I finished reading, actually re-reading, Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” as part of my Goodreads Women’s Classic Literature Enthusiasts January Reading Event, a couple of days back. “Northanger Abbey” has always been really low on Austen charter and was saved from my personal ignominy by the more morbid “Mansfield Park”. Naturally, it took me a while to get around to finishing this book and the fact that I at all participated in this event was attributed to two factors – 1. It was a Austen novel and for a dedicated devotee of Austen world, one cannot pass up a chance of re-reading her work, even if it’s one of your least favorites. 2. I have since my last reading of “Northanger Abbey”, read a lot of “Gothic Romances” including quite a few Ann Radcliffe books, and therefore was interested in now rediscovering the actual parody and thus I set off!
Northanger Abbey opens with a rather non-romantic description of our heroine Catherine Moreland, who unlike the heroines of Gothic romances has had a normal, happy childhood with well-to-do generous parents and now at the age of 17 has been invited by the Allens, their wealthy neighbors to accompany them to Bath. In Bath, Catherine soon discovers new alliances and friendships – the Thorpes and The Tilneys. The Thropes are a mother and daughter pair, the former being Mrs. Allen’s schoolmate, and flowing from this relationship; Catherine and Isabella Thorpe soon develop intimate friendship, especially considering their fondness for Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. This relation is further strengthened when it is discovered that Isabella is engaged to James Mooreland, elder brother to Catherine. The Tilney’s are the offspring’s of General Tilney, the present owner of Northanger Abbey. Catherine soon develops a friendship with Ms. Tilney and an increasing liking for Mr. Henry Tilney, the younger son of General Tilney. Her intimacy with the Tilney’s soon reaches an epoch when she is invited by them to join them at their residence at Northanger Abbey. Finally, Catherine is all set to be happy, for here is chance to visit an actual Abbey like a true heroine of her favorite novels, and that too which is home of the one for whom her liking increases every day. However in the true spirit of Radcliffe heroines, Catherine’s faith has more in store and she will have to overcome her own folly and has to act with integrity and generosity before she can find her much wished ending.
I remember not liking “Northanger Abbey’ because of the protagonists – I found Catherine to lame and Henry Tilney lackluster, especially in comparison to a Mr. Darcy, or Captain Wentworth or even Colonel Brandon. But re-reading is such a blessing because it forces you to see things that you had previously missed and appreciate nuances you had been absolutely oblivious off! Catherine is no Elizabeth, or Emma or even an Eleanor or Marianne; but she is exactly what she is a young girl brought up in a sheltered but principled environment, who sees the big world , so to speak for the first time. She is taken in, discovers her folly and acts with integrity and finds her happy ending. She is intelligent, without pretensions, perhaps a bit naïve and under confident, but she has enough sensitivity to know the principles of honor and honesty and is capable of much kindness. While she will never be one of the trail blazing heroines of Austen land, not all heroines are same, and yet have great value in being just what she is; just like real people. I am not sure why I felt Henry Tilney was such a flat character; may be because I saw everything through a Darcian prism. But Henry Tilney is a wonderful character, honorable, well –read, fond of his sister with a dry irreverent humor and a thorough understanding of the foibles of human nature that serves as a perfect foil to Catherine’s naïve nature. The book is funny, Austenian funny – witty, sarcastic and impertinent. From the heroine discovering a laundry bill in the secret chamber of the chest to the imagined Mrs. Tilney being kept a prisoner by her cruel husband, Jane Austen takes on her favorite author, Ann Radcliffe and her likes through a maze of all that is silly and incongruent. The novel is at the end of the day a brilliant hybrid of “Comedy of manner” and a parody at its best!
Brilliant, forever brilliant, Ms. Austen….even you’re what I always assumed to be a mediocre work turns into a a masterpiece! Viva Jane Austen!