Review: Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)

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The last Austen novel I read was Emma; it had a high standard to live up to, because the BBC’s recent(ish) adaptation with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller is one of my favourite four hours of television. Yet all that I loved about the TV series was to be found in the novel. Another favourite piece of costume drama is ITV’s Northanger Abbey, with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild (it was this that got me excited early on for Jones’ part in Rogue One). It’s light and knowing, fond of its characters, and beautifully presented.

I’m also usually quite happy to read the source material for TV series or movies after having seen the derivative product; on the other hand, I can be more picky when it’s a book I’ve loved, and I’m not certain the adaptation will live up to expectations. But generally, being a fan of medieval texts, I am quite accustomed to variation between versions, to the storyteller’s right to their own preferences, and to the idea that even changes that I might not much like can happen for a good reason. With this stated, I’ll admit early on that I still prefer the ITV adaptation’s script to the young Austen’s first novel; I think that those behind its adaptation are a little more fond of the characters than Austen herself appears to be.(1)

What struck me most in reading Northanger Abbey was that the positioning of Catherine as the heroine was about the character’s perception of the world, rather than about Austen’s decision to make her a protagonist. Perhaps that’s the most blindingly obvious thing one could say, but I’ve been familiar with the opening about Catherine’s potential for heroic stature for some time, although had no context in which to fit it until now. Eleanor Tilney is surely the novel’s real tragic, suffering ‘heroine’; but Catherine takes all the information she gets from Eleanor about Mrs Tilney’s death and Catherine never thinks of what this might have been like for Eleanor as the heroine of her own story. Instead it is all refracted through Catherine’s own perception of the world, in which she is the heroine. Similarly, when we learn of Eleanor’s own romantic troubles at the close of the novel, satisfactorily resolved with the surprise acquisition of a fortune and a title, it fits the pattern of the stories that Austen is gently mocking in a better way than Catherine and Henry’s swift, dutiful professions of love.

Apologies if that reads more like an undergraduate essay than normal; I realise that Austen is parodying the genre of the Gothic novel, but have never read one myself, so my own observations must be fairly shallow…

It’s funny, as you’d expect. And Austen’s acute powers of observation are already on full show in what is, at its core, the earliest novel she submitted for publication. But in comparison to the adaptation, I found its happy couple had dated poorly, even in comparison to Emma and Knightley (that’s an essay for a whole other day). Tilney is said to want to marry Catherine for no reason other than that she likes him and he’s flattered, and by the time his father sends her away in disgrace, Tilney feels obliged to make good on what has essentially been promised to her in all but word. Austen flings this information in the reader’s face right at the close of the story, when up until then, I had been quite happy to believe, as naïvly as Catherine, that he was naturally just as infatuated with her as she was with him. Now, I’ve no doubt that such honest gallantry was much to be valued in Austen’s time, and the point of the story is rather that, next to Eleanor’s quietly dramatic life, Catherine is a very ordinary girl, with very ordinary prospects, but it’s not an ending I relished! ITV’s adaptation sticks in its equivalent of Colin Firth in a pond — Catherine and Henry’s ride through the rain; her artfully muddied cheek(2) — plus all of Catherine’s fevered, novel-addled dreams, reminding us that the appeal of all those ‘horrid’ things Catherine loves reading is a good deal less sterile than Austen’s proper manners are able to let on.

The TV adaptation also allows for more of the melodrama that Austen resolutely keeps separate from her heroine’s life: though Austen’s Tilney guesses that Catherine suspected his father of murder, or something like it, he shrugs it off, and goes above and beyond to help her get over her embarrassment at having been discovered in such imaginings. Honestly, TV Tilney’s reaction is somewhat more plausible; he’s not exactly pleased to hear that she’s imagined his father to be a murderer, and his disappointment is that of one who enjoys her company as someone more equal to him than Austen’s Tilney finds Austen’s Catherine. In the novel, Tilney is able to overlook her wild assumptions apparently because he sees her as something so ignorant and unformed, that it seems he does not expect any better from her.

The patronising attempts of those around her to ‘improve’ her aside, Catherine is still a character I’m very fond of. She’s guileless and artless, as we are repeatedly told, but I recognise the simple hopefulness with which she imagines that everyone says precisely what they mean; the frustration and exhaustion she feels when around people like John Thorpe and General Tilney, and ultimately Isabella, who all exaggerate without thought, lying and contradicting themselves at every opportunity. Catherine’s worldview is stuck between the innocence of her loving, rural upbringing, and the wildness of the worlds she reads about in novels. She needs to learn about the middle ground, but without becoming jaded. I’m not sure that she’s ever allowed to reach that point fully in the novel, but then perhaps it’s just my cynical half-eye on the relationships in Eliot’s Middlemarch that makes me fear for the future of Catherine Morland that Austen never describes. When her mother mutters about what a learning experience running a household will be for her, I want to protect Catherine from all her future embarrassments. But perhaps that’s this reader’s defect rather than the novel’s.


(1) Ok, General Tilney is a fairly obvious exception. But the TV version’s interpretation of his attitude towards Mrs Tilney — a ‘kind of vampirism’ after all — allows Henry and Eleanor to both escape the unpleasantness of his household (which Austen herself shows), sidestepping what Austen sees as a beneficial waiting period for Henry and Catherine, but compensating for it by showing them to be mutually in love in a way that Austen holds back from. And what is the propriety of the Morlands to a modern audience that is quite happy for General Tilney to remain a villain?

Total aside here, but this reminds me of how perplexed I was at the end of watching the recent movie version of Vanity Fair. I got the impression, again never having read it, that as a satire the point was not to like the characters, but to amuse oneself at their expense, but that the movie felt rather sad and mean because it made much of its cast too likeable in their fallibility. On the other hand, reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, I railed against the stupidity of the characters and how much they annoyed me, not appreciating that it was meant to be a parody in its own right. Perhaps this is where I find myself confused in Northanger Abbery too: are characters in a satire or parody meant to be liked and likeable? No one reads Candide so they can empathise with Pangloss and Candide, right?

(2) Put this scene, Colin Firth in a pond, and the grain store scene from ITV’s Mayor of Casterbridge in all your ‘best depictions of unspoken sexual tension in a period drama’ lists…

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