Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 2 and Wrap-Up

N.B.--As this is my final post on Northanger Abbey, the entire novel is fair game, so be warned: spoilers ahead for those of you who may not have finished.

Well, that was charming, wasn't it?

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but a charming novel--especially one that doesn't wear out its welcome--is not something to be underestimated. It's certainly not Austen's densest or most complicated work, but it's no less enjoyable for being relatively simple and straightforward. Indeed, Catherine meets Henry almost immediately, and, save for the ham-fisted interference of the odious John Thorpe, no real obstacle to their eventual union presents itself until the very end, at which point, as even the author concedes shortly thereafter in a different context, there are too few pages left in the book to believe the General's interference will long prevent Catherine and Henry's engagement. Moreover, the relative lack of side characters (there are really only five or six characters who actions shape the plot) or subplots (James and Isabella are the only "mirror couple" in the novel, and we barely see them, cf. Jane and Bingley, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, etc.) makes Northanger both a good introduction to Austen's works, but also a poor representative of them.

However, there are three things that I think Northanger has that truly set it apart: namely, Henry Tilney, General Tilney, and Catherine herself. The other main characters--Eleanor and Isabella, chiefly--reiterate themselves in the later works, with Eleanor arguably morphing over time into Anne Elliot of Persuasion. Henry, the General, and Catherine, however, strike me as more or less unique in Austen.

Let's start with Henry. From the moment we meet him, Henry is, aside from being fairly handsome, witty, cynical, sarcastic, arch, charming, and just about perfect. That last point is important because, unlike later Austen heroes, Henry's character never presents any obstacle for either the heroine or the plot to overcome, save the fact that he seems to delay proposing to Catherine just long enough for the General to pitch a fit. He even knows about muslins, which makes Mrs. Allen like him immediately. Indeed, the exchange about muslins is typically Henry--he displays a knowledge not necessarily expected from one of his station (see also his love of Gothic novels), while also commenting on it quite archly, but also revealing his kindness and goodness.

In this instance, his knowledge of muslins--and the fact that he makes it clear he knows them for his sister's sake--gives us a very good picture of his role in his sister's life. Our later time at Northanger Abbey completes the picture. Obviously, since her mother died at thirteen, Eleanor has been very much alone. Unlike similarly situated young women in other Austen novels, Eleanor has neither sister(s) nor nearby friend(s) nor any sort of companion, paid or otherwise. What she has is Henry. And Henry, being a genuinely good and caring man, isn't afraid to learn about "feminine" things like muslin--or Gothic novels--if it means he can bring happiness to his sister. Henry is, therefore, a combination of circumstance and innate character, and much of his personality can be read as a direct response against his father's.

But this quality of kindness toward a much beloved sister--a trait shared by at least one author Austen hero and evinced in others--is counterbalanced by an archness and tendency toward sarcasm that is unique among her heroes. Like a male Elizabeth Bennet, Henry Tilney combines the soul of a gentleman with vivacity, wit, and charm. The feasibility of combining all of these qualities together in one person is a question that Austen will return to, especially in Mansfield Park, but she never again does so via the hero's personality the same way she does with Henry.  

Also unique in Austen is the role General Tilney plays. The good (sic) General is a male authority figure who a) takes an active interest in his children's lives and 2) plays the part of the older villain. To take the second point first (because it's my blog and I want to), Austen often has an older character who either actively or accidentally conspires to keep the hero and heroine apart. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the most famous example of this character type, but variations appear in many of her books, though, with the exception of the General, they are all female. This ties in with my first point about him, namely, that he is very interested in his children's lives and their marital futures. Again, this is not uncommon--Mrs. Bennet shares this trait, and Mrs. Norris is constantly matchmaking. However, again, General Tilney is the only male authority figure who exerts the power of the patriarch to play a key role in determining his children's fate...until we come to Sir Thomas Bertram, about whom much more much later. The General, however, is much more in the Mrs. Norris/Lady Catherine mold--a meddling, petty person who wants to control his children's lives, but who can ultimately be overcome by the power of love and titles. Sir Thomas is sui generis in that he is, alternately, both and ally and opponent of our heroine and goes on quite the journey himself. But, as I said, more on him later.

