Friday 8 September 2017

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Adam @RoofBeamReader once again hosted #AusteninAugustRBR as well as a #CBAM2017 readalong for Northanger Abbey.

I've read Northanger Abbey a couple of times, many years ago, but it wasn't really one of my preferred Austen's.... until I saw the wonderful 1986 BBC TV film starring Robert Hardy, Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth, about ten years after it was made. The film is deliciously gothic and quite true to the book. All the characterisations feel spot on, the costuming is splendid and the music suitably eerie. Bath & Katharine's huge eyes also have a huge part in the story! It is my all-time favourite Austen TV adaptation.

It is now impossible for me to read Northanger Abbey without having these faces and places vividly in mind. Which was actually a huge achievement given that this particular reread of NA occurred poolside in Bali on a recent holiday.

Austen's brother sent Northanger Abbey off to the publisher's for the first time, in 1803. It was her first completed novel. Austen was only 22 when she began this novel, but thanks to a foolish publisher who didn't realise what a gem they had on their hands, it languished unpublished until the Austen family bought it back again in 1816. Austen revised the book in the last two years of her life (changing the heroine's name from Susan to Catherine) and it was finally published posthumously in 1817.

Northanger Abbey is a lighter, funnier novel than most of Austen's other novels. Like many of her Juvenilia, it is a parody of the many gothic and romance novels in vogue at the time. Austen may be having fun here, but many of her well-known, heavier hitting themes also make their first appearance.

Women's issues are front and centre - their economic plight, the marriage market and rational thought versus rampant sensibility. One wonders if this particular passage was part of Austen's later revision (as she was also finishing off Persuasion) or whether Anne Elliot's famous speech about the representation of women in books and history was inspired by this much earlier example of feminist thought.

History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in....
I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome.

Northanger Abbey also explores the idea of first impressions - that people and events may not be what they seem at first and that imagination should not be confused with real life.

It was this loss of innocence as Catherine made her tentative first steps into adult life, that really affected me with this reread. I could sense her desperation to be 'grown-up' - to know stuff and to not be thought silly - but at the same time being confused and uncertain about what was the right way to behave.

I also really, really appreciated the humour this time around - so much so that I had to read several passages out loud to Mr Books, as he lay dozing on the banana lounge next to me. If you have never read any of Austen's books out loud, I urge you to try one day. Reading them out loud brings out the humour as well as highlighting how perfectly each sentence has been constructed.

How can you not laugh at the buffoon John Thorpe with his interminable talk about horses and carriages? His obsession with speed and specifications are surely the harbinger's of our modern day hoon in their hotted up wheels! We've all been stuck at a party sitting next to the guy who thinks everyone else is as fascinated by his mode of transport as he is!

The flipback book series from John Murray do not seem to have taken hold, which is a shame, because they are prefect travel companions. Made with the same soft paper they use in bibles, flipbacks fit in the palm of your hand, are super light-weight and the fonts are surprisingly readable.

I have three of the Austen's on my shelf - they not only take up very little space, but they're also very pretty.


  1. Great review.

    This is the only Jane Austen novel that I have not read yet. I am actually currently reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. Supposedly a lot of the parody in Northanger Abbey is based on that book. I will probably read this within the next few months.

    1. I tried to read TMOU quite a few years ago, but found it pretty tedious. I'm curious to hear what you think. Should I try again?

  2. Anonymous8/9/17

    I too did not like NA when I first read it! But about 2 years ago I re-read it and I completely agree with is a funny funny book! I love the 1986 adaptation as well and think its one of the best! Reading this by the poolside in Bali.....that's like as awesome as it gets!

  3. I read this book recently and I really loved it. I think it is the best of her books after Pride and Prejudice (my overall favourite). I have still to read Mansfield Park, and her Juvenilia though.

    1. My favourite list changes every time I reread, but Persuasion comes first, then P&P, then a changing mix between S&S and Mansfield Park, then Emma & Northanger Abbey...for now :-)


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