The Short Version: Catherine Morland loves reading the most pulpy Gothic novels of the day – and as she runs around Bath, avoiding the advances of one suitor and furthering those of another, everything seems pretty wonderful. But when she goes to Northanger Abbey with the Tilneys, her imagination starts to run away with itself.
The Review: I first read this novel in my first semester of college – and I use the term ‘read’ rather loosely here, although I did in fact look at every single page of text – in a class (that I’ve spoken of before) called “Poe & the Gothic”. The idea was, this is Austen poking fun at Gothic tropes – but it was a mistake, to my mind (after having actually read it, now, and understood it) to place this book (or to teach that class, in general) chronologically. Rather, this is the sort of book you should read to end a class on Gothic literature – because it ISN’T a Gothic novel, not by a long shot, but rather a warning-slash-winking-joke to readers about the temptations of, well, reading.
Seriously, this book might as well be subtitled “The Dangers of Reading” – and Austen has a ball with it. There’s a moment about midway through where the writer indulges in a brief authorial digression about how people in novels often belittle novel-reading, even as they’re in the midst of one, and how (and I’m simplifying here) everyone needs to just chill out and enjoy them for enjoyment’s sake – but then she shows us (in a far more satirical way than I ever would’ve expected) just how ‘dangerous’ reading can be. Ms. Morland nearly screws up everything good that’s happening in her life because she gets to the Abbey and basically believes that there’s a skeleton in every closet, to the point of trying to discover them. But who among us hasn’t indulged in those flights of fancy? After reading, say, a particularly scary Stephen King novel or seeing an episode of American Horror Story, who hasn’t eyed a closed door warily or cowered under the covers? That’s exactly what Catherine is doing, only she’s doing it some 200 years ago.
The most important thing to take away from this novel, actually, is that the more things seem to change……
Seriously though, this novel (ironically enough) gets brushed aside as a lesser Austen for various reasons: it was her ‘first’ novel, it’s shorter and more direct, it doesn’t have quite the same romantic level of her other work… but for me, and I have no shame in announcing this loudly and widely, it has been my favorite so far. Chapter 14, in particular, is perhaps the perfect distillation of everything that is amazing about Austen. The conversation snaps faster and keener than His Girl Friday or anything by Sorkin, there’s astute social commentary, the humor is sharp, and there’s even a healthy undertone of sex to the whole thing. It’s just damned good writing is what it is – and in the moment of reading it, I realized that this is why people keep coming back to Austen. She’s so good at writing those things under the guise of a conventional early-19th-century novel – it’s just that, for my money, she does it more bluntly here and I appreciate that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of balls and walks and misunderstandings of the romantic sort – but (and I can see how this would be a critique in many’s eyes) they aren’t the main thrust of the novel. Similarly to Emma, this is less about a smart girl trying to find a husband than about a all-too-human girl growing up (and, in the process, finding a husband). I mean, the romance is all still there. Please no one think that it isn’t. In fact, I found the attempted romancing of Ms. Morland by the boorish John Thorpe to be one of the better romantic plots of Austen’s canon, right up there with the roguish Wickham of Pride and Prejudice. He’s so awful and so dense that you can’t help but find Catherine’s plight amusing. Similarly, you find yourself hoping that things do work out with Mr. Tilney because he just seems like a good guy. I just found that the romance, while an important part of the plot, was not the primary focus – and, to my mind, it provided Austen with a little more freedom.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I can see and understand everyone’s issues with this novel, I can. You might call it underwritten or underdeveloped, you might even call it pulpy and lowbrow as compared to Austen’s other novels. You have every right to do those things – I’m just going to assume that, if you do, you’re also one of those people who looks down their nose at Stephen King and other ‘popular’ authors. Which is funny, because that also means you’re exactly the kind of person Austen is trying to goad in the writing of this novel. So, she wins. And if you just enjoy this novel for the fun of it, well, she wins too. Smart cookie, that woman was.