Monday, January 7

Northanger Abbey

This is the thread where I'll be posting notes as I read Northanger Abbey. Here is the permanent address of this post:

Again, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed. Or, you know, just forget it and then the next time you see me, just pretend you totally read all my comments and you were blown away by how funny and insightful I am. Seriously, you guys, that's all I want. Love me!


Johnny said...

So this is allegedly a comedy, which is pretty daunting...I mean, comedy ages so quickly. Have you tried watching SCTV lately? Or the curiously beloved Ben Stiller Show?

Accordingly, though, I'll be going a bit easier on this book than I was on Persuasion. I mean, it's one thing to be sarcastic about a book that's trying to be slightly serious, but calling out ridiculous scenes that are trying to be ridiculous is just's like those Television Without Pity wrapups of sitcoms.

So, yeah, here comes two hundred pages of jokes that KILLED circa 1796...

Johnny said...

Okay, fuck me, this is actually really funny. And not just clever or droll but funny, and in a particular meta- way we associate with more modern sensibilities.

The book is a parody of Gothic novels, and begins with Austen detailing all the ways the main character Catherine isn't a Gothic heroine--she isn't very pretty or rich or even smart; she's not an orphan or an heiress; she comes from a stable and loving family in the 'burbs--and along the way creates a pretty compelling character.

It turns out that bad writing is timeless, because the numerous tropes that Austen punctures are so familiar she could be talking about fan fiction.

"[Catherine's mother] had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on."

Honestly, if this had come out recently I would have sworn it was a WICKED take on JK Rowling.

"What young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?" Heh.

After being surprised by the fresh humor of the first chapter, I'm flat-out astonished to discover a meet-cute AND some genuinely snappy banter in the third. In this scene, Catherine has gone to a ball and met the charming Mr. Tilney:

"I see what you think of me," said he gravely -- "I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow."

"My journal!"

"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."

"Indeed I shall say no such thing."

"Shall I tell you what you ought to say? 'I danced with a very agreeable young man; had a great deal of conversation with him -- seems a most extraordinary genius -- hope I may know more of him.'"

(No word on if he was wearing a feather boa and goggles.)

This is true: he then impresses Catherine's chaperone with his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion...!

"Their conversation turned upon those subjects, of which the free discussion has generally much to do in perfecting a sudden intimacy between two young ladies: such as dress, balls, flirtations, and quizzes."

Quizzes? Oh, you mean like in Cosmo?

I looked it up. The OED says that at the time Austen was writing "quiz" meant "an odd or eccentric person." Ah! So with that new knowledge in mind, I've helpfully translated the next line in the paragraph for you:

"Miss Thorpe had a very decided advantage in discussing such points; she could point out a [total spaz] through the thickness of a crowd."

Johnny said...

This chapter includes the famous Defense Of The Novel, a well-known rant (sorry, there's no other term for it) by Austen in which she rails against the way the novel is treated by readers and academics, and becomes a rousing call to arms for her fellow novelists to respect themselves and their books. It's way too long to reprint in the comments, but if you're interested go here:

and search for "I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom".

I wonder what the modern equivalent would be...Defense Of The Television Show? Of The Video Game? Of The BLOG!?

Austen begins this chapter, comprised mostly of two teenagers talking of ephermea, with this deeply sarcastic introduction:

"The following conversation is given as a specimen of their very warm attachment, and of the delicacy, discretion, originality of thought, and literary taste which marked the reasonableness of that attachment."


Later in the chapter, one of the girls gives a list of Gothic novels the other should read:

Castle of Wolfenbach
by Eliza Parsons

Clermont, a Tale
by Regina Maria Roche

The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale
by Eliza Parsons

The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest
by 'Ludwig Flammenberg'

The Midnight Bell
by Francis Lathom

Orphan of the Rhine
by Eleanor Sleath

Horrid Mysteries
by the Marquis de Grosse

Apparently, for a long time people thought Austen invented this list--which would have been awesome, since the list is just about perfect--but early in the 20th century a couple of researchers discovered that they all existed, and they've since been reprinted as "the Northanger Horrid Novels." (OMG, my next reading project!?)

