Thursday, 30 October 2008

Northanger Abbey


I am sitting here listening to Vivaldi, wondering if Jane Austen heard it while she was writing her novels. Did Vivaldi's music come quickly to England, or did it arrive after her death? It's not really important, but there is something in his violin concertos, which I especially like (Konzert 11, d-moll 565 is what is playing) that reminds me of the quickness of repartee, and all the dancing and social events, in Jane's novels. We take music for granted in this century. It's available 24 hours a day, and anything we want can be played. Back in Jane's time, of course, music could only be heard if someone was around to play an instrument. So young ladies who could play were in great demand!
Northanger Abbey is a novel about a young girl coming out in society; it is moreover, a novel about a girl who is not skilled at anything, who comes from the countryside to the town of Bath for a visit. Being from a kindly and dull family, she has no 'wit' or effortless repartee skills that her new friend Isabella has; nor does she have any fortune. What she does have is a kind heart, that allows her to bear all kinds of company with no complaint, and she also has one other quality that all of Jane Austen's heroines bear: honesty. Catherine cannot bear dishonesty, and when she is put in a position by a potential suitor's actions, she is dismayed, and she acts on it: 'If I could not be persuaded into doing what i thought was wrong, I never will be tricked into it.' She is no push-over, and this is very important, because above all, Catherine is silly. She has absolutely no thoughts about anything except Gothic novels and the places such novels are set in. They are all she reads, because history is dull and boring.
In having a dear, sweet, practically brainless heroine, Austen is able to be as ascerbic as she likes in commenting on the society around her. From making fun of Catherine's feelings and torments as she falls in love with Henry Tilney, to the absolute embarrassing idea Catherine develops that Henry's father murdered his mother, to her being sent home in ignomy by carriage alone for a 70 mile trip, and which Catherine is not afraid, not humbled, but rather wonders what she did, what Henry feels when he finds out, and how her family will feel - Catherine and Jane Austen turn the world of the Gothic novel and indeed, most 'female' novels on their head. Catherine faces no danger, does not need to be rescued by Henry at any point. And yet, and yet. She does come to see for herself, by herself, that Isabella is a tease, a flirt, and not a trustworthy friend; she is able to face down her brother, Isabella and Isabella's brother when they are trying to persuade her to break an engagement she has just made with Eleanor and Henry Tilney, and her inability to really hold any kind of deep conversation or learned conversation on anything is more the result of her family (her parents are kindly and dull, dull, dull with nary an opinion really on much and can't get stirred about much either) and her background - from the tiny village of Fullerton, than any lack of intelligence in her. She does talk with Henry and here is a perfect example of Austen's wit and comment on dating:
"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 any thing, should conceal it as well as she can."
Oh, I dearly wish I could have met Jane Austen and talked with her! The advice above is still being repeated today to girls!! Yet Jane means it ironically - and probably knew many women who pretended to be dumb to get a man - just as we still do today. This probably began the first time there was two women and a man in cave man times: one women would be herself, and the other would play helpless.....I leave it to you to guess how that one played out! However, enough of the smart women must have won out because the human race has continued, though it is doubtful any lessons have been learned from cave man times on.
I pointed out Catherine's honesty, because I was thinking about Austen's other heroines and began to see that despite their faults and flaws, every one of them - Anne, Emma, and Elizabeth - also share one quality: they are unfailingly honest. Emma doesn't mean to hurt with her matchmaking skills, she thinks she is helping her friend; Anne never says she doesn't love Wentworth when she first breaks the engagement, she just says she doesn't think it wise to marry when he has nothing but his face to recommend him; and Elizabeth is too proud by far, and is not leading Darcy on (as her other suitor claims is the practice of women to do) by refusing the first offer; she genuinely doesn't recognize he is her equal yet, and that she could love him. Catherine may be simple, but she is quick to learn, and she recognizes her own follies as well as everyone else's; all she wants to become a better-read/more knowledgeable person, is better company to keep.
It does still puzzle that Henry could fall in love with her, but Austen says that he fell in love with her this way:
"for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own."
And how often in our own lives and families, did romance and true love begin because someone told us someone else liked us, or thought we were cute, etc? In what I think is the crucial scene in the novel, Catherine reveals that she knows nothing of drawing, and Henry begins to instruct her in the beauty of the natural setting around them, and Catherine 'so hopeful a scholar': 'his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him, and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste.' It is this that shows them together, naturally, and that they are suited to one another. From the very beginning of their meeting, I wanted them together, and as a romance novel this is as sweet as any of Austen's novels.

