I promised myself I would read four books for Carl’s RIPII challenge and so far I have read…one. It’s like that old saying, tell God you have a plan and you can hear him laughing…ah, but I have 31 days to finish three more and if I pick some slimmer volumes I should be able to make it. Onto the first book – Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I read somewhere online (and feel free to holler in the comments section if it’s your site I read it on and I will give you proper credit) that one of best ways to read Austen is to read her chronologically – start with the her juvenalia and then move to Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, etc. After reading Northanger Abbey I regret I didn’t follow this approach to begin with (although when one is required to read Austen here and there for school it makes it difficult)!
I read Northanger Abbey once before, my junior year in college, for a Victorian novels course, but I remembered little about it except I also read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right around the same time for the same course and used it, instead of the Austen, for my mid-term paper. Actually, I probably have that paper in my big box of stuff – I’ll have to dig it out sometime. ANYWAY. It sounds trite, I know, but the only way I can really think to describe this Austen is delightful – delightful in an Austen-fan sort of way – coming from the perspective of someone who has read all but Mansfield Park (I keep putting it off because I still want one Austen left to read…how crazy is that?) and can see Austen’s development as a novelist. In Northanger Abbey you can begin to see how Austen plays with characterization – how Isabelle portends the fuller characters Austen will later create, like Mrs. Bennet. Catherine, who is innocent, good, and easily influenced by her reading material, offers of us shades of Jane Bennet – and the misunderstandings occur between Catherine and both Henry Tilney and James Thorpe suggest the beginnings of the longer and more complex confusions that mark her later work.
The reason Dr. Hill taught this book, and the reason I think it is probably acceptable for the RIP challenge, is the way it mocks the gothic novels of the time. I don’t know much about this period of writing (as an undergraduate I segued quite quickly from my first loves – Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Byron – to suddenly and passionately identifying with Anne Sexton, Silvia Plath, etc.) but I think this book is commenting on the influence of novel-reading on young women, particularly the gothic novels. Catherine is extremely enamored of Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (which you can read about on Danielle’s site and when she arrives at Northanger Abbey with the Tilney’s for her visit spends the first several days searching for clues – clues that could possibly prove Captain Tilney murdered his wife, or kept her alive in a forgotten wing of the abbey, or somehow proves not only is he a vain, proud, materialistic man (which the reader discerns through his dialogue although Catherine doesn’t), he is a murderer, a liar, an evil lurking within the walls of the abbey. It doesn’t take long, though, before Henry discovers Catherine’s suspicions, and confronts her with them:
If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probably, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our education prepare us for such atrocities…dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
In this one speech from Henry Tilney, Catherine immediately recognizes her own folly, and despairs over the loss of the man she hoped to marry. Austen doesn’t leave her readers concerned about this for too long though – in the very next page it is understood, after Catherine “weeps bitterly”, that Henry holds no ill will towards her and is as attentive and kind as ever.
Most of the book, like Austen’s future novels, deals with the interactions and misunderstandings of society – John Thorpe idolizes Catherine, who is friends with Isabella, who is engaged with Catherine’s brother James – there are mixed up romances, misunderstandings, characters who say the opposite of what they mean, characters obsessed with clothes, characters visible by their very absence. I read this book as obvious ground work for Austen’s longer and more complex works (particularly Emma and Pride and Prejudice) and it gave me tremendous enjoyment. I think my favorite idea that cropped up continually can be ascribed to Catherine, who multiple times thought to herself ” she had read too much not to be perfectly aware…” – the idea of Catherine’s reading is carried throughout the novel…she had read to much not to be aware that husbands kill wives, lock them up, starve them…that a bureau is never just a bureau, a locked closet never innocent in it’s locked-upedness. In this way I found myself identifying with Catherine, a young woman never supposed to be a heroine – what reader, with early years formed by mostly by reading, doesn’t understand? I often suspected if only I tapped on the right place in my bedroom closet I could fall into another dimension…for years I refused to open my toybox after dark, convinced my toys would come alive – books taught me from a very early age that things aren’t always (if ever!) what they seem – candy-covered houses house witches, beautiful queens poison their step-daughters, tornadoes lift up houses and drop them and their inhabitants in the middle magical places – I, like Catherine, have often thought to myself that, as a reader, I am perfectly aware of…well, you can fill in the blank, here.