Saturday, September 22, 2007

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, is not a difficult read. It is filled with humour and tongue-in-cheek commentaries on the art of writing novels.

Catherine Morland, undistinguished in any talents but raised with goodness and integrity, in a family of ten children, accompanies the childless Mr. and Mrs. Allen to Bath in the hopes of finding a suitable mate. She meets the witty and good Henry Tilney, and it is love at first sight. Unfortunately, she falls in with the Thorpes; she becomes best friends with the guileful Isabella and is courted by the odious John, “her friend’s brother and her brother’s friend. Isabella attaches herself to Catherine’s brother, only to break his heart with flirting with Henry’s older brother, Captain Tilney.

Eleonor Tilney, on the other hand, is a true friend, and Catherine enjoys a long vacation getting to know her better at the Tilney’s home at Northanger Abbey. Here she expects to find mystery and romance typical of her favorite horror novels; but her hopes are dashed as she finds the furnishings and peoples of the Abbey are quite modern and normal. She comes away with a better understanding of friendship, and learns to appreciate the beauty of a simple, uncomplicated life. There are few surprises in this story: the typical difficulties of obtaining parental consent to an engagement ensue, with a happy marriage at the end of the novel.

Although published posthumously, Northanger Abbey was actually written in 1797-8 under the title of Susan (not to be confused with Lady Susan, written in 1793-4), revised and sold in 1803 to a publisher who failed to publish it, reconsidered in 1816, and finally published a year later (but dated 1818) together with her true last novel, Persuasion.

In my reading of the text, there seemed to be subtle indications that Austen knew she was in the midst of writing her last novel. I was surprised to find how early in her career she actually began its writing. This leads me to believe that further revisions were made in her final year. (Modern physicians believe she may have suffered from Addison’s disease, the symptoms of which started in 1816.)

The contemporary view of writing, perhaps brought on by the simplicity of Hemingway, seems to be that short and simple is best. I love Austen’s long, complex sentences, in which one phrase builds upon another to make her point. Perhaps she could convey her meaning in fewer words; but if there be beauty in those words, I say we should keep them. To pare down into the fewest words certainly makes things easier for the reader. But some of us who are in love with the English language enjoy the work of getting through a half-page sentence. If we have to re-read it to understand its meaning, the fault lies not in the writer. We come away with an appreciation of her ability to describe most fully a landscape, an emotion, or the cause of someone’s behavior.

In Chapter 5, Austen inserts her strong opinion for a full page-and-a-half, explaining why she allows her heroine to enjoy the reading of novels. “For I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding, joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.”

Austen obviously held her own profession in the highest esteem. According to her, the well-written novel is a “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Novelists must support one another, she says. Nevertheless, there are several uncomplimentary references to the works of Ann Radcliffe and Fanny Burney, some of the popular writers of that period. Perhaps she felt that novels would be seen in a better light if more of them were written in her own style.

See my post on Austen's Times.

No comments: