Friday, 22 July 2011

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen (1818)

Synopsis: Catherine Morland is a young, naive, innocent girl and a huge lover of Gothic literature. She then leaves her countryside home and goes to stay in Bath for a few weeks with wealthy family friends Mr and Mrs Allen. This is her first trip away from home. Catherine goes to balls, the theatre and the baths and meets some very interesting new people. When Mrs Allen bumps into a long-lost school friend called Mrs Thorpe, Catherine makes friends with Mrs Thorpe's daughter Isabella. Catherine and Isabella both share the same passion for Gothic novels and Isabella tries to push Catherine towards a relationship with her boorish brother John (who attends Oxford with Catherine's brother James). Catherine also meets an intriguing young man called Henry Tilney. Catherine spends a great deal of time with Henry and his sister Eleanor and she becomes very attached to them. The Tilneys, along with their father General Tilney, then invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their family home Northanger Abbey. Catherine's imagination has been stirred by Gothic novels and, after some teasing from Henry, she begins to suspect that Northanger Abbey hides dark, mysterious secrets. When Catherine discovers the truth, her life and her attitude towards fiction are completely changed.

Northanger Abbey was published posthumously but it's actually the first book that Jane Austen wrote. Most scholars agree that she would have been barely out of her teens when she finished it. The book was sold to a publishers' under the title Susan but for some reason they didn't actually publish it. Austen's brother Henry later bought it back from them and Austen made some revisions to the book by changing Susan's name to Catherine. Austen then died. Henry Austen arranged for the book to be published and he was the one who came up with the title Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey isn't Austen's very best work. The writing lacks the depth and polish of some of Austen's later novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But in terms of characterisation, plot and comedy Northanger Abbey is still a wonderful novel! It's entertaining, extremely funny, incredibly charming and great fun to read! You can really tell that Austen had a lot of fun writing this book too. I especially love Austen's narration in Northanger Abbey. It's more active than in any of her other novels and Austen inserts more of her own opinions into the narrative. This is probably a sign that she hadn't yet developed enough confidence in her writing but I still find Austen's personal opinions and humour really funny and interesting.

The romance of this novel and its leading characters are also delightful. Catherine Morland is only 17 and is tied with Marianne Dashwood as Austen's youngest heroine. Catherine isn't one of my absolute favourite Austen heroines but she's still very likeable. I love the fact that she's a bookworm and that she was a tomboy as a child. Catherine is also very sweet, kind and innocent. OK she might well be naive and a bit silly at first but she isn't stupid and she does mature throughout the book. She discovers that there is genuine evil in the world but it's not like anything she's ever read. And then of course there's Henry Tilney. Henry isn't just my favourite Austen hero - he's one of my favourite fictional characters of all time! I know every woman is supposed to love Mr Darcy the most out of Austen's men but not me! Henry is a bit like Mr Knightley in that he points out the heroine's foibles and gently shows her the error of her ways - but Henry is much wittier and more sarcastic than Knightley. He has some hilarious one-liners! Henry is also charming, intelligent, kind, good-looking, sensible and a true gentleman. He also loves novels so if you ever met him in real life you could have a conversation about books with him!

Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's lesser-known novels and it's nowhere near as famous as Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility and Emma - which are probably Austen's most well-known works. I find this quite odd because I'd say that Northanger Abbey is actually one of Austen's more accessible works, especially for teenagers. Northanger Abbey is Austen's shortest novel, it has one of her youngest heroines, and it has her least complex and most straightforward plot. Also, all of Austen's novels are funny but Northanger Abbey is more obvious in its humour than the rest. This is partly because the book is such a brilliantly clever and funny parody of Gothic literature. Austen's narration and Catherine's fantasies are downright hilarious in places! However the ways in which Austen pokes fun at Gothic literature are far from being nasty - which as a fan of Gothic literature I thought was really nice. I wouldn't say that you necessarily need to be a fan of Gothic literature to get the humour in Northanger Abbey though. A knowledge of Gothic literature will no doubt enhance your appreciation of Northanger Abbey but it's by no means essential.

I adore Northanger Abbey and it's such a criminally underrated book. It's one of my favourites. It's such a lovely, happy, feel-good book. It always brings a smile to my face and it has one of my favourite fictional characters ever.

Rating: 5/5

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