Book review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

This book was remarkable to me in two points:

  • Another painfully accurate representation of a teenage girl, with all her romance and naivety, as well as of her affliction by the worst type of douche-bro
  • Jane Austen merrily breaking the fourth wall to deliver an impassioned essay in Defense of the Novel

Addressing the second one first — here’s what we find on page 24, in the middle of narrating heroine Catherine’s budding friendship with Isabella:

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.

And she goes on in like fashion for a few hundred more words.

I’m pleased that she stood up so passionately for novel-writers and novel-readers, and I know it’s true they were often disdained even by the heroes within novels, so there was just cause for the defense. It’s only her choice of time and place for such a diatribe that seems strange; but then again, that may have been her best platform for it.

Despite her strong stance on the respectability of novel-reading, one can’t deny Northanger Abbey serves in part as an advisory about young people exposed to too little outside of novels. From the opening lines, the book sets a self-aware tone:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

This wasn’t pushed too hard, but it suited the story, since Catherine is a great lover of novels and at her age in the story (17), they are what has principally shaped her. As she’s described, after several compliments to her affectionate heart, cheerful disposition, good manners, and pleasing looks: “her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” But that is not a serious condemnation on Austen’s part.

I would argue with anyone who calls Catherine a silly girl. She’s not; her faults are only youth, inexperience with the world, and a lack of education outside of romantic/gothic novels.

(On that note, I’ve often struggled with my stance on how much real harm the Twilight series does young girls. I think there’s merit in observing that they are an awful, awful standard for romance — all the ways that both Edward and Jacob act possessively, disrespectfully, even abusively toward Bella. But shouldn’t I also give young girls more credit for not being so impressionable? But in this culture, is that a risk you can really take, when Twilight’s notions of romance are actively backed up by so many other popular examples in fiction and non-fiction? Sigh. Well, regardless, I don’t believe in forcefully taking books out of anyone’s hands. Have a conversation with them afterward, if you’re worried! No book is going to destroy a child forever.)

As for the story itself: a nice little straightforward romance, in which the heroine ends in matrimony with the first man who ever happened to flirt with her. It also features cautionary tales about too-fast friends and how many people, no matter how much money they already have, are terribly influenced by it when considering matches for their own children.

Back to Catherine. Yes, there were lots of cringe-worthy moments, but she does learn from experience. And I sympathize with her, when you’re only accustomed to people who speak plainly, without nonsense or exaggeration — it’s hard to adjust to a different kind of society, where exaggeration is a constant mode of speech. It’s very hard, then, to discern when a friend who constantly calls you her “dearest creature” is wholly insincere and doesn’t actually care about your interests.

Though I squirmed when she arrives at the Tilneys’ home (Northanger Abbey) and promptly behaves as every guest does: poking inside everything and everywhere she’s not supposed to be. (Everyone does this, but the rule is you can’t be caught, and of course she is.) What was far worse, though, was her running away with gothic-novel theories that her host either murdered or fake-murdered his wife and now has her shut up in some apartments. Like Mr. Rochester.

Fortunately this does not come to too humiliating an end; her crush, Mr. Tilney, is able to guess what she’s thinking without her making outlandish accusations to a wider audience, and his gentle reproof (of a hilarious type: “Are we not Englishmen? And Christians?”) is enough to send her fleeing with tears of shame. And he still finds her a desirable marriage prospect after that, so I have high hopes for their happiness together.

Now let’s talk about the douche-bro who darkens the earlier part of the book, soon after she arrives in Bath. Oh man, was that painful to read. She’s a completely inexperienced teenage girl, raised like most girls are to be well-mannered, and so is completely defenseless against John Thorpe’s brand of horribleness. He’s an arrogant liar, condescending and patronizing in the worst way towards everyone, but especially towards women.

This is demonstrated nowhere better than when he wants Catherine to go on a ride with him, she protests she has a previous engagement to walk with the Tilneys, and he assures her he just saw them in a carriage heading out of town. Disappointed, she agrees to go with him. And what happens just a few blocks away? She sees the Tilneys, walking toward her residence.

“Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe. I cannot go on. I will not go on. I must go back to Miss Tilney.” But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on; and Catherine, angry and vexed as she was, having no power of getting away, was obliged to give up the point and submit.

This low trickery actually happens a second time, and it’s even worse: Thorpe and his sister are haranguing her to go with them again, to forget her previous engagement with the Tilneys, or even better to go and tell them she’d forgotten about a (fictional) previous commitment. She refuses to tell such a lie and stand the Tilneys up a second time; and besides, she genuinely prefers their society.

In the midst of this argument, Thorpe abruptly leaves; several minutes later, he returns and announces triumphantly that it’s all been taken care of, because he went directly to the Tilneys and made Catherine’s excuses for her, and asks to be complimented for his ingenuity.

This was one of those times when I was inside my car, shouting at the audiobook.

There isn’t much that enrages me like men attempting to control women, especially by overriding their express wishes to make them do what you want them to do instead. It pushes me to violence. If only I could reference Catherine to a contemporary fictional heroine: Daisy Miller, of Henry James’ pen. She voices one of my favorite literary quotes:

I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.

But Catherine, to her credit, does not let Thorpe get away with this. Despite how he and his sister (yeah, the one who calls her her “dearest friend of my soul”) attempt to PHYSICALLY RETRAIN HER FROM LEAVING, she breaks loose and runs out of the room to chase down the Tilneys and explain the truth. As she says: “Mr. Thorpe had no business to invent any such message” and “If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it.” Good for you, Catherine.

So she ends up instead with the amiable Mr. Tilney, who at least seems to whole-heartedly respect her as a person, despite her youth and how he is nearly a decade older than her. We can all take comfort in the happy ending for the ignorant, uninformed novel-reader.

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