Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

‘Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.’ –Catherine Morland

‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. –Henry Tilney

A few years ago, I bemoaned how I didn’t re-read books, and made the decision to change that. As I’ve become a re-reader, I’ve also become a better reader. The first time through a book, I’m feeling my way in the dark; I read quickly to find out what happens. On subsequent readings, I can relax and focus on examining the craft, since I know the major plot points, and how it ends.

This was the second time I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which was her first-completed and last published novel. Last time, I didn’t much enjoy it. Since then, though, I’ve read the six Austen novels, re-read Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club, seen several screen adaptations of the works including the 2007 Northanger Abbey, done online research about Austen and her novels, and become a regular reader of Austenblog. This reading of NA was very different, because I was a different reader, made more aware from all those experiences.

On this read, I “got” the comprehensive irony that characterizes this novel. NA became much more sophisticated to me because of this. The first time, I felt it was a kind of middle-school romance, and I found Henry Tilney condescending. This time, I saw Austen’s signature incisive social commentary. The book wasn’t a critique of people who took trashy novels too seriously, as I thought before. I also didn’t find it the diatribe against popular novels it’s often assumed to be; Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is praised by Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who are the characters of discerning taste. Instead, it’s an indictment of social hypocrisy, when people say one thing and do another. Novel reading is an example of something people denied doing, or liking, when the reality was opposite. Novels as a reader’s only object, as they are for the naive Catherine, are problematic. As part of a well-balanced reading diet, as the Tilneys have, though, popular novels are to be championed.

Young Catherine’s overactive imagination is contrasted with her inexperience of people; at the beginning of the novel she thinks life is very like what she reads in novels. As NA progresses, however, she learns painful lessons about the world and her understanding of it. With that comes the knowledge that, while real life may not be as dramatic as in novels, it can be as cruel and punishing, or sweetly rewarding, as author-created fiction.

On this read, I quite enjoyed NA. It was very funny, though not an easy read because of the pervasive irony; I had to read closely to catch all the “only”s and “but”s. I still found Henry Tilney a bit supercilious; he doesn’t hide that he thinks he’s the smartest person in a room. But I liked him better this time, and suspect that he often spoke with Austen’s own voice.

3 Responses to “Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen”

  1. hopeinbrazil Says:

    Hello, Thanks for the good review. This has always been my least favorite Austen novel. I don’t think I even finished it the first time I started reading it. Now I may give it another try.

  2. Framed Says:

    I really liked this book the first time I read it, but I may have to reread it also. I like the idea of finding something new each time you read a book.

  3. girldetective Says:

    It was MY least favorite Austen too, till I saw the PBS and re-read it. Now my least fave is Sense and Sensibility. We’ll see if it stays there, or gets a bump from its PBS adaptation, too.