Monday, 20 January 2014

Should everyone read Northanger Abbey?


Northanger Abbey is generally considered to be the weakest of Jane Austen’s novels. Well, not the very weakest – she wrote some ‘juvenilia’ which doesn’t bear talking about, and she didn’t finish a few of her later novels, so we can’t really count those. But there are five ‘major novels’, and this isn’t classed as one of them.

Trashing it

So should you read it? The critical summary on the back of the copy I read, absolutely trashed it. It took the tone of ‘it’s not quite as terrible as everyone says. Well... actually it is, but that’s what makes it so charming’.  To understand Northanger Abbey’s diminutive literary reputation, the first place to look is the plot. Being a Jane Austen novel – of course – it’s centres around a girl and boy who fall in love...

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” 

Catherine Morland, a naive girl of seventeen, tries to escape the boredom of provincial life, and so goes to live in Bath with some friends of the family. There she meets a guy that she thinks is really rather nice (Henry Tilney), becomes firm friends with his sister and another girl, and a beastly man – who she doesn’t like in nearly the same way – starts to follow her around. After a time, she goes to stay with Henry and his sister in their father’s home – Northanger Abbey. Growing ever closer to Henry – after a few hurdles –  they declare their love for each other and are soon married.

So what’s wrong with that? Well critics talk about a lack of structure and coherence. In Jane Austen’s other novels, the plot slots together like a jigsaw, and love only forms between two people when they fit.  But in Northanger Abbey, everything feels a bit rammed together.  For example, the central love story. Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney don’t seem fated to be together at all. Henry is ironic, witty and intelligent, whilst Catherine is naive, honest, and demure – and completely misunderstands everything he says.

Starship enterprise on warp-drive

Indeed, towards the end, Jane Austen seems to have got quite bored of writing the book. She wraps up all the outstanding details of the plot in scarcely a page – giving just a summary rather than a proper ending.  The pace of the plot goes from a gentle canter on a well-fed pony to the Starship enterprise on warp-drive, ignominiously dumping the reader at the end of the book.

So should you read?

So should you read Northanger Abbey? Well, it’s important to say that it doesn’t appear to have lots of hidden wisdom (perhaps it’s too well-hidden). In fact, it seems quite difficult to extract any life lessons from Northanger Abbey at all. The characters, by and large, don’t make tough choices, still less do we see them wrestle with any difficult moral conundra. Catherine is so naive that the personal growth she experiences – allowing her to become a slightly wiser person – is not instructive. The reader remains two or three steps ahead of her at all times.

That said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read this book. The overall tone is winning. It has a real youthful feel that gets in and drives it, and an air of springtime, gayness and naïveté. It seems to have been written to be enjoyed with a sense of gleeful optimism. That’s really quite wonderful, and a breathe of fresh-air against a literary milieu of cynicism and jaded done-it-alls. Through Jane Austen’s youngest novel, we experience the world with new eyes, and the pleasure of being a child again, discovering love for the first time.

That said, I think Northanger Abbey might struggle to be called a ‘great’ book. It probably wouldn’t be classed in the top one hundred – or even the top five hundred books – of all time. It’s the kind of book that, if you scrupulously read only the books you simply had to have read, you might miss out and not feel too guilty.

To hell with it

But that would be a shame. Frankly, I think we should fight back against this culture of over analyzing the merit of every book – judging them all by a set of predetermined criteria. So what if the author’s hand is ‘visible’? So what if she omnipotently makes things happen without recourse to the proper sense of flow? And so what if Henry and Catherine aren’t perfectly suited (and end up divorced in a few years)? And, hang it all, so what if Austen finishes the novel rather quickly? Books should be more than a sum of their details, and Northanger Abbey should be judged by how it makes you feel. And that feeling is, quite simply, happiness.

So should you read it? I say yes, and the reason is simple. Because if you don’t – you’d be missing out.

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