One of my earliest, most fondly nostalgic memories is of sitting in my Grandma’s living room on a wintery evening during a visit up north to see her, my five-year-old self seeming incongruously tiny compared to the old-fashioned, green velvet-upholstered armchair on which I am perched, and the way that my straightened legs barely transcend the mighty cliff-boundary that is the chair’s edge no doubt looking endearingly ridiculous to my older family members sitting around me. The room is filled with the heartening heat radiated by the bars of the aesthetically realistic electric fire, and the ornate carriage clock on the mantelpiece above it ticks and tocks with comforting regularity. On my lap, a chintzy china plate of Marmite on toast; on the old television set, most importantly of all, the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is playing.
From that moment on watching Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle engage on-screen in a romantic conflict of wit and suppressed feelings as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet became a regular feature of trips to Grandma’s house, these childhood experiences sparking off a deep-rooted love for Jane Austen’s most famous novel that has not only lasted but indeed grown and matured intellectually as I have become older; I suppose it goes without saying therefore just how delighted I was upon discovering that the story which is so dear and familiar to me is one of the texts which I am to be studying this year as part of my A2 English Literature coursework! Coinciding with this, a few years ago I set myself the challenge of becoming something of an ‘Austen expert’ (i.e. reading more of her novels), meaning that as well as Pride and Prejudice I have now also had the pleasure of reading Mansfield Park, Persuasion and most recently the subject of this post, Northanger Abbey.
Reading some chapters of literary theory regarding Austen in The Madwoman in the Attic by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert recently, I was somewhat surprised to discover that her works were actually often viewed rather negatively by many of her contemporaries and near-contemporaries, their main criticism lying in the assertion that her novels were, as Austen herself put it, “little pieces of ivory”. By this the authoress and her critics meant that the plots seen in her books often took place in extremely self-contained, miniscule versions of the world which did not really take the historical climate and current implications on society into consideration when presenting them, something which many of the latter group found fault with, Charlotte Bronte even claiming that Pride and Prejudice is “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”
Yet while I can certainly see how the arguments of Bronte and others like her are justified, I believe that it is unfairly harsh to suggest that Austen’s novels provide a reading experience that is as mundane and unfulfilling as Bronte’s natural imagery of “no open country” etc. connotes. For indeed, I personally find that there is something just as richly pleasurable to be derived – which is, after all, perhaps one of the main reasons why we read at all – from engaging with a microcosmic host of characters and the politics of their daily lives than there is from reading such important ‘social-issue’ novels as Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (a rather recent read for me which has definitely become one of my all-time favourites and which I shall by writing a post about in the near future), an assertion which Northanger Abbey only further confirmed to me as I eagerly delved through the pages of Austen’s unmistakably distinctive prose. Furthermore, it is this prose style which I feel really manifests her intelligence as a writer and means she is not to be written off as an author of frothy ‘romantic fiction’: while she may not tackle the same serious, broad political themes as Dickens does in his works, Austen’s intellectual capabilities are clear through the way that she cleverly satirises aspects of society and even the novel form itself, the very title of Northanger Abbey already being a hint towards the book’s subtle mocking of the Gothic literary genre. Just a warning, SPOILERS may be coming up…
I suppose in some ways Northanger Abbey can be described as being metafictional in that Austen is self-consciously alluding to the fact that the novel is a piece of fiction by exploring and exploiting the traditional elements of Gothicism, the parody made possible via the depiction of the female protagonist, Catherine Morland, and this character’s own obsession with the phenomenon of the Gothic heroine. For as we follow this young woman on her journey from home to her social début in the fashionable city of Bath, where she meets and befriends the charismatic Henry Tilney (the love interest of the novel) and his sister Eleanor before travelling with them to their ancestral home, Northanger Abbey (a site deliberately selected by Austen so as to coincide with the traditional images of haunted castles and the like that so characterise Gothic fiction and thus fuel off Catherine’s own fantasies) and back again, Catherine is seen to be constantly reading novels and sharing her ideas on them with those around her, in particular there being several references to the real-life authoress and Austen’s near-contemporary Ann Radcliffe, famous for some of the most definitive novels of the Gothic genre including The Mysteries of Udolpho.
What is ironic however is that for all her fascination with the concept of the novel and despite being, simplistically put, the ‘heroine’ of her own, Catherine is actually interestingly something of an anti-heroine, a point that Austen appears so determined to stress as to even do so in the book’s very first sentence: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” I felt that by doing this the author is effectively providing a foil for the sort of character that a typical heroine would be expected to embody, perhaps so as to make a point about the equally demanding expectations set in place regarding the position and comportment of women in the patriarchal society of the day, or else to further comment upon the ultimate fiction that is the very idea that such a singular definition of a ‘heroine’, whether in literature or in reality, should ever exist in place of feminine individuality.
