Yes, it’s 2011, but I’m not changing the name because I’d have to fiddle with the URLs and I don’t feel like doing that.  So sue me.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled post.

Part V: Northanger Abbey

If I remember correctly, I last re-read Northanger Abbey in 1999 before going to see a theatrical adaptation of the book at a VERY off-Broadway theater in NYC.  Regardless, it was quite a while ago.  I do know that I was never really very fond of it.  I’ve always liked Henry Tilney, but have found Catherine to be a tad annoying.

As has been the case with the other books I’ve been reading for this series, I’m reading the Signet Classics edition with introductions by Margaret Drabble and afterwords by well-known women authors.  The afterword in this edition is by Stephanie Laurens, who tells us that NA is her favorite Austen novel.  I am happy for her, but regardless of her reasons for loving it, I just don’t.

The very first thing that struck me is that, for some really odd reason, Isabella Thorpe reminds me of Willoughby.  Why?  Well, in S&S, Willoughby waits until Marianne tells him which poets, authors, composers, etc. she likes before he tells her which ones he likes. And, surprise!, he has the same likes and dislikes she does.  In NA, Isabella tells Catherine that she and James have all their tastes in common. How much do you want to bet that she waited until after he told her his likes and dislikes before she announced hers?  Granted, Isabella is not as twisted as Willoughby, she is an opportunist, just as he is.  She’s even more desperate financially than he is and, as a female, she’s in a worse position than he is because he can still get a job if he has to (not that he would, but society wouldn’t look down upon him as they would upon her).  Isabella and Willoughby lead innocent people on, and then dump them unceremoniously when they become inconvenient.  Isabella also leads Catherine on, allowing that sweet, innocent girl to believe that she was her best friend and then ignoring her when someone better comes along.  Isabella dumps both Morland siblings in her attempt to “catch” Captain Tilney and, when he shows that he’s not interested in her as a marriage prospect, she begs Catherine to help her get James back.  But, by the time this happens, Catherine has realized just what Isabella is — a social-climbing opportunist who would say or do anything to catch a rich husband.

Isabella’s brother, John Thorpe, also plays a part in Catherine’s maturation.  He is even more “out there” with his lies and duplicity than Isabella is and, in this case, Catherine is able to see right through him from the start.  But Catherine’s older brother, James, is fooled by both Thorpes, and he pays even more dearly for his naïveté than Catherine does.

As bad as the Thorpes are, the real villain of the piece is the hero’s father, General Tilney. He is also taken in by John Thorpe, and it is John who shapes the General’s opinions of Catherine — first, that she is a great heiress and second, that she is from a poor, grasping, gold-digging family.  As naïve as Catherine is (and she definitely is naïve) , she does not fall for John Thorpe’s lies.  It is the more worldly character who does.

NA is a spoof of the Gothic novels that were popular in the Georgian/Regency era.  Authors like Mrs. Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis wrote the popular books of the day, and Catherine allows herself to be swept away by the stories.  The plot of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho is very similar to that of Northanger Abbey, but that is the subject of another post.

All in all, I cannot say that I loved Northanger Abbey.  I can’t even say that I liked it better than I have before.  What I can say is that I don’t think it is Austen’s finest work. In my opinion, it’s the work of a very young author, whose work is not as polished as it will be later. We know that S&S and P&P were reworked more than 10 years after they were first written, but this book wasn’t even published until after her death.  She’d sold it for a few pounds when she was in her 20s (under its original title, Susan), and bought it back later, after the publisher did nothing with it.  I don’t remember reading about her tweaking it for publication the way she did her two other early novels. S&S and P&P benefited from such tweaking, and I have to think that NA would have, too.

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