) to send out any message. The ending and the plot are very much alike other Austen’s novel. Isn’t that her signature style? To write memorable characters, clever dialogues and social observations completed with a complicated plot that gets resolved in the end? Don’t get me wrong, I happen to think that Austen usually does it well- I don’t mind terribly much that her novels end much in the same way. In Northanger Abbey there are some clumsy bits, certain illogical actions, the whole thing feels a bit unpolished- but on overall it is not a badly written novel. I would even add that Austen does a pretty good job with writing in this one- apart from the protagonist part.
Fortunately, the novel works even without a memorable heroine. Why? Because there is one thing that Austen does really well and that is social satire. In addition to social satire, Northanger Abbey has the advantage of Gothic satire as well. Personally, I found that Gothic episode to be highly enjoyable. Austen did a great job of making fun of Gothic novels. This novel sets out to be funny, in a greater extend that her other works I would say, and while it is not always successful (from my perspective), it is on overall, successful enough.
THE PLOT, THE SETTING, THE WRITING
The plot in this (as in other Austen’s works) focuses mainly on romantic endowers and wedding plans. Catherine, the heroine (like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice) makes a poor character judgement and forms wrong opinions about at least two people. There are three different settings in this novel: Bath, Northanger Abbey and the heroine’s home. If we were to divide the novel in three parts, the first part being one set in Bath, I would say that I didn’t like the first one too much. The reason is that there was just too much repetitiveness. It is not because nothing much happened- I was expecting the introduction to be slow paced, it is more that dialogues were needlessly repetitive. Conversations between Isabel and our protagonist could have been a great deal shorter and still make perfect sense. The same could be said for most of the conversations in that first part of the novel. They were good, but then they just went on and on without adding anything of the value. The author could have made just as valid social commentary with less words. I would say that Austen really mastered her craft in her later novels. In contrast, in this one dialogues (especially in the first part) are enjoyable but a bit overwritten. The second part of the novel (set in the Abbey) was much more enjoyable. The dialogues were much more precise and the same could be said for the writing. The third part of the novel seemed rushed. I felt it ended too suddenly. I did, however, enjoy when Austen started addressing us (the readers) directly and she did as the novel progressed (especially in the second and the third part). On overall, the plot is satisfactory, the varied setting is welcomed and the writing is of good quality.
WHY IS THIS NOVEL BEING CALLED A GOTHIC SATIRE NOVEL
To be honest, I’m not sure, to me it seems that Gothic satire is just one of the elements of this novel. Isn’t it more the usual ‘Jane Austen’ novel plus Gothic satire, then the other way around? I feel like sticking to that definition is taking something away from this novel. I personally wouldn’t call this novel a Gothic satire novel, more ‘coming of age’ novel with an element of romance and Gothic.
So, while there is a Gothic satire episode in Northanger Abbey and one that is very well written, I would hasten to add- that is what this novel is about. If you are a fan of Austen but you didn’t read this one and you wonder whether it is terribly different from her other works- it is not. The entire Gothic episode lasts only a handful of pages and happens only in the second part of the novel. Furthermore, while there are many references to Gothic literature in the first part of the novel, they are hardly the most important subject. I mean it is Austen- getting married is what it is important- at least in the terms of a plot. If you think about it, the whole novel could function just as well even without that Gothic episode. More than anything, it is a novel rich in social satire.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT NORTHANGER ABBEY?
I love how it sets forward this idea that what is dangerous is not ghosts and murders, but people who judge others solely on account of their material status, people whose social and personal conduct is motivated solely by a better social standing. Isn’t that really scary? What we should be afraid of is not being murdered or scared to death by some ghost, but of losing our integrity in pursuit of material goods. If you look at it, what is more probably of the two? Obviously, the second opinion. I do believe that in every Austen’s novel there is more than meets the eye, a deeper message of some kind, basically- a kind of study of human nature.
Besides that delicious realism, this novel follows other typical ‘Austen’ works in it that it features a female protagonist and a complicated plot. The male protagonist Henry (or is it better to call him the female protagonist’s love interest?) is the one who adds all the dots together in this one. I’m sorry he didn’t get more space in this one. Henry could have been more present- or maybe not? Perhaps the way Henry and Catherine are contrasted is supposed to be funny? The cliché of the guy who knows everything and ‘educates’ his love interest. Still, isn’t it a bit patronizing? Is Austen being deliberately ironic here? I can’t really tell with certainty.
MY FEELINGS TOWARDS JANE AUSTEN
I have somewhat mixed feelings about Jane Austen. Some would say Jane Austen isn’t a typical romance author. I would say that she is not a romance author period. I don’t consider to her to be one. I definitely see her as a talented writer, but I sometimes feel like she overshadows some other equally or even more deserving English authors. However, we can hardly blame Austen for the fact that her novels remain so popular. After all, there is some quality writing in them. I feel it would be utterly unfair if we would say that Austen didn’t know how to write. Still, I can’t honestly say that she is one of my favourite British authors. Maybe one of my favourite British female authors? Perhaps, I’m not sure. There are many things I admire about Austen (as a writer). I like her subtle social commentary, her wit, her writing style. I love how she inserts a poetical sentence when you least expect. Austen is one of those quotable writers. She just knows how to make thoughts and dialogues sound great. Moreover, Austen knows how to make her characters grow on her.
Does it bother me that I see a pattern in her novels? Does it bother me that they all end happily ever after? Now, that I think of it, many novelists I like follow patterns. Isabel Allende’s protagonists always go through hardships, get challenged and grow from the experience. Can’t we say the same of Austen’s protagonists? On the other hand, Allende’s characters are all very much alike. In contrast, there is definite variety between Jane’s protagonists. Some are more eloquent, some less, some are quiet, others outspoken. Why do I then get a sense of déjà vu when I read Austen?
I’ve been thinking about it and I think that I secretly hold a grudge against Austen- to my surprise I realized that the fact that I hold against her is the fact she didn’t write more than six novels. As if it was easy to write six novels! I suppose that I have this conviction that if she had written more, she would have gotten even back. I don’t know why, but sometimes it seems to me she was holding back a little.
As I emphasized a few times in this review, I do believe that this novel is as successful as Austen’s other works. The writing is, at times, not as polished as usual, but on overall it is good quality writing. Northanger Abbey is, in my view, only slightly different from other Austen’s works, and only in that it includes a Gothic satire episode and attempts to be a bit more humorous. Still, it contains enough social realism and commentary to make it a relevant reading. The reason why I failed to be impress had little to do with the quality of the writing. No, it was the heroine. Simply said, the heroine was a bit of disappointment for me, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel altogether. After all, most critics praise Austen for her subtle social commentary, not so much for her plot and heroines- and this novel doesn’t lack in that sense. Either way, I mean whether you enjoy happy endings or social commentary (or both), you won’t be disappointed.. I can’t help but assume that a fan of Austen will probably like Northanger Abbey. It is a very good novel indeed.
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