Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Lessons from Northanger Abbey

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

Northanger Abbey, along with Persuasion, were Jane Austen's final two novels published--both posthumously.  Though published at the same time, Northanger Abbey was  actually the first novel Austen had ever written.  She sold the novel in 1803, but the publisher inexplicably never actually published it.  Thus, it wasn't until after her death that readers were gifted with the story. 

Fittingly, Northanger Abbey is the last major book of Austen's I had yet to read.  I had taken a little sabbatical from reading novels for the past year or so, in order to work on my own novel that I am co-writing with my husband.  (Thus why I haven't posted anything here for more than one year!)  We had a demanding round of editing that needed my complete focus.  Now that it is done, I am happy to enter another author's world.  Interestingly, one of the main themes of Northanger Abbey is novels themselves!

Most places I have read describe Northanger Abbey as a satire of Gothic literature, which was very popular at the time of Austin's writing.  Austin does poke fun at that genre (to her protagonist's distress), but she also utilizes some of the same aspects of Gothic writing to enhance her story.  Never does her satire give the message that the novel is something to be mocked or degraded.  Quite the opposite!  

Her opening line already sets the stage for an emphasis on the novel:

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

The whole course of the book follows Catherine--naive, inexperienced teenager--in her journey to become a "heroine" like those in the books she so loves to read. 

Catherine comes from a large, not particularly affluent, simple family.  She has no pretensions or duplicity; rather, Catherine acts and thinks from an inner, humble goodness.  She jumps at the opportunity offered by her neighbors to accompany them to Bath, where she can experience a whole new society.  

There, Catherine becomes acquainted with two sets of siblings: Isabella and John Thorpe, and Eleanor and Henry Tilney.  The pairs could not be more different.  Isabella immediately attaches herself to Catherine, proclaiming an instant familiarity and closeness, that they are the most kindred of spirits.  Yet her actions often prove otherwise.  John, for his part, is bombastic, crude, and selfish.  

The reader receives an immediate clue as to who the heroine's hero will be.  When Catherine asks John Thorpe whether he reads novel, John retorts:

"Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones ... for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."

Henry Tilney, on the other hand, proclaims his great love for novels and asserts that he has read far more of them than even Catherine.  

Catherine Morland--an image from the 1833 edition of Northanger Abbey

Many people in Austen's day must have shared John Thorpe's low opinion on novels.  In response, the narrator is very vocal in arguing against them.  She questions why a woman, when asked what she is reading, should feel ashamed to admit it is a novel.  In the novel:

"... the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

Catherine's penchant for Gothic novels does lead her into some problematic situations.  The Tilney family invites her to their home, Northanger Abbey.  At once visions of a decrepit, haunted building enter Catherine's mind.  Yet, upon arrival Catherine finds the home to be bright, welcoming, and in many instances, modernized.  

That doesn't prevent her imagination from creating other scenes of Gothic suspense.  The first night of her stay, during a raging thunderstorm, Catherine explores a bureau in her room that has a locked drawer.  She finds some papers hidden inside, only to have her candlelight extinguished.  A long night plagued by horror follows for her.  Finally, in the light of the morning, she examines the secret papers ... only to realize they are nothing more than a list of the linens kept in the bureau.

The worst instance, however, follows shortly after when Catherine observes how the patriarch of the family, General Tilney, seems unmoved when speaking of his deceased wife and refuses to enter her old bedchamber.  Catherine suspects him of foul play: perhaps he murdered his wife (the illness was suspiciously short and Eleanor was absent during the time of her mother's death).  Or maybe, instead, he pretended she had died, only to hide her prisoner in some underground room.  

When Henry hears of these conjectures and quickly proves them wrong, Catherine is mortified by how far her imagination has taken her.  Henry asks her:

"'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?'" 

Catherine departs in tears, resolving to separate fact from fiction from then on.  It is a moment of critical character development.  

Interestingly, while Catherine has this vivid imagination drawing from the novels she reads, projecting the plots and character motivations from the pages into her life, she struggles with being able to "read" people accurately at times.  Isabella Thorpe flirts openly while engaged to another man and Catherine can only attribute the behavior to ignorance.  

Yet, at other times, Catherine's imagination--colored by her novel reading--does point to truth.  In the example above concerning General Tilney, Catherine was morally wrong to assume he committed murder.  Yet, her conjectures pointed to the reality that the General is actually ruthless, unkind, and selfish--the principle villain of the story.

Austen walks an interesting line in her novel.  She mocks Gothic literature by putting Catherine in a ridiculous situation (the papers with the linen inventory), yet she uses the Gothic style of writing to make this scene suspenseful and gripping, leaving the reader wondering if maybe Catherine actually had uncovered some terrible secret.  

Similarly, Austen argues the importance, value, and respect due to the novel.  Yet, she shows how one must separate fact from fiction ... all within her own fictional narrative!

We cannot live in our novels, but what a gift they are to bring light, laughter, and joy into a reality that sometimes feels very bleak.  I am not ashamed to be a professed lover of the novel.  Thank you, Jane Austen, for creating such powerful novels that have been enjoyed through the generations.  I only regret that I have turned the final page of the last one.