Although I’ve titled this a review, as I do when I write about a book, this post on my latest read, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is not really going to be a review. Like all her novels, it’s been intensively written about from multiple angles, and in fact there are many themes and ideas I’d love to write about, but for this post I am going to focus on one aspect that particularly struck me this time. This aspect is not exactly new to me, but it came together this read in a particular way – and it is this …
Northanger Abbey is often seen as a spoof or satire of gothic novels. And it certainly does make fun of these novels, but it does so largely through satirising readers of these novels, particularly (young) suggestible readers. Northanger Abbey is also famous for its defence of the novel, on which I’ve posted before. However, the thing which stood out this read was how much Austen comments on the art or practice of writing novels. The novel opens with:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Now this partly sets up the whole Gothic novel thread, the idea that heroines of Gothic novels are certain sorts of people, and that certain sorts of things happen to them, but on this read I was very conscious that there was more going on here between Austen and her reader (in this case, me). Before I explore this a little more, it’s probably worth outlining the novel’s publishing history. Initially called Susan, it was written around 1798–99, when Austen was 23-24 years old. She revised it in 1803, and it was sold to a bookseller, who never published it. In 1816, the year before Austen died, her brother Henry Austen bought it back. Austen revised it a little more, including changing the name of the heroine, and of the novel, to Catherine, but died before putting it out for publication again. In the end Henry organised for it to be published as Northanger Abbey, along with Persuasion, in 1817.
So, it was the first novel she finalised for publication (even though she had previously started on the books that later became Sense and sensibility and Pride and prejudice) but was the last published. The interesting thing about this essentially “first” novel is that the voice, or point-of-view, is a little different from the other five novels which are written more consistently in third-person omniscient voice. In Northanger Abbey however, the author-narrator frequently intrudes into the story to address the reader – sometimes, though not always, using first person – and in so doing tends to draw attention to the making of the fiction.
For example, she introduces the Thorpe family with a brief background, then writes:
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.
There is an element here of satirising Gothic novels which tended to be long and detailed and to deal with nobility, but it is also, as I see it, part of Austen’s novelist’s manifesto. She’s telling us that for the purposes of her story we don’t need long digressions into irrelevant, albeit possibly exciting, pasts.
Her frequent references to Catherine and whether or not she is a heroine sets up the reader for a traditional Gothic romance while at the same time teases us to think about what fiction might really be about. We know, from a letter to her niece, that this is, for her, “Three or four families in a country village”. So, on the one hand Austen tells us that Catherine has been “in training for a heroine” and “that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad”, and then on the other hand, she returns us to reality with statements like:
she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise [that she was “a pretty girl”] than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms.
Austen plays with us like this throughout, comparing the concerns and expectations of a Gothic novel heroine with those of a more “realistic” one.
Towards the end, the two threads – the Gothic and the natural or realistic – come together. Having discovered that all her wild imaginings of murder and mayhem at the Abbey were just that, wild imaginings, Catherine does have to confront a very real crisis when the General suddenly turfs her out of the Abbey, his home, with no explanation:
Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building, were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror.
This is one of the narrator’s third person pronouncements, but Austen, the author, intrudes in first person again at the end, with two statements that refer directly to the making of fiction. One alludes to the final resolution of the romance:
The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.
The other refers to the introduction of a new character in the last chapter who helps bring about the above “perfect felicity”:
… I have only to add—aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable—that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills, resulting from a long visit at Northanger, by which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures.
I love this aspect of Northanger Abbey – that is, I love Austen’s cheeky, inventive voice. She’s not scared to talk to us, to tell us what she’s doing and what she thinks. It’s a fresh, bright novel that beautifully bridges her juvenilia pieces with her more, let’s say, controlled works. We see here the lively intelligence of a young writer who is thinking, perhaps, about imagination and reality, and certainly about what she likes to read and what she wants to write.
This has been pretty brief, and may not have argued my point as coherently as I would have liked, but at least it documents for me the ideas that this reading brought to the fore. I hope it’s given you something to think about too.
ISBN: 9781596251144 (ebook)