Review of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
by Jane Austen:
(First, read my review of Mysteries of Udolpho.)
Now for Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Mysteries of Udolpho and the Gothic genre of the late-18th century.
The first couple of chapters have been quite delightful, mostly narrative but all comic, with our introduction to Catherine (who has never had the makings of a heroine and has only now begun to even be pretty) and Mrs. Allen (who should be making the heroine’s life miserable but in reality has a good temper and nothing whatsoever to make her intolerable, or interesting other than being rich).
Rather than a fainting beauty with many accomplishments like, say, Emily in Udolpho, Catherine has always been a rambunctious tomboy, playing with cricket bats rather than dolls, and preferring books that have absolutely nothing to teach whatsoever.
Mrs. Allen takes Catherine to her first ball in the fashionable resort town of Bath. But unlike both movie versions of this book, they meet nobody of interest at the ball, not even Henry Tilney, and the most attention Catherine gets in the huge crowd is overhearing a couple of young gentlemen calling her “pretty.”
As Austen notes, no one goes into raptures on seeing her, or calls her divine, or any such. But what she did get means more to her than fifteen sonnets would to a “true-quality” heroine.
Catherine does finally meet Mr. Tilney, but at a different dance. He’s a goofball, just the sort to make girls laugh and fall for him.
In chapter 6, Catherine has formed a fast attachment to Isabella Thorpe, the sister of one of her brother’s friends, and the daughter of Mrs. Allen’s old friend. They’re attached to each other like glue, and love to talk about those “horrid” Gothic novels.
Catherine is now reading Mysteries of Udolpho and loves it. They talk about the black veil, wonder what’s hidden behind it, and Catherine says, “Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.” Well, it could take you about that long to read it, those nearly 700 pages, and so much of it either landscape description or (geez) yet more plot-numbing poetry….
Isabella seems like a wonderful friend, the kind of bosom friend who is a joy to find, a kindred spirit. She has a list of a bunch more horrid Gothic novels to read together. And Austen, of course, pokes fun at novels of the day that would disparage novel-reading as something that their heroines, of course, would never do. Catherine says, “[A]re they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?” Isabella assures her that they are.
Now it’s time to go to Amazon and find all the books listed here….Judging by Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list, other people have done this very same thing. And guess who has published these as paperbacks in the past several years: Valancourt Books! They appear to have been grouped together as “Northanger Abbey Horrid Novels.”
Like with Eusebius‘ many quotes from other writers, you wonder how many of these books would have simply fallen into obscurity had it not been for Jane Austen mentioning them in her own book.
Catherine, however, soon discovers her wonderful friend Isabella is actually rather selfish and self-centered. Isabella, an incorrigible flirt, captures Catherine’s brother James’ heart, and Isabella’s brother Thorpe hopes to capture Catherine’s as well. But he’s so rude, crude and obnoxious that this is impossible for a sweet, open, guileless girl like Catherine.
When Catherine wants to go for walks with Henry Tilney and his sister Elinor, Isabella and her brother throw a fit and try to force her to go with them instead on a long trip. When force doesn’t work, they try manipulation: Thorpe lies to the Tilneys. Poor Catherine, our heroine, must fight the forces that try to keep her from her true love!
When the Tilneys invite Catherine to cut her visit to Bath short and come stay with them for three weeks at their place, Northanger Abbey, Catherine is delighted: Abbeys show up in her beloved Gothic novels all the time. She hopes for rotted walls, secret passages, and the like; Henry plays with her, encouraging her romantic spirit by telling her all the horrid things she’ll find in the abbey. Her imagination runs rampant, so she starts exploring.
Silly Catherine quickly comes up with an elaborate suspicion of General Tilney, that he killed his wife–or locked her up–nine years ago and the proof is to be found in her old bedroom.
But Henry soon disabuses her of this notion, she realizes that General Tilney has a dreadful temper but is hardly a murderer or torturer, and she’s back to real-life concerns: Isabella has thrown over Catherine’s brother to be with Henry’s brother, since the terms of the upcoming marriage to James Morland are far poorer than she had hoped.
Henry realizes that in losing her best friend,
Your brother is certainly very much to be pitied at present; but we must not, in our concern for his sufferings, undervalue yours.
