Saturday, September 24, 2011

Northanger Abbey

Most adults with a passion for literature are familiar with the experience of re-reading a favorite novel and discovering it to not be exactly as remembered. Until a few days ago, I was convinced that could not happen for me with any of Jane Austen's novels, which are so familiar that they are my book version of comfort food.

Then I read The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe's 1794 gothic romantic mystery that features prominently in Austen's Northanger Abbey. I was inspired to do so while watching the film version of The Jane Austen Book Club, in which the sole male member of the group astonishes the female members by disclosing he read Udolpho prior to their NA discussion. Immediately upon finishing Udolpho, I picked up NA and within the first few pages began to feel as if I had discovered an entirely new Austen novel! These insights, I'm sure, would be nothing new to serious students of Austen, but I'm a mere consumer of her work, content to enjoy it rather than analyze. Before reading Udolpho, I considered NA the least interesting of Austen's novels, with a trite plot and relatively silly main character. After Udolpho, I discovered Jane Austen, pioneer and literary critic.

NA is indeed a markedly different novel from Austen's other five. Not only the shortest of Austen's novels, it is the one least concerned with the romantic interests of the characters. The hero, if he may be called such, is lightly sketched; we learn little of his motives or personality, nor do we have any explanation of Catherine's attraction to him, aside from him being the first eligible man she meets in Bath. In the final pages, the reader is told that Henry Tilney's attachment to Catherine is simply a result of Catherine favoring him first, upon which Austen comments, "It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity."

Austen left few letters or personal writings to shed light on her own thoughts and personality. In my post-Udolpho reading of NA, I felt as if I finally glimpsed the woman behind the pen. Some critics might frown upon the novelist's revealing herself in this way, but it is a true delight for her fans.

Udolpho is a gothic romance that was hugely popular in Austen's time. Several of her NA characters discuss it at great length and read it with pleasure; Catherine is so influenced by Udolpho and similar books that she fancies such mysteries and adventures might be available to her if she can manage a visit to a suitable ancient edifice.

Throughout NA, Austen contrasts Catherine's mild adventures with the outrageous ones of the gothic heroines. For example, on Catherine's journey to Bath, "Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen's side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless."

Before reading Udolpho, I missed the humor in that passage, having no experience with gothic romances, in which travel is a peril causing a heroine to lose her way, be threatened by bandits, get caught in a storm, exhaust her horse, be rescued by a handsome stranger, or in a really good adventure, all of those events at once!

Later in NA, the fanciful Catherine conceded that her uncritical reading of such novels had caused her imagination to run free during her stay at Northanger Abbey, which proved to not be a castle of secret passages and hidden chambers, and its owner was not a murderous villain. But this realization does not entirely dispel Catherine's fantasies; she recalled that the events in Udolpho occurred elsewhere, in southern France and Italy.
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. ... But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and the Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.
The contrasts Austen draws between her characters and story with the fanciful ones in the novels her characters read reminds me of Mark Twain's essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". Twain pokes fun at Cooper's The Deerslayer:

Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."
Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.
Although pointedly keeping her characters firmly rooted in the believable world in contrast with those she parodies, Austen refrains from making the sort of mirth of their writing follies that Twain enjoys at Cooper's expense. She is setting herself apart from the excesses of the romantic genre, but she spiritedly defends her fellow novelists, addressing the reader directly:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
She then describes the usual reaction from characters in a novel upon discovering another character reading one:
"And what are you reading, Miss -- ?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; 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.
There we have it. Austen has a purpose beyond parody in Northanger Abbey. She is elevating her craft, putting her audience on notice that she intends to convey through fiction insights they may have expected to find only in the pages of philosophy or the critical journals of the day. Entertainment need not be at cross purposes with art and intelligent illumination of the human condition. Austen intends to do both, and she succeeded, first in Northanger Abbey (although it was not actually published until after her death) and then brilliantly in the five novels to follow.

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