“And what are you reading Miss——?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her books 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. (Vol I, Ch. 5)
Here I am, sneaking in at the very last minute a post for “Austen in August.”
This isn’t because I’ve been avoiding Austen, or a lack of enjoyment, no, the tardiness is entirely of the busyness type; I barely had time to read this month, alas, and so only finished my reread of Northanger Abbey late yesterday. And enjoy it I did. It has been years—at least ten!—since I’ve read the entirety of an Austen (longer for one of the “big six”), and my memory of how delightful they can be didn’t fail me, though I admit to a bit of surprise at how quickly and easily the reading moved along. Which makes the following seem a bit of an odd statement: rereading Northanger Abbey made me feel, as I have so often of late, that I am still not that good of a reader. But this is perhaps not so unexpected once it is known that I read an annotated edition, which was only too happy to point out all the tricks and twists of language that I surely would have missed otherwise. The play of the words “fortunate” or “misfortune” to hint at the high importance of a fortune to so many of the characters. The shifts of meaning in words such as “awful” from the 18th to 19th to 21st centuries. It was obvious, indeed, that Henry Tilney is a pedant, too-overly precise in choice of word or phrase, but the annotations began to make me feel as naïve and ignorant as Catherine Moreland!
But here I’ve run on ahead, tossing out names without so much as a one-line plot summary.
Northanger Abbey is perhaps best known as a parody of the Gothic romances which were greatly popular at the time of its writing (c. 1798-99). Many such are mentioned (including Castle of Wolfenbach, which I confess I only read for its connection to the Austen), and the late-mid section of the novel provides the most direct satirization, in the form of Miss Catherine Moreland, our heroine, letting her overfed-by-Gothic-romances imagination run quite away with her. Yet, setting this section aside, the novel is not unlike any of the other of Austen’s primary novels: more realistic than not, with much of the focus on romances and relationships and characters. As alluded to above in mentioning the wordplay on “fortune,” the marriage market is of utmost importance. While Catherine may be content to let her fancy run free–whether in a Gothic novel or a more mundane romance–many of the surrounding cast are laser focused on marriage as investment and profit-making venture. What chance has a naïve country girl? And indeed, though this is Austen and we may know what to expect of the ending, we discover that the extremes of the Gothic romance Austen so fondly teases may have found appeal in the very real dangers that could befall an unprotected–or unmoneyed–young woman.
Even had I read this without annotations (which despite my inferiority complex, were actually quite helpful), I would have concluded much the same as I recently did with Beowulf: I don’t know enough of the context. I’ve only read two of the Gothic novels Austen might have known, the aforementioned Wolfenbach, and The Castle of Otranto. I think perhaps a wider reading–especially of Ann Radcliffe–would give me a better context. For that matter, reading more of Austen’s near-contemporaries–Richardson, Burney–must surely be helpful as well. As I’m finding so often of late, every book I read seems to pull me into a more complex web, with many strands leading to and from it. But surely, these are the best books to read, the ones that intertwine so that the richness of the experience can only grow the deeper we venture.