I have a confession – I greatly dislike Jane Austen. To me her novels are only one step up from cheap romantic trash novels. Pride and Prejudice is an utterly tedious read, Elizabeth is ridiculously shallow, it’s only upon seeing Pemberley does she start to begin to contemplate Darcy as a romantic match but the way people go on it’s as if it is the greatest love story since jam met toast. PD James managed to jazz it up a bit with her very enjoyable book Death Comes to Pemberley but it doesn’t change the vague romantic coupling of Elizabeth & Darcy – he has his pride (and a big house), she has her prejudice – what a marvellous couple!
I’m sure when Northanger Abbey was first published, the opening half of the book was a right hoot. Unfortunately for me it was a hard slog to get through and had I been reading it for pleasure that’s where I would have stopped. As with Pride and Prejudice the opening half of the book is chiefly concerned with the presentation of a young woman into society and all the trapping this brings so of the heroine Catherine Morland goes to Bath in the hands of family friends to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Pump House and dancing. She gets herself wrapped up in the etiquette of the time which is a bit of a poor thing for her as she desperately wants a young parson (Henry Tilney) to ask her to dance but alas her big opportunity is thwarted by having agreed to dance with another man and she can’t break that agreement…even though he has buggered off somewhere to talk to a friend.
She has a few more missed opportunities before finally she’s able to get hold of Tilney and become BFFs with his younger sister. By being charming (or thought to be loaded) she gets herself an invitation to stay at Northanger Abbey.
This is finally where the novel starts to become significantly less tedious. Catherine is a vivacious reader, devouring Gothic romances upon Gothic romances. The idea of going to an abbey utterly thrills her and she conjures up visions of dingy hallways and dark corridors with secret passages. Henry spins her a tale about discovering a lost family treasure and Catherine can hardly believe it when she’s presented with such a thing! Sadly the lost family treasure turns out to be laundry receipts. Ah well, there’s another mystery – that of the missing Mrs Tilney! Mrs Tilney passed away suddenly without her family in attendance, General Tilney keeps her rooms still but does not wish to step foot in them. Naturally he was a cruel husband and is now keeping his wife locked away in misery!
All this Gothic parody is actually quite fun and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Unfortunately, it didn’t last as Austen quickly got back to wrist-slashing dreariness of society connections and romantic negotiations. Poor Catherine is suddenly rushed back home where she mourns the loss of her new friend and potential husband all because family status is the important thing here, and the General has discovered he was mistaken about the Morland family status.
There are many things the novel allows for discussion, which I imagine why it’s a set text on my OU module but in a way it’s unfortunate it’s such a short novel and that the part which is really enjoyable comes so late in the book. The novel was published after Austen’s death and I can’t help wishing she’d had an editor who told her to cut all the rubbish about society and concentrate on the Gothic satire. I read an article about Val McDermid reworking it as a ‘teen thriller’, as a fan of her work I’m tempted to see what life she can breath into the first half.