Out of all the references to the genre which Austen includes in Northanger Abbey, there is no doubt that the section of the book which I found to be the most Gothic in nature, and which even had me experiencing the same sort of heart-stopping tension and feeling of suspense as that which flooded through me while reading the sections of Jonathan Harker’s journal written during his confinement in the eponymous vampire’s castle in Dracula by Bram Stoker, was Chapter 21, in which Catherine discovers a mysterious manuscript whilst in her guest room at the Abbey. I’m going to let the words of Ms. Austen herself demonstrate my point in this instance, for I truly feel that the following extract and the fearful effect I do not doubt it will evoke on any reader is the best evidence for its completely eerie style:
“The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it in alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction, it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! it was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath. Darkness impenetrable and immoveable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot. In the pause which succeeded, a sound like receding footsteps and the closing of a distant door struck on her affrighted ear. Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes.”
Besides for making for a very gripping read in the moment, the true greatness and significance of this section of writing did not actually become apparent to me until later in the novel, when Catherine realises that this ancient ‘manuscript’ which she has put herself at such risk to discover (well, in her own overactive imagination at least) is in actual fact merely a washing list! It is the way that Austen thus uses bathos so expertly to humorously undercut her own writing, and writing that seemed to be so earnest at that, which was one of the things I most enjoyed about reading Northanger Abbey and which further enhanced the respect which I have for Austen as deservedly one of the greatest female writers to be found in our country’s literary heritage. Moreover, I also loved how in this novel she cleverly juxtaposes the Gothic elements encapsulated by Catherine’s stay at the Abbey with the more typically ‘Austen’ romance-based plotlines that especially come into play during the protagonist’s time in Bath and her interaction with the self-centred, pretentious Thorpe siblings, John and Isabella.
While both of these afore-mentioned characters are extremely flawed in terms of their personalities and moral values, I would have to say that of all those despicable specimens recorded in the literature I have read, few have provoked such a sentiment of absolute loathing within me as the former. I know that this may seem rather strange considering that John Thorpe’s actions and manner are by no means anywhere near as terrible or evil as those enacted by many a fictional villain, yet I suppose that it is actually the realism of his egocentric behaviour as it is presented by Austen and hence his resemblance to those it would be possible to know in real life that really set my skin crawling. For indeed, as he continued to exhibit his arrogance and absolutely delusional belief that Catherine is in love with him, even physically restraining her from going to see the Tilneys by holding her arm and refusing to stop the carriage in which he and Catherine are driving as they pass his rivals in the street, I found myself growing more and more infuriated; the moment when John, despite Catherine having refused his invitation of an outing in favour of a previous engagement with Eleanor Tilney, single-handedly goes and tells Miss Tilney that Catherine will be unable to see her really was the final straw and caused me to practically throw the book down in exasperation as I imagined myself hitting the character (hey, I can get very passionate when I’m reading!).
In terms of his sister, Isabella, while not quite as annoying as her big-headed brother, I still certainly found her to be a most unsavoury character of a calibre which I would be most disconcerted to encounter in my own life; let us just say that Isabella is the sort of girl for whom today’s most commonly heard crude insults towards women would absolutely apply, the very two-faced manner in which she plays off Catherine’s beloved brother, James, and Henry’s older brother, Captain Frederick Tilney, against each other appearing to me to be surprisingly akin to the ‘romantic politics’ more commonly thought to belong to the society of the 21st century rather than to that marriage-oriented one in which Austen was writing. I therefore found Isabella to act as the total antithesis to Catherine herself, whose seeming powerlessness to take command of the unwanted attention she receives from John Thorpe and simultaneous desire for Henry Tilney greatly contrasts to the unusually masculine control which the former apparently exercises over her own romantic situation.
But while there is no denying that I tend to relate more to the bookishly romantic Catherine than I do to the schemingly manipulative Isabella, as Northanger Abbey drew to a close I found myself contemplating the personalities of the girls I had just read about and wondering which of their approaches to love is better: do we pine in silence letting opportune moments pass us by, or do we put ourselves forward and take control of every flirtation that comes our way, even if that means hurting others? Is there a happy medium? Perhaps it is this that Austen is attempting to answer or at least examine via her depiction of love and marriage in Northanger Abbey; maybe, yet I think that ultimately her satire is a clear message that we need to stop believing that everything we read in novels can be applicable to real life, including the workings of romantic relationships. A bittersweet message, don’t you think?
Link to Jane Austen website: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/