Fiction: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

northangerWhen October rolled around, it was time to pick my next Fall Classic. And while my pick for the actual Fall Classic fell slightly short of the goal (IT WAS 2015, THE CUBBIES WERE FATED TO GO TO THE WORLD SERIES, MARTY MCFLY SAID IT WAS SO – why no, I’m not over it yet, why do you ask?), my literature Fall Classic was a poor attempt at trying to come full circle with my (admittedly, thanks to hindsight) poor choice for May Classic Literature Month.

Remember, for 2015’s selection, I elected to read The Mysteries of Udolpho. I am still kicking myself for that library choice. I mean, I just tallied up the books I read last year, and I’m two shy of 2014’s total, and I’m sorry, Ann Radcliffe, but I’m putting all that fault on your shoulders. If I wasn’t so busy reading about Lady Emily having hysterics I could have finished — who knows? Five more books? Seven? I could have hit forty, you bitch.

Ahem.

ANYWAY. When October came around, I realized it only made sense that I should read Northanger Abbey — after all, Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s open attempt at satirizing Ann Radcliffe’s master work.

Northanger Abbey was one of the first novels Ms. Austen wrote, but it was only published after her death. The heroine is Miss Catherine Morland, a charming yet naive country girl who gets the chance to experience a Bath season. She is introduced to society at the Pump Room (a Thing in Bath – where debutantes paraded around a fountain and gossiped about everyone else) and becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, who appears to be a great role model of the upper class to which Catherine aspires. Spoiler alert!: she’s not.

Isabella’s kind of a bitch – she becomes fast friends with Catherine because Catherine’s too naive to see through her Regina George-esque facade. Well, she’s like Regina George only if Regina George was a manipulative husband-hunter.

Maybe she’s more like Karen:

“Very well, Catherine. […] I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney — ‘a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.’ Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion — do you know — I like a sallow better than any other.” [p. 47]

So she likes sickly men that she can easily overpower; that’s how I’m interpreting that sentence.

Catherine’s afore-mentioned Mr. Tilney is Henry Tilney, a young parson who has accompanied his sister Eleanor to Bath for the season. (I should mention that in Jane Austen-land, a country parson is someone who can still marry and flirt with girls – we’re not talking a Catholic priest or a Jesuit monk, here.) They hit it off quickly, although Isabella’s brother John also develops an attraction to Catherine. Isabella, meanwhile, begins to fall for Catherine’s brother James. The Thorpes’s attraction is derived completely from a falsehood going through Bath that the Morlands are extremely rich, however.

It all sounds pretty sedate, right? Basically it’s what a modern-day take on a historical romance sounds like. Two fast friends find each other becoming nearly related and one of the girls has a secret admirer. It’s all very quaint. But here’s what Jane Austen’s doing – she’s satirizing the whole damn thing.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s treatise on what should happen to silly little girls who read too many novels. And in creating that treatise, she tried to put in as many “silly little novel” tropes as possible: the Naive Everygirl; the Love Triangle; the Lemony Narrator, even. And then she subverted them, or heightened them to the point of parody.

Catherine, who is such a fierce lover of literature – including The Mysteries of Udolpho, which, true confessions, I almost typed that just now as “The Musteries of Udolpho,” which implies that Udolpho smells really mildew-ey — automatically goes to the Most Dramatic Option when presented with something that could have even the slightest hint of mystery. When she visits with the Tilneys and finds a large wardrobe in her room, she doesn’t assume it’s a guest wardrobe; she believes she’s going to find something ghastly and suspenseful inside. She gets herself so worked up that when she finds a key in a keyhole and turns it to open it, she actually locks it on herself, and then takes about five minutes before she tries turning it the other way. And when she finally peers inside the drawer, what does she see? Not the desiccated hand of a long-lost Tilney ancestor, but an actual, honest-to-God laundry list. It is a list of laundry items.

That might not seem very funny to us as a modern-day reader; but to someone of Ms. Austen’s time, when The Mysteries of Udolpho and its ilk were the height of literature and there was nothing funny about them, the tricks Ms. Austen pulls on the reader becomes that much sharper and cleaner. General Tilney is oppressive and taciturn – maybe he’s a robber baron like Count Montoni! Oh no wait, he’s just a snob, who also heard the lie about the Morlands being rich. Wait, where does General Tilney go during the day – up to his dead wife’s room? Maybe she’s still alive! So then Catherine goes sneaking around to try and find a maybe-not-so-dead wife, only to be discovered in the act by Henry. But instead of cutting her out of his life for her crazy ideas – because General Tilney actually loved his wife and is still mourning the loss of her, that’s where he’s going, he’s leaving you for some goddamned peace and quiet, Miss Morland! (sorry) – instead, Henry gently mocks her and her propensity to turn the Drama Dial on everything up to 11. In Udolpho, Lady Emily cuts Vaillancourt out of her life when she hears about his gambling without giving him a chance to explain himself. Here, Henry actually listens to Catherine and finds her overactive imagination charming.

Ms. Austen, in her role as narrator, also takes stabs at the fact that Udolpho and its contemporaries are overly long. For instance, our introduction to Isabella Thorpe’s mother:

Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humored, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated. [40]

Dear Mrs. Radcliffe: can I get you some ice for that BURN? (But it’s true, it’s totally, one million percent true.)

Finally, because this is Alaina’s blog called That’s What She Read, and I am the most twelve, you can only imagine how hard I laughed while I read this otherwise-innocuous paragraph about John Thorpe’s curricle:

“What do you think of my gig, Miss Morland? A neat one, is it not? Well hung; town built; I have not had it a month. It was built for a Christchurch man, a friend of mine, a very good sort of fellow; he ran it a few weeks, till, I believe, it was convenient to have done with it.” [p. 51]

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I didn’t have the background of The Mysteries of Udolpho. I’m not sure I even knew it was a real book, to be honest. But now that I’ve read both, knowing Udolpho definitely strengthens Northanger Abbey for me. It’s funnier, smarter – knowing the past heightens the present.

That’s not to say that The Mysteries of Udolpho is a piece of shit that should be mocked; just because I didn’t like it and my opinion of the book closely paired with Miss Austen’s opinion of the book which in turn made me enjoy Northanger Abbey more doesn’t mean that someone else might have the opposite opinion. (Right? Right.) After all, I read new books for the adventure – I won’t really know if I’ll like it until I try. And even when I don’t have a favorable opinion of a book after reading it, the pleasure of reading is always present.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with this conversation between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney:

“But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” [p. 107]

Well said, Mr. Tilney; well said.

Grade for Northanger Abbey: 4 stars

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