Thursday, July 8, 2010

Northanger Abbey, Chapters 1-8

I’ve been looking forward to reading Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s parody of 18th century gothic novels, for some time. And since cracking open the spine this week, I’ve been surprised by the amount of fun Austen is clearly having. Though all her novels are parodies, Northanger Abbey parodies not just contemporary society but also the literature of the time -- I think I’m going really like it.

Austen gets things going by introducing Catherine Morland as an unlikely heroine. Her family is kind of wealthy, but not overly, and she’s neither pretty nor very good at anything. She gets prettier as she gets older, which is when we really meet her. She’s also abandoned her childhood activities of sports in favor of reading. The Allens, a rich couple without any children, decide to invite her to go along with them to Bath.

Catherine’s mother isn’t concerned about her daughter leaving, and her father gives her a little money to take along. Though they don’t seem the best of parents, neither are the Allens -- Mrs. Allen is neither smart nor well-mannered, and she’s certainly not beautiful. As we learn when the trio arrives in Bath, she isn’t well acquainted either -- at balls and other events, Mrs. Allen tells Catherine how sorry she is she can’t find a dancing partner for her. Luckily for Catherine, at an event she’s introduced to Henry Tilney, who she immediately has a spark with. He’s handsome and witty, and happens to also be a clergyman (the profession Austen heroines seem to lust after a lot).

Catherine doesn’t see Henry the next day, but she and Mrs. Allen meet some people they know. Mrs. Thorpe went to school with Mrs. Allen, and they meet her three daughters. Catherine hits it off with her eldest daughter, Isabella, and the pair run into their brothers (James Morland and John Thorpe) one day, drawing more people into their social circle. James and Isabella immediately get along, and John seems interested in Catherine as well, asking her to dance in advance of the night’s ball.
But John is late, and Catherine runs into Henry. She has to turn down his request for a dance, as she is previously engaged to John, and she’s annoyed. She doesn’t get another chance to talk to Henry.

Unlike Austen’s other books, so far Northanger Abbey has been set primarily in the social world, with a flurry of balls and events. There’s a larger world to work with here, so it’ll be interesting to see how many people Austen has Catherine and the Allens meet.

A large section of these chapters discuss novels and reading. Austen submits a page-long defense of the novel as a genre (they were associated with lower classes), but of course, she’s riffing on the lowest of the “low” -- the horror novel. The girls are big fans of Gothic horror novels, like The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Catherine is distracted from her daily activities when she’s reading it. She’s even put off when John tells her he doesn’t read novels. Is it a suggestion for contemporary readers to pick better material? Or more than that?

Next week, read Chapters 9-14.

No comments:

Post a Comment