Classic Book Review: Northanger Abbey

The first book that my new book club read was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though it was first manuscript that Austin completed in 1803, it was not published until after her death fourteen years later. It follows the story  of Katherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl who is spirited away to Bath by her wealthier neighbors. We follow her as she navigates new friendships and budding romances, eventually realizing that not everyone has the best of intentions.

Katherine as a Protagonist

I could identify a lot with Katherine, because even at 28 years old, I struggle with the naivete of trying to see the best in people. Even if I don’t trust someone to behave appropriately personal, moral reasons, I fall into the trap of thinking that they will act reasonably purely out of self-interest to not create problems for themselves  and make unnecessary enemies. More often than not I am proven false, that people think they can partake in immoral behavior and believe nothing bad will come of it.

I could see a lot of myself in Katherine, how when one has lived such a sheltered childhood and adolescence, it is near-impossible to even conceive that someone is knowingly acting with premeditated ill intentions.

The Menace of Novels

One of Katherine’s major weaknesses is her overindulgent imagination, which causes her to presume the worst of General Tinley, hardly a generous man, but not a murderer. This inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality was considered a serious social problem when novels began to gain popularity in Austen’s time. Novels were deemed course and common, and the romanticism that many of them advocated was a sharp disruption to the classical notions of honor and duty.

“Novels took the noble pleasure of reading and made it something quick and dirty. They told exciting stories in simple prose, not poetry. Their heroes were not kings or demigods, but maidservants and mariners, who instead of going on magical quests faced the inward challenges that readers knew from their own lives.”

Leo Benedictus

I was fascinated with the theme of novel reading in the story, mailing because we seem the same debates about literature happening in our time. One can compare the disdain for novels back then to the literary snobbery we see today with the dichotomy between literary fiction and commercial fiction, or traditional vs self-publishing.

Criticism

If there is anything that I didn’t like about the novel, it was its pacing. Northanger Abbey is hailed as Austen’s big parody on Gothic literature, yet only a fraction of the book takes place at the seemingly spooky manor house. It’s almost as if the book should exist as two books (or at least two equal-sized parts in one book), with one part showing Katherine’s time in Bath and the other half showing her solving the “mysteries” of Northanger Abbey. The actual abbey part felt rather rushed and I wished Austen would have fleshed that part out more.

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