Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Northanger Abbey

on December 18, 2010

I ended my last post by saying that Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite of Austen’s novels.  Well (as I may have mentioned before), this is, and always will be, as far as I can imagine!

My fourth Austen novel for the challenge, on this occasion I used the audio book version from Penguin classics, read by Jill Balcon.  The terms of the challenge allow all formats of book, so this adds a bit of variety to the list, although the main reason for using the CD on this occasion was that I had a migraine this afternoon and wanted something to listen to as I lay in the dark.  Happily I’m recovered now and able to write this up.

The audio version is abridged, but I have read the original so many times that I was able to spot practically which speeches had been omitted let alone which parts of the story.  A lot of Jane Austen’s throwaway comedy lines have been left out (e.g. the reference to Catherine’s father’s name being Richard as if it were something to be ashamed of – apparently Austen’s family had an in-joke about the name Richard; also Henry’s imagined entry in Catherine’s journal about their first meeting, which always amuses me and backs up the later, muslin-related conversation) which is a shame, although I can see they are not entirely necessary to the plot and can be dispensed with for the sake of time.

Another omission is the information surrounding Eleanor’s marriage at the end of the book which is the means by which Henry’s and Catherine’s own becomes possible.  The book explains that Eleanor’s husband has been known to her, and loved by her, a good while but that his “inferiority of situation” has prevented their relationship progressing and that when he unexpectedly receives both title and fortune he becomes an acceptable husband for her.  All of this is missed out in the audio version which I felt misrepresented her character somewhat, given that the whole story takes place within the space of a year, in making her sound as if she is marrying a man she hardly knows for his money, which is a theme generally frowned on in Northanger Abbey – demonstrated by the portrayal of Isabella Thorpe as no better than a mercenary slut.

Probably the main omission, however, and the one which sat least comfortably, in my opinion, was the confusion surrounding Catherine’s assumed promise to marry John Thorpe.  The conversation they have when Thorpe is on the point of leaving Bath was included, but the aftermath – his letter to Isabella claiming that he had as good as proposed to Catherine and that she had given him every encouragement, and Catherine’s strong assurances that she hadn’t understood it that way at all and had no intention of accepting a proposal – are completely missed out, meaning that at the end of the book, when Henry explains that it was John Thorpe who misinformed General Tilney about the Morlands’ financial situation and who then disabused him of the notion later, Thorpe’s reason for changing his story makes no sense.  The original text gives him several motives, namely that he is “irritated by Catherine’s refusal”, disappointed in being unable to reconcile Isabella and James and having taken the decision to end his friendship with James because it no longer serves his purpose.  The audio version mentions only his irritation at being refused by Catherine, which in fact is the only thing that has not happened in the course of the narrative as set out in the recording!  Knowing the original as well as I do, I of course understood exactly what Thorpe was hinting at during his conversation with Catherine so I can’t really say whether his proposal, and her subsequent refusal, could be inferred by a newcomer to the story, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be that clear.

My reasons for loving Northanger Abbey so much would form a long list, but I thought I would list the chief ones here:

Unlike most of Austen’s other novels, this one engages the reader’s attention in quite an unlikely way, by describing why in fact Catherine Morland is an inappropriate and unlikely heroine.  I have to confess that all the other major novels have a few opening chapters which, for me, are just scene-setters to be got through before the “real” story starts, but Austen’s parody of the Gothic genre loved so much by Catherine includes making fun of the descriptions and behaviour of the characters and from the outset she makes this story a kind of “anti-Gothic” in the most entertaining way possible.

The whole Gothic parody idea is hilarious.  I have never read anything significant from the Gothic genre (I think the nearest I’ve got is Wuthering Heights which all my critical books described as gothic in places but I don’t think it’s that similar!) but I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to read at least The Castle of Otranto (the one that started it all, if I’m not mistaken), if not some of “Mrs” Ann Radcliffe’s, because I’d love to see first hand where it all comes from.  I don’t think it’s a barrier to understanding Jane Austen’s satire in this novel though, partly because most of the satire is aimed at the girls who read them (and the men who claim not to) which is a universal theme, and partly because Austen spells out so clearly (although subtly) what she is commenting on whenever she makes a satirical point.

Catherine Morland is a very believable heroine – I have come across many teenage girls who, like her, let their naïvety lead them to believe that life is, or should be, the way it is in films/TV shows/books and allow their vivid imagination to get them into all kinds of trouble.  This means that Northanger Abbey is perhaps easier to relate to than some of the others, in that the heroine is more similar to someone we know (although maybe not for teenage girls – I don’t think I’d have recognised myself in Catherine when I was 17, although now I can’t fail to notice the similarities between her and my teenage self!).  There is an excellent updating of this novel – Summer of Secrets by Rosie Rushton* – in which the heroine is addicted to celebrity gossip magazines which in turn inform her own, wildly off the mark, conclusions.

Henry Tilney is a wonderful hero!  I love the fact that he is perfect for Catherine in so many ways which are only briefly alluded to in the text (she is “almost pretty”, he is “not quite handsome” but “very near it”; he loves novels, whereas John Thorpe considers himself above such things; etc) and he behaves in such a teasing, relaxed way with Catherine that when he is serious, his earnestness and his sincerity can’t possibly go unnoticed.   When he realises, on finding her “exploring” his mother’s room, that she has let her novel-fed imagination get the better of her, his rebuke is so gentle, yet she and the reader both feel it really strongly.

I could wax lyrical on this book for hours, but I’ll stop now.  After all, I have 2 weeks to read at least 2 more novels, and I’d really like to fit in all of them if I can!

*Rosie Rushton has now written updated versions, aimed at the YA market, of all of Austen’s major novels, with the notable exception of Mansfield Park. From what I have read, she doesn’t intend to do that one, which supports my view that it’s vastly inferior to the other 5! I have read the ones based on Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma and would love to read the other two some time.



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