It was a request from my pen pal that got me reading this novel. We’re both quite big on books- she’s doing a literature degree over in France and I’m just an avid enthusiast with no real understanding of literary prose, as this review may now proove.
Northanger Abbey follows Catherine, a poorer character than most of Austen’s heroins and far more ignorant. Unlike Lizzie Bennett, who knows exactly what she wants in a man, or Emma, who knows what she doesn’t want, Catherine doesn’t know anyone outside her family, has few strong family ties and knows very little of the world. Catherine’s wealthy neighbours invite her to Bath with them providing her the rare opportunity to socialise outside her small village and accidentally over state her wealth through her travelling companions. Her first steps towards friendship and love are highlighted in this novel as we see the struggles she undergoes from her stature and youth.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine“
Jane Austen’s novels are always character led in the way that YA Fantasy is always plot led. Very little happens, no worlds are discovered or battles fought and it’s really bizarre that I enjoy her writing so much: it’s nothing like what I normally read. Yet you fall quickly into Catherine’s story and she’s an easy and believable character to follow. Through a collection of unique individuals, fancy balls and trips to the Bath ‘Pump Room’ Catherine, and the reader, is subtly introduced to high society. And it is from Catherine’s ignorant eyes that the reader is able to follow the plot and understand the downfalls of this wealthy world.
I liked Catherine’s plain and simple narration. She doesn’t have too many expectations and provides an honest description of the situation as she sees it. However Catherine’s ignorance makes her unreliable and it often falls to the reader, or even the author herself, to be their own judges of the other characters. Catherine’s youth is clearly evident as she endures many experiences young people do today: peer pressure, bullying and small crushes. She often proves to be a poor judge of character, leading to most of the anguish she endures throughout the novel.
A key theme in this novel, and indeed in Austen’s other works, is books themselves. Austen even takes a few paragraphs, speaking directly to the reader, defending her character speaking about other popular authors from Austen’s time. Much like a Twitter rant today, Austen explains that she is not in competition with these authors and understands that her readers can love more than one novel. I was then confused that the novel goes on to undermine these works making references to popular gothic novels at the time, think ‘Scary Movie’ but in book form.
“Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.“
Austen also comments on her character’s reading throughout the novel. Her friend’s brother is at Oxford university in this novel and explains to our protagonist that the books she’s reading aren’t proper books, much like the classic snobs we YA readers meet today. Austen goes on to embarrass this character more throughout the novel as it becomes clear he doesn’t read as much as he’d like others to believe and is judging the novels Catherine enjoys without actually knowing much about them. I’m sure most bookworms can relate.
Like all book worms, Catherine quickly finds a friend to fangirl with- in this case Isabella. It’s a shame how this friendship ends up, because it’s very heartwarming reading their interactions and I really enjoyed the aside conversations they have about novels (and yes, Austen fangirling is every bit like modern day but with a few more spiffings thrown in there). Sadly, Isabella turns out to be a less good friend than she is built up to be- a point where the reader quickly realises how ignorant Catherine is, but she is not without female friendship for long as she meets Eleanor.
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.“
Being an Austen, of course the novel contains romance. Catherine is quick to meet Henry, a man with a similar taste in books, loyal to his sister and instantly steals Catherine’s affections. It’s this budding romance that I enjoyed the most. Although it’s possible that Henry’s dry humour hadn’t quite survived the passage of time and I couldn’t work out how offended the reader should have been on Catherine’s behalf during their conversations about politics, I did enjoy his joking and honest character.
The setting of this novel is Bath at first, before Catherine visits Northanger Abbey where the story becomes a gothic retelling. These two halves weren’t too similar and the plot felt a bit disjointed because of the differences between the two settings, the horror story esque middle seeming quite random to me, although possibly a literature slight that I didn’t understand. Despite the random aside the pacing of the novel felt smooth and, although not all the events advanced the plot, something was always happening, which meant it didn’t drag.
“The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid“
Overall, I enjoyed this novel but struggled a little with the references to 1700 gothic literature and Catherine’s ignorance, both of which were pivotal to the novel. It was easy and fun to read but I think I didn’t have enough context of the time to truly understand all of Austen’s commentaries.