Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Finally...Jane Austen

Take a turn about the room with me as we discuss Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen's novels to be completed for publication (She had begun work on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice). It seems Miss Austen begins a theme in this novel which she carries out through all her novels - prejudice in wealth and family background.

Overall I enjoyed the story but found it a little predictable. I've only read two other Austen novels: Mansfield Park (years ago in high school) and Pride and Prejudice so I found it easy to compare Lizzy Bennett's pride to Catherine Morland's naivete.

When we meet Catherine she is a 17-year old going on holiday with her family's wealthier and childless neighbors to Bath. There she befriends the Thorpes - whose mother is a childhood friend of Mrs. Allen (her guardian). James Thorpe is also the college friend of Catherine's brother, John. She also meets a Henry Tilney and is quite taken by his civility, wit and kindness - not to mention his good looks. He later introduces her to his sister and they strike up a deep friendship.

Catherine has a penchant for Gothic novels. In our story she is wrapped up in another novel written by Mrs. Radcliffe-Udolpho. It seems Catherine has a hard time separating herself from reality and her romanticized world of 16th century France and Italy. While she is visiting the Tilney's home She imagines Northanger Abbey to be a mansion of mystery, mayhem and murder believing General Tilney to be the culprit in his wife's demise.

Catherine's own mother calls her a "little shatter-brained creature." But, not until the final three chapters did I begin to appreciate and see the maturing of this young woman. And as Austen herself states, at the very end, that the trials brought on by the Thorpes and General Tilney's "interference" were "rather conducive to improving their [Henry's and Catherine's] knowledge of each other and adding strength to their attachment."

One can't but help read Austen's opinion of money, wealth, titles, rules of love, etc. Those who stand for status over love are disdained and pitied, while those true to fairness, goodness and love are esteemed. I wonder if there is any equivalent in my world?

Have you ever met two more passive-aggressive characters than Isabella and John Thorpe? Oh, tie me down, they were so annoying. How Catherine attached herself to those two...well, it was by default really - John was her brother's friend and Isabella the daughter of an old friend of Mrs. Allen. She was destined to have a relationship with them. But how she endured their rudeness and effrontery at every turn!

I do have to credit Catherine for seeing through Isabella's artifice - explaining her abhorrence [only after he slighted he] toward Captain Tilney and pleading with Catherine to write to James on her behalf.
"So much for Isabella, she cried, and for all her intimacy! She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so; but perhaps this has served to make her character better known to me than mine is to her. I see what she has been about. She is a vain coquette..."
Catherine didn't start out as the great Austen heroine. But Henry, ahh, there was a fine gentleman (and a clergyman to boot!).
Her partner [Henry] now drew near, and said, "That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he stayed with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me. We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both,; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with partners or wives of their neighbours.... You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal, that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that is their duty, each to endeavor to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.
I couldn't help think, especially during a particular dialogue between Henry, Catherine and Miss Tilney that Miss Austen was editorializing her disdain for publishers and condemning their critique of the novel (particularly hers)
....But you never read novels, I dare say?"
"Why not?"
"Because they are not clever enough for you - gentlemen read better books."
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, mus be intolerably stupid. "
I especially appreciated Austen's take on homeschooling. Did you catch it?
'You think me [Catherine] foolish to call instruction a torment, but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and them learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonymous words.'
Again, Austen's admiration for the maternal:
'A mother would have been always present. A mother would have been a constant friend; her influence would have been beyond all other.
I was more aware, while reading this particular Austen novel, that I was reading with a 20th (in this 21st century) century mindset - disheartened with the expectations of the female mind and ridiculing the rules of civility. This saddened me. I wanted to read this with an untarnished view of the 19th century woman.

I have to say, also, that the story was typical-Austen: Young woman with some-what astute mind and of character meets a man from a well-established, fortune-rich family. They dance, walk the woods and slowly fall in love but the question of their background and discrepancies in their family's fortune may drive them apart. Another suitor, of questionable character, seeks to destroy their relationship. Misunderstandings abound but true love is discovered, embraced and bound in marriage. Hoo, hum!

So I'll conclude with a question: what is it about Jane Austen that is so alluring? Why can I read/watch anything Jane Austen, anytime, anywhere, over and over again and never tire of it? Is it the romance, the independent spirit of the heroine, the witticisms, the history, the congeniality and civility and yet preposterous rules of society? I will use Austen's own words why her novels are so captivating:
...only some work 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.

P.S. Now, tell me what you thought of the book AND what book is for next month. I'm interested in Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


Marti Smith said...

Good post, Barb - I like the quotes you chose!

I don't know how fair it is to judge a book written so long ago and was followed by so many others for not being original enough, for being too much like those that followed?

I suppose you are right that it is not her most mature work.

I think Northanger Abbey is my favorite. Why? Is it her little digs about what can happen to young ladies who spend too much time with their noses in books? An interesting conversation to have with an author. And I can (also) relate to Catherine's trouble dealing with real people and setting appropriate boundaries, etc.

No, I don't know why Austen is so alluring. Hope some of your many readers will stop by and share their perspectives.

Hearsong said...

I am also a "Jane-ite." I wonder if her appeal to women worldwide is her timeless portrayal of the female character. Certain aspects of being a young girl of 17 or so never change. I, for one, love to get caught up in another century, another culture, and another socioeconomic group. Even though feminists would like to deny it, I think most young girls still long to be noticed for their beauty, to be validated for their minds, and to be in a happy, loving marriage (not an unhappy arranged one).

As for the Jane Austen films, I can never get enough of the English landscapes and architecture and the beautiful costumes.

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

Thanks Hearsong, for joining in. I agree about the costumes, architecture and landscapes. It is an escape to watch these movies.

Heartsong said...

I was glad to find your blog via the link at Accidental Pastor's Wife. I'm looking forward to reading your stuff regularly. We have several common interests.

In my excitement to respond to your Jane Austen post, I made a typo on my online name. It's Heartsong. Oops!

Orrange said...

i didn't read this one, i've just been caught up in other things. My reading has been limited lately.
But I'd be interested in Infidel.

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

Thanks heartsong!

And thanks Courtney for joining in.

Marcie said...

Thanks for your post!
I guess you are right - Jane Austen's books are a bit predictable in the overall sense of Happily Ever After. Besides that, I think Northanger Abbey is a wonderful and a unique book. In a time of gothic novels, Jane Austen writes a satire of a young lady whose imagination gets the better of her. And, even more interesting, Austen writes her satire in response to a book by another female author in a day when women authors were few and far between. Yet, in Northanger Abbey, love prevails and Catherine finds love to be far more interesting than childish notions.
What fun!