Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Northanger Abbey (Reviewed August 2008)

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1818)[*****]. This is the penultimate novel in my romp through Jane Austen’s works, which I’m reading in order of publication, although I think this may be one of the first novels she wrote. It is, relatively speaking, fairly simple and straightforward (and short, at only 250 pages). It reads a bit like a pencil sketch for her later books. The characters are types we meet later, but simpler; what you see really is what you get. The brother and sister duo of John and Isabella Thorpe are blatantly (and delightfully) course, rude, grubbing and fickle; brother and sister Henry and Eleanor Tilney are thoughtful and sensitive and kind; and our heroine Catherine is earnest, lively and open-hearted. Likewise, the plot has very few twists and turns (at least for the reader; the lovely but naïve Catherine is constantly being surprised). At first blush, Northanger Abbey has a bit of the feel of a practice run, which it may be, but it’s also clear that Austen is doing something different in this book. Northanger Abbey is also a novel about novels, and is self-consciously writerly, full of ironic authorial asides, including a little dissertation in defense of the novel. It is a parody of the Gothic novels popular in Austen’s day, and a light-hearted cautionary tale for young people with lively imaginations who spend too much time with their noses in books (I think it will be the first Jane Austen I read to my daughter – right after we finish Jane Eyre!) As a side note, the names in Northanger Abbey prove that what goes around comes around, as they could easily be the roster of any middle class pre-school or elementary school today: Isabella, Sophia, Catherine, John, James, Eleanor, Henry (the last two being my kids’ middle names).

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