A few weeks ago, I did a post on Rebecca, a modern (1930s) take on the Gothic genre that many people associate with such novels as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Today, though, I’ll be jumping back the centuries to talk about a hilarious–and sobering–parody on Gothic themes, English novelist Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which Austen finished in 1803 but wasn’t published until 1817. I admit it’s odd for my first Austen post to be on this work instead of her more famous books, like Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park . . . but the point of this blog, of course, is to make more people aware of lesser-known works, including Northanger Abbey, one of Austen’s earliest novels.
Not being the hugest fan of that much-lauded novel, Pride and Prejudice, I’ll admit that the main motivation for me dusting off Northanger Abbey was less an interest in Austen’s writing and more a curiosity as to how she would go about poking fun at Gothic literature.
Austen’s characters here, especially protagonist Catherine Morland, impressed me from the start because they were, well, humorous, what with their gaffes and deluded views of how the world really is. Catherine’s avid consumption of Gothic novels gives her the impression that at every corner lies melodrama, horror, and romance. At the same time, though, Catherine has deep personal struggles, including trying to form her own sense of self despite the intrusions of her parents and “friends”–including John and Isabella Thorpe, the closest this book comes in terms of antagonists–who are much more scheming and selfish than Catherine can possibly know.
As Northanger Abbey progresses, Catherine shows signs of maturity (personal development, as always, being a hallmark of Austen’s works) in her decisions and relationships as her affections toward one Henry Tilney morph from Gothic-inspired romantic passions into a more rational approach to love. Indeed, she goes from viewing the titular abbey where she stays for part of the novel as a medieval place lurking with monsters and danger to just another old building in the English countryside.
Another common Austen theme, class relations, dominates the interaction between the characters beyond mere snobbery. Catherine lives in a social sphere where a young woman from a less-than-well-off family faces serious problems in the marriage market.
On a related note, one thing to be aware of is, if you’re like me and dust off this novel knowing close to NOTHING about English social life in the late 1700s and early 1800s, you’re going to be in for some surprises and confusion. I highly recommend an annotated edition of this book for clarification and education purposes. Also know that English has changed a lot in the past couple hundred years, so that much of Austen’s dialogue sounds . . . different . . . to modern ears. Happy dusting off!
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.
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