February 2017: Northanger Abbey (Part 1)

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Cheng

The first half of Northanger Abbey, vol.1 was the source of such spirited disagreement that it is a fortunate thing we are a very good-humoured group. And given the surprisingly wide range of opinions by Austen academics it is no wonder no director has ever got the film right either.

‘This ambitious, innovative piece of work, quizzically intellectual about fiction itself’ [Marilyn Butler] is a comedy with serious overtones: a merger of two parodies. Vol.1 (Chapters 1-16) is principally a parody of Bath novels, which were popular social comedies of the day dwelling on marriage and money, such as those by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and a satire of Gothic novel readers. It is a sunlit introduction to Vol.2 which moves into a burlesque of the darker, Gothic world of Mrs Radcliffe.

Northanger Abbey has several intertwining themes but the strongest is BOOKS AND THE READING OF BOOKS. Jane Austen ‘presents reading as at once a trivial pursuit, a form of social bonding, the quest for pleasure and satisfaction, and a trainee’s preparation in reading the world’. [M.B.]

Her strong authorial voice was the most troubling aspect of the novel for several of our members. Self-consciously intrusive, using strong irony, she was likened to the most precocious child in the class – attention seeking and out of control. In fact, there is no hero or heroine. It is Jane Austen herself. For others, the lack of the subtlety of her later mature works was no problem; they delighted in the tongue-in-cheek joi de vivre of the young novelist emerging from the Juvenilia.

Through all the laughter however, come warnings about lack of parental guidance in ensuring a broad range of reading material for children and encouraging in them a healthy scepticism and discrimination: learning to read between the lines.

Jane Austen’s defence of the novel and novelists is a cry from the heart – one of the rare moments in her writing when she lets the sophisticated narrator’s voice drop and her own ring out.

The 21st century reader needs to have a thorough knowledge of 18th century authors in order to get all the sly jokes that readers of her time would have understood immediately and on a very different level. Austen uses the same plot motifs as Richardson, Burney and Edgeworth during the Bath scenes and obviously wanted her readers to spot the parallels of characters and events, make the connections and laugh all the more.

Sir Charles Grandison, Evelina, Cecelia, Camilla and Belinda were works she admired and all feature the entry of an inexperienced, vulnerable heroine onto the dangerous adult world. ‘Catherine…..in some senses is Camilla – young, inexperienced, impetuous, charming and fundamentally virtuous’. [M.B.] John Thorpe is a hopelessly clumsy  ‘version of Richardson’s villain who abducts the heroine in a carriage’, [M.B.], only Thorpe blusters around in a gig with a tired old horse.

One member pointed out that even the quotations in the first few pages, ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘Like Patience on a monument’, etc., intended to be serviceable and soothing to heroines in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives, are hilariously out of context. Austen is twisting their meaning – and pulling our legs.

The word ‘hero’ was first used as the central character of a work by John Dryden in 1697. The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or drama, cast with immortal gods, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections and for the first time we have access to his thoughts and feelings. He follows the great classic mythic cycle – he begins life in paradise, is displaced from paradise, endures a time of trial and tribulation, usually a wandering journey on which he achieves self-discovery as a result of his struggles and he returns to paradise – or a new or improved one.

We use the term far too loosely in our post-modern world. It has been devalued in the same way as Henry Tilney’s ‘nice’. Protagonist, main character, even simply main man and leading lady are more suitable. Henry and Catherine are more like anti heroes – examples of Austen’s cheeky sense of humour. Henry is also the least brooding of her main males, as a member reminded us.

are simultaneously the strongest and the weakest aspect of the book because the villains are far more memorable than the virtuous. One member felt that in her youthful exuberance Austen was juggling too many major themes: her belief in the importance and worth of novels and novelists, her send up of Gothic novels, the need for more discriminating reading and more naturalness and realism in novels. In her later works, with more discipline and control, her characters are all important. Nevertheless, everyone loved the little comic colour of supporting roles, such as Mrs Allen’s preoccupation with her gowns and the touching comfort she took from the superiority of her lace.

John Thorpe: definitely her most loathsome bully – as noisy as Donald Trump. Austen’s handling of this narcissist, so many decades before psychoanalysis, is brilliant. Catherine and her brother are John and Isabella’s prey, though Catherine is not so gullible as her naive brother. Thorpe has a long way to go in Austen’s writing before she develops his character into a smooth Henry Crawford. However, it is really he who drives the drama (as do all Austen’s bad guys). He is the catalyst for the most memorable scenes.

Henry Tilney: the character we differed on the most. For one member he was sickening, simpering, very much the cleric, preachy, dogmatic, role-playing – as predatory as John Thorpe. He was seen as after ‘fresh goods’, and so controlling: ‘I know exactly what you will say’ in your journal tomorrow. Is he a dominated son seeking to dominate in his turn? At the other extreme he was deemed a charming, intelligent, amusing metrosexual. And, after he declares

‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’

is obviously worthy of Catherine. Somewhere between these poles, a member enjoyed his company but found him lacking in substance, a bit too detached and not quite flesh and blood.

Catherine Morland: the main source of the novel’s playfulness, youthfulness and warmth. We become enchanted by her through some of Jane Austen’s most charming descriptions:

‘and her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home’. [vol.1, ch. 10]; and

‘Catherine…..enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. [vol.2,ch. 1]

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

Anxious attentions to the weather, Northanger Abbey (CE Brock)

Jane Austen rekindles memories of how we felt when we were first in love – watching excitedly for a glimpse of our beloved.

Her personal growth comes slowly and therefore, convincingly. When Thorpe cries

‘Thank ye, but I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about, and look like a fool. No, if you do not go, d- me if I do. I only go for the sake of driving you’

Catherine, harassed and pressured, utters her first sharp remark,

‘That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure’

and starts to think John Thorpe a very unpleasant young man. She starts to show the strong principles at her core, her honesty and determination to behave with good manners.

were touched on briefly – the accuracy of street scenes and the detailed programme of activities in Bath in the 1790’s and the eventual antipathy felt for it after six weeks. Austen had visited it twice in that decade when she also was an impressionable young girl, though with a sharper eye than Catherine’s. There was also the contrast of the domestic scenes – the rationality at the Morland’s home, to that of the superficial Thorpes, the repressed atmosphere at the Tilney’s and the odd contrast at Catherine’s lodgings of the quiet, sensible, intelligent Mr. Allen with his feather-brained wife.

were discussed even more briefly. The Tilney’s were an influential, politically active family in Tudor times, supporters of the movement to overthrow Elizabeth l and install Mary Queen of Scots.

So many ideas and topics had been tossed about that the meeting closed before we had even approached subjects such as accomplishments, sensibility, the picturesque and the advent of consumerism. The final chapters await us in March, when we will again ‘breathe the fresh air of better company’.

SOURCE: the introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler in the Black Penguin Classics 1995 edition


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