I have finished RIP3 Challenge with this book, but since I have to review Tamsin (tomorrow with any luck), I will save my final thoughts until then. However, Northanger Abbey does fit in. If nothing else, Catherine's fanciful imagination has been led astray by reading only Gothic novels. Henry himself has read most of Ann Radcliffe's books, so they can converse on The Mysteries of Udolpho with ease. But when he quizzes her on other books, she confesses she finds them too dry. and herein we find an old debate that rages today, whether one should read only fiction, or try to read non-fiction - and thus better one's knowledge of the world. I'm not debating that here. But it is interesting that Jane Austen takes the side of reading widely - she does not say Gothic novels are bad, just that reading only them reveals a mind that is not curious about the wider world. My guess is that Henry will lead Catherine into reading more. One scene at the end of the book suggests that Catherine reading Gothic novels only is sprung from her parents, her mother especially, who gives her "The Mirror" to instruct her daughter in how to behave!!

If you are in the mood to laugh out loud, to poke fun at society's pretensions, to roll your eyes at the sheer silliness of people (all Mrs Allen talks about is her dresses!!), then Northanger Abbey is a delightful book to choose. If you are in the mood for romance, for true love, Northanger Abbey has that too. If you are in the mood for England, and a bit of English society, pick this book up. And most of all, if you want a delightful companion to lead you through a light-hearted, caustic look at dating in merry old England, this book is for you too.

However, while this was read for RIP3, if you are looking for a creepy setting, horror, scary events, dark scenes, this is not the novel for you. It makes fun of them, without scaring anyone. Not at all like the Scary Movies series! I do love that we do go to an Abbey in the book and get an inside look at a fine English house, but because Catherine has an 'undiscerning' eye, we are not given much period detail at all. The weather (it rains a lot in this book!), and the character of Mr Tilney himself (the father), are far more frightening than anything Catherine can conjure in her mind. He is domineering, and erratic, and that is probably the hardest part of the novel to read. There are no ghostly moments, just Henry making fun of Catherine when he is setting her up for the abbey before seeing it, making fun of what her Gothic-filled mind is conjecturing. Reading Gothics, and horror novels, is silly, and fun. So I guess the question 200 years later, is are there any horror novels or ghost stories that are serious works of literature? Dracula is the only one that comes to mind. Then, we end up in discussing what kind of book is art, or literature, and how we define that.....

I love Jane Austen. After reading this and Tamsin earlier this week (review to follow, also a wonderful, wonderful ghost story), my faith in novels is happily restored.

5 comments:

Nymeth said...

lol, I loved Austen's explanation of why Henry fell in love with Catherine. And the irony in that passage about female ignorance is just brilliant.

"But it is interesting that Jane Austen takes the side of reading widely - she does not say Gothic novels are bad, just that reading only them reveals a mind that is not curious about the wider world."

This was probably my favourite thing about the book. She pokes fun at Gothic clichés, but never in a "don't read those books, they are a silly waste of time" sort of way. Like Henry tells Catherine, there's nothing wrong with reading them. It's just probably not wise to use them as guides to life :P

Daphne said...

How about Frankenstein? Very frightening and also very serious literature.

I can't believe I have never read this, but I think it might be on my short list of TBRs for the upcoming winter months...

Becca said...

I think Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite of Austen's novels. And I believe Henry will definitely help Catherine mature in her reading tastes!

Emily Barton said...

Oh, I love, love, love Northanger Abbey, and what a wonderful, insightful portrait of it you've painted here. Almost makes me feel it's time for a re-read (but I just re-read it last year, and I really ought to choose another Austen to re-read at this point).

Bybee said...

I remember reading this during my very rushed Austen summer and feeling amused. Now that I've finally come to appreciate Jane, I want to do Northanger Abbey next.