Friday, October 23, 2020

Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

Am I a particularly Austen-like woman, or is Austen so astute at creating realistic, relatable characters that most people find some parts of themselves in her heroines? (See my reviews of Emma and Persuasion, for example.)

I loved Catherine's dramatic imagination, her loyalty to her friends and her innocence/naiveté regarding General Tilney and Isabella's social ladder climbing ambitions. My heart rose and fell with hers as she discovered the wide(r) world of Bath and made new friends, discovered too late the social impropriety of riding in an open carriage, learned of her acquaintance manipulatively canceling her social plans or lying to her to spend more time with him, received an invitation to Northanger Abbey and was discovered poking around her friend's deceased mother's apartments. If the specifics of my own teen years were really quite different, the general tensions and reactions Austen portrayed were so vividly familiar.

John Thorpe and Isabella Thorpe were delightful antagonists. There is a particular type of pompous self-absorbed twit from whom I've previously had to disentangle myself from conversation with and it is nice to have a literary reference for the archetype... Seeing the hints of Isabella's upcoming betrayal through Catherine's unwitting and overly generous eyes was fun. Mrs Allen and Mrs Thorpe's supposed "conversations" in which they both discussed their own interests at each other rather than with each other was memorable.

Henry Tilney left a lot to be desired as a love interest. I found him rather unbearably smug and overly pleased with his own wit, and rather condescending. Still, Catherine's being so in love with him was just so adorable that I still shipped it.

In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives – lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.

Overall, the plot of Northanger Abbey was quite simple relative to her other works. The social tensions were less layered than in Emma. Social critiques were narrower in scope and the character flaws of the protagonists and antagonists were less complex than those of Emma or Persuasion. It was fun to watch Austen aim her satire at literature and pop culture. While many of the tropes she skewers (wives locked up and murdered, manuscripts hidden in surprising old chests, spooky houses) are very familiar, I got the sense that some (many?) references went a little over my head. Still, I don't feel the need to brush up on centuries-old gothic novels - Jane Austen's satire about an extraordinarily ordinary teen girl delighted nevertheless.

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