I suppose people have guessed by now that maybe I don’t read the most recent of novels. So far this summer I have tackled Metamorphoses, Frankenstein, and a fair few trashy romance novels. But, I haven’t tackled anything that’s been on a best sellers list at any time in the last year.
It should be no surprise then, that my most recently read book was written in 1803, and published in 1818. Jane Austen has to be my favorite English author of all time. Seriously. The dry wit, and the acute observation of human nature makes Austen one of the few authors where I have to read the books multiple times to get the full depth of what she’s writing.
The first of Jane Austen’s novels was one of her last to be published. She sold it to a publisher in 1803, and when he didn’t publish it, she bought it back eight years later. Originally titled “Susan,” and then “Catherine” after she bought it back and changed the name of the lead character, her brother renamed it and had it published after her death.
Northanger Abbey is a parody of the gothic novel, a genre very popular in Austen’s time. Within the work it’s self, she mentions several gothic novels of the period. The characters converse about the novels they have–or haven’t–read. Also, when Catherine arrives at Northanger Abbey, she fancies herself in a gothic novel, and reads into things in a way they weren’t meant. Caroline snaps out of it when Henry comes to visit, and point out that life is rarely like a novel.
As many of Austen’s novels are, Northanger Abbey is an in-depth look into what life was like in the 1800′s, and what was expected of women at the time. A lot of confusion is caused by money, or the lack of it, and by the boasting of John Thorpe, who seems to be unable to speak the truth.
I really liked this book. I liked the parody, I liked the relationship build up, I liked the way the “evil” characters get their proper dues. A reader always knows what to expect with Austen, and is never disappointed (if, of course, you like her other work). One of the things I enjoyed about this book, is that occasionally the narrator breaks into the story. Whether defending the novel as a serious piece of writing, or the character’s actions, the reader feels as if Austen herself has interrupted the story to clarify things that may go misunderstood.
I read this book in an evening, which although I read rather faster than the average person, is indicative of how engaging this novel is. I couldn’t put it down once I started it, and when I reached the end, I was loath to let it go. I felt a connection with Catherine that I don’t usually get with the female characters in the books I read. Austen’s description of Catherine matches how I often felt as a child:
“She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket, not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief–at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take.” (Chapter 1) Northanger Abbey
The ending, while predictable, was still entertaining, and it’s a quick read, compared to some of Austen’s other works. Austen has a habit of wrapping up loose ends, and marrying off those characters who she deems worthy to find their happiness. And her characters do, falling in love with their betrothed in a time when people married for status and money, not for love.
If you’ve read and enjoyed Austin’s other works, there is no reason to not like this one. While not as polished as Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey has a quality about it that the others don’t seem to possess. Perhaps it’s because it was her first full-length novel, or because it was published after her death, Northanger Abbey is almost like an insight into Austen herself, pinpointing what she thought was important at that time in her life.
While usually considered a “female novel,” only interesting to those of the fairer sex, any reader who has interest in the time period that Austen lived would find this novel a great asset to deciphering the social hierarchies and morals of that time period.