You feel, I suppose, that in losing Isabella, you lose half yourself: you feel a void in your heart which nothing else can occupy. Society is becoming irksome; and as for the amusements in which you were wont to share at Bath, the very idea of them without her is abhorrent. You would not, for instance, now go to a ball for the world.
You feel that you have no longer any friend to whom you can speak with unreserve, on whose regard you can place dependence, or whose counsel, in any difficulty, you could rely on. You feel all this?
You’d think that she would feel all this after losing the friend who had been side-by-side with her for weeks. I think most people would; I certainly have felt it more than once, no matter if the friend was lost through betrayal or simply a change of geography or school. But oddly, she says no, she doesn’t. But she doesn’t know why.
Isabella has shown herself to be a golddigger; Captain Tilney has shown himself to be a player who talked big and trifled with her heart, then threw her over for somebody else. Now she writes to Catherine asking her to plead her case with James. Catherine sees right through her and decides not to write to James on her behalf, or to Isabella ever again.
I feel for Catherine as she suffers the disappointment of learning a dear friend’s true character, of having to give up that friend because they are not what they seemed. But fortunately for Catherine, she has Eleanor and Henry to soothe her spirits.
General Tilney soon unceremoniously tosses Catherine out of the abbey, without reason other than a previously remembered engagement, after she and Eleanor had just decided that she’d stay another few weeks.
He’d been catering to Catherine’s every need for all this time, treating her better than he treated his own children, practically throwing her at Henry–and now he’s ordered her to take the first cab home, 70 miles, without even a servant to attend her.
Henry, the romantic hero, soon follows her to her home, proposes, and tells her what happened. Of course, the 1987 movie version has a much more dramatic and romantic proposal scene than the book does. (Sorry for the bad quality: It’s apparently the only video the BBC has not bumped off Youtube.) But the book goes into more detail about the misunderstandings:
John Thorpe, in his usual self-promoting bluster, first told General Tilney that Catherine was an heiress; then in the sting of disappointment (since Catherine refused him), and not being able to get James and Isabella back together, he went the other way, telling the general that the Morlands were poor and disreputable fortune-hunters. He claimed he’d been misled by James’ own vain boasting.
The movie’s depiction of the argument between Henry and his father [sorry, this got bumped, too] is more satisfying dramatically, making me wish that the many details in the book had been shown rather than told. So even the great classic works suffer from this every once in a while.
Catherine’s parents are willing, but want the general to consent as well. Rather than acting like golddiggers who want a share of the general’s money, they’re quite willing for Catherine to live on Henry’s own income as a parson. But until the general consents, Catherine and Henry must wait.
This seems impossible, until Eleanor makes a good match herself and puts him in good humor. Eleanor has been forced apart for years by her father from this man, but he’s suddenly come into money and title. General Tilney discovers that far from being dirt-poor, Catherine’s parents are able to give her 3000 pounds. He soon forgives Henry, who then marries Catherine. So just as in Mysteries of Udolpho, there is finally a happy ending.
The funny part about Henry’s love of Catherine is how it began: He truly loves her now, but it
originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a second thought.
It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.
This is a fun little book, only 212 pages, a quick and easy read. Time to re-watch the movie, and see if the Masterpiece Theater version (from around 2008) is still on Youtube…..
The 1987 movie: This one makes all sorts of changes from the novel, and the way it chops up Mysteries of Udolpho is scandalous (that is NOT what’s behind the black veil). But it’s still lots of fun to watch, I love the ending song, Peter Firth is a handsome and funny Tilney (I love the way he says “gloomy”), and the ending is charmingly romantic–so much so that I wish it were that way in the book.
It also has some great lines that aren’t in the book: “Never underestimate the power of [a woman’s] refusal”; “I promise not to oppress you with too much remorse or too much passion, though since you left the white rose bush has died of grief.” The last is one I often think of when someone I care about is gone.
The 2007 movie: This one is far more faithful to the book, though it also takes many liberties (such as Catherine’s dreams based on The Monk, and what Captain Tilney does with Isabella at the end). But at least, like the 1987 movie, it has Henry Tilney arriving on a white horse…. Watch the movie here.