ENG 513: Northanger Abbey

I’m back again with another Austen book to review. In the past two weeks, I’ve (mostly) read Northanger Abbey. Fun fact: this was the first book Austen wrote, but one of the last to get published. It was published posthumously in 1817, although it is speculated that it was written back in 1803. This is the book Austen toyed with the most over her life, and I think it’s safe to say Northanger Abbey has taken the top spot from Pride & Prejudice.

The entire novel is a satire of gothic novels, which I found incredibly amusing. With lines such as “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” and “[Catherine’s mother] had three songs before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself,” you can see why. Austen is also much sassier in this novel, which I found a welcome relief from all the woe is me and I’m on the hunt for a rich mah-han that took place in S&S and P&P, respectively.

Warning: just like the last two entries in this series, I’m not pulling any spoilers. It’s been almost 200 years since the book was published, so I think spoilers are no longer a thing.

What I wanted more of: I think we all deserve a better ending. I get what Austen’s trying to do with the ending, but to boil everything down to just a few paragraphs at the end was unnecessary. Catherine only gets to marry Henry because Eleanor finally found a man – and not just any man, but the “most charming young man in the world,” who is perfect in absolutely every way (giving us our fairy tale ending), and he doesn’t even have a name. It’s like a Cinderella story, almost: the man has been in love with Eleanor for years, but only recently has come into some forgotten fortune and earned a title that will allow her father to accept his offer of marriage.

Least Favorite Character: This is a two-way tie between John Thorpe and General Tilney for two entirely different reasons. In fact, I’m going to turn these into the rants that were missing from my Pride & Prejudice entry (I really should go back and edit those, I guess.)

Rant #1: John Thorpe: This is your stereotypical d-bag frat boy, who likes fast cars (er, horses), booze (“We only have like 8 drinks a day per person at Oxford; we don’t drink that much!”), and reading only the sexy parts of books. He’s the entire reason Catherine almost loses her happily-ever-after in this novel: he tells General : that Catherine is as poor as a church mouse, and therefore he shouldn’t let her son marry him.

Nevermind that just a few chapters before, John himself was desperately in love with Catherine and wanted to marry her. It’s obvious how oblivious Catherine is, though, because she never noticed John was constantly flirting and trying to get with her. I kept expecting John to kidnap her, honestly: it would be in line with the gothic novel Austen is satirizing here. After all, Catherine keeps getting into John’s carriage even though she knows better, and John keeps bragging about his fast horses; it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine him kidnapping her. It would give Catherine all the excitement she would want.

Rant #2: General Tilney: Now we get to the antagonist. While you could argue that John is the villain, there is no doubt that the General is the antagonist. It’s also incredibly interesting that, in Vol. II Chap. VIII (also known as chapter 23 if you’re counting from the very beginning), the General is revealed to be a government agent, censoring Jacobean literature and searching for the author. (Side note: Jacobeans were looked down upon in 1790s England, and were actually illegal. They were on the progressive side, and looked at recently-Revolution’d France as their guiding light. Non-Jacobeans were the conservatives, and if you wanted to stay safe, you declared yourself to be non-Jacobean.)

General Tilney is the actual gothic villain here: he may not have the brooding, dark castle or the set of dungeon keys, but he’s a piece of work in and of himself. Just check out the entire page dedicated to his garden, which is filled with “hot-houses” (also known as greenhouses) that he grows pineapples in. PINEAPPLES. In a time where the rural poor are literally starving to death and throwing actual riots in the streets because all of the common land has been grabbed by the government and auctioned off to the aristocracy, General Tilney is growing pineapples in his garden, IN ENGLAND, which was (according to my teacher) in the middle of a mini-Ice Age at the time.

Favorite Character: Again, you have to go with our little heroine, Catherine. What makes her even more endearing is her love for gothic novels, which causes her to project all manner of strange things onto the world around her. She convinces herself that General Tilney killed his wife at first, and then she embellished the story in her mind until she was convinced that he was only pretending Mrs. Tilney was dead while actually holding her captive in the basement, barely feeding her.

Catherine’s love for the gothic gets her into some strange situations, but nothing that has really serious consequences. If she wants to think there’s a mysterious manuscript in the wardrobe, let her think it – that way, when it turns out to only be laundry receipts, she can laugh at herself. I think my professor put it best when he said, “It’s much better to pretend the bush is a bear than to pretend the bear is only a bush.” If you see the worst in everything, when the truth comes to light you can laugh things off with little consequence. If you ignore things until they’ve grown too big to ignore, the consequences are going to be much greater.

Catherine is also the only person whose first impressions end up being correct. She isn’t fond of Captain Tilney (Henry’s older brother, and the General’s first son), and he ends up breaking Isabella’s heart while simultaneously breaking James Morland’s heart (Catherine’s brother) as well. She is afraid of General Tilney, and he ends up being quite the jerk to everyone in the end. And she’s unsure about John, and John ends up being more than a jerk to everybody, but since this is mostly a family-friendly blog, I can’t say what I really think of John here. Suffice to say there are a few choice expletives that I can see describing him with very well.

Final Thoughts: Austen is satirizing not only gothic novels, but novels in general here. She’s done a fantastic job, and even though I didn’t technically read the entire book (I skimmed some parts, because I got behind on reading because I procrastinated, like the trash I am), I can still say this is my favorite Austen book I’ve read to date. I realize I’ve got three more to go before I can declare a definitive favorite, but this one is going to be hard to beat.

Austen’s sassiness is so apparent throughout the novel, and Catherine’s imagination is fantastic as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found it easy to follow along with. While the majority of people seem to have only read P&P, I’d say give this one a shot, too. P&P used to be my favorite before I had to read this one, and now it’s been dethroned.

The characters in NA are also more relatable: Catherine isn’t the greatest beauty on the block, and Henry Tilney is said to be only moderately handsome. They’re real characters, and much more relatable than the uber-rich Mr. Darcy and the high-bred Elizabeth Bennet. Austen does wrap everything up neatly with a bow – and she even admits this! – but we are also left wondering if Catherine and Henry will make it. Will Catherine be able to explain why she reads to Henry? Will Henry be able to listen to Catherine, or will he be bored and see what she does as childish? Only time will tell.

I would probably reread this book, if at least to go back and get all the parts I missed. (I’m actually a terrible student; I don’t know how I’ve got a 4.0.)

I guess I had a lot more to say about NA than I did about P&P! Although if we’re being honest, I wrote the blog post on P&P really late at night and I didn’t go back and look at it again later and edit it. I was also putting together a presentation at the time. Which, surprise, is what I’m going to base my first paper for this class on!

Next week, instead of reading an Austen book, we’re supposed to watch an Austen film (I think I’m going to go with Northanger Abbey!) and bring in one or two scenes to share with the class. My first paper for the class is also due next week, so next Friday I will probably post that. After that, we’re starting Mansfield Park, so look for that post in three weeks. (Remember, we’re assigned one book every two weeks, so with us skipping a week of reading, that leaves me to post one paper and then a two-week gap before MP is written about.)

Have you read Northanger Abbey? Is it your favorite? Why or why not? Please let me know in the comments, and let me know what you think of my thoughts on the book as well!

And as always, keep reading.

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