Monday, 19 December 2011

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Austen's first written (but last published) novel follows Catherine, a young, inexperienced woman who makes sense of the world around her through the fantastical, Good Vs Evil romantic view of the world. Despite what one might call nuances, it extremely easy to read.

I'm so glad to have read Austen again. I think she's my favourite classical author because I understand her wit, her imagery and find myself captivated by stories that I never thought I would like or read. This isn't my favourite, but it really is a great book. Its greatest strength is how easy to read it is. Classics are infamous for being difficult to read and they say you need a great vocabulary and all that. It helps, don't mistake what I'm saying, but that's nonsense. Anyone can read, understand and enjoy a classic if the story is to their liking. With this book it's particularly prominent since had I not known it to be Austen, I could have mistaken it for contemporary writing. It really is that understandable.

The book itself is weird. As I said, I read it as coming-of-age as our protagonist sets out into town-life and finds her world upside down and herself mesmerised. She's never encountered this kind of thing before, and it shows in her naivety and simple trusting nature. She gradually begins to question herself and those around her, and eventually starts maturing, but I'm glad that she isn't completely different at the end. Catherine is still Catherine, just with a different view of the world.

Narration was a another oddity in the book. It wasn't bad, but Austen's way of writing was in a way that she'd occasionally move from the third person view of just Catherine's story to making a social commentary or witty remark. Once, she even went from Catherine's train of thought to her own ideas. It was nice, as someone who likes Austen, to get such a straight forward look into her head. I think if I'd read this first though, it might have been bothersome since here before me was a writer I had never read getting slightly off topic. I'd defend her saying this is merely her first book, but the point stands.

As a coming-of-age novel (at least in my mind), it's expected that the side characters would be strong and diverse. There was perhaps a sense that one family was bad and another was good, but I think it wasn't unfounded and, at least at the time, it wasn't bad so much as 'not-good'. I'm being a little vague in case you read it. The characters themselves were amazing though: I could picture Isabella, hear Henry Tilney's voice and see his smile as he teased Catherine or his sister and picture the kind of gentleman the General was. And as I say, they were diverse. Catherine, in order to develop, has to encounter people that would challenge her innocence and force experience upon her. So we face the deceptive or the secretive and she originally ignores it, but comes to recognise it and then act upon it. For me, I liked the General because (grumpy and prejudiced as he is) he was interesting and hard-to-read.

Since Austen is known for it, I'll talk about the romance in the book. There are two love interests in this book, and indeed romance and love forms parts of a side-story/sub-plot, but it isn't as prominent as in other books. Rather than perpetually husband-hunting or at least very romantically aware (like Elizabeth or Emma from her other books) the romance is always peripheral in Catherine's view of the world. She considers her own fancy important, but it doesn't overshadow the idea that this book is more about Catherine's perception of the world. I think I'll make a comment her as well that I always prefer classical romance. It more about falling in love than the aftermath, which interests me more.

One final comment is that I loved how Catherine seemed to contrast Emma in her later book. One is self-assured, a matchmaker and sometimes annoying, the other is innocent, impressionable and loveable. I really feel like the pair are practically two sides of the same coin, though not quite. By the end of the book, Catherine has learnt enough to be considered not as polar-opposite to Emma as originally. Anyway, just a thought that I'd like opinions on if opinions are to be had.

So I adored this book and if you're struggling this late on for a Christmas present, perhaps this would not be a bad idea? It's not a romance, and the humour and tale of story based almost entirely on perception (making it in many ways unreliable) is interesting. Austen's way of referring to her as the Heroine grounds us in it's ironic reminder to take what is said with a pinch of salt. An excellent book.

Marked Quotes:

"The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."

"I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."


  1. This one has such a great sense of humor... and a kind of self-conciousness about it. Like the author is aware that it's not the "coolest" thing to be writing a novel, but she's trying it out anyways. Because fiction novels were still so new then! Hard to believe.

    Great review/recommendation. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think maybe she was nervous, and, originally, didn't she hide the fact she was writing from her family? It wasn't considered entirely Ladylike and she didn't want to seem presumptuous following only in Ann Radcliffe's footsteps.

    Fiction was definitely strange! And a woman in a story other than romance? Practically unheard of!

    Aw- thank you. :-D