Incidentally, this was one of the two researchers:

Even more incidentally, the Wikipedia pages for any Jane Austen book are hilariously uneven, and a real microcosm of what's wrong with the wiki model: the entries alternate over-long sections clearly written by dull 35-year-old grad students, with other parts that are transparently rewritten high school term papers.

(For some reason the following simple exchange between siblings really touched me. I gotta go call my sister!)

"I never was so happy before; and now you are come it will be more delightful than ever; how good it is of you to come so far on purpose to see me."

James accepted this tribute of gratitude, and qualified his conscience for accepting it too, by saying with perfect sincerity, "Indeed, Catherine, I love you dearly."

Johnny said...

When I started this endeavor, I opened these threads not just so I could record my own thoughts on the books but also have a discussion about them with anyone else who was reading. But no one has joined me, which is fine, because I was a bit suspicious of these discussions. I couldn't really imagine what we'd possibly say. I mean:

"This book is great. I'd say it's a classic!"

"I agree! Austen must be one of the great novelists of all time."


Along the same lines, I'm equally unable to say anything on my own about Northanger Abbey, which I'm enjoying immensely. There's only so many ways to say 'I like this.' Maybe that points to me as a bad literary critic, but if I have to choose between that or being someone who thoroughly enjoys his reading, well...

This chapter is great, and everyone trying to write for teen girls should be required to read it. Catherine is stuck with her insincere friend and her friend's boorish brother as they try to convince her--first through bullying, then through flattery, finally through passive aggression--to take a carriage ride with them. Catherine's brother, who's trying to be alone with a girl, chimes in with abuse of his own.

(Catherine, though, just wants to be with her new friends, who are funnier, smarter, cooler, (richer), and older.)

The scene is so perfectly drawn from life it could be about trying to get her to buy a six pack and come with them down to the quarry in a T-bird.

Another thing that's really nice about this book is that it focuses on younger, hipper, characters than the constipated adults in Persuasion. It's really interesting to see this entire world existing just below the adults' consciousness.

Johnny said...

I learned a new word: Se'ennight, as in "Saturday se'ennight," meaning "not this Saturday, but the next one."

Think about how much easier this will make my conversations! Usually they go like this:

"When's your court date?"
"This Tuesday?"
"No, the next Tuesday. Sorry."

Confusing! Now I can use my new word to clear it all up:

"When's your court date?"
"Tuesday se'ennight."
"My court date is Tuesday se'ennight."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Not this Tuesday, but the Tuesday after."
"Then just say that! Jesus, you always have to make things so freaking complicated all the time. That's why people don't like you, Johnny. THAT'S WHY YOU'RE BEING SUED."

There's a great bit during Snow Crash where Stephenson, aware of how painfully awkward it is to write most action sequences, ends an exciting chapter with just the words: "A car chase ensues."

Austen does the same thing here. Knowing that her audience will not want to sit through a long description of two teenage girls weepily saying goodbye to each other, she allows them to just come up with their own scene, ending the chapter abruptly with a dismissive "The embraces, tears, and promises of the parting fair ones may be fancied."

Johnny said...

"Her spirits were immediately assisted by the cheerful blaze of a wood fire. 'How much better is this,' said she, "to find a fire ready lit, than to have to wait shivering in the cold till all the family are in bed, and then to have a faithful old servant frightening one by coming in with a faggot!'"

I'm really worried about the film adaptation of this one. PERSUASION, I'm sure, will be a dull and respectful affair full of sumptuous scenery and bustles and whatever. But this book is so much more vital that it deserves more than the castrated Merchant-Ivory production it's sure to get.

I hope they trust it to someone who sees the essential humor and absurdity of the book, as well as the touching moments of confused youth. The Hot Fuzz/Shawn Of The Dead guys would be perfect for this.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I hope they found someone to treat Northanger Abbey with the disrespect it deserves...

Up until now, I'd been wondering why the book was considered a parody. Sure, there was that great opening bit where Catherine's failings as a heroine are detailed, and it was clear that she read too many Gothic novels, but all of that took a backseat to greatly affecting scenes of teenage friendship in a crowded vacation town.

That's over now, though, as Catherine has finally arrived at the titular abbey, and the more overt Gothic parody has ramped up. She's convinced herself that the abbey was the scene of a ghastly crime, and she investigates, only to be confronted by mundane reality.

