Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The great Jane Austen read-through continues with Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is not as deep of a character study as Emma, nor as serious a rumination on England’s class system and women’s role and opportunity within it as Sense and Sensibility or Mansfield Park. Nor is it as thoughtful a meditation of romantic love and what goes into a good marriage as Pride and Prejudice. But what Northanger Abbey lacks in weight it makes up for in humor.

This book is funny. 

Now, all of Jane Austen’s books are funny. But Northanger Abbey is more biting, almost acerbic, than Austen’s previous books. Austen’s descriptions are sharp and, while veering a little into caricature, stop just short of being mean. And of particular note is her satire of both novels and those critics who despise the artform.

I’m guessing Austen was receiving some negative reviews of her own work. Hence this brilliant passage, perhaps my favorite in the book (start at “The progress if the friendship . . .”):

And then there’s the fact that Catherine Morland, our heroine, lets her imagination get the hold of her when visiting the titular manor, imagining hidden secrets in ancient furniture and–gulp!–suspecting her hosts’ father of having murdered his late wife.

But let’s start at the beginning though, shall we?

Young Catherine Morland travels to the town of Bath with family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen in order to expand her horizons. There she meets Mrs. Thorpe and her daughter Isabella, who becomes fast friends with Catherine. Catherine’s eldest brother James then rolls into town on a break from his studies accompanied John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. James and Isabella fall in love and are soon engaged. John Thorpe, a rather vulgar braggart, has designs on Catherine, but she remains uninterested. And then Henry and Eleanor’s older brother arrives on the scene  . . .

Catherine is far more interested in Henry Tilney, the son of the wealthy and venerable General Tilney, than John Thorpe. And while in Bath, she befriends Henry’s younger sister Eleanor. Soon, Catherine is invited to their home, the stately Northanger Abbey, where her adventures really begin.

There are some incisive passages, as there are in all of Austen’s work, and to call them all out would make this post about the length of the book itself. A few of my favorites:

On women: 

Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.

On beauty:

To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plan the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

On clothing:

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the hart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet.

On novels:

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

On topics of conversation:

“. . . and from politics it was an easy step to silence.”

On happiness:

“I am come, young ladies, in a very moralising strain, to observe that our pleasures in this world are always to be paid for, and that we often purchase them at a great disadvantage, giving ready-monied, actual happiness for a draft on the future that may not be honoured.”

On family matters:

“. . . your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and, therefore, not accessible to the cool reasoning of family partiality, or a desire of revenge.”

Northanger Abbey is short, just long enough not to overstay its welcome and its rather limited plot. This makes it a perfect, quick read: breezy, clever, and highly entertaining with just enough insight to make it worthwhile. I cannot say that this is Austen’s best work, but it is by no means a poor one.

In fact, it has a very important theme, one which lends itself well to the book’s quick pace, and that is miscommunication. To say more would be to spoil, but suffice it to say, even in lighter fare such as this Austen provides plenty of food for thought. 

Next up: Persuasion

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