Book Review: Northanger Abbey

Pride and Prejudice and Emma, two of Jane Austen’s other books rank as two of my favorite novels of all time. Recently I remembered that I’ve owned a tattered copy of Northanger Abbey for years, but I hadn’t actually read it yet. Honestly there’s no better time to visit Austen’s world than the holidays when I crave comforts in the form of food, clothes and entertainment. The book was predictably delightful, as I assumed it would be.

“But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”

Northanger Abbey (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993), p. 7

While Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen’s novels – completed and sold in 1803 – the book wasn’t published until 1818, after the author had passed away. The book has a very particular tone and perspective that isn’t present in some of Austen’s other works, presumably because she continued to morph her style as she wrote. At times, the author is “in” the book as an omniscient narrator, while other times the reader forgets the all-knowing voice.

What makes Northanger Abbey particularly interesting is that it simultaneously pokes fun at the girly shallowness of the novels of Austen’s contemporaries, while ultimately echoing that genre of novels. Austen actually references Ann Radcliffe’s work, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), multiple times throughout her story as she explains the emotional reactions of her own heroine, Catherine Morland. Unfortunately I haven’t yet read Radcliffe’s novels, so I’m sure some of the positive references and/or passive aggressive comments toward Udolpho were lost in my ignorance of the work.

Because of my preexisting love for Austen’s other works, reading Northanger Abbey was like sitting down for tea with an old friend; warm, comforting and safe. The character Catherine is painfully naive in her friendships and relationships in a way that reminded me of myself when I was younger. I grew up fairly sheltered and to a great extent, blissfully unaware of ulterior motives and heartbreak. I saw a teenage version of myself in Catherine, which reminded me of the joys of youth as well as the sombre feeling when as humans we inevitably become aware that no one is fully pure of heart, but true friends are full of grace and forgiveness.

Some may say that Austen’s novels are full of fluff, but I think they are far more full of underlying truth and honesty of the world we live in than many modern novels. Austen wrote from a simple point of view of character analysis that is occasionally harsh as it shows the reader a reflection of their own flaws, yet more often comforting in how Austen’s characters model (for the most part) positive interpersonal skills and the ability to navigate relationships for the better.

This book may be for you if you also like: Pride and Prejudice (the book, 1813 or the movie, 2005); Emma (the book, 1815 or the movie, 1996); Mansfield Park (the book, 1814 or the movie, 1999); presumably also Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (although I haven’t yet read those titles); Becoming Jane (movie 2007); British provincial life; muslin dresses; the 19th century; Bath, England; tea; laughing while you read.


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