There's a mysterious chest in her room! Turns out it's empty. No, wait, there's a sheath of paper hidden in the back of a drawer! Turns out it's a laundry bill. And so on.

It's amusing, I guess, and there are some nice observations on how we fit real life into our narrative moulds. (For example, the villian shows no evil tendencies at all, which to Catherine is proof that he's truly evil to be able to do such deeds without reflecting it in his countenance, etc.)

However, this more comic structure really dampens the momentum of the book. I hope there's not eight more chapters of this, culminating in Catherine falsely accusing her best friend's father of murdering his wife. What fun.

Oh thank god. I should have known Austen would be smarter than I gave her credit for.

Mr. Tilney, the dandy from Chapter 3, shows up and quickly senses the ridiculous ideas Catherine's come up with. He punctures her delusions with surgical accuracy. I'm not's RAW how he gets all The Magus on her ass:

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to -- Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

Catherine can't answer this onslaught, and "with tears of shame she ran off to her own room." response, Miss Morland? Ha ha...YA BURNT!

Johnny said...

Catherine, having been released from her suspicions about General Tilney, comes to a couple of interesting (and to my eyes, surprisingly modern) conclusions.

First, that personality is not the same as character. General Tilney may be brusque and demanding, but that doesn't mean that he's necessarily a bad person.

"...she need not fear to acknowledge some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not perfectly amiable."

Second, having realized that not everyone is harboring a dreadful secret, she DOESN'T swing the other way and decide that everyone is basically good. Instead, she has discovered the ambiguity of human nature, in which we're all composed of contradictory parts.

"In their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad," as she puts it, and I was a bit pleasingly shocked to see such a moral appear in an early 19th century novel.


This part made me laugh. General Tilney is a man proud of his wealth and prone to self-serving speechs (though Austen depicts him a bit more gently than she does similar characters.) Quote:

"Your father is so very liberal!" Catherine told Henry and Eleanor. "He told me the other day that he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children."

The brother and sister looked at each other.

Guest commentary! A reader of this blog, identified only as Dixie Gas, sends in the following:

WH Auden was taken aback by Austen's deeply-held cynicism and her antipathy towards so many of her characters. He wrote:

"You could not shock her more than she shocks me; / Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass"

Jane Austen, 1796: A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows.

Joseph Campbell, 1949: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

"She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own."



Rodomontade (noun) - vain and empty boasting.

The term is a reference to Rodomonte, a character in Italian Renaissance epic poems Orlando innamorato and its sequel Orlando furioso.

Done. As I drew closer and closer to the end, I began to worry that the book would end hurriedly or in some weird 1796 way. Novels were different centuries ago, and sometimes they don't end the way we expect them to. Anna Karenina, for example, ends with an unrelated 30 page section where the remaining characters debate whether Russian volunteers should be helping out the Serbian revolt against the Turks.

I'm happy to say that my fears were unfounded. The book winds up in a very satisfying manner, drawing to a close slowly enough to let us say our goodbyes.

The last chapter is pretty mindblowing, frankly, as Austen switches overs to first person and narrates not so much the end of the book so much as her writing the end of the book. It's a thoroughly modern ending, and utterly appropriate. This is starting to sound like a dissertation, so let me just say that her "voice" here is note-perfect: knowing, unsentimental, and a bit sarcastic, but also warm and sympathetic to her characters.

(Oh, and it all ends on a truly LOL-inducing final line.)

When I started this endeavor, I didn't really expect to be blown away by one of Austen's books. I had already read Pride And Prejudice, and though I enjoyed it, it didn't speak to me, didn't transcend its place as "a book I'll be glad I read when I'm done." I assumed the rest of her books would be the same way: I'd appreciate them for what they were, but I wouldn't be touched by any of them.

But this book completely caught me off-guard, repeatedly impressing me with its intellectual, emotional, and artistic insights. Updike writes about "the shock of the familiar," when you read about a sensation you thought only you had, and this book has more than a few of those.

I guess it sounds funny when I write so many positive things about something, and I know it's freaking all of us out, but I want to say in closing that I thoroughly enjoyed Northanger Abbey, and even if none of the other three Austen novels have anything to say to me, the fact that I read this one will have made this project worth it.