Monday, April 15, 2013

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

He went; and, it being at any time a much simpler operation to Catherine to doubt her own judgment than Henry's, she was very soon obliged to give him credit for being right, however disagreeable to her his going.  But the inexplicability of the General's conduct was much on her thoughts.  That he was very particular in his eating, she had, by her own unassisted observation, already discovered; but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most accountable!  How were people, at that rate, to be understood?

I reviewed Northanger Abbey on this blog a few years ago, and you can read my longer thoughts on it at the link, which I find have changed very little.  The Gothic parody bits, in which Catherine Morland lets herself be carried away by her imagination in the titular residence, are still a lot of great fun.  Now that I know more about the Gothic tradition, I can say with absolute sureness that they're a whole lot more fun than what they're parodying.  (Although, at one point Catherine and her Gothic-loving friend Isabella Thorpe discuss what they thought of The Monk--which proves how negligent their parents really are!)  And the rest of the novel, which is so much about crushes and frenemies that it might be an episode of Gossip Girl, is a lot of fun, too.

Having reviewed it once, I won't make this review too long, but I do want to note one thing that, the second time through, I think the novel is doing: It seems to me that Northanger Abbey is a kind of novel of education, in which Catherine learns to exercise her own interpretive faculty when it comes to what people say.  That is, she learns is that people often say one thing and mean another (you can see her still mystified by it in the passage above);  Sometimes, in the case of Isabella Thorpe, who claims to be in love with Catherine's brother while all the while scheming to "trade up" to a wealthy cavalry officer, this is called a lie.  Other times, in the case of Henry Tilney, who teases her with playful questions and jokes, this is called irony.

I've talked about Austen's ironic sense in the past, and I think that Northanger shows that Austen wasn't merely interested in irony as a tool but as a mode of living.  Henry is Catherine's instructor in this sense:

'I see what you think of me,' said he gravely--'I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.'

'My journal!'

'Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings--plain black shoes--appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed my by his nonsense.'

'Indeed I shall say no such thing.'

'Shall I tell you what you ought to say?'

'If you please.'

'I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him--seems a most extraordinary genius--hope I may know more of him.  That, madam, is what I wish you to say.'

'But, perhaps, I keep no journal.'

'Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you.  These are points in which a doubt is equally possible.  Not keep a journal!  How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one!'

It's Henry's gentle ironies, I believe, that teach Catherine to be aware of the grosser, yet subtler discrepancies between what is said and what is true.  That's why Austen sticks in the seemingly incongruous Gothic parody; it is just another example of Catherine needing to see that difference.

In the class I'm taking on 19th-Century Lit, we focused a lot of Henry's character, and his role as an "educator" particularly.  It's a role he relishes, to the diminishment of Catherine, who Austen memorably describes as having an "affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind."  You can let that trouble you if you wish (it did my professor), but Austen's satire here is so light it's hard to get up-in-arms about Henry's mansplaining.  So light, in fact, it's hard to shake the impression that, if not for the parody, Northanger Abbey would be even more heavily overshadowed by toothier siblings like Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

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