Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

I'm fortunate enough to be teaching ENGL 200B in September, and one of our texts will be Jane Austen's semi-satiric faux-Gothic novel Northanger Abbey. (The BBC version is okay, but its additional plot twists and timeline manipulation are unnecessary and unhelpful, even if the changes relieve the filmed version from having to account for all the novel's metafictional commentary on novels and readership.) I've always liked this novel, this being approximately my fifth reading of it over the last two decades (call me Grandpa!), and unsurprisingly I continue to like it.

Not a lot of point to throwing additional e-ink at Northanger Abbey, really, given the vast amounts of material out there on it, and given the scary persistence of Jane-ites the world over, but a few things come to mind.

First, I'm going to be interested to see how the novel's bookish in-jokes come across. Much of Northanger Abbey's humour has to do with books that the main characters, especially Catherine Morland, have read, and that the novel's initial readers would be expected to have read as well. The conventions of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction aren't as current for young readers as they were in Austen's time, and while the novel version of Twilight touches on many of those conventions, the movie strips away some of the useful ones (replacing Edward's mildly creepy old house, for example, with an airy modern glass confection). Maybe the Goose Bumps series will help, I don't know yet.

Second, it's going to be interesting to see how ready students are to separate social commentary from personal qualities, representative characters from complex characters from actual people. Catherine Morland is basically a decent young woman who nonetheless goes off the rails in some ways and is corrected for it; Henry Tilney appears a bit flighty in some ways but turns out to be more serious than that; General Tilney, well, what's up with that? It's not a novel about the silliness of girls, though several of them in the novel are silly. It's not a novel proposing a naturally sober seriousness among men, though the good men in the novel are mostly that way. Determining the precise target of humour isn't always easy for newer readers, and it's harder when satire's involved.

And third, Austen is so superb at drawing the rotten little characters that they can be unpleasant to spend much time with. For my money the most horrifying character in Austen is, from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, the version of Mr. Collins played by David Bambers. Here, the Thorpe siblings give Bambers' Collins some competition, and I look forward to seeing how students respond to them.

Great book, but you've probably heard that already. The plotting's a bit peculiar, and the moral of the story inconsistent, since Austen can be assumed never to have quite finished it up the way she might have wanted to, but really a fun little book.


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