Sunday, June 18, 2006

Book Review: Northanger Abbey

A couple of months ago, Julie D. over at Happy Catholic posted a list of memorable first lines of books. The first line of Pride & Prejudice was one of them. The first line of Northanger Abbey is a close second: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine."

And, thus, Jane Austen proves herself mistress of the opening sentence.

Northanger Abbey was written when Ms. Austen was in her early 20's, although it was not published until after her death. Even at this early age, however, Ms. Austen's eye for place and character is keen. Chapter Two begins with this description of Catherine:

In addition to what has been already said of Catherine Morland's personal and mental endowments, when about to be launched into all the difficulties and dangers of a six weeks' residence in Bath, it may be stated, for the reader's more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be, that her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind--her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty--and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.
Catherine loves to read novels, especially Gothic novels like The Castle of Udolfo (which is a real novel, by the way). Catherine is also naive about the ways of society. Her father is a minister and makes a comfortable living, but there are ten children to care for, including an older brother at Oxford, who also plans on being a minister. Mr. Allen, a wealthy man from the Morland's village, has been ordered to Bath to take the waters for his gout. His wife invites Catherine along to act as her companion and also to introduce her to wider society. Catherine is enthralled by Bath and falls in love with the first gentleman introduced to her at her first ball, Mr. Henry Tilney. He must leave, and in his absence, Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe and her two sisters. Catherine and Isabella become inseparable, but are astonished when Isabella's brother turns up with his good friend from Oxford--Catherine's older brother.

Mr. Tilney returns to Bath with his sister and their father and the games of British society in the early 1800's begin. What fascinates me is how little has changed in the mating dance between young men and young women. The forms have--we are on a first name basis with acquaintances, young men and women usually are not formally introduced. But the manipulations, the misunderstandings, the machinations still go on.

I liked Catherine a lot, in part because she reminded me so much of myself at seventeen. Many of her problems are caused by an overactive imagination and because she hasn't had much experience with manipulative people. Her generous impulses sometimes betray her, as does her belief that other people's motives are as simple and straightforward as her own. She is not a cynic and has not learned how to trust her own instincts.

My one complaint with the book is that the ending seems a bit rushed and too neatly wrapped up, almost as though Ms. Austen was tired of the story and wanted to get on with something else.

The minor characters have their own quirks and foibles and add much to the texture of the story.

Northanger Abbey is not quite as long as Pride & Prejudice and might be a good introduction to Jane Austen, although the only listing for a movie that I found on IMDb is a made for TV movie from 1986. Too bad--this would be a good role for an up-and-coming young actress. Maybe Dakota Fanning?

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 bookmarks