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Merle

Merle

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen, Marilyn Butler, Claire Lamont

This book was lovely, unexpected fun. After reading Mansfield Park and Persuasion in recent years, I concluded that Jane Austen’s work was not for me: their characters seemed bloodless, their heroines prim and infallible, their subject matter a tedious catalogue of the social lives of the independently wealthy. But I may have fallen into the trap of judging an author by her worst works, having read her three most popular books while too immature a reader to judge them. Northanger Abbey, now: this book is just fun, a lively tale of a teenage girl discovering the world outside her town for the first time, falling in with some of the wrong people, having a bit of an adventure, all while the book pokes fun at melodramatic Gothic novels of the period.

Discussion of this book generally seems to revolve around Catherine’s wilder fantasies about Northanger Abbey, the home of some of her new friends, so I was surprised to find that this section is the smaller part of the book – most of which takes place in Bath – and the least convincing. Up to that point, Catherine is portrayed as a sensible if inexperienced girl, raised by an endearingly sensible mother (whose reaction to Catherine’s being sent on a sudden road trip alone by post is “well, that was strange and uncivil behavior on your host’s part, but now you’ve had to rely on yourself and managed, which is good for you"). On arriving at the abbey she abruptly throws common sense to the winds, only to regain it just as rapidly after a talking-to, the gist of which is “be sensible, those terrible things couldn’t happen here in England.”

That said, I enjoyed Catherine as a protagonist; she’s a naïve but appealing teenage girl, capable of standing up for herself and going after what she wants and not intended to be a paragon. The secondary cast is also strong, with believable and incisive characterization despite the book’s relatively short length. And I found Austen’s wit genuinely humorous, particularly enjoying the passages contrasting the characters’ real-life behavior with novelistic expectations. Here, for instance, is Catherine encountering her crush in public:

“He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already.”

This book may be 200 years old, but it sped by for me. Life is an adventure for Catherine, and that energy seems to transmit itself to the pages. Perhaps I should be giving Austen more credit.