Sunday, 12 July 2015

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

All quotes are from the Folio society publication, 1975.

A group of five Minervans enjoyed discussing this classic novel written in 1798. The discussion rambled around all of Jane Austen’s works. Sue, our resident Jane Austen expert, was able to expand on many of the wonderful aspects of the novels and the many interweavings. Although Northanger Abbey was written when Jane was just 23 it was edited and revised when she was dying and only published in 1817. In a way it reminds Sue of Austen’s juvenilia but more controlled and with exuberance – it is a real hoot!

It is considered a Gothic spoof by some and the concept of ‘Gothic’ intrigued us. A definition includes the idea of suspense, old ruins, high emotion and ‘over-the-top-ness’ or exaggeration. For instance, during the journey to the Abbey, Henry Tilney describes the abbey to Catherine in melodramatic language, so she is at an unusual level of high emotion when she investigates a ‘large high chest’ in her bedroom

the sight of it made her start; and, forgetting every thing else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder, while these thoughts crossed her: This is strange indeed!’ (page 142)

Even the mention of this type of Renaissance furniture alludes to Gothic novels.

The more serious reflection and ‘true Gothic moment’ is Henry's realization that Catherine has surmised that his mother was murdered by the General. However, this is not a Gothic novel, he tells her, this is England. Nationalistic feelings were important.

The literary influences on this book were the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe including The mysteries of Udolpho which was also a favourite novel for the young female characters in Northanger Abbey.

In artistic terms Austen straddles the Regency period (classical – late eighteenth century) and the highly Romantic period (beginning of the nineteenth century). In this novel Austen uses irony and observations to clearly point out satiric moments and provide the reader with much enjoyment. Sue also noticed how often the colour red was important – for example red poppy and frequent blushing by the girls.

Catherine’s education in the world's ways is the central crux and this ‘coming of age’ is tested when she is forced to leave Northanger Abbey, literally turfed out by General Tilney. Can she cope with the trip? Yes she does. In a ‘Gothic’ novel she may not have coped so well, but this is realism.

We all enjoyed the pleasure of reading this book. Four really enjoyed the reread. It made Denise giggle and we all loved the funny scenes. Sandy didn’t like Northanger Abbey at first but gradually it grew on her. She is a big fan of Thomas Hardy.

The setting of Bath is glorious – it was just beginning to become the town it still is today when Jane Austen was writing this novel. The pump room was just becoming popular.

The central character of Catherine Morland moves from boyish child (ie tomboy?) playing ‘base ball’ (page 13 ) to a very na├»ve young woman of seventeen to a wiser girl over the period of the novel. The experiences and the men she meets do teach her some lessons in adult behaviour. John Thorpe teaches her how not to behave and Henry Tilney acts like an older brother, caring but also playful. For example, John was not reliable and left her at a dance. We appreciated that Catherine held her own opinions quite often and did not waver easily. Maybe more than we did at the same age?

The other main character is Henry Tilney and we remarked how patronizing and sarcastic Henry is towards Catherine. He is considerably older and she is young and silly – he is satirical and reminiscent of other characters in Austen’s novels, such as Mr Knightley in Emma and Edmund in Mansfield Park. He also teases Catherine and she falls for it often.

Mrs Allen is an empty head – not unlike Mrs Bennet we decided - interested in gowns and gossip and not much else. General Tilney’s behaviour is shocking and it was clever writing that he was tricked by John Thorpe twice. John Thorpe is an unreliable person and deserves his reputation.

Another feature we discussed was the word ‘nice’. As in the speech from Eleanor Tilney to Catherine:

‘The word “nicest”, as you used it, did not suit him (ie Henry Tilney) ; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’ (page 95).

Many of us have had similar discussions with relations about 'nice' words.

This novel is wonderful social history even though Austen doesn’t mention politics and isn’t writing history. It shows the power of the aristocracy and the newly wealthy having such power over everyone who wanted to be upwardly mobile. The Thorpe family are prime examples of the genteel poor trying to acquire money through marriage. It also shows that some things never change -- people are still influenced by money and status.

CE Brock illustration, c 1909, from solitaryelegance.com
The other aspect of this novel is Austen’s own defence of the novel. This is in chapter 5 when Catherine is beginning to form her first friendship in Bath. Her new friend Isabella also liked to read novels. It is over a page of strong language from Austen which is alluded to later by Catherine and Henry when discussing young men reading novels. Sue told us this passage is famous, for Austen’s arguments have carried weight ever since. Liking novels is also a commendable personal attribute in this novel – Henry does and John Thorpe does not.

“Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another , from whom can we expect protection and regard ? … And what are you reading , Miss, --------- ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel !’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.” (page 32).

Haven’t we all been there !! And more …

“ liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”. (page 32)

The aspect of the Romantic picturesque is also found in this novel – “The whole building enclosed a court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration.” (page 154). You have the foreground and the background and features in between -- just like a painting.

Austen also enjoyed poking fun at the General allowing him to speculate on further developments of the estate just because it was fashionable to do so, and trying to keep up with others he thinks are of the same status.

A great read.