Austen in August: Introduction and Northanger Abbey Review

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August is almost over and I haven’t posted once about Roofbeam Reader’s Austen in August event. I have been reading, though. Here are my picks, and a review of my first read, Northanger Abbey.

My Austen in August Reads:

1. First (Wrong) Impressions by Krista D. Ball

First (Wrong) Impressions

I’m very wary of adaptations. Why mess with the masters? And where is the line drawn between adaptation and fan fiction? For every Bridget Jones’ Diary there are seemingly thousands of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There is nearly no way I would read a modernization of P&P ordinarily, but conditions were just right: I was on the lookout for an Austen adaptation for this event, Ball is a local author, and after connecting on Twitter she kindly offered me a free epub of the novel. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the modern Lizzy and Fitzwilliam as they bickered on the streets of inner city Edmonton. Review coming soon.

2. Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

Among the Janeites

Another title I would not choose for myself, I received this as a freebie from the folks at Shelf Awareness. Non-fiction just isn’t my bag. But if I’m going to read non-fiction, it’s nice when it’s about literature, and feminism, and costumes, and a very particular brand of fangirl and boy known as the Janeite. Many of the Janeites are sort of what you would expect – white middle aged women with time on their hands. But then there’s the founder of Cisco who spent millions of her own money restoring Austen’s brother’s estate, and the conspiracy theorist who sees Austen’s novels as thinly veiled horror stories full of sex, murder, and illegitimate children. I’m just about half way through and finding this a perfect book to read over lunch.

3. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads)

A wonderfully entertaining coming-of-age story, Northanger Abbey is often referred to as Jane Austen’s “Gothic parody.” Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist.

So I’ll just come out and say it: I’m not a big Austen fan. Most definitely not a Janeite. This book illustrates many of the reasons why.

Underwhelmed if That’s a Word

The way I feel about Austen is similar to the way I feel about the band Sloan. Whenever I hear Sloan on the radio, (often, as I listen to CBC Radio 2 almost exclusively,) I think, “Wow, this song is really good. Sloan is a really great band. And they’ve been around forever. Why don’t I listen to them more often?” Thirty seconds after the song is over, I forget all about it. The next time I hear Sloan, I think the same thing. They are great, and I love their songs, but for some reason, their music doesn’t stick with me.

If I’m underwhelmed with Austen in general, I was particularly underwhelmed with Northanger Abbey. The stakes just weren’t high enough for me to get invested. Catherine Morland is seventeen, very naive, and a very easy target for vain and selfish Isabella, Isabella’s wife-hunting brother James, and her beloved’s money-grubbing father. These people are rather nasty to her, but in the end, the worst thing Catherine endures is a humiliating carriage ride in the middle of the night. Austen even concedes it wasn’t really that bad: [SPOILER ALERT]

Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled; and, as this took place within a twelvemonth from the first day of their meeting, it will not appear, after all the dreadful delays occasioned by the general’s cruelty, that they were essentially hurt by it.

If I’m going to read a story about teenage angst, there better be some real ANGST, you know? Like in Wuthering Heights. Or Clone High.

Our Angst is Entertaining

Our Angst is Entertaining

Everything You’ve Done Wrong

I didn’t connect with Catherine’s love interest, Henry. He’s just so generic. Catherine describes him:

He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.

Snore. For some reason I pictured Henry as Justin Timberlake while I was reading. I don’t mean modern day Justin, I mean this one:

Justin

My other issue with Henry is that I think he’s kind of a douche. I was really uncomfortable with how he plays on Catherine’s fears about the Abbey and thinks it’s high-larious to mess with her head. First of all, he’s 26 to Catherine’s 17, and in terms of life experience, it may as well be an 18 year gap instead of just nine. So yes, bravo Henry, you tricked someone much younger and susceptible than yourself. It’s not that I think he should be perfect, I would just like to see this addressed and it wasn’t.

I also just didn’t see much growth or development in Catherine and Henry’s relationship. Northanger Abbey is seen as Austen’s least mature work, and I have to agree.

The Good in Everyone

As you might imagine, there was lots to love about this book. Here’s the good stuff:

  • The allusions to Udolpho by Anne Radcliff were great, and I’ve added it to my TBR list.
  • The sense of helplessness and frustration is so spot on when James strongarms Catherine into staying in his carriage against her will. She nails the very particluar sense of frustration that you feel as a marginalized person, say, a woman, or a teenager. I was cringing during the whole scene.

“Pray, pray stop, Mr. Thorpe. I cannot go on. I will not go on. I must go back to Miss Tilney.” But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on; and Catherine, angry and vexed as she was, having no power of getting away, was obliged to give up the point and submit. Her reproaches, however, were not spared. “How could you deceive me so, Mr. Thorpe? How could you say that you saw them driving up the Lansdown Road? I would not have had it happen so for the world. They must think it so strange, so rude of me! To go by them, too, without saying a word! You do not know how vexed I am; I shall have no pleasure at Clifton, nor in anything else. I had rather, ten thousand times rather, get out now, and walk back to them. How could you say you saw them driving out in a phaeton?”

  • The book is hilarious, especially when it’s skewering Catherine’s dimwitted godmother Mrs. Allen.

Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man like Mr. Allen.

If it Feels Good Do It

I feel bad about not liking this more. Maybe it was because I was reading Oryx and Crake at the same time. But, if you really like Jane Austen, you will probably like this. Even if you’re unsure, I would still recommend giving it a shot, because there are some great laughs. You just might forget all about it 30 seconds after you put it down.

ETA: This is a wonderfully insightful review of Northanger by someone who loved it. Worth a read. While you’re at it, go read all the Austen in August posts!

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12 comments

  1. Rick @ AnotherBookBlog.com

    A) Kudos on the section titles. Bravo. B) Awesome Clone High reference. C) Sweet J.T. pose. Like, what the hell. D) An Austen modernization set in Edmonton. That’s some weird shit right there.

    Too bad you didn’t like Northanger more. For a counterpoint to your review, check this out (for anyone who cares): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kgSM-pMkVY

    Among the Janeites sounds interesting. I bet there’s some whacky stuff going on in there.

    You reading any other Austen, or are you done for the month?

    • lauratfrey

      That JT pic was from a buzzfeed list of the most embarrassing JT photos. Which reminds me I should probably give photo credit!!

      The modernization was weird! And not just Edmonton, but inner city Edmonton. Lizzy works at a homeless shelter.

      I’m going to add a link to a good review I found, too. I think it just wasn’t to my taste. I was expecting a lot more because this was supposed to be “gothic” but I didn’t realize it was more “gothic parody.”

      Nope, I am done! I’ve read all six novels now. I should really review Persuasion, read a few months ago, and it was by far my favourite. Probably because the heroine was a little older. I have no patience for teens these days 🙂

  2. Rory

    I am not a huge Jane Austen fan. I don’t even love (but do like) the Colin Firth P&P. That’s practically heresy. If I had to pick a favorite Austen, I’d pick Persuasion.

    • lauratfrey

      Exactly the same. I missed all the Firth hoopla because I was 15 when it came out and was too busy obsessing about Billie Joe from Green Day. I do feel like watching all the adaptations now though.

  3. ebookclassics

    I love the idea of P&P set in Edmonton! I’m beginning to suspect I’m not as in love with Jane Austen as I thought I would be, but still enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I haven’t read Northanger Abbey yet, so it was interesting to get your views on the book.

  4. Mabel

    Ha ha ha! You have to read The Mysteries of Udolpho to see why Henry mocks Catherine throughout. Austen is actually mocking readers of books like Udolpho through Henry — I mean teasing good-naturedly, obviously. I don’t think Northanger Abbey is meant to be taken seriously — it’s just a spoof, like “Love and Freindship.” (I’m pointing the latter out only because it’s one of my favorites by Austen, and she was sixteen or something, when she wrote it.) 🙂

    I was pretty much Catherine Morland while reading Udolpho — so scared and HORRIFIED! The funniest, laugh-out-loud scene for me in Northanger Abbey is when Catherine is actually disappointed to find the drive to the abbey less horrific than she’d expected:

    “As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey — for some time suspended by his conversation on subjects very different — returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.

    “She knew not that she had any right to be surprised, but there was a something in this mode of approach which she certainly had not expected. To pass between lodges of a modern appearance, to find herself with such ease in the very precincts of the abbey, and driven so rapidly along a smooth, level road of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm, or solemnity of any kind, struck her as odd and inconsistent.”

    😆

    In Udolpho, EVERY castle is scary. EVERY ONE. You cannot come upon a castle in that book without a sense that SOMETHING HORRIBLE ABIDES THERE. That’s what Austen is mocking, I think. Well, and the people who kept reading those books, herself included, clearly. (Since she had obviously read it.) 😉

    (Psst. I love Udolpho.)

  5. Christy

    Aw, I love Henry Tilney. He’s so snarky. But I’m an Austen fan generally (though there are a couple of her books I’m less fond of, like Sense & Sensibility and Mansfield Park). When I first read Northanger Abbey in high school, I was disappointed with it. But I re-read it a couple of years ago and loved it.

    Also, kind of like what Mabel said in her comment, but because the book is a satire, I think the fact that there are not high stakes is the point. Austen is making a little fun of Catherine’s expectations and fantasies and even of the young couple’s angst (in contrast to a lot of books about teenagers today which tend to wallow around in their protagonists’ angst.)

    Obviously, if high stakes are your jam, then Northanger Abbey won’t be be your jam, and that’s totally ok. Just pointing out that the book isn’t really trying to claim high stakes at all.

    I think you have a lot of company in not caring for the Henry/Catherine dynamic and not seeing the romance there. I liked it in my re-read, but I totally get why others are skeptical.

    I do remember that when I first read it as a teenager, I was also struck by how well Austen captured Catherine’s helplessness as described in that carriage scene.

    Sorry for the long post. I’m a fairly new reader to your blog, so hello.

    • lauratfrey

      Don’t apologize,I love comments, the wordier, the better!

      I definitely had expectations and assumptions about this book that didn’t pan out. I like that this event is annual because it’ll give me an excuse to re read.

  6. Pingback: Follies Past by Melanie Kerr: Review and Author Q&A | Reading in Bed
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