Dear Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen:
After a bit of an Austen drought for me, I decided to listen to the audiobook version of you. I have been slowly working my way through Austen’s novels for years (besides you, I have read Pride & Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma), so I was excited to finally read you.
To be honest, I was a bit worried. Sometimes classics are harder to listen to rather than read on a physical page, and I hadn’t read something by Austen in so long. But after a few minutes of listening I settled right back into the witty, matter-of-fact cadence that Austen does so well.
I’d like to focus on my favorite aspect of you: your commentary on the novel in general, and specific the Gothic novel.
My favorite example of Austen poking fun at certain literary conventions is when Catherine Morland, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, stays at Northanger Abbey. Influenced by all of the Gothic novels that she loves to read, she initially expects the abbey to be haunting and dark. She also suspects that General Tilney murdered or imprisoned the late Mrs. Tilney in a mysterious room in the abbey, as Mrs. Tilney supposedly died nine years prior. This part immediately reminded me of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, in which the “madwoman” Bertha is trapped in the attic of Thornfield Hall by Mr. Rochester. Interestingly, you were published in 1817 and Jane Eyre was published thirty years later in 1847.
Over time, Catherine realizes that Northanger Abbey is not the frightening place she expected or imagined it to be. She also learns that General Tilney did not murder or imprison Mrs. Tilney. In this way, the gruesome portrait of the family that Catherine painted in her mind slowly becomes a figment of her imagination.
To me, you are both a criticism and a celebration of the Gothic novel. Throughout your story, Catherine realizes that she is not the “heroine” of her own life, in the sense that life does not function like the Gothic stories that she loves to read. Yet Austen does not entirely denounce novels, highlighting their significance in several moments:
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Your story itself was humorous and lovely, filled with the usual drama, gossip, and society commentary that I’ve come to expect from and admire in Austen’s writing. All in all, you struck a chord in me that some of Austen’s other novels have yet to reach. You are funny and thought-provoking, silly and resonating, critical and celebratory. Moreover, you are one of my favorites–any perhaps my very favorite–Austen novel that I have read thus far. How could I not adore this book with quotes like this:
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
I’m sure you are one that I will come back to in the future, Northanger Abbey. Until next time.