A delectable delight!
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The first of Austen’s completed novels, Northanger Abbey was sold to a bookseller for £10 in 1803, but the bookseller then decided not to publish it. In 1816, her brother bought it back for the original price – the bookseller was unaware that the book was written by the same author who had by then achieved so much anonymous fame and success with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility et al. It was finally published in 1818, six months or so after Austen’s death.
They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.
Northanger Abbey is the most deliciously light of all of Austen’s books, filled with humour as Austen pokes gentle fun at her own class and gender. Catherine Morland is our naïve 17-year-old heroine, leaving her country parsonage home for the first time to visit the bright lights of Bath in the company of her generous neighbours, the Allens. Starry-eyed and romantic, and with an obsessive love of the Gothic sensation fiction of the day, Catherine is ready to be thrilled by everything and everyone she meets.
It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.
Empty-headed Mrs Allen is a kind and generous hostess, but is not much of a guide to young Catherine except in the matter of clothes. At first, they know no-one and poor Catherine must watch as the excitement of Bath seems to be passing her by; but then she meets the lively and lovely Isabella and within hours they are inseparable friends – and surely only a cynic would suspect that Isabella’s sudden interest in Catherine could have anything to do with her desire to get closer to Catherine’s handsome brother, James. Even more exciting for Catherine, though, is her first meeting with Henry Tilney – good-looking, charming, wonderful dancer and son of the owner of Northanger Abbey, the very name of which sets Catherine’s Gothic-loving heart a-flutter. The scene is set for misunderstandings, upsets and drama as Catherine learns that not everyone and everything can be taken at face value.
She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can…
…I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.
The bulk of the book is a social commentary on marriage at a time and in a class where money and family connections were often more important than love in the finding of a suitable partner. But in this one it’s all much lighter than in her other works – Austen gently mocking the tradition in contemporary Gothic fiction that the heroine must go through all kinds of terrors and dangers before being rescued by her perfect hero. Henry has to rescue Catherine from nothing worse than the embarrassment of being left with no dancing partner in the Assembly Rooms. But that doesn’t stop the imagination of Catherine, fed by the sensation novels of the time, running away with her as she invents all kinds of horror stories around the Tilneys and their romantically Gothic home. And here we have proof that TBR lists were just as uncontrollable in Austen’s day…
“…and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am!—What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”
Mrs Radcliffe’s Udolpho and The Italian are still well known, of course, but the others were all real books of the time too and Northanger Abbey’s popularity has meant they have in recent years been brought back from obscurity and republished as the ‘Horrid Novels’.
Northanger Abbey perhaps doesn’t have quite the depth of the later books but it is highly entertaining, full of witty and well-observed social commentary. Catherine may not have the sparkling wit of Lizzie but she is a sweet and loveable heroine; and, while Henry may not have the smouldering magnificence of a Darcy, he’s a model of propriety, fun to be around (if Catherine doesn’t mind his occasional pomposity why should we?) and, most importantly, independently wealthy. A perfect match in a perfect little comedy of manners – a delectable delight!
* * * * * * * * *
This revew is dedicated to passionate Austen fan, Professor VJ Duke, as a special gift for his blog birthday. And here’s another…