Cannonball Read IV: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
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.)
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