The General, however, along with the Thorpes, does represent a real threat to our heroine's happiness, and, in that sense, much be viewed as the villain of the piece. The Thorpes, mainly because they are so bad at what they do and they have so little power of their own, are in fact quite pitiable in some ways and are almost too pathetic to be real villains. In the General, however, Austen portrays a true obstacle to her happy ending. And as a final twist on her Gothic parody, Austen has the General strike just as Catherine had lost her final illusion about the world's similarities to Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Following Henry's very sobering speech, Catherine resolves to live in the real world, where people live by laws and codes of conduct--and then the General turns her from the house in a manner that must be strikingly rude even to modern readers. At the time of the novel's writing, his treatment of Catherine would have appeared even more vicious considering the fact that he forces her from the house on a Sunday and makes her travel all day. At a time when Sundays consisted of two separate church services and very little else, missing both and travelling all day was certainly not behavior for a young lady to engage in. Therefore, not only is he a bad host, but the General is a bad Christian. While he didn't lock up or murder his wife, he does violate any number of social mores, associates with unsavory types (how else does one encounter John Thorpe in London?), and shows a coldness toward his only daughter that justifies Catherine's judgment of him not being fundamentally a very nice man. Catherine learns--and perhaps Henry does, too--that while Gothic tales are not to be confused with reality, the real world is full of enough wicked men and deceptive women to fill any three volume novel.

Which leaves us only with Catherine. Catherine gets short shrift from Austen devotees--and while I'd like to say she's my favorite, I'd rather not lie to all two of you reading this. Catherine is very young when she sets out for Bath--indeed, we see glimpses of her in childhood in the opening passages, which is not something we see from the other heroines--and even by the end, Catherine feels, if more mature, still rather...unfinished. The extent to which women are completed by, shaped by, and educated by the men in their lives--particularly their husbands--is another motif that floats through Austen. For readers most familiar with Pride & Prejudice, this may come as something of a surprise, because Lizzie and Darcy rather complete each other. However, that is only one variant of the dynamics Austen is exploring, and in Northanger, we see another: namely, Catherine is still quite young, and while she has a good amount of independence of mind and a strong moral center, much of her continued development will clearly be guided and shaped by her marriage to Henry. Catherine at twenty-seven or thirty-seven will be a very different person from the girl of seventeen who accepts Henry's hand, in a way that doesn't seem to be as true for other Austen heroines--though, as she often does, Austen complicates this scenario in several of her books. However, discussions of those books' heroines will have to wait at least a little longer.

And that's Northanger Abbey. To be honest, even when I'm reading Northanger, it's not my favorite Austen. Though it does have some of my favorite moments in Austen (every novel of hers has at least some of those), and it features my favorite Austen hero in Henry Tilney (God, he makes Darcy look downright dull), as reference above, it simply feels slighter to me than her best work does. The literary parody, while well done from a comic perspective, isn't quite engaging enough, and the comparative simplicity of the story means that the second half of the novel feels somewhat anti-climactic. Once it's clear that Henry loves Catherine, which happens pretty much as soon as they arrive at Northanger, the rest feels unimportant. While I feel bad for the fictional James Morland, his broken engagement to Isabella never really touches on the main story-line. Austen would, I feel, learn from this and structure later books in such a way that the actions of the secondary characters (Lydia, Frank Churchill, even Maria Bertram-Rushworth) would directly impact our heroes and heroines. Still, as my senior thesis adviser once wrote, "Jane Austen wrote a perfect number of perfect novels," and while I find Northanger's perfection to be of a lesser nature, it is still a perfect book, and one I am sure I will return to before long to read for the n+1th time.

At some point, I'll do a separate post on the two filmed adaptations of Northanger, as well as revisiting Bath before ending the year there with Persuasion. But, for now, it's time to looks ahead to our next book: Sense & Sensibility, as the Misses Dashwood accompany us through spring.

Don't forget: @Austen2014 & #Austen2014. Or follow my personal account; @sjcAustenite.

2 comments:

  1. I don't know about your other reader, but I certainly enjoyed your enjoyment of Henry Tilney - thank you. I'm skipping ahead a bit I know, but when you come to it I'd be especially interested to read your views on Marianne Dashwood's "extraordinary fate".

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  2. Believe me--I have plenty of thoughts on Marianne. So. Many. Thoughts.

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