Northanger Abbey Swells With The Joys of The Reading Life

So much for New Year’s resolutions. Here I am two weeks’ behind the ball and with an old post to get out of the way. Trying to reach the midpoint of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons has a way of distracting you from other things, like finishing reviews of books that are a fraction of its length, so without further adieu are my thoughts on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

In light of her sharp wit and eye for social satire, not to mention the tremendous longevity of her books, perhaps there’s nothing more reassuring than what Northanger Abbey reveals about Austen: that for all her progressiveness, she can fall under the spell of a tawdry old murder mystery like any bored old airport reader, for nothing is clearer than Austen’s appreciation of the reading lifestyle in her portrait of a young woman equally liberated and plagued by an overactive imagination and the resistance she encounters from others to her favorite pastime. One could take things even further and see in Northanger Abbey a clear defense of Austen’s labors, given the arguments she makes for the art of fiction, and from whose mouths these arguments originate. Since her argument is buried in a fictitious narrative, it isn’t exactly provocative however, and that’s because Austen knows she’s preaching to the choir. She’s even poking fun at it. Where she ridicules the arrogant blathering of bibliophobe John Thorpe to please avid readers, she also teases any readers prone to daydreaming as much as her protagonist Catherine Morland, whose wandering mind is the source of more tension over the course of the story than any external conflict. In this way, Austen never lets her message outstrip the story, and comes out feeling self-aware rather than self-righteous.

Austen builds on the metatextual aspect of Northanger Abbey immediately, beginning by speaking directly to the reader and introducing her heroine, Catherine Morland, as such. In so doing she calls out her character as a character, which is doubly appropriate once Catherine reveals herself to be a voracious reader just as in love with the idea of being the heroine of one of her favorite novels. Austen has already granted Catherine her wish, but it takes Catherine over half the novel to realize it. She occupies the same headspace as the reader of her story, existing outside the confines of her immediate reality. Because of this, Northanger Abbey risks falling easily into satire – and mocking the possibility of escape – or inspirational mush, by insisting on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. Since this is Austen we’re talking about it does neither, instead remaining loyal to its heroine by letting her invent her own story as she goes from the courting grounds of Bath to the ancient corridors of Northanger Abbey. Austen is able to reveal truths and revel in sensationalism in equal measure by showing the dramatic collision between Catherine’s reality and her imagination, a conflict that is arguably greater than any other plotline present, even the central courtship so emblematic of Austen’s other writing. It’s only once Catherine has secured lodgings at her suitor Henry Tilney’s home (the titular abbey) that she forcefully turns herself into a heroine, finding herself so far removed from her ordinary surroundings that her imagination becomes almost entirely unhinged, inspired to all variety of dark fantasies, and leading her to try solving a mystery entirely of her own creation. This is Austen having her cake and eating it too, going through the motions of her standard courtship plot while flirting with suspicions of betrayal and murder.

Austen’s love and deep respect for the power of storytelling are always on full display. One only need read Catherine’s enthralled reactions to Henry Tilney’s titillating stories of Northanger Abbey’s dark past, or Catherine’s suspicions of General Tilney’s secret malice, to see the attraction of the unknown. Since Austen foregrounds the power of imagination in storytelling, she draws attention to its effects in every plot development, from a white lie John Thorpe tells Catherine to goad her into ditching the Tilneys to James Morland’s heartbroken letter to his sister explaining that his engagement is over. Catherine knows nothing of the truth behind these words, so she acts upon them as if they are the truth. Every story is formed to satisfy the teller’s strongest emotion – Thorpe’s interest in Catherine’s hand, James’s heartbreak – and through the telling earns some amount of truth, bending as it does to the teller’s convictions and Catherine’s ignorance. It’s an entirely human thing to make such claims and assumptions, and Austen merely brings the reader’s attention to the fact.

Fairly little drama occurs until Catherine arrives at Northanger Abbey. So she may pine for Henry Tilney while suppressing the advances of the incorrigible John Thorpe. She does so with relative ease, and quite comically at times, entering Tilney’s orbit and making a strong impression while simultaneously sending John Thorpe the message to hit the road. As important as her coming out in society is, everything about her stay in Bath feels inconsequential, and it’s because of her craving, whether subconscious or not (sometimes it’s not so clear), for danger and adventure that her socializing takes a backseat to her fantasies. After making Catherine’s escapism feel so familiar, Austen can’t help but make a point of showing the dangers of such detachedness, as when Catherine confesses her suspicion that Henry’s father committed an unspeakable crime. A scandalized Henry, to this point characterized as a warm, tolerant person, harshly remonstrates her, wondering where she could’ve got such ideas given her proper English, Christian, educated background. Her criticisms of reading too much into anything, literally or otherwise, come off as self-harming, but remain relevant today with worries over an entertainment-addicted culture.

It’s generally accepted that Northanger Abbey is Austen’s parody of the Gothic novel, skewering the genre’s conventions by confining its melodrama to one impressionable girl’s imagination. Like the best of parodies, it maintains a certain affection for its target, and that’s why any passages made in defense of reading for pleasure can be taken sincerely on Austen’s part. As aware as she is of the Gothic novel’s excesses, Austen can’t help but understand its appeal on a primal level, to the extent that she shows it warping Catherine’s instincts to serve her fantasies, to the detriment of her prospects and position in real life. It may be childish and ill-advised, but damn if it isn’t more interesting.

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