Oct. 20, 2013


Northanger Abbey


Sometimes a writer’s first book is their best – not something we writers who work all our lives like to acknowledge. Even when the early work is raw, less polished, even less deep, than the later stuff, it can have an energy and originality which is lacking in the later work.   Sometimes the popularity of novelists like Jane Austen has depressed me – not because I’m envious (writers are often envious of more successful writers, but seldom of the dead ones).  Inevitably, if there are Jane Austen fancy dress parties, movies and endless TV series, Jane Austen plays for Christmas, mystery novels and chick lit parodies of Jane Austen, her literary credit diminishes. You can have just too much success, carrying you over the threshold from greatness to cheapness.  Pride and Prejudice, one realizes, is a good novel.  But you begin to wonder if it’s really all that good?  Everyone knows it inside out. Men who generally ignore all women writers claim that it’s their favourite book.  Why?

So, Jane Austen.

But when I read Northanger Abbey recently – not for the first time, maybe for the fourth or fifth time, but I haven’t read it for about twenty years – my respect for Austen was revived. Northanger Abbey is maybe the least well liked of her novels – it doesn’t get filmed, BBC’d, dramatised, as much as the others. The ‘Oh I love Jane Austen’ brigade often haven’t got around to reading it. It was written when she was eighteen, bought by a publisher who failed to publish it, and finally saw the light of day eighteen years later, when Austen was successful and well known. 


Northanger Abbey is different from the other novels.  Parodying the Gothic fiction which was very popular in the early nineteenth century –novels by Mrs Radcliffe, Mrs Humphrey Ward, about romantic heroines in Italian or Austrian palaces, full of ghouls and ghosts – it’s got a stylized, post modern, feel to it. You are constantly made aware that you’re in a novel; the author steps into the text on regular intervals and comments on what has been going on, or on where the novel should go next.  The first half of the novel, at least, describes a visit to Bath by the seventeen year old Catherine Moreland, an innocent and beautiful girl, and a novel reader. She makes friends with the odious Isabelle Thorpe, and falls for the clever urbane Henry Tilney.  Austen always sends up any sort of pretension, but nowhere does she do this more successfully than in Northanger Abbey. Isabelle Thorpe natters constantly about clothes and men. A husband hunter and incorrigible flirt, she is constantly saying ‘Oh, there goes Mr Tilney, we must avoid him’, and immediately setting off in hot pursuit of a bonnet or a piece of lace, procurable just where Mr Tilney, or whichever eligible bachelor she’s chasing, happens to be going.  Austen employs ‘show don’t tell’ beautifully in these scenes of Isabelle’s: she had a natural, sharp talent of this particular technique.  Isabelle’s brother, James, falls in love with Catherine, but bores her pants off with his constant bragging about his carriage.  IN fact he brags about everything, exaggerates and tells lies till the cows come home. Again, Catherine gradually becomes aware of this, and so do we. Austen is incredibly skilled and sophisticated in controlling her story and letting James gradually reveal himself for what he is. Show don’t tell. Mr Henry Tilney is a trifle pompous, but very clever, well educated, and sensible. He turns phrases worthy of Oscar Wilde, or characters in Restoration Drama, which surely must have influenced Austen’s style, and manners.  And so on until the crazy Northa nher Abbey scenes, in which Catherine allows her fantasy to run away with her, only to find that reality is as shocking as anything she can imagine. Jane Austen produces one of her most brilliant shock scenes in this novel, when Catherine is suddenly dismissed, without explanation, from the Abbey, and packed off home in a public stage coach.  It takes the reader by as much surprise as it does she, and on a first reading I don’t think many would guess what the explanation for her mistreatment is.


This is a livelier, more daring, more experimental novel than any of the others. Never again did Jane Austen allow herself to parody other genres, to be as stylized and post modern in her technique, or even to paint such exaggerated portraits of characters.  True, Mrs Bennet is over the top, and so is Emma’s father, Sir Walter, and of course Miss what’s her name, to whom Emma is so rude. But in none of the other novels is almost everyone over the top.

It’s as if a restraint took over.  You wonder if it is the demands of the market. Readers preferred novels which were totally realistic, novels in which they could lose themselves, without having to be reminded that they were reading.  Or if her earlier, highly honed sense of irony and humour seemed childish to the maturing writer.  Emma, Mansfield Park, are  lively, but much more serious, sometimes even portentous, than the light, sparkling, brilliant Northanger Abbey, written when the author was eighteen!