Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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Cannonball Read IV: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

By BoatGirl | Book Reviews | November 15, 2012 | Comments ()


Jane Austen is one of the funniest authors ever to write about high school.

Wait, you say she doesn't write about high school? Don't quibble, that's only because high school hadn't been invented yet when she was alive. The smart set heading off to the Pump Room in Bath every morning to see what sort of "quizzes" they can see is exactly like study hall, walking along Bond Street is totally cruising, and riding out in curricles is road tripping if ever I tripped. Discussions of gothic novels play quite a role, where today it might be tv or movies.

Northanger Abbey is the story of the new kid (Catherine) in school (regency era Bath). Catherine is sweet, dim, mildly-attractive and really into gothic novels, not schoolbooks like history. She is excited to visit Bath with family friends, the Allens, as Mrs. Allen's companion while Mr. Allen takes the waters.

Once there, she greatly enjoys gossiping with her new mean-girl friend Isabella, finding out what the cool clothes are, going to dances and avoiding a gross boy (Isabella's brother John). She majorly crushes on mischievous Mr. Tilney and becomes friends with his sister Eleanor.

OK, enough of the metaphor, but I feel it is apt because while reading the book, I kept visualizing people I'd known in high school. Austen excels in straight-facedly describing her characters traits as admirable, when they are full of self-centeredness, immaturity and stupidity. Even many of the adults seem like teenagers to me, especially General Tilney, who whines and makes everyone miserable if he doesn't get his way, while assuring them that everything he does is for them.

The language can be difficult to adjust to for the modern reader not accustomed to the style, but it is worth soldiering on and acclimating for some of the funniest scenes ever put on paper. The description of Catherine and Isabella's friendship is a timeless classic; they would likely be called frenemies today. Catherine's disappointment in finding Northanger Abbey to be a fully-renovated, comfortable home instead of a creaky, damp, haunted house is hilarious, especially as she has been essentially punked by Mr. Tilney, who is fully aware of her love for gothic.

Northanger Abbey may not be Jane Austen's most famous novel, but readers will recognize their friends and frenemies in the characters and enjoy a witty plot.

( Header image by Janet Lee from the graphic novel version.)

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of BoatGirl’s reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Kelly Anne Williams

    Northanger Abbey is actually my favourite Austen book. As a reader of an oft-ridiculed genre (romance), I love that Austen is riffing on gothics--the oft-ridiculed genre of her day. And I love Catherine, the dreamer in Austen's bullpen of Sensible Ladies.

  • Guest

    It's way up there for me, too.

  • duckandcover

    Re: the language. A lot of the republished books are now equipped with footnotes or other annotated weapons for the reader to tackle the language. I love a good Austen, but it took me a while to understand why it was so funny in P&P that Lady de Bourgh and Mr. Collins used "condescend" incorrectly, as well as many other society- and time-specific idioms peppered throughout the book.

  • Guest

    Yes, this. Scholarly editions all the way: Oxford World Classics, Penguin Classics, or Broadview.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    I've read & re-read Austen every year. She's my go-to when I don't know what else to read.

    I studied this book when I took a "Birth of the Novel" class in grad school. One of the things that fascinates me is that Austen (and the Brontes) were exploring what was pretty much a new genre (hence the name of my class). And compared to "Pamela" or any of those other early novels, these were actually entertaining.

  • All Austen fans should read William Deresiewicz's book "A Jane Austen Education". It's all about how he discovered Austen in graduate school and realized that they aren't all about love and finding a husband. Definitely worth a look.

  • ang

    What a coincidence! I JUST finished reading this yesterday. It's the first time I ever read anything by Austen and really enjoyed it. To me, the language was so pretty I found myself almost wishing people still talked like that.

  • Stephen Nein

    I'd rather be shot with a cattle bolt than read Jane Austen - but that drawing is simply to die for.

  • BWeaves

    Gah! She's 10 times better than the Brontes. At least Austen is FUNNY, on purpose.

  • duckandcover

    I've been trudging through Wuthering Heights for months and I want to scream.

  • mswas

    Is that because of chasitymoody's great review?

  • duckandcover

    It's not necessarily because of it, but her review embodies everything I hate about that book, sans the amount of profanities I'd like to put to text. Everyone being a "selfish asshole" is exactly correct. No one's redeemable; you don't want to root for anyone, you just want them to die so the book's over. It's terrible.

  • lonolove

    This was my least favorite of all Jane Austen's novels. It seemed very immature, and the whole 'gothic house' plot sounded much more interesting on the back of the jacket blurb then when I was actually reading it. If you want a high school plot there is nothing better than "Emma" (or the movie Clueless, as it was later called).

  • BWeaves

    It should seem immature. It was the first novel she completed. It just wasn't published until after her death.

    Gothic novels were all the rage when she was writing. However, Austen was making fun of them by having a heroine who was sure Northanger Abbey was one of these gothic horror houses, and it turned out to be nothing of the kind.

    P&P is still my all time favorite of Austen's novels.

  • Guest

    Making fun of the novels, and making fun of its fans. Austen, despite being hella imaginative as a writer, mistrusted "bad" imagination like a lot of her contemporaries did; she wrote a very programmatic novel on the subject. NA is Austen-as-scold, but she does it so well...

    I've read ALL the "horrid novels" Catherine talks about (it's a sickness)--in fact I teach 'The Necromancer' to undergrads, which goes over pretty well, considering. Those books are a lark and a half. And not bereft of good didactic nourishment, either. Ironically 'The Necromancer' has the same moral as NA--beware flights of fancy and unrestrained imagination, which leave one vulnerable to con artists and superstition--which suggests Austen may never have actually read it (but I haven't verified that in her letters and bios...).

  • lonolove

    Yup. Right there with you, buddy. After reading the book I felt there was a reason it wasn't published in her lifetime, and it's because it was her weakest work.

  • I think Austen pulled a fast one on you. The Gothic is a read herring. Catherine was too busy worrying about Gothic dangers that she never saw the true danger: money. Because Austen actually isn't a romance novelist at all. She's an accountant with a better grasp of grammar and syntax than you or I have.

    Also, this novel has one of my favorite Austen lines: "I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter." (My other favorite is from Mansfield Park: "I have looked across the ha–ha till I am weary.")

  • lonolove

    Haha! I got it (especially as all of her novels deal with money), but that didn't make the character any less maddening to read, with her snooping and childish fixation on stumbling upon some gothic mystery. I had the feeling of watching "The Office" when I read this book...y'know when you get reallllly embarrassed for someone else and it's painful to watch?

  • BWeaves

    The more things change, the more things stay the same. You're totally right about Northanger Abbey being just like high school. I guess that's why Clueless (Emma) was such a success. Austen makes a lot of fun at the expense of the gothic novels that were popular at the time.

  • I second the Jane Austen love. Never thought that I would care for it, and then was forced to read Pride and Prejudice for an undergrad lit class. Read it straight through in one sitting. She's one of the best authors I've ever read, although I cannot for the life of me describe the plot of one of her novels and make it sound interesting. It's all in the characters.

  • TOB

    My seventh grade English teacher kept telling me I would love Austen but I was a science fiction snob who wanted nothing to do with books about governesses. I finally read Pride and Prejudice years later and have always regretted that I never had the chance to tell him how right he had been.

  • Guest

    Characters and commentary. Oy, so loaded.

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