Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #02: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand.”

About ten years ago, when I was in my late teens/early twenties, I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice with my mother. Lizzie’s spritely banter and Mr Darcy’s awkwardly smouldering passion – not to mention the pond scene – inspired me to read Austen’s novels in a big flimsy omnibus paperback with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle on the front. I loved Pride and Prejudice, adored Emma, and found the rest irritating. After some thought, I concluded that this was due to the heroines – Fanny, Catherine, Eleanor and Marianne seemed to me to be such wet fish that their stories, however exquisitely constructed, felt like damp squibs.

In the last week, I reread Northanger Abbey, and enjoyed it greatly. The story of Catherine Morland, a parson’s daughter swept up in the social whirl of Regency Bath, and the wild fancies of her own Gothic-novel-influenced mind, it breezes along like a summer’s day, with the occasional rumble of thunder or shaft of lightning directed towards the superficiality of courting rituals, the shallowness of fashionable friendships, and the good-natured pomposity of young men straight out of Oxford. Bath is full of flirtations and intrigues; the innocent Catherine becomes confidante to Isabella Thorpe, a dashing young lady, and accidentally observes Isabella’s transgressions of convention. Nevertheless, Catherine attempts, in what has become such a hackneyed reality-show phrase, to “remain true to herself.” While Catherine lacks Elizabeth Bennet’s wit and Emma Woodhouse’s will-power, she possesses an engaging directness, a tender heart, and an honest soul. Most amusingly, Catherine has a tempestuous imagination, fed on the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, that draws her to see murder and dark deeds wherever the environment is remotely suitable, such as the titular Abbey.

The narrator wields this quality of Catherine’s with zest, using it as an opportunity for sartirizing both the trappings of the Gothic mode – creaky staircases, mysterious bloodstains, walled-up nuns etc. As Mr Tilney, a man who becomes an admirer of Catherine’s and knows her reading habits, teases her on their way to Northanger Abbey:

Nothing further to alarm perhaps may occur the first night. After surmounting your unconquerable horror of the bed, you will retire to rest, and get a few hours’ unquiet slumber. But on the second, or at farthest the third night after your arrival, you will probably have a violent storm. Peals of thunder so loud as to seem to shake the edifice to its foundation will roll round the neighbouring mountains—and during the frightful gusts of wind which accompany it, you will probably think you discern (for your lamp is not extinguished) one part of the hanging more violently agitated than the rest. Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favourable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery.

The narrative voice also plays with the conception of the heroine of popular fiction, indeed one that still may be popular today as main female characters are often angst-ridden with dysfunctional family backgrounds. Catherine is essentially ordinary, and that is part of her appeal. She is introduced as follows:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution.

The omniscient, penetrating, but ultimately benevolent narrator continues throughout the story in the same vein, forming an entertaining counterpoint to Catherine’s ordinariness and adding some much-needed spice and humour to the otherwise fairly conventional “innocent abroad” tale of thwarted romance and misunderstood friendship.

Quotes copy-pasted from the Project Gutenberg Northanger Abbey.

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